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 Cambridge, University 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.
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.’