World War I was the bloody birthing ground for war literature, both of the trenches and the years of recovery.  The best known war-in-the-trenches novels is surely  All Quiet on the Western Front by the German, Erich Maria Remarque. Hemmingway’s Farewell to Arms, with a horrific description of retreating through the Alps, is well known.   Paths of Glory, 1935, by Humphrey Cobb, a Canadian-American, rose in recognition after Stanley Kubrik’s 1957 movie of the same name.  Wooden Crosses, (Les croix de bois) from France, by  Roland Dorgelès should be better known and with it a terrific, 1932, Raymond Barnard film, [reviewed here] from France.

Recent writing by Irishman, John Boyne, The Absolutist and British, Pat Barker’s trilogy Regeneration remind us how foundational the memory of that war still is for many.

These are all fictions, however firmly based on experience.  There are also autobiographies, memoirs and journals, the best known of which is probably Robert Graves’ Goodbye to all That, though there are hundreds now available on line, and here, rough and unpublished.

Storm of Steel coverErnst Junger’s Storm of Steel [Stahlgewitten,] 1920, seems to fall in between genres.  He is often praised, along with his countryman Erich Maria Remarque or other novelists of the war, for detailed, horrific descriptions of bodies and trenches, though his book is not a novel.  Neither is it simply a diary, or journal. Junger excerpted from his 15 volumes of diaries, recently released in their raw, unedited form, and worked on it repeatedly over the years, to give it a patina of literary art.  Praise is high from those who have read it.  Words like “astonishing power,” “extraordinary book,” “greatest war book ever written,” are used. And of course blurbs like this tell us nothing.

The fact that Storm of Steel is not a novel changes much for the reader.  There is no dialog. There is no plot, no story line.  What we have is a linear progression of Junger’s time in north eastern France, beginning in the Champagne region from December 1915, to the battle of the Somme, to some time in the four month long battle of Passchendael in Flanders, until he was shot through the lung and was evacuated to Hanover in late August. 1918.  In fact the chapter heads are place names, towns and regions, where the battles took place; 20 of them.

Since it’s not a novel, there are no characters and no discovery of people — except of course, Junger himself.  All first person, and mostly all description, some of it very fine.  Most of it about catastrophes and injuries.  Some of nature (“He later studied marine biologyzoologybotany, andphilosophy, and became a well-known entomologist.”) and the villages he is billeted in.

“Bloody scraps of cloth and flesh had been left on bushes around the crater — a strange and dreadful sight that put me in mind of the butcher-bird that spikes its prey on thornbushes.” 23

“In the ripped -up no man’s land lay the victims of the attack, still facing the enemy; their grey tunics barely stood out from the ground.  A giant form  with red, blood-spattered bear stared fixedly at the sky, his fingers clutching the spongy ground.”  24

“Men collapsed while running, we had to threaten them to use the last energy from their exhausted bodies.  Wounded men went down left and right in craters — we disregarded their cries for help.  We went on, eyes implacably on the man in front, through a knee-high trench formed from a chain of enormous craters, one dead man after another.  At moments, we felt our feet settling on soft, yielding corpses, whose form we couldn’t make out on account of the darkness.  The wounded man collapsing on the path suffered the same fate; he too was trampled underfoot by the boots of those hurrying ever onwards.”  96

One the reader can’t escape, or let escape once taken, in is this:

Germans and Dogs in gas masks; gas was used by all sides, and often blew back against the users, as Junger describes.One the reader can't escape, or let escape once taken, in is this:

 

“The churned-up field was gruesome.  In among the living defenders lay the dead.  When we dug foxholes,we realized that they were stacked in layers.  One company after another, pressed together in the drumfire, had been mown down, then the bodies had been buried under showers of dirt sent up by the shells, and then the relief company had taken their predecessor’s place.  And now it was our turn.”

And such descriptions go on for almost every page of the 284 pages.  In fact, shorn of character development and the attendant emotional identification that draws readers in to good novels — even war novels– this almost non-stop citing of battle action becomes it’s own form of sensory information.  It has an effect somewhat like modern minimalist Operas [which I don’t much care for,] in which the sensual impression is not from soaring, emotion pulsed arias (the war novel) but from repetitive, minute variations on themes, pushing and impressing, but not soaring, gripping.  That kind of emotion is not there; a-emotional as it were. But the senses take it in and interprets, nonetheless.

Here on page 135:

“One man had lost his head, and the end of his torso was like a great sponge of blood.  Splintered bones stuck out of the arm stump of the second and his uniform was drenched with blood from a great wound and his uniform was drenched with blood from a great wound in his chest.  The intestines of the third were spilling out of his opened belly.  As we pulled him out, a splintered piece of boad caught in the wound with a hideous noise.”

Here, on page 268:

“I found the scattered remnants of my best platoon sergeant … He had taken a direct hit from our own shell amidships.  Tatters of his uniform and underwear, ripped away by the force of the explosion, were spread out across the ragged branches of the hawthorn hedge….

Everyone who has commented on Junger’s book is struck by his evident lack of emotion.  Although he says, from time to time, “I felt sorry for these old people…” or, “I had to laugh.  Nothing is ever so terrible that some bold and amusing fellow can’t trump it.” or, “there is a quality of dread,”  something is not quite right.  Although he uses words and phrases with implicit moral sense:

…wanton destruction; a kind of madness;  maelstrom of devastation;  a demented fury; our losses were appalling; another gory carnival beckoned,

Something is missing.  One of the most pithy reflections he offers has the sense most readers expect to appear in accounts of war:

“The state, which relieves us of our responsibility, cannot take away our remorse. Sorrow,m regret, pursued me deep into my dreams.”

These expressions, the sort we expect from witnesses of wholesale slaughter, appear, as he says once of himself, as though being viewed through binoculars.  Junger has such emotions.  He feels ‘the sorrow and the pity,’ but here he is simply reporting on them, not inviting us in.

Whether this is a welcome trait, or a strange one, depends on the reader, and the culture in which he or she is reading from.  For me, laconic reporting, of scenes as horrific as he himself went through, has its own meta-message about the state-of-mind of the witness.  Ernst Junger’s full life — he lived to be 102– is not that of a sociopath, but on a continuum, he is closer than many.  With seven wounds, and several years in the most horrific fighting, there is no sign in him, in his writing or later life, of PTSD, or what was then called battle exhaustion.  In fact, the opposite.  In one of the most telling sentences of the book, he writes of being carried from the battle field, wounded. The man carrying him is shot dead beneath him.

“I freed myself from his arms which were still secuing me, and saw that a bullet had drilled through his steel helmet and his temple.  … as soon as I was able to walk, I called on his parents, and gave them a report on their son.”  287

“Gave them a report!  Indeed.  Perhaps it was an emotional meeting –with the parents of the boy who was killed while trying to save Junger.  Or perhaps not.  We don’t know from his own writing, which is his choice and likely, a marker of his personality.  The kind of man perhaps we want to fill the ranks of the armies, but be kept forcefully from the ranks of those who decide on war itself.

Add to this disengagement from empathy,  the human emotion which he does allow to show — that of pride, and above all a pride of enduring and warriorhood.

“There was in these men a quality that both emphasized the savage of war and transfigured it at the same times: an objective relish for danger, the chevalieresque urge to prevail in battle.  Over four years, the fire smelted an ever-purer, ever-bolder warriorhood.”  140

In seeing a “berserker” suddenly rise from his trench:

“Bravery, fearless risking of one’s own life, is always inspiring.  We too found ourselves picked up by his wild fury… “213

“Of all the stimulating moments in a war, there is none to compare with the encounter of two storm troop commanders in the narrow clay walls of a line.  There is no going back, and no pity.  And so everyone knows who has seen one or the other of them in their kingdom, the aristocrat of the trench, with hard determined visage, brave to the point of folly, leaping agilely forward and back, with keen, bloodthirsty eyes, men who answered the demands of the hour, and whose name go down in no chronicle.” 216

“It never had very large numbers of men in it, but it could be defended, and, as it was so conspicuous in that wasteland all around, it was always available as an instance of the way that even the most gigantic confrontation of forces is nothing but a mechanism by which today, as in every era through out history, a man’s weight is taken.”  265 [Highlight mine.  wbk]

And it is Junger’s sense that this is the way the world is:

“This wasn’t war; it was ancient history.”

And so, since this is life itself, to complain about war would be like complaining about the weather.  Better to accept it like a man, come what may, even when this is true, and Junger only reporting:

“The fighter, who sees a bloody mist rise in front of his eyes as he attacks, doesn’t want prisoners; he wants to kill.”  239

Many readers of Junger like this about him. They see him as a dispassionate reporter, as a “non-partisan” as it were.  However, like much praise of non-partisanship, there is a secret cheering for a particular side.  You can tell by their words that while praising the neutrality of the reporting, they are actually, implicitly or explicitly, condemning the anti-war content of Junger’s peers, hiding a praise of war, and proof of manliness, under a praise of ‘neutrality.’  As in Junger’s closing words, his lungs pierced by a bullet:  “I shared my room with a young fighter pilot from Richthofen’s squadron…one of the tall and fearless types our nation still produces.”  288

German WW I cemetery in France, WW I

German war cemetery of Neuville St Vaast, a village near Arras. It is the largest German war cemetery in France and contains 44,833 graves.

Yes, even after 44,833 fellow Germans were left behind at one cemetery alone near Arras, France Junger and many of his admirers, think ‘too bad,’ certainly.  ‘But what are you going to do?  Shit happens.’  Perhaps Junger’s notions of men testing themselves was appropriate in earlier wars, but His war, with 10 million deaths, soldier and civilian, 18 million wounded?  It seems a new view is needed.  It seems to me that to be “non-partisan” is to actually be a partisan of manly death.

I ask myself, why we read.  For me, it is to get a well worked sense of someone’s thoughts, be they in fiction, history, philosophy or poetry.  In particular, what has the author made of his or her experience? So I came to Junger, as I did to others of his era and experience:  what did such men learn, and what can they pass on to us.  It turns out that a series of observations, even with a dash of reflection here and there, is not a full stock taking.  So, we readers are left to take stock of Junger the man by means of the meta-narrative. What do we understand, not between the lines, but above the lines?  For me it comes in his very last words, after pages and pages and hundreds of deaths, recounted in the same even tone as the descriptions of mushrooms of exploded earth and flying slivers of metal, when he writes:

“His Majesty the Kaiser had bestowed on you the order pour le Merite.  In the name of the whole division, I congratulate you.”

I puzzled over the translation by Michael Hoffman, many times, struck by words and phrases. Is a soldier taking a shell “amidships” [a very nautical term] what Junger used, or an odd translation?  The same for “lying in the lee of the trench,” for example. Some of the problem to my American ears is that Hoffman uses British English.  He is also German born, though his family moved to England when he was four, so presumably English, if not his mother tongue is thoroughly native.  He is a well regarded translator, and poet, so I didn’t know whether some of the odd rings to my ear would be perfectly not-noticeable to a British speaker, or if he, with strong German language competition didn’t have it quite right, or if the original German was similarly odd. For example:

  • “…the dark grumbling yonder would crash over our heads…”
  • “…the men …seemed to cower wile running at full pelt…”
  • “Then silent progress, in Indian file…”  8 [Really?  Do Germans speak of ‘Indian’ file, or single file, or what? Doubly odd because continental Indian troops fought against some of Junger’s men, and I don’t think they were known to walk ‘in Indian file.’ It seems a very American locution, though perhaps not…]
  • “To get over the shock, we downed several bottles of red wine…which got my dander up to such a degree that I took the high road back to my cubby-hole.”[Perhaps in British English ‘getting your dander up’ means ‘to get brave,’ rather than, as in American, ‘to get angry,’ which doesn’t make any sense here.]
  • “After traipsing this way and that…” [these are soldiers at the front, even if lost; excuse me, they do not traipse!]
  • “…they scooped a couple of shovelfuls of earth over him, and mooched off, leaving behind them another of the countless unknown and unmarked graves of this war.”
  • Lightnings flashed between the huddled British, hurling up rags of flesh and uniforms and helmets.

It turns out there was an earlier translation by another British speaker, Basil Creighton, in 1929.  Where I have seen samples of the two together, it is apparent that one of my worries about Hoffman was true:  he tends to soften up the language of a military man.

Hoffman:  I strode along furiously, across the black opened ground that the acrid fumes of our shells seemed to cling to.  I was quite alone.

Creighton:  I strode on in a fury over the black and torn-up ground, from which rose the suffocating gas of our shells. I was entirely alone.

Striding “in a fury” is very different than  striding “furiously” where the adverb modifies the way of walking, not the interior of the man.  Striding furiously usually means ‘in a hurry.’   “I was quite alone” is less absolute, and terrifying,  than “I was entirely alone,”  for me at least.

Hoffman: I set the mouth of the pistol at the man’s temple — he was too frightened to move– while the other fist grabbed hold of his tunic, feeling medals and badges of rank.. With a plaintive sound, he reached into his pocket, not to pull out a weapon, but a photograph he held up to me.   I saw him on it,surrounded by numerous family, all standing on a terrace.  It was a plea from another world.  Later, I thought it was blind chance that I had let him go and plunged onward. 234

Creighton:Grinding my teeth, I pressed the muzzle to the temple of this wretch, whom terror had now crippled, and with my other hand gripped hold of his tunic. With a beseeching cry he snatched a photograph from his pocket and held it before my eyes… himself, surrounded by a numerous family. I forced down my mad rage and walked past.

It should be said also that Hoffman was working from a 1961 edition of Junger’s works, while Creighton had the original.  Junger had literary ambition, much of it carried out. [Even the New York Review of Books classics carries his Glass Bees.]  So it is entirely likely that Junger modified, expunged and enhanced his language, between 1920 and 1961, and even modified his thoughts.

In the cites above, Hoffman’s “It was a plea from another world” is marvelous.  That it doesn’t appear in Creighton tells me that Junger’s hand is involved, polishing between editions.  A very nice addition. [Junger also likely removed “Grinding my teeth,” weakening the image it seems to me.]  Other fine phrases, to my ear:

“We were enraptured by the war. We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses.

“…every time there was a break from the usual, the porter Death would leap to the gates with a hand upraised… 8

“As though waking from a deep dream, I saw German steel helmets approaching thorough the crater. They seemed to sprout from the fire harrowed soil like some iron harvest. 235

“Shot-up wagons, discarded munitions, rusty pistols and the outlines of half-decomposed horses, seen through fizzing clouds of dazzling flies, commented on the nullity of everything in battle. 263

Junger’s life after WW I was long, and very much of an Odyssey.  The Nazis loved his Nietzean notions of manhood and war, though he never joined the party.  He thought they were more like a criminal band than the noble warriors he embraced. On the Marble Cliffs, 1939, is a metaphoric expression of his views. He was well regarded by Martin Heiddeger and as part of the German administration in occupied France, he was friends of Picasso and Jean Cocteau.  Later he developed an pre-Ayn Rand-like notion of the individual, calling on the ideas of Max Stirner (The Ego and Its Own] he called the Anarch.

But considering his book about war, alone, and that of his fellow war writer, Eric Maria Remarque, the dedications of their respective books tells us much:

Junger‘s: “To the fallen.”

Remarque‘s: “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure for those who stand face to face with it. It will simply try to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.