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December 27, 2021

With its modern themes of detachment and alienation, the recent revival of Ernst Jünger’s early work by the internet dissident Right is an understandable urge. When I was a younger man, Jünger’s Storm of Steel, his hallucinatory account of his experiences as a stormtrooper commander in the trenches, was, like Malaparte’s Kaputt and Graves’s Goodbye to All That, a major formative experience in my desire to experience war and, callow though it now sounds, prove myself in it. 

Perhaps it’s natural, then, that in later life, the sombre reflections of the middle-aged Jünger as expressed in his recently translated wartime diaries, a husband and father disenchanted with the modern world around him, now seem so compelling.

The diaries open in 1941, with the 46-year-old Jünger serving in an administrative capacity on the general staff of the German army occupying Paris. Initially féted by the Nazi party for the proto-fascist tone of his early works, Jünger publicly rejected the regime’s advances and came under suspicion as a result, his house searched by the Gestapo and the threat of persecution always hanging over him. A central figure in Germany’s interwar Conservative Revolution, Jünger, who stated he “hated democracy like the plague”, had come to despise the Nazi regime at least as much. Ultimately, he was far too Right-wing to accept Nazism.

Jünger’s intellectual circle had aimed to transcend liberal democracy through fusing Soviet bolshevism with Prussian militarism, yet the illiberal regime that actually came to power was wholly repugnant to him. “The Munich version — the shallowest of them all — has now succeeded,” he wrote, “and it has done so in the shoddiest possible way,” filling him with dread that Hitler would drive Germany and Europe towards disaster and discredit radical alternatives to liberalism for generations to come.

Jünger’s two closest friends, the National Bolshevik Ernst Nieckish and the philosopher of law Carl Schmitt, each met different fates under the new Nazi order: Nieckish jailed as a dissident until his liberation by the Red Army in 1945, and Schmitt as the regime’s foremost legal theorist. Jünger remained friends with both. For Jünger, the internal exile, dissidence would come in the veiled form of his dreamlike novella On the Marble Cliffs, published on the cusp of war in 1939, in which he predicted the disaster and bloodshed the Nazis would bring in their train. Carefully monitored and shunted off to a desk job in France, Jünger spent his war as a flâneur along the quais of Paris, buying antiquarian books, conducting numerous love affairs, and recording his impressions of the city he loved.

A fêted intellectual, and a lifelong francophile, he befriended the city’s cultural elite, socialising with Cocteau and Picasso as well as the collaborationist French leadership and literary figures such as the anti-semitic novelist Céline, a monster who “spoke of his consternation, his astonishment, at the fact that we soldiers were not shooting, hanging, and exterminating the Jews — astonishment that anyone who had a bayonet was not making unrestrained use of it”. For Jünger, Céline represented the very worst type of radical intellectual: “People with such natures could be recognised earlier, in eras when faith could still be tested. Nowadays they hide under the cloak of ideas.” 

While listening to Céline’s ravings about Jews with polite horror, Jünger was embroiled in an affair with Sophie Ravoux, a German-Jewish doctor, and helping to conceal other Jews in hiding, as well as warning the French resistance about imminent deportations. He records the first reports of mass executions in the east, shared among the army leadership, initially with disbelief and then with horror, disgust and shame. Generals back from the east recount meetings with figures like “a horrifying young man, formerly an art teacher, who boasted about commanding a death squad in Lithuania… where they butchered untold numbers of people”, or share third-hand rumours about “men who have single-handedly slain enough people to populate a midsize city. Such reports extinguish the colours of the day. You want to close your eyes to them, but it is important to view them like a physician examining a wound.” 

Yet Jünger’s detachment comes, at times, close to inhumanity. “The unfortunate pharmacist on the corner: his wife has been deported,” he notes, immediately before examining antique engravings in an antiquarian bookshop: “Looking at pictures does me good when I’m upset.” He records, with genuine disappointment, the cold looks of hatred he is given by French shopgirls or diners in exclusive restaurants, yet feels their distaste is inappropriately applied to such a deep thinker such as himself, an  inward dissident after all. 

For Jünger, the real spiritual war is elsewhere: “I find myself entangled in very different conflicts from those of the hostile nations. The solution to those conflicts is secondary,” he writes with cool detachment, pondering his place in the catastrophe around him. “Ideologically, this Second World War is completely distinct from the first… And again the fronts have been drawn up completely differently from the way they look on the map.” 

What was the war about, then, for Jünger? During World War I, he declares, “We confronted the question of whether man was more powerful than machines”, but “we are now concerned with the problem of whether humans or automatons will dominate the earth”. 

By 1944 Jünger floated on the fringes of two army plots against Hitler, without ever committing himself. He had — correctly as it turns out — no faith in the capacity of the generals around him to bring their task to successful fruition. Flirting with the French and German resistance movements just as he served the regime he despised, Jünger lived his concept of the “anarch”, the internal exile who conforms outwardly to the spirit of the times while fostering his own inward, secret rebellion. As Cocteau later quipped, “Some people had dirty hands, some had clean hands, but Jünger had no hands.”

A symbolist writer like the decadent Huysmans, Jünger experiences Allied air raids with the same distant, aesthete’s view, standing on a rooftop to observe the bombs fall. A lifetime experimenter with hallucinogens, he experiences the war as a vast trip: “When the second raid came at sunset, I was holding a glass of burgundy with strawberries floating in it. The city, with its red towers and domes, was a place of stupendous beauty, like a calyx that they fly over to accomplish their deadly act of pollination. The whole thing was theatre — pure power affirmed and magnified.” An entomologist and biologist by training, Jünger writes of his almost unnatural detachment that he needs to observe the war’s characters “as if these were creatures like fish in a coral reef or insects on a meadow”. 

But, then, insect and animal metaphors abound throughout the diaries. On almost every page, he records encounters with snakes, real or dreamed, seen in shops or museums or carved on statues. “The primal force of these creatures lies in the fact that they embody life and death, as well as good and evil,” he observes: “the serpent, a tellurian animal, is a powerful medicine.” Indeed, the snake appears as his daimon throughout the book, no doubt a reflection of his own cold-blooded, chthonic  nature. He literally basks in the sunlight reflected from Paris’ limestone walls, observing that its warmth “awakens a primeval little lizard’s soul in me”. 

Throughout the diaries, Jünger’s inner world appears richer and more meaningful than the war around him. Almost every entry begins with a summary of his latest dream, whether recorded as such or described in laconic terms as if it were a real event. He catalogues these dreams obsessively: “In the night, I dreamt of the trenches of World War I”; “Toward morning, dreams of earthquakes — I saw houses swallowed up”; “At night dreams of ancient cave systems on Crete, where soldiers were swarming like ants”; “Dreamed of being burdened with the corpse of a murdered man without being able to find a place to conceal it.” 

What is behind this obsession? Through dreams we communicate with the dead, he notes offhandedly, as well as our innermost self. Indeed, Jünger comes uncannily close to Jung throughout the book: he records strange omens and premonitions, claims that certain generals of his acquaintance are imbued with the power of prophecy, records strange synchronicities and deploys obscure alchemical metaphors. As the diaries go on and Germany’s fortunes worsen, the magical element begins to predominate. 

He discusses the esoteric writers Guénon and Eliade with Schmitt, debating the magic of the mandrake root and the symbolism of the moon, of the sea and of woman (to him a largely interchangeable category of person). Like Robert Graves, his English analogue, Jünger’s exultation with the First World War fruited into occult mysticism. He dreams of re-enchanting a world lost to technology and secular liberalism: “The ancient gods still stand before us with their magical presence, perhaps even in competition,” he observes, and he means this literally. 

Reading the Bible, he records his growing interest in Christianity over the course of the war. “What can one advise a man, especially a simple man, to do in order to extricate himself from the conformity that is constantly being produced by technology?” he asks himself: “Only prayer… In situations that can cause the cleverest of us to fail and the bravest of us to look for avenues of escape, we occasionally see someone who quietly recognises the right thing to do and does good. You can be sure that is a man who prays.”

For Jünger, prayer is powerful magic, an efficacious antidote to modernity: “It possesses a conductive power.” Without prayer, “our freedom of will and powers of resistance diminish; the appeal of demonic powers becomes more compelling, and its imperatives more terrible.” 

Jünger’s reference to demonic power is here entirely literal. As the years pass, he begins to view Hitler — who he codenames “Kniébolo”— not as a malicious charlatan who has perverted his conservative revolution but as a genuinely demonic figure, possessing a “a certain diabolical greatness” that is “elemental, infernal” and who “feeds” on the forces unleashed by modernity in a way the “liberal intelligentsia” are incapable of understanding. “In their innermost inclinations,” Jünger observes, “minds like Kniébolo’s are bent on the most comprehensive homicide possible. They seem to belong to a world of corpses that they want to populate — they find the stench of the slain pleasant.” 

At the height of the war, while the Holocaust was a marginal concern of the Allies, Jünger would return again and again to “these atrocities perpetrated against the Jews, which enrage the cosmos against us”. The Nazi leadership are “demonic powers” channeling occult forces: “these people are probing the planet, and the fact that they choose the Jews as their primary victims cannot be a coincidence,” he writes, “Their highest-ranking executioners have a kind of uncanny clairvoyance that is not the product of intelligence but of demonic inspiration. At every crossroads, they will find the direction that leads to greater destruction.” Of Hitler, Junger writes that “I sometimes have the impression that the world spirit has chosen him in a subtle way. There are secrets here that other tribes will never comprehend.”

It is essential to remember that Jünger was an opponent of National Socialism from the far-Right: “Our Fatherland is like a poor man whose just cause has been usurped by a crooked lawyer.” For him, the Nazis were the worst embodiment of modernity, which turned humans into automata, mere machines without souls. His fear was that the Nazi interlude would discredit the search for a Right-wing escape route from modernity: “It is also Kniébolo’s role to discredit good ideas by carrying them aloft on his shield.” He writes that “when you have been party to such individual fates and begun to comprehend the statistics that apply to the wicked crimes carried out in the charnel houses, an enormity is exposed that makes you throw up your hands in despair”. An ultranationalist, Jünger writes that “I am aggrieved to feel such things beginning to influence my relationship, if not to my Fatherland, then to the German people”. 

As with the fatherland, so with war, whose seductive power captured the younger Jünger. On a trip to the Eastern Front, the 47-year-old Jünger is forced to duck for cover from Russian machine-gun fire: “I have long since passed the age,” he observes, relatably, “when I find such things amusing.” Awarded Germany’s highest military decoration by Ludendorrf at the age of 22, he reflects that the ancient general warned him “‘it is dangerous for one so young to be decorated with the highest honour.’ Back then I considered it pedantic, but today I know that it was right.” The older Jünger has lost his taste for battle’s glittering accoutrements: “I am overcome by a loathing for the uniforms, the epaulettes, the medals, the weapons, all the glamour I have loved so much. Ancient chivalry is dead; wars are waged by technicians.” 

Eventually, Jünger’s eldest son, little Ernstel, is arrested by the Nazi regime for making defeatist comments about the war to his fellow sailors. He is later assigned to the Italian front on a dangerous anti-partisan mission. There, he was killed by a bullet to the head beneath Carrara’s marble cliffs; his father would never be certain  he was not secretly executed by the SS. “Such a good lad,” the heartbroken Jünger would write in his diary, “Ever since childhood, he strove to emulate his father. Now he has done so on his first try, and truly surpassed him.” Whatever attraction war ever held for Jünger is now gone for good. Ordered back to Germany after the failure of the Stauffenberg plot, his superiors hanging from meathooks, he lived under constant threat of arrest and execution like the survivors of his elite Paris circle: “Some have been hanged, poisoned, imprisoned; others have been dispersed and surrounded by thugs.” 

In his Saxon farmhouse, he reads and tends his garden as the war drives ever closer. The bombs he observed with cool detachment in Paris are less aesthetically appealing when they land on his own Hannover: “The places where I had lived as a child, as a schoolboy, as a young officer — all had been levelled.” Hurrying to the basement shelter with his young children under his arms as shrapnel whips around them, Jünger the warrior, who found liberation in its chaos, has been replaced by Jünger the husband and father, a helpless victim of war’s ever-spreading destruction.

In his farmhouse, he devotes himself to writing his Appeal to the Youth of Europe, an early call for the political unification of his beloved home continent as a potential fortress from the twin horrors of modernity and liberalism. His greatest fear is that with Germany defeated, Europe will succumb to liberalism, and its most soulless and destructive manifestation, Americanism. “America is conquering the places of ancient culture — I mean that aspect of America that has been more evident in modern Berliners with each advancing year.” He writes in horror “of American values, which will be further promoted by the obliteration of our old cities”, anticipating the postwar future, our present, with dread. 

Viewing the ruins of Dusseldorf, he fears that “this too is one of the stepping-stones to Americanism; in place of our old haunts, we shall have cities that are the brainchildren of engineers”. It was Jünger’s fate to command the detachment that surrendered to the first American tanks approaching his beloved Saxon village: “I sense the incursion of a mighty superpower into a completely crushed region… much of everything that used to motivate our deepest being perishes in this transition.”

For Jünger, America’s victory was Europe’s defeat, and that of any means of transcending liberal modernity. Like post-liberals today, he roots the horrors of the 20th century in modernity, observing that “the destruction of the Old World begins to manifest itself with the French Revolution… It is thus out of pure self-preservation that we might contemplate other systems of organisation than those established in 1789.” He dreams of transcendent modernities beyond the nation-state, “political systems in which progressive and conservative forces must be congruent”, where “conservative powers will no longer function as restraints, but rather as a driving force.”

This dream would not see reality in his lifetime. A dissident against the Nazis, Jünger refused to submit himself to denazification under British occupation, and found himself blacklisted as a result. Just as he did with Hitler’s regime, Jünger lived and died a dissident against the liberal regime that replaced it, outwardly conforming but never submitting. He despised democracy just as he despised the gullible and easily-swayed demos who had brought Hitler to power. And he despised the liberals who had given themselves over “completely to the destruction of the old guard and the undermining of order”, setting in train the nightmares of the 20th century, just as he despised the “young conservatives who first support the demos because they sense its new elemental power, and then fall into the traces and are dragged to their deaths”. 

Yet over the decades, as the old warrior devoted himself to writing a series of dreamlike and prophetic novels, collecting insects and experimenting with LSD, his reputation soared. At the age of 101, in his penultimate year of life, Ernst Jünger converted to Catholicism, and died lauded as a prophet of European unification, fêted by dignitaries like Kohl and Mitterand. The anarch died as he lived, both at odds with and celebrated by the disastrous century his life embodied, a dissident thinker of great esoteric power now thrust back to relevance by our own disordered times. 

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