Grand old warrior

Nigel Jones recalls the time he spent in the home of the legendary German writer Ernst Jünger

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

In 1983 I was writing my first book The War Walk, a travelogue about World War One, when I read an article by Bruce Chatwin in the New York Review of Books detailing his encounter with the “controversial” German writer Ernst Jünger, the last surviving major literary figure from that distant conflict.

Naturally, I had heard of Jünger, and had read the first and best-known of his 50 books, Storm of Steel (1920), a classic account of his experiences on the Western Front, during which he had been wounded multiple times and survived to win the German equivalent of the VC.

Storm of Steel is the literary antidote to his compatriot Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and the pacifist memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, since it does not denounce war as futile folly but rather celebrates it as a natural, elemental phenomenon in which Jünger felt quite at home. He describes his wounds and the random slaughter, killing the enemy with his own hands, with an icy, detached precision that would become the hallmark of all his work.

After the war, Jünger became the intellectual bard of the Freikorps, the brutal ex-soldiers who had crushed communist revolution in postwar Germany and waged war on the Bolsheviks in the Baltic and Silesia. In books and articles he eulogised these freebooting stormtroopers as “swift as greyhounds, tough as leather and hard as Krupps steel”. Since I intended to write their history in my second book, Hitler’s Heralds, I decided to follow Chatwin’s footsteps and meet the man myself.

So it was that I arrived at the door of Jünger’s handsome eighteenth-century home, a three-storey manor house in the village of Wilflingen amidst the rolling Swabian countryside. I learned later from Jünger that the house had belonged to the aristocratic Stauffenberg family, from whose ranks Hitler’s would-be assassin, Count Claus von Stauffenberg, had sprung. It had also been the temporary refuge in 1945 of Pierre Laval, the despised fugitive premier of Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy regime in France.

Jünger spent the Second World War in occupied Paris as a Wehrmacht officer. His diaries record his duties — including commanding a firing squad executing a deserter — but left him ample time to mingle with the city’s cultural elite — Braque, Céline, Cocteau and Picasso — and wander empty cemeteries or browse the Seine bookstalls in search of the plants and antiquarian rareties that were among his many passions.

Jünger and his second wife Liselotte welcomed me into his study at the top of the house, littered with his steel helmets, one of which had been pierced by a British bullet at the Battle of Cambrai. “If your countryman had aimed better I would not be here,” he said. Although 88, Jünger was the youngest old man I had ever met. Small and trim, with a shock of white hair, he favoured thin roll-neck sweaters beneath elegant sports jackets and stood straight as a ramrod, with none of the stooping shabbiness of old age.

He smoked Dunhill cigarettes, had a dry cackling laugh and tended to drift off if the conversation was not about himself. Busts and portraits of him were everywhere, testifying to his vanity and a homage that he took as his due. Our initial interview lasted for two hours before he mentioned that he had a backlog of English correspondence that he needed help to translate.

I instantly volunteered my services and checked into a nearby guesthouse. Every morning for the next three weeks I would arrive at his house to be allocated my tasks for the day. These varied from answering accumulated fan letters from the Anglophone world, digging the garden, accompanying the great man on his daily walks, or simply sitting at his feet drinking in his words.

One day a grovelling apology chattered out of Jünger’s fax machine from Jacques Attali, one of those arrogantly annoying French super-intellectuals who can seemingly do anything from writing pretentious books to chairing a European bank to becoming an internet entrepreneur, all roles he has since performed. At the time Attali was still in his twenties but was already a senior adviser to President François Mitterrand.

Jünger is probably more revered in France than any other country, including his own

Attali had found the time to write a book modestly titled A History of Time, a large chunk of which he had lifted and plagiarised from Jünger’s own treatise on time Das Sanduhr (The Hourglass). Attali’s fax profusely apologised for his oversight and Jünger accepted it graciously. He took it as a compliment to his own originality.

Jünger is probably more revered in France than any other country, including his own. When he was guest of honour in 1984 at the famous reconciliation ceremony on the World War One battlefield of Verdun, where Mitterrand and German chancellor Helmut Kohl touchingly held hands, a friendship sprang up between the wily French politician and the writer. After being diagnosed with prostate cancer, Mitterrand made a helicopter trip to Wilflingen to discuss death with a man all too familiar with it.

Jünger was a true Renaissance man, mastering as many disciplines as a modern Leonardo. Above all, he was a lover of the natural world and a distinguished entomologist. As the butterfly was to Nabokov, so the beetle was to Jünger. His house was filled with wooden display cases containing thousands of beetles he had caught, killed and pinned down during his frenetic globetrotting. His bug hunting had begun in the Great War when he had collected no fewer than 150 specimens in a single sector of the trenches.

He would take a large magnifying glass on our walks and dart away to observe some tiny insect or flower that had caught his eye. He was so self-absorbed that I thought he had forgotten the presence of the naive young Englishman at his side. His mania for collecting extended into the macabre. One of his party pieces was to produce the suicide note left by the writer Henry de Montherlant, an exact contemporary and fellow war veteran who had quoted a Jünger aphorism, “Suicide is part of humanity’s capital,” before shooting himself. The note, of which Jünger was inordinately proud, was spattered with de Montherlant’s blood.

The peculiar combination of extreme violence and clinical, disinterested observation had dogged Jünger’s life ever since he had run away from home to join the French Foreign Legion in North Africa as a teenager. His father strenuously pulled strings to get his boy home just in time for the outbreak of war in 1914. Jünger enlisted in a Hanoverian infantry regiment and fought throughout the war in the front line, being wounded seven times and frequently decorated for his bravery.

In the 1920s he became a spokesman for the war generation, advocating a total mobilisation of society led by a caste of worker-warriors moulded by the crucible of war. Although an ardent nationalist and militarist, and a war hero whom Hitler was anxious to recruit, Jünger typically held himself aloof from the rising Nazis, twice refusing invitations to become a Reichstag MP for the party. Instead, he flirted with a small sect called the National Bolsheviks, who wanted to marry nationalism with the “New Man” they imagined was emerging in Soviet Russia.

After Hitler’s seizure of power, Jünger became increasingly alarmed by where the Nazi regime was heading. He and his younger brother, the poet Friedrich Georg Jünger, resigned from their regimental association when Jewish old comrades were expelled, and he refused to allow his articles to appear in the official Nazi newspaper, the Volkischer Beobachter.

Nonetheless, his attitude was always that of aristocratic disdain. After the bloody Night of the Long Knives purge in 1934 he told the National Bolshevik leader Ernst Niekisch: “I have chosen a high place from where I can watch people devouring each other like bugs.” In 1938 he published an allegorical novel, On The Marble Cliffs, in which the central characters, resembling him and his brother, watch from on high while a Hitler figure, the Chief Ranger, destroys the peaceful civilisation beneath them with fire and blood, and tortures and exterminates the survivors.

His attitude was always that of aristocratic disdain

The book, seemingly prophesying the Holocaust, sold 50,000 copies before Goebbels banned it. The following year, Jünger was recalled to the army as the Second World War began. His Paris journals, finally translated into English last year as A German Officer in Occupied Paris, reveal his contempt for Hitler; his minute observations of the city at war; his shame at seeing Jews wearing the yellow star; and his anguish at what lay ahead.

All the time, though, you have the sense that Jünger is holding unbearable reality at bay at a knightly gauntlet’s distance. He is in the middle of epic events, yet is somehow invisibly absent. He knew about the Stauffenberg plot — the leaders of the Paris end of the conspiracy were his friends — but he did not actively take part, and kept his diaries hidden in a locked safe.

His eldest son, Ernstl, was less cautious. A naval cadet, he unwisely remarked that he would walk a hundred miles to see Hitler hanged. He narrowly escaped a death sentence after his father intervened with Grand Admiral Doenitz, and was sent instead to a penal unit in Italy. He was killed in action, in the marble quarries of Carrera, where Michelangelo got the stone for his sculptures. For once, the pain broke through Jünger’s habitual emotional icebox.

Sent home as a civilian in semi-disgrace, Jünger witnessed the apocalypse of 1945 but was banned from writing about it by the British occupation authorities as he refused to go through a denazification process on the grounds that he had never been a Nazi. The left had always accused him of fertilising the soil of fascism with his writing, and his road back to respectability was to be a rocky one.

At the time of my stay, however, he was enjoying a late Indian summer of acclaim, having just won Germany’s premier literary award, the Goethe prize. He was, in short, at last acknowledged as the grand old man of German letters, compared to Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and even to the great Goethe himself. His
politics had mellowed. “What does a nation mean when you can
fly over it in ten minutes?” he asked me. His observations of the harmful effects of humanity on the natural world had brought him close to the Greens, and the thought that orchids and insects would survive when we were dust pleased him immensely.

Jünger took delight in having lived long enough to enjoy his fame. When his publishers sent him the collected works of Nietzsche, the philosopher who had so influenced him in the trenches, his face was wreathed in childlike smiles as he unpacked the package like a schoolboy getting a tuck parcel from home. One of the myriad surprising things about this stiff-backed old soldier was that he was the first writer to ecstatically describe the experience of taking hallucinogenic drugs, long before Aldous Huxley or Timothy Leary got there.

He had studied science at Leipzig University in the 1920s, and later became a friend of Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who first synthesised LSD in 1938 and introduced Jünger to his discovery. When Jünger discovered that I had stolen ether from my school chemistry lab for illicit sniffing sessions, he opened his desk drawer and produced a sheet of pink blotting paper.

I asked him if he feared death. “I have lived so close to death and seen it so often that I cannot fear it,” he replied

“LSD,” he explained. “Would you like to try it?” Naturally, I could not refuse the offer, and he tore off two squares of the paper stained with a microdot of acid. We both chewed the tabs and sat back in his leather armchairs to experience the result. “If you take drugs you must remain their master,” Jünger warned.

Perhaps the drug was old, but I was slightly disappointed to feel no desire to fly out of his study window, and beyond a definite enhancing of colours and sounds, and a curious sensation that time had slowed down, our trip had little apparent effect. However, we didn’t do any more work that afternoon. Incidentally, both Hofmann and Jünger lived to be 102, so perhaps there is a study to be done on LSD and longevity.

I asked Frau Jünger the secret of her husband’s vitality. “He has a very strong constitution,” she said. Jünger himself attributed it to regular swimming and a daily cold bath. He generally skipped lunch, had an afternoon nap, and a frugal but hot evening meal. He was quite dogmatic about having nine hours’ sleep at night. Any less, he insisted, and he couldn’t work.

And work he did. When I was with him he was writing Aladdin’s Problem, a novel touching on overpopulation. The books — travel journals, philosophical meditations, correspondence with friends, drug diaries, and futuristic visions about society and the nature of man — kept on coming almost to the end. I asked him if he feared death. “I have lived so close to death and seen it so often that I cannot fear it,” he replied. The end came peacefully in February 1998. Shortly before, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Just in case.

When I left Wilflingen I knew that I would never again meet anyone as extraordinary as this singular man, however long I lived.

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