Alex Colville

An eye in the storm

He was an influential figure, who despised Hitler and might have joined the Stauffenberg plot; but he preferred to let the Third Reich destroy itself

Ernst Jünger, who died in 1998, aged 102, is now better known for his persona than his work. A deeply confusing and controversial figure who loathed democracy and glorified German militarism, yet despised the Nazis, he not only bore witness to the industrial flesh-mangles of two world wars, but almost the entirety of the 20th century. His writings and insights have long earned him sage
status in Germany. This, the first publication in English of his diaries from 1941–45, heightens his complexity but also makes him a more rounded figure.

This will come as a surprise to those who know him as the ruthless young warrior of the infamous Great War memoir, Storm of Steel, in which Jünger narrates one mass slaughter after another with calm detachment, even coldness — comrades repeatedly blown to bits or shot in the head. The book bristles with militarism, with no room  for individual suffering. Men are briefly sketched and swiftly killed, to be replaced by new faces indistinguishable from those before.

Critically wounded 14 times leading raids on British trenches for the Fatherland, Jünger earned the highest military honour in Germany, Pour le Mérite, aged just 23. He becomes a romantic hero, willing to lay down his life for a just cause that bonds men in a firm camaraderie: ‘Battle brings men together, whereas inactivity separates them.’ A bestseller in 1920, it was said to be one of Hitler’s favourite books.

But by 1941 times had changed. Jünger abandoned German nationalism after 1933, forbidding Goebbels to use his work for propaganda purposes, and the Gestapo raided his Berlin flat. He despised the Nazis’ implementation of violence to eliminate the weak, chivalrously believing in its use to protect them — a constant theme of Storm of Steel. He was convinced that women and children at home would benefit from his sacrifice.

Jünger feared that the rise of Nazism would lead to a bloodbath.

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