The Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger (Book Review) | Andrew Trovalusci
The Great War lives in a dark corner of our national psyche. It’s part of our founding myth – in the British book of Genesis, the Great War is Britain’s original sin. Millions of men sent to die in a pointless, idiotic war for pointless, idiotic reasons. Or at least, that’s one view. An alternative view is put forward in The Storm of Steel by decorated German Stormtroop Commander Ernst Jünger. The book reads like a string of self-contained episodes, but underneath lies a strong current that seems to pull the events of the book irresistibly in one direction. More and more of the old world dies and is replaced by the new and modern. As the war progresses it sheds its human elements to become, not a war of men and weapons like it was at first, but rather, as Jünger put it, an emotionless “war of material”. Overall, The Storm of Steel tells the story of the birth of modern warfare as we know it today.
The book begins with Jünger disembarking from a train in Bazancourt, Northern France, just after the Battle of the Marne as a volunteer with the 73rd Fusiliers. Jünger would cut his teeth in France’s Champagne region before fighting in the Battle of the Somme and then the Battle of Cambrai. He was injured just before the doomed Spring Offensive, after which he reentered the German front line amidst an atmosphere of exhaustion and defeat. He earned many decorations for his feats of valour during the war, including: The Iron Cross First Class, the Pour le Mérite and the Prussian House Order of Hohenzollern.
Jünger first published his entire unedited diary in 1920 but after it failed to sell, he found a new publisher and reorganised his writings into the first edition of In Stahlgewittern (1922). This revised version was then translated in 1929 by a man named Basil Creighton into the first English edition of The Storm of Steel. Jünger’s work would be revised a further 7 times with more recent revisions removing many of Jünger’s reflections on leadership, nationalism and the nature of heroism as well as muting his more graphic descriptions of violence. In 2003 the final (1961) revision would be translated into English by award-winning German poet and translator Michael Hoffman and it’s this version of Jünger’s work that is most widely distributed today. After reading both the original 1929 Creighton translation and the 2003 Hoffman translation, I can say without a doubt that Creighton’s translation is far more readable, more compelling and more faithful to Jünger’s vision. Although the Hoffman translation won awards for accuracy this version left out much of Jünger’s personal philosophy, which in my view is the most valuable part of the book. As well as this, Hoffman was working with a version of the book that was heavily sanitised and watered down compared to the original. For these reasons I must recommend in the strongest of terms to anyone wishing to read this literary masterpiece that they read the original 1929 translation first, lest they confuse themselves by reading the milquetoast, semi-skimmed Penguin Classics version.
The philosophical component of The Storm of Steel is where it’s true value as a piece of literature lies. The Creighton translation is full of lessons linked to specific experiences that Jünger had that can be applied to everyday life. One such reflection followed an incident in which five men were faced with a choice of whether they should leave their beds and enter a protected dugout during an artillery bombardment. One man chose to stay in his bed, one man rushed straight into the dugout and the remaining three chose to pause to put their boots on. In that time, a shell struck that killed those three while leaving the other two virtually unharmed. Jünger’s take away from this: “the most prudent and the least, as so often in war, came off the best.” In other words, Jünger found that it was best above all to be decisive. The book is full of nuggets of information such as this and they’re incredibly thought-provoking. Every other line of The Storm of Steel is worth pondering for a moment at least.
Sadly, while reading the book one learns that decisiveness wasn’t enough to keep one alive during the war. As battle took on an ever more inhuman and mechanical character, it became apparent that it was the bravest who died first. During one part of the book Jünger is injured just one day before his regiment is assaulted from all sides and wiped out, choosing to fight to the last man rather than surrender. On another occasion, Jünger (injured, again) is being evacuated from a medical station under attack by the British Army. Tragically, several men that choose to selflessly carry their comrade to safety are shot dead one after the other until finally one succeeds. Such instances had a tremendous impact on Jünger who, though grateful to be alive, “kept the unquenchable flame of [those] men as a reminder…that I must show myself always worthy to have been their comrade”. The book is truly a moving testament to the quality of those who were killed during the Great War and I’ve yet seen no evidence more compelling than this book to prove that we are all truly so much poorer to have lost them, the cream of Europe’s crop. Furthermore, I don’t think anyone can mourn the war dead today with the honour they deserve until they understand and appreciate the true value of what was lost on those fields.
As mentioned before, one of the major themes of the book is the death of the old (Napoleonic-era warfare, chivalry, the old European order) and its replacement with the new (modern warfare, impersonal killing, the modern world itself). The watershed moment in the war was clear to Jünger: it was in 1916 with the Battle of the Somme when the war entered a new phase, and the modern world was born. From this point onwards German soldiers would wear the iconic steel helmet that has become one of the most recognisable symbols of the twentieth century. Jünger wondered whether the German stahlhelm design would become as recognisable as helmets from classical times – I would say it certainly has. From 1916 onwards battles were no longer “episodes” that began and ended, but rather a “condition of things” that lasted for weeks and weeks. Thanks to advances in technology, both sides had become so tremendously good at killing each other that the intensity of war reached a level hitherto unheard of and not replicated since. The destructive power of the weaponry in play and the new scale with which it was brought to bear meant that men in opposing armies were like eggs armed with sledgehammers. And yet, tactics on both sides remained mostly the same. Every inch of land at the front was watered with gallons of blood as battalion after battalion was crowded to the front line and pounded to bits. Never before in human history has so much heroism been concentrated in such a small area over such a small stretch of time. In Jünger’s words: “the names of the tiniest Picardy hamlets are memorials to heroic battles to which the history of the world can find no parallel”.
Throughout the book Jünger also remains surprisingly Anglophilic. In the preface to the book’s English edition, he says: “Of all the troops who were opposed to the Germans on the great battlefields the English were not only the most formidable but the manliest and most chivalrous”. Jünger states that it was always his aim to eliminate any personal animosity that might be felt between him and his enemy and to treat him only as an enemy in battle. It’s important, he says, not to let oneself be “blinded by excess national feeling” as was typically the case between the Germans and the French. One might remember from two years ago the Peter Jackson film They Shall Not Grow Old where this sentiment is corroborated by an English soldier, who tells the cameraman that the Germans of Lower Saxony were “part English” and that, when captured, they would muse that the Germans and the English should be fighting together against the French. A professional soldier and a gentleman, Jünger treated captured British soldiers with the utmost respect and dignity, even comforting mortally wounded Englishmen in death. To hold such an honourable attitude towards one’s adversaries would be unheard of today when we can only justify war by painting our enemies as evil. For Jünger things were different, he needed no justification for war and so he was free to quite admire his opponent. If you contrast that with the post-WW2 orthodoxy today that war can only be justified if it’s against an evil, bigoted dictator and his army of evil, bigoted henchmen, you’re provided with much food for thought.
Ernst Jünger fought in the most brutal war in European history, returned home to a shattered country after being wounded on over half a dozen separate occasions and chose to write a book about his experience. In that book he chose, unlike other prominent First World War writers, not to pooh-pooh the ideals that took him to war but instead to exalt them. Every death he witnessed hardened his resolve that there existed ideals that were worth the lives spent for them. Modern readers might misunderstand Jünger’s writings, believing him to hold the lives of his comrades in contempt but the truth was rather the opposite: Jünger valued highly the lives of both his own men and the men he fought against. He took the rather logical view that the value of the ideals for which he and his comrades fought, was determined by the value of their collective sacrifice. Much like items at the shops are worth what you’d give up for them; Germany, honour, courage, all of these things were worth the many lives spent for them precisely because those lives were spent for them. The fact that so many good men were willing to suffer and to die for ideals was what made those ideals beautiful and worth dying for. Every death was an immense tragedy for Jünger and yet there is never a sense at any point in the book that he regrets his decision to go to war or that he considers the war to be futile or idiotic. Once again this can be contrasted with today’s era of jaded cynicism where, after a century of misguided Wilsonian interventionism, public faith in the mixing of “war” and “ideals” has fallen to zero. Perhaps after two decades of smoke and mirrors in the Middle East our cynicism is justified.
Jünger was also far from a violent thug. He read Nietzsche and collected beetles whenever he had down-time and after the war he became a noted Entomologist. Unfortunately, he was treated with suspicion by the allies after the Second World War due to his association with German Nationalism and his refusal to comply with Allied de-nazification. This was a complete misunderstanding, however, in fact Jünger never joined the Nazi party and remained one of its staunchest conservative critics. He was even involved with the Stauffenberg Bomb Plot (a German army plot to kill Hitler). When the plot failed it was only his status as a national hero that saved his life. Jünger avoided execution but was placed under house arrest by the Nazis for the rest of the war. He was never anti-semitic either, even leaving his Veterans association in protest when it expelled its Jewish members.
It’s hard for most people today to understand Jünger’s mindset. Our perception of the First World War is taken almost entirely from Wilfred Owen poems and the novel All Quiet On The Western Front. Every single analysis includes an assertion of the war’s injustice and futility. We tend to think that soldiers in the Great War were misled as to why they were fighting, or that they were foolish to fight and die for whimsical, nonsensical ideals. “The old lie that is dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – this line is usually spat out whenever it’s recited because the orator wants to look like they understand the bitterness that they assume must’ve been felt by all soldiers in the trenches. The Storm of Steel, however, paints a different picture. The book suggests that for the most part soldiers in the Great War knew what they were fighting for and, while some certainly ended up regretting their decisions, many like Jünger clung to their ideals and used them to draw upon the strength necessary to live through what was a truly transcendental experience.
The inscription on the Cenotaph in London reads “THE GLORIOUS DEAD”. Glorious? Aren’t we told not to “glorify” the war? They couldn’t’ve fought for glory, there is no such thing. They fought because they were misled, indoctrinated into believing in silly things like ‘honour’, or they fought because they were forced to by the oppressive aristocrats, the bloody toffs at the top! Did they fight for freedom, for democracy, or did they actually fight for something different? What relationship do we have with the word ‘glory’ today? If we’ve done away with the concept then the Cenotaph should be done away with too, or at least have its inscription changed to something more honest like “WE’RE SORRY”. Regardless, The Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger is the authority on the First World War as well as one of the most important books of the century. The deficit of attention it receives compared to the attention that it should receive is evidence to me that there exists an existential rot in our society. If it were up to me, it would be analysed in secondary schools across the country.
The last line of the book is: “Though force without and barbarity within conglomerate in somber clouds, yet so long as the blade of a sword will strike a spark in the night may it be said: Germany lives, and Germany shall never go under.” I envy his optimism.