Saturday, August 20, 2016

Ernst Junger

"Shortly afterwards, Combles too fell...
Its last defenders, who had take refuge in the catacombs during the bombardment, 
were mown down fighting around the ruins of the church."

I've just finished Storm of Steel, Ernst Junger's celebrated account of the First World War. In response, a few observations:
  • The conflict Junger describes is one of overwhelming barbarity. The earth trembles; millions of men fall. Junger himself was hit fourteen times, resulting in twenty scars. He writes of an "apocalyptic scene," of battles "smoldering away" - only to "catch and burn" in conflagrations of violence. 
  • There's a very clear sense in Storm of just how random that violence was. At one point, Junger describes it as "firing done blindly into an empty space." It must have been frightening: it was an "orgy of destruction" - willed upon no man in particular. 
  • What's worse, the enemies were often separated in their trenches by no more than than 30 feet. Junger writes of lobbing one grenade after another into British and French strongholds. But of course, the enemy did the same. These scenes are difficult to fathom. 
  • There's an awful sense of defenselessness in Storm - which is magnified by the number of times Junger saves himself and his men by jumping into a "hole." I cannot imagine that sensation: of protecting yourself by lying flat in a two-foot divot. 
  • Storm of Steel is an interesting book in its largely apolitical approach to the war. Rarely does Junger indulge in nationalist rhetoric or discussions of politics. His focus instead is on the courage and stolidity of his peers. It really is incredible the extent to which Junger - and so many million others - saw the conflict a test of meddle and honor. 
  • Of course we've come to see Germany as the aggressor in the First World War, as the enemy, the antagonist. All of that I believe to be true. There's no question, however, that we as readers root for Junger, we hope he survives, and worry for him when he's injured. That effect speaks, I think, to the universality of his struggle, and the respect he shows for his enemies. Junger is repeatedly impressed, for instance, by the "bravery and manliness" of the British; he compliments the Scottish similarly. 
  • This was an age of bicyclists and telephonists, of retreating into a trench and brewing tea, all while reading Tristram Shandy. It's so clear - and at so many moments in this memoir - that Junger was living through the moment of change: tea and novels were exchanged for mechanized war, and a more virulent form of nationalism. 
  • At one point, while garrisoned in Guillemont, Junger describes a "tangle" of items in a destroyed house: books, coats, musical scores, oil paintings...It's as if the entire nineteenth century has been laid waste; there it is, on the floor, destroyed forever. 
  • For me, the saddest and most poignant aspect of Storm is the futility Junger is able to evoke. On several occasions, amid the "oceanic roar" of battle, Junger's company takes a site or loses one; they retreat or they push forward. And yet, with frightening inevitability, they "look into the mirror": what they take is later taken back; what they lose they later regain. And that of course begs the question: what was it all for? 

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