STORM OF STEEL
By Ernst Junger
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
Penguin. 289 pp. Paperback, $15 On the day Germany declared war in 1914, 19-year-old Ernst Junger 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 Junger 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 Merite." Despite its French name, this is Germany's highest award for valor, and Junger was (and still is) the youngest man ever to receive it.
As it happens, though, Junger 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 Fuhrer 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, Junger'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, Junger 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."
As Storm of Steel progresses, Junger records gas attacks, the eerie confusion of battle, the nightly drinking to bring on dreamless sleep. In particular he emphasizes the never-ending possibility of sudden unexpected death, whether from the constant artillery barrages or from bombs or from exploding shells that send deadly slivers of metal flying everywhere. The pounding of war never lets up:
"It's an easier matter to describe these sounds than to endure them, because one cannot but associate every single sound of flying steel with the idea of death, and so I huddled in my hole in the ground with my hand in front of my face, imagining all the possible variants on being hit. I think I have found a comparison that captures the situation in which I and all the other soldiers who took part in this war so often found ourselves: you must imagine you are securely tied to a post, being menaced by a man swinging a heavy hammer. Now the hammer has been taken back over his head, ready to be swung, now it's cleaving the air towards you, on the point of touching your skull, then it's struck the post, and the splinters are flying -- that's what it's like to experience heavy shelling in an exposed position."
Repeatedly, too, Junger shows us the ghostly confusions of battle. During one gas attack his fellow soldiers, after donning their primitive breathing apparatus, suddenly resembled lost demons. "We were all roving around in an enormous dump somewhere off the edge of the chartered world." Several times German soldiers were cut down accidentally by friendly fire, from their own regiments or from misdirected artillery volleys. Junger himself once lobbed a grenade at a figure who suddenly rose up out of the grass -- and who turned out to be a comrade (the grenade proved a dud). Several men blew themselves up by tinkering with explosives or hamfistedly playing with unfamiliar weapons.
Ultimately, bravery has nothing to do with survival; it's just a matter of luck, of chance. Most of the field operations end disastrously. At Regnieville Junger led a night-commando operation:
"I had got together some kit appropriate to the sort of work I meant to be doing: across my chest, two sandbags, each containing four stick-bombs, impact fuses on the left, delay on the right, in my right tunic pocket an 08 revolver on a long cord, in my right trouser pocket a little Mauser pistol, in my left tunic pocket five egg hand-grenades, in the left trouser pocket luminous compass and whistle, in my belt spring hooks for pulling out the pins, plus bowie knife and wire cutters." Junger used up his Rambo-like armaments, but the mission proved an utter fiasco; the men wandered through English trenches in darkness, lost their way, fought and died for nothing: "Of the fourteen who had set out, only four returned."
On page after page Junger sets down death after death. Friends bleed unstoppably when shrapnel slices through their carotid arteries. They are shot when standing sentry. Earthworks or houses collapse and bury them alive. Some bizarre scenes call to mind that other great picture gallery of military carnage and grotesquerie, Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories. A German machine-gunner accidentally shoots the commander of another regiment right out of his saddle while the officer is reviewing his troops. We learn that "Captain von Brixen's horse impaled itself on a metalled axle and had to be put down." Far worse, at one point Junger heads into battle with a company of 150 men; their guide loses the way; heavy shelling rains down; and, less than 30 minutes after starting out, more than half the soldiers are dead or dying.
Little wonder that when Junger does fight it is often in a berserker rage. Once he encountered a lone English soldier, separated from his own lines:
"It was a relief to me, finally, to have the foe in front of me and within reach. I set the mouth of the pistol at the man's temple -- he was too frightened to move -- while my other fist grabbed his tunic, feeling medals and badges of rank. An officer; he must have held some command post in these trenches. With a plaintive sound, he reached into his pocket, not to pull out a weapon, but a photograph which he held up to me. I saw him on it, surrounded by numerous family, all standing on a terrace.
"It was a plea from another world. Later, I thought it was blind chance that I let him go and plunged onward. That one man of all often appeared in my dreams. I hope that meant he got to see his homeland again."
In general, Junger shows no hatred of his enemies. "It was always my endeavour to view my opponent without animus, and to form an opinion of him as a man on the basis of the courage he showed. I would always try and seek him out in combat and kill him, and I expected nothing else from him. But never did I entertain mean thoughts of him. When prisoners fell into my hands, later on, I felt responsible for their safety, and would always do everything in my power for them." During the course of Storm of Steel Junger does kill many men -- with rifle, pistol, stick-bomb, grenade -- but he notes the cost. Once he shot a young British soldier, "little more than a boy":
"I forced myself to look closely at him. It wasn't a case of 'you or me' any more. I often thought back on him; and more with the passing of the years. The state, which relieves us of our responsibility, cannot take away our remorse; and we must exercise it. Sorrow, regret, pursued me deep into my dreams."
This is as close to introspection as Junger gets in Storm of Steel. At least, that is, until the final chapters. There his tone finally grows weary, fatalistic; "The seasons followed one another, it was winter and then it was summer again, but it was still war." The purpose, he writes, "with which I had gone out to fight had been used up." And yet the conflict went on, until:
"It was our last storm. How many times over the last few years we had advanced into the setting sun in a similar frame of mind! Les Eparges, Guillemont, St-Pierre-Vaast, Langemarck, Passchendaele, Moeuvres, Vraucourt, Mory! Another gory carnival beckoned."
One closes Storm of Steel with a heavy heart. So many men dead! And, really, for what? Moreover, these were the Huns, the supposedly evil, ruthless enemy, men who in normal life were schoolteachers, factory workers and artists, as well as husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. Yet each faithfully undertook his obligation as a soldier, and each died heroically or foolishly or unfairly. Junger's great book matter-of-factly conveys the mysterious glamour of war, the exhilaration of its excess and intensity and, not least, the undeniable glory of men bravely preparing for battle as for "some terrible silent ceremonial that portends human sacrifice." *
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.