Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front has created an indelible image of the First World War in the popular mind. Ernst Jünger’s memoir Storm of Steel does not fundamentally alter that tortured landscape. If anything, his account is even more harrowing. Yet there is a difference, which is highlighted in the following anecdote:
During one stop on the way, a driver split his thumb in the course of crank-starting his lorry. The sight of the wound almost made me ill, I have always been sensitive to such things. I mention this because it seems virtually unaccountable as I witnessed such terrible mutilation in the course of the following days. It’s an example of the way in which one’s response to an experience is actually largely determined by its context.
The last sentence is significant. What makes Storm of Steel so impressive is not just the sheer volume of carnage it conveys, but that it is does so without exhibitionism, cynicism or cant. It is worth noting that Remarque, for all his sermonizing–not only against war, but against patriotism and traditional authority–spent only two months in the frontline, whereas Jünger was wounded no less than a dozen times during the course of four years.
In one unforgettable scene Jünger is leading his men in an attack and stumbles on a British soldier. In a frenzy of pent up rage after weeks of being shot at and seeing his comrades killed and wounded, he puts a pistol to the man’s head. But before he can pull the trigger, the other man reaches for something. It is not a weapon but a picture of his family. Jünger spares his life. The author seems amazingly thick-skinned in the face of mechanized horror, yet his unwavering sense of decency renders an otherwise dreary tale full of hope and occasional humor. It is also a credible antidote to the post-modern pornography of violence, devoid of meaning or redemption, which increasingly dominates literature and entertainment.
Jünger clearly feels at home with his comrades in arms, evincing a strange fascination for life in wartime. Yet he is far from being a swaggering Nietzschean. In one passage he describes an unlikely hero. The fellow officer is plump, awkward and short-sighted. He is also totally reliable and courageous: “brave puny men are always to be preferred to strong cowards.” Jünger brings real artistry to his chronicle of the Western Front. In one description of the battlefield he writes:
With weeping eyes, I stumbled back to the Vaux woods, plunging from one crater to the next, as I was unable to see anything through the misted visor of my gas mask. With the extent and inhospitableness of its spaces, it was a night of eerie solitude. Each time I blundered into sentries or troops who had lost their way, I had the icy sensation of conversing not with people, but demons. We were all roving around in an enormous dump somewhere off the edge of the charted world.
Mangling and bloodletting on such a vast scale numbs the senses. Yet Jünger reminds us that it is possible to both live and die with dignity even in the worst circumstances.
An interesting postscript is that for all of his anti-liberal and nationalistic ideas, Jünger refused to support Hitler. He turned down a number of honors and positions under the Nazi regime (his son was even imprisoned for anti-Nazi views). Jünger died in 1998 at the age of 102, a convert to Catholicism.
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