The tale of a survivor

 

IT does strain credulity, but Ernst Junger is still alive, which must surely make him by some distance the oldest living writer of stature (he was born in Heidelberg on March 29th, 1895). At least, having fought in both world wars, he has survived to see Germany's longest period of peace - relatively speaking, of course in several centuries. It is not at all certain, however, that he would regard this as a privilege, and certainly his reputation rests overwhelmingly on his writings about war.

Considering Junger's longevity, it is ironic that the book which first made him famous and is still the most widely read of his writings was published as long ago as 1920 - Stahlgewitter, or Storm of Steel in the English translation. This is an account of his experiences as a young officer serving in Flanders and France and is a close rival to Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. It is not an anti war book like Graves's Goodbye to All That or the various semi autobiographical writings of Sassoon. It is more an intensely concentrated documentary, written in a taut, high tension prose which sometimes rises to shrillness or descends into egocentricity, but neither openly glorifies war nor condemns it.

Perhaps the latter factor works the most against Junger's standing with a contemporary readership. Today, all writing about war - especially by a German is supposed to be anti war, just as a tone of militaristic "patriotism" was almost obligatory to the subject a few generations ago. However, Junger appears to regard public opinion with aristocratic detachment, or even Nietzschean contempt. He is of middle class background, yet throughout his life he has openly despised his own class and has behaved and spoken as though he belongs to a special, and superior, caste.

He is the son of a chemist who rose to own his own pharmaceutical laboratory, near Hanover, and of a woman who originally had been a feminist until domesticity engulfed her; she was a cultured woman who read a great deal and had once met Ibsen. Ernst was one of five children, and one day in 1910 his father took them out to see Halley's Comet and prophesied that only Wolfgang, the youngest, was at all likely to live long enough to see its return 76 years later. He was wrong Wolfgang was in fact the first son to die, and Ernst was the only surviving witness of the comet's return in 1986.

As a schoolboy drunk on his reading and on his dreams, Junger ran away to join the French Foreign Legion and had to be rescued by his father, who bought him out. When European war finally came in August 1914, he immediately volunteered for service, like so many restless, idealistic young people of his generation: "We had left lecture rooms, school benches, and work tables behind and in the short weeks of instruction we'd been melted together into a great, inspired body, the carrier of German idealism since 1870. Grown up in a materialistic age, we all longed for the unusual, for great danger. The war had gripped us like an intoxicant."

He was only in action for a few weeks before being wounded slightly in Lorraine, and after recovery was soon promoted to a junior officer. He fought at the Somme, in which he was again wounded (three times, in fact) and won an Iron Medal First Class, and in 1917 at Third Ypres, or Passchendaele, where his brother Fritz was wounded and barely survived. He also fought at Cambrai, where the British used tanks in large numbers for the first time, and took part in Ludendorff's great spring offensive of 1918, the do or die effort which failed to knock out the Allies but left Germany exhausted. In August of that year Junger was gravely wounded by a bullet through the lung, which put him out of action for the final months of the war. When he returned home to his family in December, he was placed for six weeks under house arrest - this book does not tell us exactly why.

Peace left him at a loose end there were half hearted attempts to take a university degree in natural science (Junger was a keen amateur scientist) but almost inevitably he drifted into the career of a professional writer. He did much journalism and editing work as well as publishing several books, married a woman eleven years younger than himself, and under the vacillating Weimar Republic became vaguely involved in fringe politics, mostly on the Right. For a time he was drawn to Hitler and the Nazis, but soon turned against them though Hitler, who had greatly admired Storm of Steel, always resisted pressures to arrest or silence him. His quasi philosophic writings are discussed in detail by Professor Nevin, but to judge from quotations, they are very much those of a typical, rather confused polemicist intellectual of the milieu.

His distaste for Nazism did not save Junger from service as a captain in the second World War, much of which he spent rather sybaritically in occupied Paris as a staff officer, mixing socially with Cocteau and other French writers. He witnessed, at close hand, the execution of hostages and the growing persecution of Jews phenomenon which he despised intellectually and detested morally - Junger, though a nationalist of sorts, seems to have had no phobias about race. He also saw service on the dreaded Eastern Front, but in 1944 his military career ended abruptly when he was dishonourably dismissed from the army - almost certainly because of his close friendship with several brother officers deeply involved in the Bomb Plot against Hitler. Probably only his literary eminence saved him from arrest and imprisonment, or even hanging. His son Ernst was in fact arrested for several months, allegedly for speaking ill of Hitler, but was released at the price of being sent into the most dangerous battle zone in Italy.

After the war Junger proudly refused to appear before a deNazification tribunal, feeling that this would reflect on the ethos of the whole Wilhelminian age against which he had reacted, but which largely shaped him. Over recent decades Junger has become an intellectual hero for some sections of the German Right and is correspondingly hated by many on the Left, who view him as the incarnation of a tradition they would like to see dead and discredited for all time. Both sides, however, appear to be pointing at a stuffed figure which is largely their own creation.

Essentially Junger remains a solitary, anarchic, somewhat egocentric personality, a believer in the aristocratic principle in a levelling age, an extoller of action who seems to have a secret core of the aesthete and dreamer. Though he is often labelled as specifically a Teutonic phenomenon, it is not hard to see his mental affinity with certain French writers such as Montherlant and Saint Exupery, and even with aspects of Hemingway. Professor Nevin perhaps pays too much attention to Junger's ideas and too little to his literary style, and his book is a slightly incongruous mixture of biography and critical study; but he has faced up manfully to the challenge of a difficult, self contradictory writer and man.