What do Jorge Luis Borges, André Gide, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Böll and the Nazis have in common? They all admired Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, the author’s memoirs of World War I. Lieutenant Jünger (1895-1998) enlisted in the German army in 1914 and fought in the trenches for most of the war, until an almost lethal chest wound forced him to abandon the frontline in 1918 to go restore his health in a hospital. The war’s centennial is upon us, and there’s no better way to remember it than reading the books its soldiers bequeathed us.
From what I understand, a few circumstances distinguish this book from other memoirs. First of all, Robert Graves, Vera Brittain and
Time only strengthens my conviction,” Jünger wrote in the introduction to the 1929 English edition, “that it was a good and strenuous life, and that the war, for all its destructiveness, was an incomparable schooling of the heart.” The reader has been warned: this is not an ordinary war book.
But for all its detachment and objectivity, Storm of Steel is not the apologia of war-mongering machismo. Jünger writes with elegance and impartiality of the successes and failures he witnessed in the trenches, alternating measured descriptions of battles with peaceful moments of soldierly comradeship. And although many of the events he lived through disturbed and horrified him, at not point did he abandon himself to morbidity, on the contrary Jünger was a man inebriated with life.
The memoirs begin with his arrival in France and describe the excitement that had electrified the young men of generation and persuaded them to join the great adventure that war promised to be:
We had come from lecture halls, school desks and factory workbenches, and over the brief weeks of training, we had bonded together into one large and enthusiastic group. Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war. We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses. Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted; the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience. We thought of it as manly, as action, a merry duelling party on flowered, blood-bedewed meadows.
Arriving all cocky and immersed in romantic ideals about War, with a capital W, their first taste of enemy fire, however, quickly showed them that instead of pursuing glory on the battlefield they’d have to worry about surviving first of all. And survival meant developing instincts, which they quickly did and retained until they abandoned the trenches:
This was something that was to accompany us all through the war, that habit of jumping at any sudden and unexpected noise. Whether it as a train clattering past, a book falling to the floor, or a shout in the night – on each occasion, the heart would stop with a sense of mortal dread. It bore out the fact that for four years we lived in the shadow of death.
In war men show their adaptability. Soldiers become used to gunfire and artillery fire, to missions in the middle of the night, to surprise attacks, even to the novel experience of gas attacks, used for the first time in WWI. But for Jünger, meticulous analyst of war and psychology, the true enemy of the soldiers was the routine that set in and threatened to demoralise them:
A contributory factor in the chronic overtiring of the troops was the way that trench warfare, which demanded a different way of keeping one’s strength up, was still a novel and unexpected phenomenon as far as the officer corps was concerned. The great number of sentries and the incessant trench-digging were largely unnecessary, and even deleterious. It’s not a question of the scale of the earthworks, but of the courage of and condition of the men behind them. The ever-deeper trenches might protect against the odd head wound, but it also made for a defensive and security-conscious type of thinking, which we were loath to abandon later. Moreover, the demands made by the maintenance of the trenches were becoming ever-more exorbitant. The most disagreeable contingency was the onset of thaw, which caused frost-cracked chalk facings of the trenches to disintegrate into a sludgy mess.
The first war to also use trenches instead of the old-fashioned ritual meeting of armies on a battlefield, Jünger and his comrades also discovered how a war of attrition and waiting demanded developing skills to adapt to a totally new way of fighting, or not-fighting, demanding of men a physicality that left the author riveted:
We’re real Renaissance men who can turn our hands to anything, and the trenches make their thousandfold demands of us every day. We sink deep shafts, construct dugouts and concrete pillboxes, rig up wire entanglements, devise drainage systems, revet, support, level, raise and smooth, fill in latrines; in a world, we do all possible task ourselves.
War as a test, as self-improvement. Never complaining, Jünger accepted these challenges to find out his own limits.
When Storm of Steel doesn’t focus on Jünger’s personal conflict, it remains a fascinating, informative historical document about World War I. Jünger describes the conditions of the trenches, the effects the war of attrition had on the soldiers, the relationships between the soldiers and the occupied civilians. In some cases the invaders, Jünger included, were billeted in private homes and lived with the owners, who had the task of serving them. In his factual style, when he discusses the occupied population he doesn’t resort to sentimentality; writing from the perspective of the defeated, perhaps Jünger would try to vie for sympathy, but he sticks to cold facts:
The French population was quartered at the edge of the village, towards Monchy. Children played on the steps of dilapidated houses, and old people made hunched figures, slinking timidly through the new bustle that had remorselessly evicted them from the places where they had spent entire lifetimes. The young people had to stand-to- every morning, and were detailed to work the land by the village commandant, First Lieutanant Oberländer. The only time we came into contact with the locals was when we brought them our clothes to be washed or went to buy butter and eggs.
Not only did they use the civilians to aid the war effort, but for logistic reasons they also had to reorganise whole villages and towns:
Since the civilian population was still living in the village, it was important to exploit all available space. Gardens were partly taken up with huts and various temporary dwellings; a large orchard in the middle of the village was turned into a public square, another became a park, the so-called Emmichplatz. A barber and dentist were installed in a couple of dugouts covered with branches. A large meadow next to the church became a burial ground, to which the company marched almost daily, to take their leave of one or more comrades to the strains of mass singing.
World War I was arguably the first war where battles left the battlefields and entered urban centres. Artillery fire razed whole quarters to the ground, burying people under the rubble. Anybody died, whether they were behind or in front of a rifle. In this war only the rats had a good time. “They are repellent creatures,” writes Jünger, “and I’m always thinking of the secret desecrations they perform on the bodies in the village basements.”
This is a tremendous book, almost without peers for what it seeks to accomplish. Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt seems like a descendant, but even the acidic Italian takes the anti-war stance. It’s natural companion is Homer’s The Iliad. Both broach the theme of war with solemnity, admiration even, portraying it as the natural sport of men. But neither fails to also capture the serene stillness between the battles, the intimate moments shared between the soldiers: Achilles’ mourning of Patroclus or Priam’s request that Achilles return the corpse of Hector are no more moving than the libations Jünger and his comrades offer to fallen soldiers. They lived as if they were inside a mythical story and lived as intensely as they could. And yet I don’t think Storm of Steel argues the case for war. Jünger’s descriptions don’t revel in death and destruction. I think he argues something deeper and more despairing: we’re all excited by war, it’s intrinsic to our nature to look up to men who perform amazing feats and defy death, to turn people into heroes, we should be honest about our fascination with war. Some people – pacifists, people politically leaning to the left, people who think human consciousness is a tabula rasa and that war is just something printed on it due to cultural, political, social indoctrination – will find this a horrifying notion because it goes against their hopes that men can change. But like a character says in Wim Wenders’ movie The Wings of Desire, no one has ever written an epic poem about peace. And what’s the founding text of Western Literature? The Iliad. Jünger was on to something.