Words of endurance: Storm of Steel

Ernst Juenger after WWI

Ernst Juenger after WWI.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers below refer to Ernst Juenger, Storm of Steel. Translated by Michael Hofmann. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

If you bring up the subject of Ernst Juenger, you are more or less obliged to use the word “controversial.” He has been denounced so often—and admired so much—that anyone who writes about him feels the invisible presence of persons ready to pounce upon words that run counter to their opinion. Those are strong opinions, as something about the man either fascinates or repels.

I will only say that the conservative nationalist views he expressed during the Weimar period are sometimes described as fascist. I haven’t studied his writings on the subject and have formed no opinion about that. I do know that he distanced himself from the Nazis in several ways, for instance writing a “Letter of Rejection” to Nazi publication Voelkscher Beobachter telling them not to use his writings. Men like Joseph Goebbels saw him as the ultimate German war hero and wanted to appropriate him for their Party. Juenger was too independent for that.

No one could question that he was an outstanding soldier: he won Prussia’s highest military decoration as a 23-year-old lieutenant. It’s his other pursuits that tip you off that he might be hard to categorize. He was a distinguished entomologist, a photographer, and a writer of books that could be described as works of science fiction and magical realism. He experimented with drugs, including LSD in its earliest days. He lived to be 102 and wrote about 50 books altogether. Storm of Steel was revised significantly several times, starting out as a simple diary published 1920 and metamorphosing over the years into an intricate literary construction. The 1924 revision has been described as especially nationalistic and “bloodthirsty.”

Critics say of Juenger that he glorifies war. I feel strongly this is not true of Storm of Steel—at least not the version that I read. He glorifies human courage in war. At the same time, he expresses disgust, fascination, horror, awe, and weariness with events. It’s dangerous and ultimately hopeless to try to pin overarching themes on this book. It lives in the moment, in sequences of scenes and experiences perpetually shifting in a dreamlike way. Its integrity lies in a commitment to the transitory truth as each moment looms up, engulfs, and gives way to the next.

German troops relaxing, Arras front, 1917.

German troops relaxing, Arras front, 1917.

The book’s very first sentence starts us abruptly along the winding pathway: “The train stopped at Bazancourt, a small town in Champagne, and we got out.” And so, with the slam of a railcar door, we are on our way. The paragraph continues: “Full of awe and incredulity, we listened to the slow grinding pulse of the front, a rhythm we were to become mightily familiar with over the years. The white ball of a shrapnel shell melted far off, suffusing the grey December sky. The breath of battle blew across to us, and we shuddered. Did we sense that almost all of us—some sooner, some later—were to be consumed by it, on days when the dark grumbling yonder would crash over our heads like an incessant thunder?”* (5)

As Juenger describes the churning colors and sounds of the front, he likes to tunnel down through the perceptions for an insight. For instance, describing the layout of the trenches: “The whole thing should be pictured as… a secret hive of industry and watchfulness, where, within a few seconds of an alarm being sounded, every man is at his post. But one shouldn’t have too romantic an idea of the atmosphere; there is a certain prevailing torpor that proximity to the earth seems to engender.” (42)

He is always describing the incongruous moments, for instance when a comrade uses a cigar clipper to cut a piece of British wire. Or the time, during a prolonged and furious bombardment, he suddenly hears his friend Kius singing “fragments of ‘The Black Whale at Askalon’… everyone has his own particular idiosyncratic methods [of dealing with the stress].”#  (171)

Houses destroyed at Vraucourt (Juenger was in this area).

Houses destroyed at Vraucourt (Juenger was in this area).

Of course many of the incongruities concern the randomness of life and death: a shell drops directly between his feet but turns out to be a dud; a soldier is fatally wounded in the throat by a falling splinter when he tilts his head back to watch the planes of Richtofen’s squadron. The dead are constantly present. “I jumped over them with every stride—without horror. They lay there in the relaxed and softly spilled attitude that characterizes those moments in which life takes its leave.” (214)

There are moments of pastoral beauty, as when he takes an evening walk: “Occasional trees stood beside the paths, under which a farmworker might have taken his ease in peacetime, bearing white or pink or deep-red blossoms, magical apparitions in the solitude. Nature seemed to be pleasantly intact, and yet the war had given it a suggestion of heroism and melancholy; its almost excessive blooming was even more radiant and narcotic than usual.” (143)

Ruins of cathedral of St. Quentin.

Ruins of cathedral of St. Quentin.

Over the course of Juenger’s years on the front, the villages and the fields, the trees and the church towers, are obliterated, replaced by a post-apocalyptic landscape of shell craters. He was on the front from December 1914 to August 1918. His service ended when for the fourteenth time the storm of steel hurled a fragment into his body, this time a bullet in the chest, a severe lung wound. He served with the 73rd Hanoverian regiment, starting as private and finishing as lieutenant commanding elite shock troops. He fought in major battles: at the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele, Cambrai, and the Spring Offensive of 1918.

German supply column near Etricourt, Spring Offensive.

German supply column near Etricourt, Spring Offensive.

He refers to the Spring Offensive as the “Great Battle.” It’s when his storm blows up into a fiery hurricane. All along, the flames have made mesmerizing patterns: “Frequently yellow rockets were shot off that blew up in the air, and sent a rain of fire cascading down, of a color that somehow reminded me of the tone of a viola.” (114) “Our situation was now such that we were sitting under the bowl of fire, as under a tightly woven basket.” (147) On the morning of March 21, 1918, “a flaming curtain went up.” (228)

The offensive is intended to be a game-changer, a huge push against Allied lines before American troops can fully throw in their support. Juenger’s battalion will fight at Mory and Vraucourt, near Bapaume, at the northern end of the German line. Two nights before the synchronized attack, his company suffers a disaster that fuels a fighting rage. En route to their position, they are resting in a large crater when they receive a direct hit from a shell. It kills or wounds 87 of their 150 men. By the light of burning machine-gun belts, Juenger sees where “a pile of charred bodies were writhing, and the shadows of those still living were fleeing in all directions. Simultaneously, a grisly chorus of pain and cries for help went up. The rolling motion of the dark mass in the bottom of the smoking and glowing cauldron, like a hellish vision, for an instant tore open the extreme abysm of terror.” (225) The stretcher-bearers rush in. When a young member of the company stoically begins moving heavy munitions boxes so that they can continue on their way, Juenger sees this small instance of fortitude, and it somehow does him in. He throws himself to the ground and sobs convulsively.

"Gas Attack," by A. Y. Jackson.

“Gas Attack,” by A. Y. Jackson.

At last they reach their place behind the line and spend the next day “in pretty low humor, much of it sleeping… A few remarks that I addressed to the men gathered on the dugout steps, to try to cheer them up, seemed to have little effect. I was hardly in a cheer-bringing mood.” (227)

They awake at 3:00 a.m. and have breakfast. A flask is passed around. Shortly before 5:00 they receive a flash signal that “His Majesty the Kaiser and Hindenburg are on the scene of operations.” The men applaud. At 5:05 the barrage begins, Juenger’s “flaming curtain.”

It was a monstrous barrage on a scale unprecedented in the war. A South African colonel named Deneys Reitz with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, sitting not far from opposite Juenger, was later to write:  “All our front stood wrapped in a sea of smoke and flame, and the earth heaved and twisted beneath our feet.”

Juenger’s men stand atop their dugout and watch the barrage, cracking crude jokes to relieve the tension. At precisely 9:40, with cries of “Revenge for the 7th Company!”, they go over the top. Filled with rage and determination, the attackers speedily advance. “Ponderous, but unstoppable, they advanced on enemy lines. It was as though nothing could hurt them any more… The immense desire to destroy that overhung the battlefield precipitated a red mist in our brains. We called out sobbing and stammering fragments of sentences to one another, and an impartial observer might have concluded that we were all ecstatically happy.” (232)

A manic intensity pervades the next hours. Juenger encounters his first enemy of the day: a wounded officer on hands and knees. Juenger advances toward him with pistol drawn, but when the man pulls out a photograph of his family, Juenger lets him go. Now he dashes through enemy fire and reaches a railway embankment that serves as a British defense. He runs along the top of it, dropping grenades into machine-gun emplacements. There is an odd mood of hilarity. Amidst all the chaos, he encounters his friend Kius. “He had been chasing a British soldier through a section of trench with hand-grenades. When he ran out of missiles, to keep his opponent on the run, he continued the chase with lumps of earth, while I stood up above, splitting my sides with laughter.” (235)

British troops retreat, Spring Offensive.

British troops retreat, Spring Offensive.

Hilarity in the heat of battle: this is something not often described. In narratives of war experience, you expect to find anecdotes about lighter moments during periods of rest—but not during deadly combat. That is supposed to be described within a framework of valor, grim determination, and tragedy. I think it is passages like the one above, more than anything, that make people hate Juenger.

Is this a glorification of war? Or, perhaps, does it trivialize war? Personally, I conclude it is simple honesty.

Over the next days, the Germans succeed in their advance. Eventually, they capture an estimated 1,200 square miles of France, pushing forward up to 40 miles. Yet in the end the offensive does little to improve Germany’s strategic position. The territory won, already devastated during the Somme, is difficult to defend. They have failed to take the key towns of Arras and Amiens. The elite shock troops, such as Juenger’s, have suffered heavy casualties—he himself is sent home for two months with a head wound, returning only in June. Despite the capture of many enemy artillery pieces and tanks, Britain continues apace with production of machine guns and tanks. By May and June, American troops are making a significant contribution to the war.

Map of Spring Offensive showing lines of advance at different dates.

Map of Spring Offensive showing lines of advance at different dates. Click for zoom.

When Juenger rejoins his regiment, he experiences a mood unusual for him. “The seasons followed one another, it was winter and then it was summer again, but it was still war. I felt I had got tired, and used to the aspect of war, but it was from this familiarity that I observed what was in front of me in a new and subdued light…. I felt that the purpose with which I had gone out to fight had been used up, and no longer held.” (260)

During his period of recuperation, he’d learned from the newspapers that the offensive had bogged down. “The Great Battle was a turning-point for me, and not merely because from then on I thought it possible that we might actually lose the war. The incredible massing of forces in the hour of destiny, to fight for a distant future, and the violence it so surprisingly, stunningly unleashed, had taken me for the first time into the depths of something that was more than mere personal experience. That was what distinguished it from what I had been through before; it was an initiation that had not only opened the red-hot chambers of dread but had also led me through them.” (255)

#   #   #

* A lot of credit goes to Hofmann for his beautiful translation.

# An old university beer-drinking song. The Black Whale was a tavern.

'English tank struck 1918,' by Fritz Fuhrken.

‘English tank struck 1918,’ by Fritz Fuhrken.

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About Jenny

I am an off-trail hiker, a student of history, and author of "Transvaal Citizen," "Murder at the Jumpoff," and "The Twelve Streams of LeConte."
This entry was posted in History, Military History, World War I and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Words of endurance: Storm of Steel

  1. My father knew and admired this book – no idea which version – but I have never read it. Omission to be rectified after reading your post.

  2. Kent Hackendy says:

    I’m inclined to agree you regarding your comment about the passage describing “hilarity in the heat of battle.” It was simply relating a rather peculiar moment of levity in a life and death situation. Even in war, the most grisly of human enterprises, humor is a necessary tension breaker, I suspect.

    • Jenny says:

      I think you hit it exactly with the idea of humor as a tension-breaker. Perhaps, also, there is a fundamental absurdity to the situation that sets in. I appreciate your comment especially because I know you support causes of nonviolence—something I sympathize with—and yet you extend yourself into another realm and try to understand it.

      • Kent Hackendy says:

        It might surprise you to hear, but I have had more than a passing fascination with war through the years. My father was obsessed with German culture – especially the Nazi era – and we had volumes on the topic around the house. He even had records of German military marches (which I have to admit, I found a bit creepy). I went through a period, myself, where I absorbed everything I could on WW2, the Holocaust, etc. It’s hard to fathom the monumental destruction, barbarity, and human loss during that 6 years – and the first world war, also.

        Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis of this volume.

  3. Jenny says:

    Interesting, Kent. My own dad had long-time interests in both Britain and Germany. He made a trip to Munich when he was around 13 years old with the family, in the mid 1930s, when my grandad was researching architecture in the area. He got interested in German culture. Yet more importantly, he was a lover of English culture. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, in the horrific winter conditions of January 1945, with the medal of an English regiment around his neck because it inspired him. Yet he stayed on past V-E Day and acted as a liaison between the US Army and German civilians. His interest in the causes of WW2 continued for the rest of his life, and he published a couple of scholarly books on the subject. When I was a teenager the family went to Koblenz on the Rhine for several months so that he could research the German archives located there. He had a fondness for German culture, and we had a record called “Oompah Time in Bavaria” (funny!) that he used to play sometimes—sorta like your dad and his German marches. But ultimately his loyalties were to the Allies.

    • patholscher says:

      What are the titles of your father’s books?

      • Jenny says:

        Thanks for asking, Pat. Edward W. Bennett, “Germany and the Diplomacy of the Financial Crisis, 1931” and “German Rearmament and the West, 1932-1933.” The first one won the Bancroft Prize for history writing. They are really books for the specialist historian, heavily footnoted.

    • Kent Hackendy says:

      What an accomplished man your father was, Jenny, you must have been very proud of him.

  4. patholscher says:

    Wow, bold move to include Storm of Steel, given that its so controversial and was an inspiration to the Stahlhelm set that went on to include the Nazis! Probably one of those books mentioned and criticized more than read, I suspect. I haven’t read it myself and will have to pick it up.

    Interesting, in terms of literature, that post World War One Germany produced Storm of Steel and All Quiet On The Western Front.

    Junger himself was, as you note, hard to define. He continued to wear his Pour Le Merite (Blue Max) well into advanced old age when ceremonial conditions required it. He’d actually served in the French Foreign Legion as a boy, prior to the German Army. As you note, he was not a Nazi and rejected overtures from them, and yet he served in the German armed forces again during World War Two, in administrative roles, but one of which was associated with the execution of deserters. Yet he also was an inspiration to the July 20 plotters. A conservative nationalist of Protestant background, he was associated with the Prussian aristocracy in his youth and middle years, but he is known to have been an experimenter with drugs post World War Two and became widely admire by anarchists in that period. Prior to his death however, he converted to Catholicism although that wasn’t widely known during his lifetime and is still often omitted in his biographies. A real 20th Century Odyssey.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, quite a variety of response on the German side—there is also a big contrast between Juenger and Hans Carossa, author of “A Roumanian Diary,” which I discussed a couple of posts ago. I will also deal with “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which was hated by the Nazis. I begin to have a better appreciation of the psychic pain suffered by the Germans and the different ways they dealt with that.

  5. “He glorifies human courage in war.” Yes! Such a critical distinction and one that so many miss.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you Jim–actually your comment made my day. This is, as you say, a critical distinction, and I put it out here not expecting anyone to understand.

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