Ernst Jünger on Total Mobilisation in the Age of the Worker

In this post, I will examine Ernst Jünger’s interwar writings, particularly as he moved from his recollections and reflections on the Great War (see earlier post) to a more ambitious analysis of the social and political turmoil that ensued. Sharpening his central problematique of nihilism and its overcoming, he would see in the commotions of his time the sign that the timorous bourgeois liberal societies of the nineteenth century were about to be swept away by a new technological age of total societal mobilisation and armed conflict. Anticipating and heralding the advent of the totalitarian regimes that were germinating as he wrote, the obvious points of convergence between these writings and fascist ideology have unsurprisingly made them Jünger’s most controversial. As objectionable as his political views were in their own right, Jünger was nonetheless never a National Socialist, spurning the advances made to him by the Party and having little truck with its “blood and soil” creed. He did however develop keen insights into the historical escalation of war and accompanying demands of total mobilisation alongside a withering critique of liberal societies’ preeminent concern with security and comfort.

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Demobilised in 1923, Jünger spent the next three years studying zoology and developing a life-long passion for entomology (he reputedly amassed a collection of 40,000 beetles, even giving his name to a species he is credited with discovering). During those years, he also read philosophy, particularly the works of Nietzsche and Spengler. Departing from the university in 1926, Jünger then began a period of intense writing for nationalist publications and participation in the circles of the Conservative Revolutionary movement, becoming notably close to Ernst Niekisch, the central ideologist of National-Bolshevism. To enter into a detailed consideration of the ideological content of such seemingly paradoxical constellations would take us too far from our central object but it is nonetheless useful to remind ourselves of the ideological complexity and fluidity of Weimar Germany that are all too often repressed when we view the period from a post-WWII standpoint. Jünger’s independent streak also meant his associations ranged more widely than most, frequenting during this time left-wing writers such as Bertolt Brecht, Erich Mühsam, and Ernst Toller. It is within this eclectic milieu and the context of generalised crisis that his political thought was formed, leading to the publication of a series of essays in the first few years of the 1930s. Fascinated by the social and cultural effects of photography, Jünger also put together several collections of photobooks from which I have drawn the images that accompany this post.[1]

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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]

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