By Michael Dirda
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page BW15
STORM OF STEEL
By Ernst Jünger
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
Penguin. 289 pp. Paperback, $15
On the day Germany declared war in 1914, 19-year-old Ernst Jünger enlisted. He fought with an infantry company -- the 73rd Hanoverians -- for the next four years and participated in some of the most famous and bloody battles of all time: the Somme, Cambrai, Passchendaele. He also carried out reconnaissance missions, trained commandos and nearly every day saw his comrades die. He was either shot or severely wounded by shrapnel a half-dozen times but always recovered to fight again. By the end of the war Jünger had risen to the rank of captain and had been given, among other honors, the Iron Cross, First Class. Finally, on Sept. 22, 1918, the Kaiser bestowed on him the order of "pour le Mérite." Despite its French name, this is Germany's highest award for valor, and Jünger was (and still is) the youngest man ever to receive it.
As it happens, though, Jünger was more than just a warrior. He was also sensitive to nature, enjoyed reading Ariosto and Tristram Shandy while on leave or in hospital, and later became both an entomologist and a distinguished novelist. Yet throughout a very long life -- he lived, amazingly, to the age of 102, dying in 1998 -- he was always a strong nationalist, a man of the right. At first he seemingly welcomed Hitler -- the Führer actually sent him an inscribed copy of Mein Kampf -- but he never joined the National Socialist Party and his best-known novel, On the Marble Cliffs, is partly an allegorical warning against Nazism.
Still, Jünger's most lasting work is this memoir -- based on extensive diaries and first published in 1920 -- of his four years of hard combat during World War I. In an especially fine introduction, translator Michael Hofmann notes that this stark reportorial account of battle has been deeply admired by literary masters as different as Borges and Brecht, Alberto Moravia and Andre Gide. This last wrote that Storm of Steel "is without question the finest book on war that I know: utterly honest, truthful, in good faith."
Like many people, I have absolutely no love for the martial spirit, detest all forms of nationalism and feel queasy at the sight of blood. Yet I can't remember when I've read a book as thrilling and hypnotic, as perversely magnificent as Storm of Steel. Hofmann likens it, with justice, to The Iliad. It is dedicated, simply, apolitically: "For the fallen."
Inevitably, page after page depicts almost unimaginable horror:
"We went on, eyes implacably on the man in front, through a knee-high trench formed from a chain of enormous craters, one dead man after another. At moments, we felt our feet settling on soft, yielding corpses, whose form we couldn't make out on account of the darkness. The wounded man collapsing on the path suffered the same fate; he was trampled underfoot by the boots of those hurrying ever onwards . . . .
"The defile proved to be little more than a series of enormous craters full of pieces of uniform, weapons and dead bodies; the country around, so far as the eye could see, had been completely ploughed by heavy shells. Not a single blade of grass showed itself. The churned-up field was gruesome. In among the living defenders lay the dead. When we dug foxholes, we realized that they were stacked in layers. One company after another, pressed together in the drumfire, had been mown down, then the bodies had been buried under showers of earth sent up by shells, and then the relief company had taken their predecessors' place. And now it was our turn."
For the most part, Jünger simply records his war. He doesn't analyze the justice of the conflict or wonder about its outcome. He doesn't dwell on the sudden death of noble comrades or the seemingly pointless waste of men's lives or the futility of a lost cause. Instead, day by day, he performs his duty as a soldier, and he tells us, with clinical honesty, what he does and what he sees.
During the retreat from the Somme the army was ordered to destroy everything in its path:
"The villages we passed through on our way had the look of vast lunatic asylums. Whole companies were set to knocking or pulling down walls, or sitting on rooftops, uprooting the tiles. Trees were cut down, windows smashed; wherever you looked, clouds of smoke and dust rose from vast piles of debris. We saw men dashing about wearing suits and dresses left behind by the inhabitants, with top hats on their heads. . . . As far back as the Siegfried Line, every village was reduced to rubble, every tree chopped down, every road undermined, every well poisoned, every basement blown up or booby-trapped, every rail unscrewed, every telephone wire rolled up, everything burnable burned; in a word, we were turning the country that our advancing opponents would occupy into a wasteland."
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