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If there is one German author who appears emblematic for the brutality of the First World War, the glorification of violence and the fascist reading of the wartime experience from 1914 to 1918, it is without doubt Ernst Jünger. His knowledge of life on the front line was virtually unparalleled among German writers. Jünger joined the army as a volunteer in 1914 before advancing up the ranks to serve as a lieutenant and storm troop commander. From spring 1915 to August 1918, he fought on the very front line. Like almost no other German-language author, Jünger has come to stand for the affirmation of violence in the First World War.

Historians have frequently drawn upon one of Jünger’s texts in particular: The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front, published in 1920 and repeatedly revised for later editions. In his book Male Fantasies, first published in 1977, Klaus Theweleit interpreted Jünger’s book as an example of the autobiographical construction of a specific personality type: that of the soldierly, proto-fascist men for whom the battlefields of the First World War presented an opportunity to prove themselves.

Such soldiers created a body armour of manliness to protect themselves against the supposed danger of effeminacy emanating from the home front. As many other scholars, Theweleit essentially read Storm of Steel as a historical ego-document. Jünger wrote the book using material from his wartime diary entries, leading Theweleit to regard Storm of Steel as a historical testimony. 1

Jünger indeed kept a diary throughout his entire wartime service. Since 2010, the diaries have been available in German in a complete edition compiled by the Jünger expert Helmuth Kiesel. 2 The diaries provide us with a new perspective on Jünger’s attitudes to wartime violence. Jünger appears here not as a protofascist ideologue of a male fundamentalism, but rather as a sober observer with a keen interest in chronicling in detail the mental and physical traumas wrought by violence. Jünger was, of course, no mere passive observer of violence, but also an active participant, who was often involved in the killing and himself suffered multiple injuries. A close reading of his war diaries offers us important insights into the nature of killing and survival in the trench warfare of 1914–18.

For long stretches of his time at the front, Jünger was confronted with the overwhelming firepower of the artillery. As he soon discovered, trench warfare routinely meant nothing more than sitting tight under cover in a ‘hole in the ground’ and listening to the ‘French battery [firing] at the German one’ and vice versa. With the artillery dominating the action on the front line, Jünger noted that he was unable to see ‘any Frenchies’ from his hiding place (9). For Jünger like many other infantrymen, the almost literal emptiness of the battlefield was one of the dominant features of the static phase of the war that began in late 1914.

The fire from the enemy artillery forced passivity upon the infantry, leaving the men confined to the smallest of spaces for often days and weeks at a time, broken by rest periods behind the front. During bombardments, soldiers had to seek cover in the dugouts and tunnels of the trench system if they did not want to recklessly put their lives at even greater risk.

In October 1915, Jünger described his company’s reaction when British troops bombarded the neighbouring sector with ‘heavy artillery’: ‘With every whoosh we ran into the tunnels like rabbits into their burrows’ (48), the metaphor emphasizing the infantry’s extreme vulnerability when confronted with the faceless firepower of the enemy artillery.

As Jünger quickly realized, the action on the Western Front was dominated by the artillery. Any man who wanted to survive its onslaught was well advised to keep his ears pricked and familiarize himself with the different sounds caused by the various types of artillery projectile. The soldiers could hear the approaching shells and mortars before they came into view.

In January 1916, Jünger devoted a special diary entry to the ‘sounds of projectiles’ (75-8). ‘Experience is important in this regard’, he notes here by way of explanation for his extensive reflections on the different noises, which all sounded alike to the unpractised ear. The loud vehicle-like ‘rattles’ and ‘rumbles’ produced by heavy shells prompted soldiers to call them ‘hearses’. Light shells, by contrast, announced themselves with a brief ‘flash’ or ‘bang’. Given this lack of warning, these projectiles often left soldiers shocked and bewildered even if they ‘got away safely’ (76-7). Shell detonators ‘whistled all sorts of notes up to a C’ and were therefore dubbed ‘canaries’ (77).

On 4 September 1916, two days before boarding a hospital train to Germany, Jünger heard the news of the heavy losses inflicted on his battalion in an attack by British troops just a day after his injury. The news of the loss of his comrades left Jünger ‘quite dejected’ (185). In this uncharacteristically melancholy mood, Jünger noted how his experiences at the front so far contrasted with the expectations he had held upon signing up as a volunteer:

‘I have experienced a great deal in this greatest of wars, but I’ve so far been denied the experience I’ve been aiming for: the charge and clash of the infantry. To zero in on the enemy, to face him man on man; that is quite different to this perpetual artillery war.’ (185)

After twenty months on the front line, this was a sobering conclusion. Jünger had sought the thrill of offensive combat and the struggle of man against man. In a war dominated by artillery, this was nowhere to be found, as he himself was only too aware. He would have to wait for more than another year to experience the intoxicating ‘heat’ of close-quarter combat. When it came on 1 December 1917, he jotted down the following thoughts:

Ernst Jünger 1

‘It is without doubt the most exciting moment of war when you see the enemy right in front of you. In that instant, the soldier feels the fever, the passion of the hunter. But it is a passion that grips the soldier even more strongly than the hunter can ever experience.’ (351)

How should we interpret Jünger’s comments on the different emotional experiences of the hunter and the soldier in battle? In essence, his remarks are a reflection on the anthropological premise of First World War violence that distinguished it from the war of annihilation on the Eastern Front from 1941. The difference between a hunter and a front-line First World War soldier was that the latter did not shoot at defenceless prey.

The same could not be said of the Wehrmacht troops, who killed large numbers of defenceless civilians. In the First World War, the soldier encountered fellow soldiers, who were themselves capable of inflicting injury or death. The special ‘passion’ that Jünger describes thus arose from the fundamental fact that a soldier in close-quarter combat was both the hunter and the hunted. Jünger’s metaphor is instructive for our understanding of the dialectic that shaped the practice of violence encountered from autumn 1914 onwards: the tension between the desire to limit violence by concentrating it on the enemy soldiers alone (with the notable exception of the German atrocities of August 1914) and the potential for violence to spiral out of control in the maelstrom of emotions induced by close-quarter combat.

Up until the moment of his final injury in August 1918, Jünger regarded the business of war not as an end in itself, but as a means to German victory. In December 1915, for instance, he noted that the war had ‘awakened his longing for the blessings of peace’. (63) As a professional soldier, Jünger also knew that war could provide a sense of moral order to a soldier’s life, especially since the conflict also had ‘its peaceful moods’ (158). Yet the sight of green fields in May 1917 prompted even the ‘once gung-ho’ Jünger to ask: ‘When is this crap war [Scheißkrieg] going to end?’ (258).

It is precisely this awareness of how closely violence and normality were intertwined, of how war and the hope for peace were bound together, that make Jünger’s diaries such an important and insightful historical document for our understanding of the practice of violence in the First World War.

Benjamin Ziemann is Professor of Modern German History at the University of Sheffield. This text is an extract from his book Violence and the German Soldier in the Great War: Killing-Dying-Surviving (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). Until 31 December 2017, the book can be ordered with a 35% discount by entering the discount code HISTORYMATTERS2017 at the checkout.

Header image: German Stormtroopers in World War One (1917?) [Via Wikipedia]

Image: This photograph was the frontispiece to Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, which he self-published in 1920. It shows Jünger in his fur-embellished uniform coat, with his decorations clearly visible. The Pour le Mérite (Order of Merit) sits beneath the collar, in the shape of a blue enamelled Maltese Cross. Photo used with permission of Klett-Cotta publishers.

Notes:

  1. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, 2 vols., Cambridge 1987/1989.
  2. Helmuth Kiesel (ed.), Ernst Jünger. Kriegstagebuch 1914–1918 (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2010). All page numbers in brackets refer to this edition.
Tags : Ernst JüngerFirst World WarStorm of SteelThe Great WarTrench WarfareViolence in the First World WarWartime DiariesWartime ViolenceWestern FrontWorld War I
Benjamin Ziemann

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