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.
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)
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.