Ernst Jünger: Un autre destin européen
Paris: Éds. du Rocher, 2009
In Dominique Venner’s historical essay, Ernst Jünger: Un autre destin européen, the subject is presented as une figure ultime, a European archetype provisionally absent from Europe today, but nevertheless one rooted in the depths of the European spirit — and destined, thus, to re-appear should Europeans ever re-awake to re-assert themselves in the world.
Somewhat like a seismograph, the successive stages of Jünger’s long life (1895-1998) seemed to register the successive twentieth-century epochs of which he was its most emblematic representative.
In the period 1914-18, when Europeans worshiped the gods of war, he was a great warrior. After the defeat of 1918 and the shame of Weimar, he served as an eloquent proponent of the Conservative Revolution’s resistance to the Wilsonians “new world order.” Then, after looking to Hitler to deliver the Germans from their travails, he found that their presumed deliverer threatened an even more devastating travail, becoming, then, a precocious critic of the NS dictator.
During the Second World War, when French and other Europeans living under the swastika hoped for a united Europe, Jünger, stationed in Paris with the Wehrmacht, was their champion. Following the war, when Europeans sought a new humanism to re-animate their exhausted civilization, Jünger’s Der Friede (The Peace, 1944), with its thoughts on spiritual regeneration amidst the ruins, was its exemplar. Finally, as the postwar expectations turned to a subduing sense of powerlessness, born from the occupation of the two extra-European continental blocs, his later work prescribed an autonomous, almost indifferent detachment from the prevailing powers.
Spanning these varied epochal roles, there were, in Venner’s view, two different Jüngers: the rebellious one of his youth (whom Venner extols) and the Olympian one of his maturity (with whom he is less sympathetic).
The first, true to pre-1945 Europe, was dominated by Mars and the radical anti-bourgeois spirit of the German 1920s.
The second Jünger begins with On the Marble Cliffs (1939) and develops during the course of World War II, as he assumed a more artistic, contemplative course — less Nietzschean than Goethean. This is the Jünger who adapted himself to Europe’s post-1945 prostration.
For Venner the two seemingly contradictory Jüngers symbolize the alternative destinies to which Europeans have been subject in the twentieth century.
1. Das Elternhaus
In a youth nurtured by a thoughtful father and a tender mother, Jünger learned French, Greek, and Latin, read greatly, developed what would become a life-long interest in entomology, and sank deep roots into his family’s intimate familiarity with European history, culture, and science. This early cultivation of his spirit — which had nothing to do with the prestigious schools he attended and, in fact, was pursued as an alternative to what he took to be the philistine routines of bourgeois society — would make him one of the preeminent High Culture representatives of European Man.
The man of high culture was also a man of action. This was suggested early on, for every summer during his boyhood, Jünger and his younger brother, Georg Friedrich (later a respected writer in his own right) spent at their country house in Northwest Hanover (Rehburg), where they devoted themselves to wandering through forests and marches remote to human habitation, day in and day out, like wild Indians one with nature.
These boyhood adventures, combined with copious reading of travel and adventure stories, assumed a certain resonance in this age of colonialism.
Thoughts of faraway places, like savage Africa (a primitive continent devoid of civilization, virtually peopleless, and symbol of a new European adventure) could not but capture the young Jünger’s imagination, which was already seeking out mythic realities and archaic truths as an alternative to bourgeois reasonableness.
In November 1913, he ran away from home, to France, to join the French Foreign Legion — less for the sake of the warrior’s vocation, for which he would later be known, than for that of the high adventure he hoped to find in Africa, as a slaver or an explorer.
His father eventually collected him in Algeria — after bribing him with a promised expedition to Kilimanjaro, if he would only first return home and complete his university studies.
The young Jünger, though, did not have long to wait for another adventure.
In August 1914, on the third day of what we now know as World War I, he enlisted with a regiment of Hanoverian fusiliers: “The war seized us like an intoxication.”
Intoxication soon gave way to a sobering familiarity with the war’s harsh, primeval violence.
Wounded for what would be the first of more than seven times in April 1915, his father convinced him to take a commission (perhaps not realizing that lieutenants had the highest rate of mortality). But typical of his spirit, he refused his father’s request to assume a position in the rear, away from the danger, and, in fact, became a “shock trooper,” the bravest and most imperiled of the war’s foot soldiers.
Through its stern trials and murderous punishments, the war would give form not merely to the highly decorated soldier, the youngest ever to receive the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest military accommodation, but also to the writer and thinker to whom Venner pays homage in his essay.
2. Fire and Steel
In In Stahlgewittern (In Storms of Steel, 1920), which made him one of the most celebrated German writers of his age, and in other war-related works written in the Twenties (The Battle as Inner Experience, Fire and Blood, Copse 125, etc.), Jünger recognized every soldier’s right to kill his enemy and to be killed by him.
There was no hate or rancor in Jünger’s view of the enemy, for he honored both his rights and his heroism. His disdain was reserved solely for pacifists, who, in their detachment not just from the state, but from the people of whom they themselves were an organic part, insisted on seeing only the horror of war, as if man’s highest duty was to flee the pains and torments that come with virile resolution, failing, thus, to understand that man’s destructive impulse is an essential facet of his nature, the verso of his creativity.
Between two civilized peoples, war (whose cruelty and absurdity Jünger never ceased to emphasize) tended to exalt, test, and extenuate a people’s values. As such, he saw it as the supreme spiritual experience, as clashing “psychic powers” engaged and tested themselves against one another. His was not the typical nationalistic, imperialistic, or militaristic apology for war, but an affirmation of raw life free from the “human, all too human” (Nietzsche) world centered on bourgeois optimism and its denial of death and destruction.
Jünger was indeed less concerned with what war was fought over, than with how it was fought.
Amidst destroyed villages and desolate fields ruined by battling armies, Jünger argued that one must stand like granite. The fields and villages could always be restored or rebuilt, but the time and destiny of those who fought would never return. Like Homer’s Hector, Jünger’s soldier unhesitantly rises to his fate, determined to make his death a beautiful one.
Courage for Jünger became man’s principal virtue and danger a chance to engage life at its highest, most primordial level.
This sense of struggle — and of death as the end we all face — implies that every generation must play its part, as it engages the fate bestowed to it.
Certain writers with similar experiences of the war (like Drieu La Rochelle or Céline) believed the values of courage and heroism had been trivialized in modern industrialized war . . . but not Jünger, who refused to submit to the weight of matter and machine.
The nature of twentieth-century war (dieser Scheisskrieg) simply demanded a greater will and audacity.
In reference to his own experience, he contended that a person’s psychic energy could prevail over the titanic forces of modern technology.
This was less a romantic rejection of technology’s awesome powers than a recognition that his submission to war’s imperatives created the opportunity for new experiences of personal elevation and individual authenticity. He wrote in In Stahlgewittern that it was never a question of the scale and might of the forces opposing them, but of the courage and conviction of the men behind these forces.
In a similar vein, Venner makes a revealing comparison between Jünger’s Das Wäldchen 125 (Copse 125) and Drieu’s La Comedie De Charleroi (1934), both of which focus on incidents situated within one of the major WORLD WAR I battles. Though Drieu in his novel looked back on the war from the perspective of the victors, the horrors and futilities dominating his view seem to suggest that he was among the vanquished, while Jünger’s work, in emphasizing the Homeric vitality of the German soldier, conveys, paradoxically, a sense of victory and triumph, despite Germany’s actual defeat.
The revolutionary nationalist Franz Schauwecker expressed it in this way: The war gave form to the “German mystique.” “We fought the entire world . . . In losing the war, we nevertheless won. For even with defeat, we won what was needed for future victories.” That is, they acquired not just the knowledge but the will to dominate the whole world.
Focusing on archaic conceptions of struggle that prefigure new forms of creativity, such ideas are obviously remote to contemporary notions of enlightened self-interest, which have come to frame the meaningless orientations of our age.
Great historical movements, it follows, cannot be explained in terms of pure causality.
The mytho-historic vision worked out in Jünger’s subsequent books would cause him to suppose that a people’s life is ultimately subject to another force, another reality — dictated by man’s confrontation with destiny — that is, with what man is fated to be if he is to be himself.
Resisting in this way the materialist interpretation of war, as well as the dominant nihilism, Jünger privileged the primacy of the spirit, as it engages the forces seeking to deny man his destined fate.
It’s this heroic resistance to what denies the European his destiny, which makes Jünger such an exemplary figure for Venner.
3. The Conservative Revolution
Following World War I, all Europe was in intellectual revolt against the old order. This was especially so in Germany.
The nationalist, anti-liberal intellectual effervescence of the 1920s, which Armin Mohler christened the “Conservative Revolution” (arguably the most fertile movement of twentieth-century thought) was no counter-revolution, but a revolutionary, profoundly Maistrian movement — seeking not a restoration, but a transcendence.
Represented by the young Thomas Mann, Oswald Spengler, Werner Sombart, Carl Schmitt, Ernst von Salomon, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Gottfried Benn, Martin Heidegger, and Jünger, among others, the Conservative Revolution was shaped by two major influences: German romanticism in its rejection of arid eighteenth-century rationalism and Nietzsche in his revolt against the nihilism spawned by modern existence.
Against the demobilizing cult of reason enthroned by the Enlightenment, source of all people-killing materialisms, the Conservative Revolution sought to rally the vital forces refusing to abide by liberalism’s bloodless dominion. This anti-liberalism drew on what Jünger called “heroic realism” (which, being purely irrational — and hence “unrealistic” — ignores the overwhelming odds against it for the sake of something higher in itself).
History, Spengler said, is the history of those who don’t calculate.
If, for example, the Irish had rationally accessed the situation facing them, they would have succumbed to the genocidal yoke of the British Crown, becoming thus a people without a history.
Jünger’s heroic realist “resigns” himself to his fate, as he rushes to it to affirm all that is distinct to his spirit. Like Spengler, Jünger saw history not as the Enlightenment’s march of progress, but as the manifestation of the willful, instinctual life force animating the possibilities inherent in life’s ultimately inexplicable forms.
Rejecting liberalism’s illusory beliefs in its alleged mastery of history, history becomes for him a manifestation of those vital elemental forces superior to those that come from liberalism’s reign of quantity.
Jünger sympathized with that Conservative-Revolutionary tendency which Mohler called “national revolutionary,” specifically to its Nationalist Bolshevik wing, which upheld the Lutheran-Prussian tradition, with its distinct mix of Germanic and Slavic elements, oriented to the East and against the West (in contrast to Bavarian and Austrian Catholics, who, like Hitler, took the opposite stance).
Thomas Mann wrote at the time that a greater bond links the Germans to the Russians than to the French and to the other nations born of Rome.
In this view, Germany and Russia, unlike the liberal Franco-Anglo-American realm, had avoided the bourgeoisie’s “slave world” (Nietzsche), whose obsessive materialism has since inundated the junked-clogged market societies now dominating us.
It was this Prussian Russophilia of National Bolshevism, which is what set its principal proponent, Ernst Niekisch, against Hitler.
Based not on an affinity for Leninism, but on a proposed anti-liberal alliance of Proletarian Russia and Proletarian Germany against the Capitalist West, National Bolshevism — not to be confused with the tendency Mikhail Agursky describes in The Third Rome or with certain other tendencies that today identify themselves with this moniker — represented an alternative to Western decadence that was arguably less infected with the liberal virus than was Hitler’s particular derivation of National Socialism.
During the Weimar period, nationalists were in fact much closer to Communists (who categorically rejected the bourgeois order of the Wilsonians) than to liberals or socialists. Collaboration between the revolutionary-nationalist right and the German Communist party (KPD), the largest, most militant Communist party outside Russia, occurred, accordingly, in numerous direct and indirect ways.
(National Bolsheviks, as such, rejected the conservative argument that Russian Communism, or more accurately said, Russia under Communist rule, was merely a product of a demonic Jewish enterprise. Even Hitler, fierce anti-Bolshevik that he was, esteemed German Communists who defected to his ranks in ways he never did for socialist or liberal defectors — for Communists were not only in open rebellion against the liberal decadence of the West, but, in their self-sacrifice and conviction, were imbued with the same exemplary, soldierly courage.)
For National Bolsheviks, Russian Communism was only superficially Marxist.
They thus sought a Russo-Prussiancentric Europe — which they saw as preferable to Hitler’s notion, inspired by the crusading imperialism of his lapsed Habsburg Catholicism, of a German-dominated Russia.
Despite understanding that socialism (in favoring a social order oriented to the nation’s higher welfare rather than to individual self-interest), was simply another side of nationalism, these nationalists nevertheless realized that Marxism was incapable of fighting capitalism, because it was, at root, an offshoot of the same Enlightenment materialism. The Marxist values of class struggle had, indeed, ended up perpetuating bourgeois values, for its central axis was a rationalist, calculating, and thus very Jewish conception of class as a purely economic category — whose highest rational goal, not means, was to understand and possess the world as a resource from which wealth and riches could be had and to which all questions of being were never posed.
Nationalists, by contrast, saw workers as an organic part of the nation, who needed to be integrated into and made to feel a part of its natural hierarchy.
Workers were not members of some macro-economic category — “the international proletariat” — as Marxists supposed. There was only one proletariat, that born of the bourgeois-dominated nation, and, under a true nationalist regime faithful to the archaic spirit of Prussia’s heroic nobility, this stratum would be transformed into a healthy producer estate (the traditional base of the Aryan social pyramid), ceasing thus to be the alienated, ostracized, and oppressed class that the bourgeoisie had made of it.
4. Der Arbeiter
Jünger’s nationalist politics turned out to be a passing phase in his long life. By 1930, after the wind started to go from the revolutionary-nationalist sails and the National Socialists of Hitler’s NSDAP began their electoral ascent, he appeared less frequently in the pages of its publications.
Part of this was due, Venner suggests, to the fact that, like many “idealists,” he thought politics belonged to Corneille’s heroic world (in which duty, honor, and morality dominated), not to Machiavelli’s morally compromising one.
Venner also notes that the very nature of Jünger’s “soldierly heroism” was alien to the sensibility of the rebel or revolutionary.
In Der Arbeiter (The Worker, 1932), which makes a violent condemnation of liberal democracy and an apology for “a new, young, brutal elite” inspired by a heroic realism, Jünger criticized the bourgeoisie not only as a soldier opposing its unmanly fixation on peace and security, but also from a “fascist” perspective, which dismissed the principle of “enlightened self-interest” as a deception born in denial of life’s underlying tragedy.
The technological character of modern warfare became for him a manifestation of “elemental, mythical, irrational forces” that transcended bourgeois economic concepts and ideologies, drawing, in its demands for courage and duty, on those Nietzschean life forces opposing the nihilism inherent to liberal modern societies.
In advocating a technoeconomic mobilization against the bourgeois order for the sake of overcoming its atomizing differentiations, Martin Heidegger, for one, thought Der Arbeiter’s technological orientation was just another example of the nihilism that had issued from World War I.
Venner, by contrast, argues that the book can be read as a defiance of nihilism, to the degree it sought to turn nihilism’s technological arms against itself.
A strong self-consciousness anchored in a new elite modeled on Prussian military forms, Jünger held, was alone capable of delivering Germans from a decadence oriented to the lowest, isolating reaches of human life.
Jünger’s vision of “a heroic world of work,” like much in his life, was shaped by his wartime experience.
With the advent of modern “industrial” war, the battlefield became a “factory,” where “battalions of workers” operated the new heavy machinery of destruction. This is the image of the social organ as a giant machine whose complex tasks are directed by a central intelligence or spirit — one, Jünger hoped, which would function along Prussian lines, rather than according to the debased, often Jewish ones of our present masters.
Against the inorganic and inherently meaningless world of the bourgeoisie, Jünger’s proposed “worker-soldier” ceases, as such, to be a cog and becomes an integral component of a larger hierarchical order, in which each position is a necessary and meaningful feature of t he whole.
Unlike the “civilized” bourgeois of Weimar’s liberal republic, the worker-soldier fully submits to the demands of industrial production, becoming one with its “vitality.”
Confronting its “dark impulses” and overcoming himself in its demands, like the soldier overcoming death on the field of battle, der Arbeiter affirms both “the eternal Will to Power at work in all living things” and the “Eternal” in his own race and heritage.
Against the nation-destroying egoism of liberal democracy, Jünger’s Der Arbeiter extols a philosophy based on eternal struggle, where the elemental forces of instinctive life, suffocated by modernity’s distorting strictures, are mobilized in a titanic struggle that revives “the ancient virtues of manliness, courage, resoluteness, hardness, discipline, and honor.”
Though Jünger did not think in biological-racial terms and though his nationalism was more anti-bourgeois and soldierly than völkisch, he was nevertheless not all that far, in certain respects, from the NSDAP, whose Joseph Goebbels wrote in 1939 that National Socialism too “understood how to take the soulless framework of technology and fill it with the rhythm and hot impulses of our time.”
Following the “coup of 1933,” Jünger, Spengler, von Salomon and others of the Conservative Revolution became silent opponents of the new regime, which they saw as a corruption of National Socialism.
In their view, Hitler’s new regime lacked real culture, high morals, and a sense of measure. Without these virtues, it could only squander the possibility of a real redressment. As a consequence, these conservative revolutionaries thought Hitler would lead Germany not to rebirth, but to catastrophe.
In contrast, though, to liberal and socialist critics, they refused to abandon their country, however critical they were of the new NS state.
It was not, then, that these revolutionary nationalists rejected the new regime because it was “plebeian,” as is often argued, but rather because they saw it as a betrayal of the national socialism, which the Conservative Revolution had conceived as an alternative to liberal modernity.
Jünger’s heroic realist period was followed by the humanist one announced in Auf den Marmorklippen (On the Marble Cliffs), which was immediately (and correctly) interpreted by the NSDAP as a thinly veiled attack on it.
Hitler, however, had an immense respect for the hero of World War I and ordered that he not be touched.
Throughout the Second World War, as Jünger’s spiritual flirtation with the anti-Hitler opposition grew, he seemed always to be, almost providentially, protected by higher forces.
Venner is very critical of Jünger’s subsequent postwar evolution as an “anarch”: a figure developed in his dystopian novel Eumeswil (1977). This figure, faced with the powerlessness imposed on him by the occupying barbarians (Communist Russia and Liberal America), is compelled to observe, rather than to act against, their stultified world.
Venner nevertheless balances Jünger’s weaknesses against his strengths (evident in the extraordinary beauty of his art, the equally extraordinary heroism of his earlier representation of Prussian arms, and not least in his refusal to disavow his early work and submit to the Allied denazification). On balance, he judges these strengths and weaknesses to be inherently estimable.
Jünger’s work, more importantly, serves for Venner to highlight the spiritual collapse of Western Man, who has succumbed to liberalism’s economic/technological realm of consummate meaningless.
For Venner’s Jünger, the European has been transformed by the occupying powers into a spiritually and morally vacuous being, who lacks a love of beautiful things, instinctively denigrates noble ideas, is attentive only to his advantage, fixates on security, remains docile before propagandists and social-engineers, and deludes himself with philanthropic theories.
Jünger’s anarch is not the counterpoint of the monarch, as is the anarchist.
Instead, he is a detached observer who renounces struggle, though he remains unconquered, the king of himself.
Deprived of his role as a historical actor, the self-conscious European today tends to take refuge in Jünger’s anarch.
The world-shattering catastrophes of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, after ejecting the European from history, has, provisionally, broken the will of his destining project. Thus overwhelmed, he has slipped into a state of near dormition.
Like Ulysses, Venner argues it will take a long journey, suffering, and many new trials before the European recovers the lost country of his destiny.
Is there another European destiny?
In the last somber century, which has suppressed and entombed Europe, as a spirit and a force in the world, there stands Ernst Jünger, who fought Dionysus’ destructive chaos like a form-giving Apollo, so as to forge from his struggle a thing of beauty and power.
In Venner’s essay, Jünger becomes a European exemplar, the modern Gestalt of the Homeric tradition, always alert to the world’s wonder and to the dangerous opportunities it offers as a means of going beyond one self to achieve the fate to which one is destined.
Man of action and contemplation, of high culture and great courage, a loyal friend of France, who sought to reconcile the two brother peoples of the old Carolingian world, the young Jünger reminds us, Venner says, of what Europe once was and what she can be again in a future true to her destiny.
In Jünger’s early works on war, there is, Venner points out, a strong hint of the Iliad, the mythic foundation of the white man’s world.
Jünger, indeed, personifies many of those traits which Europeans of good lineage have always displayed in confrontation with the challenges of their age.
Thus it was that whenever Jünger evoked destiny, he did so in ways similar to those who call on Allah, God, Providence, or History.
Destiny for him is fate in the ancient sense.
Homer said that even the gods are subject to destiny, in the sense of being subject to forces beyond what human reason can explain or control. This is not Christian fatalism, but Nietzsche’s amor fati (love of destiny), the approbation of that which one is because that is what one is and cannot be otherwise — though modern man, in the folly of his amnesic materialism, deludes himself into thinking that he can be anyone — a fish out of water, a white equal to a black, a spirit become a digestive tract.
However consumed by the Heraclitian flux into which he had been swept up and which, in turned, swept away his youthful self, the mature Jünger nevertheless realized that Europe’s postwar dormition would not be eternal — that the young Jünger, in some future turn of the wheel, would have another occasion to pursue a fate full of heroic, limpid transparency.
For Venner, Jünger’s life, particularly that of the early period, holds out to the White Men of the West the figure of another European destiny.
Like a chisel on steel, his work engraved the traits of something permanent in our heritage — that of a great destiny whose heroism and conviction unconsciously asserts itself in terms of what it has consciously come to understand.
Our world may now be ruled by barbarians who offend our sense of justice and freedom — just as they deny us our right to live as a distinct people, faithful to who we are.
Europeans, though, have repeatedly thrown back such barbarians. Throughout their history, at Thermopylae or at Salamis, at Portiers and before the gates of Vienna for example, there have been instances of extreme tension, where the highest values of their civilization depended on a handful of men — the men whom the author of In Stahlgewittern beckons us to be.
What the young infantry officer had learned in the storms of steel became thus an enduring form of his life, a form forged in a difficult time, from a Herculean struggle against the crushing weight of matter and machine, as it strove for something higher than mere survival. This is the form that Venner imposes on his understanding of Jünger’s life.
It is one, perhaps, that white Americans may also one day have to impose on their own lives.