My students are really getting Jünger
by I.A. Isherwood
We began today with a recap of our three ‘war books’ on the experience of the First World War. We summarized Barbusse and the major themes we had uncovered from Under Fire. A large part of our conversation had to do with his criticism of civilians, journalists, and politicians, in addition to his themes of soldier sacrifice and suffering in the trenches. We then summarized Sassoon and concluded our conversation on Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. We batted around again the notion of heroism in Sassoon’s work. One student made a very good observation that Sassoon’s type of heroism is very different than what we typically think of when we think (at all) about the word. Sassoon’s heroism seems more passive, bound to an idea of personal duty and the honor of doing what it right, rather than more aggressive forms of martial heroism. Juxtaposing different versions of heroism was a good segue into our next memoirist, Ernst Jünger.
What can we do with Jünger? Born in Germany in 1895 and dying at the age of 102 in 1998, Jünger led a fascinating, but very complicated life. He went to the western front at the age of nineteen and won great distinction as a soldier (the Pour le Mérite). After the war, he wrote Storm of Steel (1920) and made a career as a writer. He is a controversial figure, in part, because he was an aggressive soldier who wrote about war, well, aggressively. During the inter-war period was a right wing artistic figure associated with the idea of ‘new nationalism’.
Jünger is not an easy character to get one’s head around. His writing is beautifully matter-of-fact, but his message of aggressive martial masculinity is rough on modern ears, especially after reading Sassoon and Barbusse whose works emphasize the suffering and dehumanization of war. It is because he is so different that I chose his book in the first place – so that students could see that not all soldiers emerged from the trenches questioning their nation, war aims, manhood, etc. but that some soldiers actually believed in the war they were waging and saw great value in their military service (no matter how difficult or traumatic it was). Jünger was one of the latter and his voice is important to understanding something of the Great War’s conflicted legacy for veterans.
It is just a tough book to teach because it affronts our sensibilities. Or at least it does mine. But the good thing is that the class seems to be really getting into it and that Jünger has found a captivate audience (whether they like the book or not they are at least interested). Perhaps most striking thing about our conversation today was the fact that they were taken aback by his forwardness – the way he spells out certain things that other war writers have a tough time describing. Wounds, death, bombardments, etc. are all discussed in rather matter-of-fact ways. Compared to our other memoirists, it is clear we are dealing with someone who sees war a bit differently, perhaps with a degree of professional soldierly detachment, than either Sassoon or Barbusse.
I think the best part of our conversation was when we discussed Jünger’s age and the impact of the war on someone who went to war at nineteen and basically grew up in battle. Age is important to understanding war memoirs. Our other writers were a bit older: Barbusse was 41 when he served and Sassoon a 29 year old subaltern when he arrived on the western front. Jünger is the youngest of the three (pun intended) and my students were very interested in talking about the ways that his youth might have informed his outlook on war and his spirit of adventure at the front. I contrasted this a little with Robert Graves. Graves was the same age as Jünger but felt little (and by little I mean none) of the martial spirit exhibited in Storm of Steel. This led to a discussion about Germany and war culture. I didn’t want us to generalize too broadly, since reactions in Germany were varied and Jünger’s hyper-patriotism is not necessarily representative of German reactions to the war, but the context behind the book is an important idea for us to engage. We drew no firm conclusions on this subject (not that we’re supposed to) but I am happy that we introduced the book well, talked a bit about martial cultures, and I look forward to next week’s discussion on the German experience in the Great War. Stay tuned.