Ernst Jünger. A German Officer in Occupied Paris: The War Journals, 1941-1945. Trans. Thomas S. Hansen and Abby J. Hansen. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.
The promotional material for “the war journals” describes Ernst Jünger as “one of twentieth-century Germany’s most important—and most controversial—writers.” Some aren’t attracted to Jünger for his literary talents. Jünger has found a receptive audience among young people, including some dubious readers whose names on web sites are in Fraktur typeface for reasons you could guess. Several young fans of Jünger view the author as a “badass” (a comment on Reddit), partly for the number of his war wounds, which exceed most of the warriors in “Game of Thrones,” partly for his youthful participation in the Foreign Legion, and partly because Jünger was friends with the father of LSD, Albert Hoffmann. One can also find delusional fans of Jünger on web sites such as ernst-juenger.org, who proclaim that the post-WWII Jünger was, to them, admirably “apolitical.” Jünger is apolitical in the same sense that Van Gogh’s most famous paintings are achromatic.
It’s possible to make your way through this collection and have a grand ole time, enjoying the moments when Jünger encounters celebrities like Picasso, or when Monet’s daughter-in-law gives him the key to the gardens at Giverny for his own private tour, or when he describes another gourmet meal with the well-heeled of Parisian society: “The salad was served on silver, the ice cream on a heavy gold service that had belonged to Sarah Bernhardt.” Jünger relishes his name-dropping and his contacts with the upper crust. He sees himself as one of the Übermenschen: “In this country the superior man lives like Odysseus, taunted by worthless usurpers in his own palace.”
While looking down on others, Jünger is aware that lesser people can occasionally be of use. For instance, on 3 June 1942, he writes: “You talk to these simple people the way you talk to children, without creating any subtle disparity between words and their meanings. In times like these, it is desirable to keep a small coterie of such people. There are situations in which they can be more helpful than the rich and powerful.” The “apolitical” Jünger is not above Realpolitik.
The notebooks in this translation extend from 1941 until the Allied invasion reaches Jünger’s doorstep in the Hannover region of Germany in the first half of 1945. Many scholars regard Jünger’s notebooks as the foundation for his reputation as a writer, though readers need to be cautioned that these notebooks are not like diary entries or journals in the usual sense. As Elliot Neaman, a leading Anglophone scholar on Jünger’s works and the author of the introduction to this translation, writes, “Jünger’s journals represented a departure from the conventional form of the diary genre. Instead of offering the reader unadulterated glimpses into the everyday activities and reflections of the author, Jünger used his private experiences [and dreams] as raw material for creating polished literary accounts in the guise of everyday observations.” Other scholars use stronger language, such as that Jünger “sanitized” his notebooks to put himself in a better light politically. However, Neaman’s use of “guise” is telling, for Jünger, along with his heroes Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, practiced esotericism. Given that his main role during the writing of these notebooks was as a censor, Jünger would be familiar with the tools for hiding one’s thoughts in writing, and for constructing a deliberate exoteric persona. Imagine that every sentence in the notebooks has been assessed for its contribution to a legacy, something not difficult to imagine with an author steeped in death, both by war and by intellectual inclination. Below are a few samples of Jünger’s dance with death:
- 5 Nov 1941 – Jünger quotes one of his prime sources for living, Nietzsche: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” Jünger supplements immediately with his own line: “And what kills me makes me incredibly strong.”
- 28 Jan 1942 – “The mail included a letter from Schlichter containing nine drawings for One Thousand and One Nights. An image of the City of Bronze is wonderfully successful—full of mourning for death and glory.”
- 19 July 1942 – “Life lies in death like a small green island in the dark ocean. To fathom this – even at the edges and tidal zones – means real knowledge, compared to which physics and technology are mere trifles.”
- 14 Oct 1942 – “We have to revert to the absolute, and this possibility is offered to us by death.”
- 3 June 1943 – “There is only one maxim, namely that we must befriend death.”
The preoccupation with death is not meant to be the author’s alone. Jünger’s beliefs about death are meant to have consequences for others, including you and me. Some may have to die to allow others to have “new growth”: “We send out different, more spiritual organs, aerial roots, into the void – naturally at the expense of individual lives. All of us benefit from this new growth.” Readers should not underestimate Jünger’s wish to fashion a specific future based on his death-centric Weltanschauung. Following Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Jünger accepts that sacrifices are necessary to breed the higher man. As confirmation of the point, consider this portion from his entry on 18 May 1942: “It is certain that only such characters who understand the fundamentals of power on which the world is based, and are dictated to ‘from above,’ are capable of confronting the horrible popular revolution that is destroying the world.”
As one of the “characters who understand,” Jünger grounds his view in racist thinking, such as this entry from 16 Aug 1942: “Add to this the frequently noted superiority of the Norman genetic material, which is more favorable for the creation of a leader class than the common Germanic stock.” The member of the leader class who is the author of these notebooks and “one destined to rule” lives a privileged life given the circumstances surrounding him. For one moment in 1942, he writes down recognition of that fact: “Never for a moment may I forget that I am surrounded by unfortunate people who endure the greatest suffering.”
The suffering follows Jünger. The translated notebooks include not just items from Jünger’s time in Paris. As a captain in the German Army, he has duties elsewhere. He travels to the eastern front, at first to complain that what is supposed to be a first-rate hotel in Russia does not have running water. While visiting that front, he hears the tales of desperation on both sides, including cannibalism. Jünger’s notebooks contain reports of what happens with his family back in Germany. He takes leave there, traveling to Berlin to consider how to help his son Ernstel, who had been imprisoned after a spy charged that Ernstel had said that if the Germans wanted peace, they would have to hang Hitler. Ernstel denied the charge. He spent a few months in prison, and then was released on condition of “voluntary” service in northern Italy, where he was eventually killed in battle. Jünger travels back to Paris to be on hand when the Allies invade France, and the conditions in the city worsen as food shortages increase and Allied bombings begin.
The appearance of this translation of Jünger’s notebooks coincides with an English-language flurry of Jünger publications, including the recent republication of Jünger’s most famous book, The Worker, accompanied by glowing blurbs from scholars who are part of the contemporary Heidegger crowd. Jünger admired Heidegger and corresponded with Heidegger frequently. Volume 90 (2004) of Heidegger’s official Collected Works is devoted to Jünger, mainly to Heidegger’s notes and writings during the 1930s and 40s about The Worker. Even though Heidegger did not consider Jünger a “thinker,” Heidegger found plenty of fascoid affinities in Jünger’s writings.
To head off a wholesale celebration of Jünger, it seems important to remember the lessons laid out by Walter Benjamin in 1930 in his review of a collection essays about the World War of 1914-18 edited by Jünger entitled War and Warrior. Benjamin possesses a keen ear for the questionable principles asserted by Jünger and his friends. Benjamin writes: “For him and his friends it is not so much some doctrinaire schema that lies behind this [adopting a principle of pacifism] as it is a deep-rooted and – by all standards of male thought – a really depraved mysticism.” That depraved mysticism continues in these notebooks through Jünger’s fondness for horoscopes, symbolism, mythology, prophecies, and magic. The author himself gets lost in the fog of mysticism and confesses that in an entry labeled 26 Aug 1942: “At times I have difficulty distinguishing between my conscious and unconscious existence. I mean between that part of my life that has been knit together by dreams and the other.” One of Benjamin’s key criticisms in “Theories of German Fascism,” his analysis of War and Warrior, has to do with how out of touch with reality the contributors are. The contributors lapse into “thoughtless obtuseness.” Unfortunately, Benjamin’s assessment was not the nail in the coffin for Jünger, his friends and admirees (e.g., Nietzsche and Heidegger), the White Walkers who happen to be real, and whose agenda is anything but “apolitical.”