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A German Officer in Occupied Paris: The War Journals

Ernst Junger
Publisher
Columbia University Press
Price
£30
ISBN
978-0231127400

REVIEW

Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) was what is sometimes called – and indeed he is called it on the dust jacket of this book – a “controversial” figure. A First World War hero who was wounded seven times, he was undoubtedly uncommonly brave. He also insisted that those who were less brave should play their part, forcing retreating soldiers to join his unit at gunpoint. His 1920 book Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern), recounting his war experiences and portraying war in a heroic light, made him famous. In the 1920s he became involved in anti-democratic right-wing groups like the paramilitary Freikorps and wrote for a number of nationalist journals. He remained aloof from the Nazis, however, and, while he boasted that he “hated democracy like the plague”, was more of a nationalist than a racist, apart, that is, from what Elliot Neaman in the foreword to this book, calls “one unfortunate essay” on “Jews and the National Question”. He joined the army at the outbreak of World War II and served in an administrative capacity in Paris, socialising with those (fairly numerous) French men and women who were willing to provisionally embrace the new order. He was tangentially associated with but not implicated in the Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler. (It is interesting, by the way, how often such involvement serves as a sort of moral get-out-of-jail card for German officers, who opposed Hitler in 1943 but perhaps not in 1933. It is as if the criminal invasions of France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and Greece counted for nothing, not to mention the wholesale persecution and murder of Jews which predated the final terrible years in the extermination camps.)

The current volume consists of Jünger’s diaries from wartime France and those from an excursion to the Eastern front in the Caucasus. The following extract gives some of the dominant flavour of self-regard, lofty abstraction from what was going on around him and windy mysticism:

I sense that my love of truth almost makes me an absolutist. I can break the moral code, act irresponsibly toward my neighbour‑ but I cannot deviate from what I recognize as authentic and true. In this respect, I am like a youth who might agree to marry an old lady – yet that wedding night sees no consummation, aphrodisiacs notwithstanding. The involuntary muscles of my mind will not perform their duty here. For me, truth is like a woman whose embraces condemn me to impotence in the arms of another. She alone embodies freedom and, hence, happiness.
Thus it happens that my access to theology comes via insight. I first have to prove to myself that God exists before I can believe in Him. This means that I must return to Him along the same path on which I left Him. Before I can dare to cross the river of time and reach the other shore with my whole self and without reservation, spiritual bridgeheads and subtle reconnaissance must precede me.

Jünger survived investigation in the immediate postwar period and went on to become a grand old man of German literature, with a considerable following at home and abroad. A year before his death he was – as the phrase goes – received into the Catholic church. Having lived through a violent century and done a great deal to celebrate violence in his writing he expired in his bed in his 103rd year. This newly published volume of his writings will appeal to those who like that kind of thing.