It may seem a little churlish to want to assess Ernst Jünger’s classic First World War memoires ‘Storm of Steel’ nearly a hundred years after the fact but, as this is a book for all time, then it surely deserves continuous review, not least because, as I read it I began to wonder if it could actually be true. The fact Jünger rewrote the book at least four times during his lifetime, the more to suit a contemporary audience, must surely cast doubt on its veracity. But, in fairness, I don’t really doubt his account for no better reason than most of it (and I mean most) can be corroborated from official records and contemporary eye-witnesses. However, as the chapters roll by one has uneasy sense of unlikelihood of it all – Jünger as Captain Hurricane, Flash Thompson, Nick Fury and GI Joe; life imitating art had the art yet been created.
Referring to himself constantly as ‘warrior,’ what I believe Jünger wishes us to see is a man driven by love for his country and blindly bound to his sense of duty and loyalty. Unlike Wilfred Owen, there’s no irony whatsoever in dulce et decorum est for him; this he leaves to the bleeding heart liberals such as Sassoon, Graves, Remarque and, of course, Owen. Though he may occasionally gather wild roses, show pity for French teenage girls and occasionally describe morning mists across the battlefield, there’s no poetry here – just bullets, bombs, blood, cold steel. Sweet and decorous it is indeed to die for the Fatherland.
Wounded an almost implausible 14 times, including five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand-grenade splinters and two bullet splinters, a figure emerges not so much as the self-professed warrior but a species of dark angel. The figure of Anton Chigurh in the final scene of the Coen brother’s adaptation of No Country for Old Men comes to mind; wounded and broken in a car smash, Chigurh walks off into the distance leaving a trail of murder and destruction in his wake with the audience left to ponder on his mortality. As with Jünger, there’s no judgement, no sense of justice, no catharsis. Here is humanity stripped of … well, humanity.
‘Storm of Steel’ is earlier twentieth century’s graphic novel. Had such a form existed then surely Jünger would have been one of its foremost exponents. Had some bizarre twist of time given him the chance to design the next version of Call of Duty then surely he would have elbowed his way to the front of the queue. Indeed, there is a distinct computer game feel to this book; as with Call of Duty and other games in the ‘shooter’ genre, where the only respite is to push ‘pause’ on the console, the only escape from the endless slaughter here is to put the book down and reach for a bottle of some strong liquor.
Tracing a line from Scott, via GA Henty to The Boys Own Magazine, Jünger is all the heroes contained in nineteenth century gung ho fiction made flesh. But unlike his fictional counterparts, who are woven by their authors into tales of derring do to emerge from darkness into a moral light (albeit an entirely Victorian light), Jünger limps away from the end of the book with all the simmering resentment that would lead to even more death, misery and destruction in just under two decade’s time.
Sure enough ‘Storm of Steel’ was to become one Hitler’s favourite reads and Jünger is happy to exchange a copy with the Fürher for an edition of ‘Mein Kampf’. Thus he places himself with Nietzsche and Wagner as a key provider of Nazi mood music. But whereas the latter two had the good fortune to be long dead before their works received toxic fascist interpretation, ‘Storm of Steel’ and Ernst Jünger were very much alive during the 1930s. True Jünger is not exactly at Hitler’s shoulder at the Nuremburg rallies but, despite some rumblings in later life, he clearly stands four square with him at the outset of the Second World War, offers enthusiastic praise for the invasion of France and happily accept military rank in the Wehrmacht.
What Jünger and his like want us to believe is that old cliché that you cannot understand the character of a man until you have seen him battle – he actually uses this very phrase and versions of it throughout the book. We know what his real feelings are by the dismissive way he sneers at soldiers who shirk and cry.
In his world the word ‘man’ definitely represents ‘human’. No place here, of course, for the character of ‘woman’ who (to the great benefit of humanity) would never have been seen slithering about in the mud of Flanders. What the proponents of this rather specious piece of philosophising really mean is that you cannot understand the character of a man in battle until you have seen him in battle. The idea that the only way to gauge a person’s moral fibre is to see what happens when he flies out of a trench to face death or certain maiming injury is quite repugnant and no more than a lame excuse for the value of war.
The popular defence of ‘Storm of Steel’ is that is nothing more than what it is; a candid and no holds barred account of the most ferocious scenes of carnage and death in human history. Don’t we need such a thing? Possibly. But there are so many so much better. None more so, in my opinion, than Lyn MacDonald, whose meticulous works, interspersed with first-hand eye-witness accounts, tell their own story and allow room for the kind of reader reflections that lead to judgements about how the world might be a better place.
Whilst we continue to read books like ‘Storm of Steel’ as just ‘honest’ accounts of battle, we will continue believing in the flawed notion of military glory. I am not suggesting some kind of bonfire of the vanities, it is not ‘Storm of Steel’ or Ernst Jünger who are fault here, but rather our interpretation of them. We could all do better to accept that this book is nothing more than a comic strip account and turn instead to those, who like Jünger saw battle but, unlike Jünger, also saw its moral redundancy.