Ernst Jünger and the Search for Meaning on the Industrial Battlefield

This is the first in a series of posts on the German war veteran and author Ernst Jünger that draw on research I have presented at seminars at the University of CambridgeUniversity of East Anglia  and University of Sussex over the last year or so.  [Edit: The follow-up posts can now be found here and here]

A complex and controversial character, Ernst Jünger is mostly known today for the vivid autobiographical account of life in the trenches of the Great War he penned in Storm of Steel, one of the defining literary works produced by its veterans. Alongside its unapologetic celebration of war, it contains an unflinching, at times clinical, description of the unprecedented destruction wrought by the advent of modern industrial war. As we approach the centenary of the First World War, the text has lost none of its evocative power and is likely to remain a lasting document of the soldierly experience.

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Jünger’s subsequent writings, published throughout a long life that ended in 1998 at the ripe old age of 102, are however far less well known in the English-speaking world and many of them remain untranslated to this day. And yet I want to argue that, as problematic a figure as he is, the trajectory of Jünger’s thought and work is worthy of our attention in that it crystallises in a particularly stark and vivid fashion some of the tensions and internecine struggles of the twentieth century. Jünger liked to refer to himself as a seismograph registering the underlying tectonic shifts that prefigured the tremors of his age and in the often exalted and rapturous form that took his writings they can indeed be read as a wilful exacerbation of contemporaneous trends, his failings as much his own as that of his times.

Jünger wrestled in particular with the problem of meaning and human agency in a world increasingly dominated by technology and instrumental rationality that appeared to reach their paroxysm in total war. Inheriting his philosophical outlook from Nietzsche, he understood the problem of the age to be that of nihilism, of the devaluation of all values and the increasing inability to posit any goals towards which life should tend after the ‘death of God.’ He came to view the domination of technique as central to the growth of nihilism, a proposition that appears in an inchoate but nonetheless suggestive form in Nietzsche’s own writings. This Nietzschean perspective would so come to dominate Jünger’s outlook and work that Martin Heidegger would not hesitate to dub him ‘the only genuine continuer of Nietzsche.’[1]

Faced with this crucial problem of nihilism, Nietzsche had sought for the means to overcome it and bring about a new type of individual that could forge new values and meaning. Since a return to a transcendent order of values was no longer possible, the overcoming of nihilism could only be achieved, he reasoned, by completing it and transforming a debilitating ‘passive’ nihilism into an ‘active’ nihilism that would lay the ground for a new flourishing of life. In one of his grander proclamations, Nietzsche would eventually proclaim himself to be ‘the first perfect nihilist of Europe’ who has ‘lived through the whole of nihilism, to the end, leaving it behind, outside himself.’[2] Thus nihilism was for Nietzsche only a ‘pathological intermediate state’, a liminal condition that brought with it the possibility of its own overcoming and the foundation of a new order of values.

Jünger would also make this conception his own, embracing the notion that only by further accelerating the processes that were seemingly depriving life of its meaning might it be possible to break through to the other side of nihilism. In the early 1930s, he would accordingly write that ‘there is no way out, neither sideways nor backwards; it is instead necessary to intensify the force and speed of the processes in which we are caught up.’[3] For Jünger, this would mean an unrestrained embrace of technique and social mobilisation that found in the conflagration of total war their purest expression. The global catastrophe that did ensue in the following decade did not ultimately lead to the spiritual rebirth that he had hoped for and, abandoning his earlier bellicism, Jünger would retreat for the rest of his life into a quietist position, although he never abandoned his central problematique of nihilism. It is this intellectual trajectory that I will seek to reconstruct in this series of posts, examining the various publications and interventions he made throughout this period and offering suggestions as to the ways in which his work that still retains some relevance for us in our own time.

Jünger’s steel helmet that barely saved his life in WWI

Jünger’s steel helmet that barely saved his life in WWI

The experience of the First World War undoubtedly constituted the crucible in which Jünger’s outlook was decisively forged. Like many young men of his generation, he enthusiastically went to war on the Western Front in 1914. Much more uncommonly, he retained his enthusiasm and sense of exhilaration until the end, serving with considerable distinction as a stormtrooper and awarded in 1918 the Pour le Mérite, the highest German military honour available. In stark contrast to the writings of the English war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon or his compatriot Erich Remarque, his conception of the war was not one of senseless suffering and the tragic waste of a European generation. Instead, Jünger celebrated the warring spirit, seeing amidst the industrial and mechanised horror of the battlefield the advent of a new humanity. Or rather, it was for him precisely the apparent senselessness of the unfolding massacre that demanded that some higher purpose be rescued from it, particularly after the calamitous defeat of Germany and the ignominious terms of the Versailles Treaty.

Jünger did not harbour any illusions about the changes technology had wrought on the battlefield, rendering traditional chivalric and heroic conceptions of the warrior unsustainable. Skill and courage were no guarantee of glory or survival when the vast military machines pitted against each other mercilessly consumed the human matériel that was fed to them, reducing men to ‘a kind of charcoal, which is hurled under the glowing cauldron of war so as to keep the work going.’[4] Furthermore, the duration and intensity of the conflict, the increasing mobilisation of all the resources of the societies involved, and the general subjugation of all social life to its pursuit meant that the war appeared to acquire an autonomous and self-perpetuating life of its own, over and above the goals and values it purported to serve.

And yet if Jünger readily acknowledged that the industrialisation and mechanisation of warfare threatened to dwarf man and render combat meaningless, he remained determined to continue asserting the warrior’s centrality and enduring ability to imbue conflict with purpose:

The battle of the machines is so colossal that man almost completely disappears before it. Often already, caught in the force fields of the modern battlefield, it seemed to me strange and scarcely believable that I was witnessing world-historical events. Combat took on the form of a gigantic, lifeless mechanism and swept an icy, impersonal wave across the ground. It was like the cratered landscape of a dead star, lifeless and radiating heat. And yet: behind all this is man. Only he gives the machines their direction and meaning. It is he that spits from their mouths bullets, explosives and poison. He that elevates himself in them like birds of prey above the enemy. He that sits in their stomach as they stalk the battlefield spewing fire. It is he, the most dangerous, bloodthirsty, and purposeful being that the Earth has to carry.[5]

Surrounded by invisible death

For Jünger, the war was not to be primarily justified with reference to specific values or national interests that defeat would have ultimately made a mockery of. Instead, war and sacrifice were to be their own justification, regardless of the merits of the values in the name of which they were being pursued.

Death for a conviction is the highest accomplishment. It is proclamation, deed, fulfilment, faith, love, hope and goal; it is, in this imperfect world, a perfect thing, absolute perfection. In this the cause is nothing and the conviction everything. One can die stubbornly for an indubitable error: that is the greatest thing there is.[6]

Above all, Jünger was determined to stay true to Nietzsche’s injunction to affirm life and the manifestations of the will to power, however seemingly insufferable they might be. Over and above courage and martial skill, it was the ability to endure and transcend the horror of the battlefield that was to be the mark of the warrior.

German shock-troops attack a French position

German shock-troops attack a French position

This is not to say that Jünger did not display some ambivalence as to whether technology had in fact come to entirely dominate its creator or if man retained the ability to give to machines their purpose and meaning. Indeed, this appears to be one of the key tensions that Jünger grappled with, ultimately seeking its reconciliation through a fusion of man and machine into a totality through the uninhibited mobilisation of all energies, above all that of will. This vision was to be at the heart of his political activism during the Weimar period, all of which would culminate in 1932 in The Worker, his most ambitious work to date and that I will treat in the next post.

For all its excesses, Jünger’s response to the experience of the war was in its essence a search for an existential validation for all the suffering and horror he had witnessed. In this, he was certainly not alone among the men who emerged from the trenches at the end of the First World War when some sense of purpose was desperately needed, all the more in the states that had been defeated. Such an impetus played no small part in the post-war vigour of the radical political movements, whether fascist or communist, that sought to realise social and political change commensurate to the conflict’s bloodletting when they were not directly emulating mass mobilisation and martial discipline. But Jünger does not only give us an insight into the psyche of the veterans of the Great War. The thrills and sense of heightened existence that war provides are recurrent features of personal accounts of war throughout the ages until present day. So that most disturbingly of all, Jünger’s exalted prose also forces us to confront the fascination and aesthetic attraction that war and its spectacles continue to exert upon us.


[1] Quoted in David Roberts, “Technology and Modernity: Spengler, Jünger, Heidegger, Cassirer” Thesis Eleven 111 (August 2012), p.22

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche (trans. Walter Kaufmann & R.J. Hollingdale), The Will to Power (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p.3

[3] Ernst Jünger, Der Arbeiter: Herrschaft und Gestalt in Sämtliche Werke, Band 8 (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981), p.101

[4] Ernst Jünger, La Guerre Comme Expérience Intérieure, trans. François Poncet (Paris: Christian Bourgeois Editeur, 1997), p.128

[5] Ibid., p.162

[6] Ibid., p.160

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2 thoughts on “Ernst Jünger and the Search for Meaning on the Industrial Battlefield

  1. Pingback: Weekend Reading: 25-27 October

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