[Content Warning: This post quotes vivid descriptions of World War I battles.]
I mentioned I had read this book in my review of Jünger’s novella On The Marble Cliffs. I hadn’t planned to review it, but my friend Joy Spicer asked me about it, and so, well, how could I not? By the way, Joy has also written a review of a different translation, which you should definitely read.
But there’s a reason I don’t often review memoirs. It’s hard to do. I can’t claim “I didn’t like this” or “The author should have done that.” It’s his life. Who am I to say how Jünger should have lived it?
Because the way he lived it is simply astounding. The Storm of Steel tells of his service in World War I in the 73rd Hanover Regiment.
Maybe I should start by briefly describing World War I. The best executive summary I ever heard was, “Because a Serbian shot an Austrian, Germany invaded France.”
Is that an oversimplification? You bet. But it succeeds in conveying one important truth about World War I: it was insane.
Jünger could clearly see it was insane. And he wasn’t necessarily against it, either. Indeed, throughout the book, one gets a sense of him as a strongly patriotic German, who fought bravely for his country:
“[T]here is someone within you who keeps you to your post by the power of two mighty spells: Duty and Honor. You know that this is your place in the battle, and that a whole people relies on you to do your job. You feel, ‘If I leave my post, I am a coward in my own eyes, a wretch who will ever blush at every word of praise.'”
In many ways, Jünger fits the stereotype of the well-drilled, almost machine-like German soldier. There is little sentimentality in his reports, and almost no questioning of his duty, save the occasional gripes about senior officers out of touch with the front line reality.
This is a big reason I read memoirs, especially old, relatively obscure ones. You “meet” people, strange people, people to whom you can barely relate. While reading it, I ask myself, what would I have done, in Jünger’s world? What would he make of mine, if he could see it?
My sense is, almost all people from the past would find the modern world unbelievably luxurious. Everyday people caught up in wars, like Jünger, had it especially hard, but even the Kaiser himself lived a life that was full of many more day-to-day inconveniences than, say, mine.
We are all familiar with so-called “First World Problems.” People will complain about something, and then add that phrase to signify their recognition of their own privilege. And then usually go right on complaining.
Funny thing, though: prior to 1914, Europe was the “First World.” Germany, France, England… all were thought to represent civilization at its most advanced. Civilized comfort is always a state of exception; more fragile than many realize, and easily giving way to barbarism.
I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to live in more material wealth and comfort than the vast majority of humans who have ever lived could imagine. If nothing else, I owe it to them to read what they experienced.
I don’t want to come across as glorifying Jünger excessively. He fought for German Imperialism, and he was, by his own admission, a harsh and even callous man. How could he not be, after everything he lived through? After everything he did? The fact is, it’s close to impossible for me to relate to Jünger, or almost anyone who lived in his time, or before. Their world was so different; their experience of life so alien to that of most modern Americans.
I’m as guilty as the next guy. This very morning, I was annoyed by a little plastic flange on a bottle of bug repellent that didn’t work right. What a trivial problem to be concerned with, right?
We humans are problem-solving creatures, and if we have no real problems to complain of, we’ll invent some new ones. What would a world without problems even be like? Would it be paradise, Shangri-La, Nirvana, Heaven? Or would it after all turn out to be “the other place,” as that old episode of The Twilight Zone implied?
A life of comfort can breed a taste for destruction, as Jünger well understood:
“The horrible was undoubtedly a part of that irresistible attraction that drew us into the war. A long period of law and order, such as our generation has behind it, produces a real craving for the abnormal, a craving that literature stimulates.”
I’ve written before about how, in the early 20th century, it was almost like the people of Europe could sense something was brewing. The artistic movements of the period all pointed the way towards decline or catastrophe, as though people had grown tired of the century of Pax Britannica that prevailed after Waterloo, and had developed a kind of perverse wish to see a true crisis.
If so, they got it. What does it look like when an advanced civilization turns its resources to the primal urge for war? What does it look like when a decadent aristocracy, long removed from concern for the people it governs, decides to throw its full weight behind creating the very thing it was intended to prevent?
I don’t know the answers. But Jünger did, and therefore I give him the last word:
“Thus all the frightfulness that the mind of man could devise was brought into the field; and there, where lately there had been the idyllic picture of rural peace. there was as faithful a picture of the soul of scientific war. In earlier wars, certainly, towns and villages had been burned, but what was that compared with this sea of craters dug out by the machines? For even in this fantastic desert there was the sameness of the machine-made article. A shell-hole strewn with bully-tins, broken weapons, fragments of uniform, and dud shells, with one or two bodies on its edge… this was the never-changing scene that surrounded each one of all these hundreds of thousands of men. And it seemed that man, on this landscape he himself had created, became different, more mysterious and hardy and callous than in any previous battle…
[…]For I cannot too often repeat, a battle was no longer an episode that spent itself in blood and fire; it was a condition of things that dug itself in remorselessly week after week and month after month. What was a man’s life in this wilderness whose vapour was laden with the stench of thousands upon thousands of decaying bodies? Death lay in ambush for each one in every shell-hole, merciless, and making one merciless in turn.”