Ernst Jünger is Mobilized
1 August 2014
A Century of Industrialized Warfare:
Ernst Jünger is Mobilized
Saturday 01 August 1914
On Thursday 30 July 1914 Russia announced general mobilization. The next day, on Friday 31 July 1914, Germany declared Kriegsgefahr Zustand (danger of war) while France authorized full mobilization. One hundred years ago today, on Saturday 01 August 1914, With Russia failing to respond to Germany’s ultimatum to demobilize, Germany began full mobilization and declared war on Russia. The events that had been building through the July Crisis now broke in full force, and the major powers of Europe were mobilizing and declaring war. Among the fates of emperors, nations, and millions of people, one young soldier was mobilized, Ernst Jünger, whose life was to coincide with much of the violent twentieth century.
Ernst Jünger remains today a controversial figure, but also an influential figure — much like Heidegger, who read Jünger carefully and even conducted a seminar on Jünger’s work — but Jünger outlived both the First and Second World Wars in which he fought, and continued to write, leaving a substantial literary corpus. He was sufficiently rehabilitated to appear with both French and German leaders at events commemorating the First World War. His masterpiece, In Stahlgewittern, translated as Storm of Steel, was a celebration of the “frontline experience” (Fronterlebnis) in all its horror and power. The book was much revised throughout Jünger’s life and appeared in many editions; the later editions carry the simple dedication, “To the Fallen,” as Jünger came to be seen as the voice of the frontline soldier of the First World War regardless of nationality.
But while Jünger’s reputation rested on his first and most powerful book, he was much more than a soldier who left a single compelling memoir. Between the wars Jünger wrote a number of provocative works — most never translated into English — and came to seen as part of the “Conservative Revolution.” Whether the phrase “Conservative Revolution” is a term of art employ to distinguish Jünger from the Nazis, and to distance him from them, or there was a real difference between Nazi writers and writers of the Conservative Revolution, remains controversial today — again, for much the same reason that Heidegger remains controversial today.
Hugo Ott’s book on Heidegger, Martin Heidegger: A Political Life, only mentions Jünger in passing a few times, including this quasi-exculpatory passage from a de-nazification committee:
Prior to the revolution of 1933 the philosopher Martin Heidegger lived in a totally unpolitical intellectual world, but maintained friendly contacts (in part through his sons) with the youth movement of the day and with certain literary spokesmen for Germany’s youth — such as Ernst Jünger — who were heralding the end of the bourgeois-capitalist age and the dawning of a new German socialism. He looked to the National Socialist revolution to bring about a spiritual renewal of German life on a national-ethnic basis, and at the same time, in common with large sections of the German intelligentsia, a healing of social differences and the salvation of Western culture from the dangers of Communism. He had no clear grasp of the parliamentary-political processes that led up to the seizure of power by the National Socialists; but he believed in the historical mission of Hitler to bring about the spiritual and intellectual transformation that he himself envisaged.
Report of the Denazification Commission, Sept. 1945, Members: Prof. v. Dietze (chairman), Ritter, Oehlkers, Allgeier, Lampe. Quoted in Ott, Hugo, Martin Heidegger: A Political Life, New York: Basic Books, 1993, p. 324
In contrast, the most damning book yet written about Heidegger, Emmanuel Faye’s Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935, devotes several detailed pages to Jünger and Jünger’s influence on Heidegger. Faye’s reading of Jünger turns him into a enthusiastic Nazi, and this is not the reading usually given of Jünger’s relation to Nazism.
Whether Jünger is admired or deplored, he is one of the inescapable figures of the twentieth century, and it is his relationship to global industrialized warfare that has made Jünger into a pivotal figure. Many wrote on war and their experience of war; only Jünger fully revealed the changed character of war that reflected a new form of civilization.
The frontline experience that was central to Jünger’s Storm of Steel, and which was the bond of the quasi-fascist Freikorps in Germany during the inter-war period, deserves to be given an exposition as an countervailing account of the battlefield experience of the First World War. One of the most common claims made about the combat experience of the First World War was that it was exclusively an experience of terror and misery, and that this contrasted to the possible adventure, edification, glory, and personal engagement of past combat environments. According to this narrative, the industrialization of war eliminated the possibility of honorable single combat, and the men who went to war were reduced to mere widgets in the war machine. During the First World War we have tiny figures clambering over enormous guns which required crews of hundreds who operated this machinery dispassionately and without any personal connection to what they were doing, much as pilots for the first time bombed targets on the ground without seeing the lives they took. Killing became automated and impersonal.
What this conventional reading fails to tell us points to a fundamental and crucial aspect of the change that came to combat with the industrialization of war. Prior to the First World War, the structure of armies was a perfect mirror of the social structure of society. Not only was there the obvious distinction between officer corps, all of them aristocrats, and the foot soldiers, drawn from the lower classes of society, but even among the officers there was a feudal hierarchy. The higher one’s family in the peerage, the higher one could rise in military ranks, and the most desired spots in the army were reserved for those with the best connections. Thus highly coveted positions like being a mounted cavalry officer were only given to the sons of the “best” families, and in pre-industrialized warfare, the cavalry charge was the “highlight” of a battle in which the greatest glory was to be won.
When the First World War began, many believed it would be a replay of the Franco-Prussian war, complete with cavalry charges with swords drawn. In some places, the war did in fact start out like that, but this was not the primary experience of warfare after industrialization. The typical experience of a soldier in the Great War was to be one of many millions of men in the trenches. Most did not distinguish themselves in this uncompromising environment, but they slogged through and fought as best they could under the circumstances.
The fact that the first global industrialized war was a mass war predicated upon the mobilization of millions of men — the full participation of mass society in the war — meant that millions of men were exposed to the same stimulus, and different men responded differently to this stimulus. War exercised a selective effect in combat that could never effectively come into play with the rigidly feudal armed forces of ages past. While for the vast majority of men in the trenches, the war was miserable, in addition to being an unprecedented horror, there were some few men who “found” themselves in combat, and who came to relish the excitement of trench raids and risking their lives. In Maslovian terms, for some men, war is a peak experience. It certainly seemed to have been so for Junger.
It is often asserted that the last form of the personal duel in industrialized warfare was the experience of fighter pilots in dogfights — and, curiously, we sometimes read this side-by-side with the claim that air warfare is dehumanizing, impersonal, and technical. Everyone has heard of the Red Baron, and many have heard of the great aviation aces of the Second World War, but “aces” emerged in all forms of combat — in tanks, in submarines, and among frontline soldiers. These were men who intuitively mastered the new technologies and took to them as if by instinct. The personal duel, and the sense of honor intrinsic to this form of combat, lived on in global industrialized war, but it became a marginal experience, an outlier in the midst of the millions of men who went to war and who were in no sense suited for killing. In comparison to the many millions who fought and died and had no taste for war, the few who took to modern industrialized warefare represent only a very small fraction of the total.
The distinctive Fronterlebnis, and those who flourished in this violent atmosphere, was not the typical experience of war, but it was new experience of war emergent from the changed social conditions under which the war was fought, and Jünger was its prophet.
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A Century of Industrialized Warfare
7. Ernst Jünger is Mobilized
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