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No word is more overused today than “legendary.” Some new movie is “legendary.” Some celebrity is “legendary.” Some putdown on social media is “legendary.”
We need to use our words more carefully. Something legendary is something out of Myth, something that approaches what we vaguely term the numinous or the divine. Here now, in the Kali Yuga, legends are almost unknown.
But Ernst Jünger was a legend.
A warrior, philosopher, and philosopher of unparalleled skill and insight, he lived to be 102 despite throwing himself body and soul into the singular experience of his life, the First World War. He was wounded numerous times and was one of the very few infantry leaders to receive the Pour le Mérite for extraordinary heroism and bravery.
The new edition of The Storm of Steel, his memoir of World War I, shows us not just a vanished world, but vanished values. This new edition from Mystery Grove Publishing Company should really be called the “old” version, because this is the original 1929 translation that contains the youthful soldier’s thoughts on heroism, nationalism, and duty.
In the Preface to the English edition, Jünger pays tribute to the soldiers he faced, calling the English “not only the most formidable but the manliest and the most chivalrous.” Jünger’s is not penning a bitter screed against hated opponents. “Warlike achievements are enhanced by the inherent worth of the enemy.”
Three major themes emerge.
First is Jünger’s defense of war as an opportunity for personal growth, even transcendence. This is staggering, even bizarre to most of us, because the popular image of World War I is that it was a pointless fratricidal conflict that destroyed the Western order for reasons that seem petty and short-sighted in retrospect. The foolish statesmen on all sides caused civilizational catastrophe, and World War II and its horrors were simply an outgrowth of that first conflict.
Yet Jünger is not really talking about politics. He does refer to marching with the front with his comrades with the “ideals of ‘70” in his heart (referring to German unification). However, he reflects on the effects the war had on his own character and those of his comrades. Jünger states: “Time only strengthens my conviction that it was a good and strenuous life, and that the war, for all its destructiveness, was an incomparable schooling of the heart.” Those forged “in fire and flame” could “go into life as though from the anvil.” “What is more sublime than to face death at the head of a hundred men?” he asks. The experience of the war and the intimacy with death gave “an indescribable intensity to every expression of life.”
A second theme is Jünger’s insistence that individual heroism mattered in World War I. The popular image is of masses of soldiers running directly into machine guns and artillery fire, following orders given by stupid generals who didn’t understand modern warfare. “On the contrary, to-day more than ever it is the individual that counts,” Jünger writes, invoking the “princes of the trenches” who face terrifying conditions where neither retreat nor mercy is possible. “Blood sounds in the shrill cry that is wrung like a nightmare from the breast.”
He also describes the battle frenzy which can only be called Odinic:
“The roar of battle had become so terrific that we were scarcely in our right senses. The nerves could register fear no longer. Every one was mad and beyond reckoning; we had gone over the edge of the world into superhuman perspectives. Death had lost its meaning and the will to live was made over to our country; and hence everyone was blind and regardless of his personal fate.” He compares this feeling to that of “werewolves [who] have howled and hunted through the night on the track of blood.”
Finally, there is his view on how not war, but life is justified by struggle and the pursuit of an idea. After it was over, he finds that the “martyrs” who threw themselves at death can no longer be understood.
With remarkable prescience, he states, “When once it is no longer possible to understand how a man will give his life for his country–and the time will come–then all is over that faith also, and the idea of the Fatherland is dead.” He suggests men may come to envy those who acted in the name of a faith that can no longer be truly understood, in the same way his generation could “envy the saints their inward and irresistible strength,” dedicating their lives to a religious ideal that no one today could truly grasp.
“We are all afraid, but we must fight against it,” he says. “To be overcome by one’s weakness is only human. At such a moment look at your leader and your fellows.” Of course, as Jünger himself became company commander, this terrible burden of exemplifying bravery became his, even when the German Army knew “that victory could no longer be ours.” “But the enemy should know that he fought against men of honor,” he recalled.
We are as foreign to Jünger’s worldview as Jünger was to those Catholic martyrs who would suffer or even seek unspeakable torments to gain the Kingdom of Heaven. However, we can still find truth in his words.
“[L]ife had no depth of meaning except when it is pledged for an ideal, and that there are ideals in comparison with which the life of an individual and even of a people has no weight.”
What makes these themes remarkable is that Jünger does not shy away from the ugliness of war. This is not a romance glorifying war. He painstakingly describes the decaying bodies, the filth of the trenches, the monotony, the rats, the atrocities, the sick feeling it gave Jünger to kill men he clearly admires and in other circumstances would be his friends.
He recalls comrades who died in the mud, lost to unknown graves, brave and loyal men transformed into rotting corpses in forgotten fields. A compassionate, courageous, intelligent companion who had so much to contribute would be cut down by a “senseless piece of lead.” Beautiful French communities would be destroyed by endless artillery bombardments as the giant armies, like two forces of nature, move back and forth.
Somehow, because the war was so horrible, because it ended in defeat, because it ended in disillusionment, he finds meaning. “[T]he ideal of the Fatherland had been distilled from all these afflictions in a clearer and brighter essence,” he writes.
Jünger also confronts truths about himself. He was insanely brave. One almost must believe in the supernatural to explain how he survived this war, let alone live to be 103. He’s shot numerous times in the book. Yet he keeps coming back to the front to lead his men.
However, even he admits he once fled after a moment of “blank horror” following artillery. He recalls himself to his duty because “an officer’s sense of responsibility drowns his personal fears.” It provides “a sticking-place, something to occupy the thoughts,” he writes. However, after the initial danger passes, he “broke into convulsive sobs while the men stood gloomily around me.”
He also admits that the war, while it provided the opportunity for transcendence, also could lead to utter baseness and atrocity. “Weak natures are prone to the atavistic impulse to destroy; and it takes hold of the trench fighter in his desolate existence when any one appears above ground,” he wrote. “I have felt it myself only too often.”
He also admits the dark impulses, perhaps even the death-drive, that animates young men. “The horrible was undoubtedly a part of that irresistible attraction that drew us into the war,” he said. “A long period of law and order, such as our generation has had behind it, produces a craving for the abnormal, a craving that literature stimulates.” Of course, these young recruits “never for a moment dreamt that in this war the dead would be left month after month to the mercy of wind and weather, as once the bodies on the gallows were.”
Jünger found that “national pride not a quality of the masses.” At the same time, before the last great offensive, he said, “Every man felt his personality fade away in the face of a crisis in which he had his part to play and by which history would be made.” Thus, the masses respond to ideals which only a minority truly possess and understand.
In the beginning of R.R. Reno’s Return of the Strong Gods, the author quotes one of his students who bemoans living in the “long twentieth century.” We are still in the postwar world of 1946 and mainstream culture, values, and narratives still derive from the supposed moral drama of the Second World War. As the decades pass, those ideas seem, if not irrelevant, more distant. The Storm of Steel gives us a glimpse of a pre-war world from the perspective of a spiritual aristocrat, a man fiercely protective of his own identity and code who found self-actualization in fire, flame, and comradeship.
The Storm of Steel is worth purchasing and reading even if you aren’t looking for philosophy or introspection. Simply as a thriller, it is infinitely more terrifying and engrossing than the tiresome paperbacks of war fantasies and spy novels you find at drug stores. The words stab at you like bayonets; each chapter is an artillery barrage.
However, The Storm of Steel is far more than a memoir. It presents us with profound and uncomfortable questions about life, death, identity, and meaning. For those of our generation, we already live in the situation Jünger prophesied, when we lack faith because we lack an ideal.
What is our Ideal? To what standard to we rally? What are we willing to die for, and, much more importantly, live for?
I have my answer. What about you?