A search for meaning on the industrial battlefield
On Ernst Jünger's unceasing quest to overcome the age of nihilism.
A complex and controversial character, Ernst Jünger is best known today for Storm of Steel, his vivid autobiographical account of a German soldier’s life in the trenches of the Great War. 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. Today, Storm of Steel 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, as problematic a figure as he is, the trajectory of Jünger’s thought and work is worthy of our attention because it crystallises some of the tensions and internecine struggles of the 20th century.
Jünger wrestled in particular with the problem of meaning and human agency in a world increasingly dominated by technologies, and an 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 nihilism, 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 predominance of technique, the turning of technical means into ends in themselves, 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 work that Martin Heidegger would not hesitate to dub him ‘the only genuine continuer of Nietzsche.’ (1)
Nietzsche had sought to overcome nihilism through bringing about a new type of individual who could forge new values and meaning. Since a return to a transcendent order of values was no longer possible, the overcoming of nihilism could only be achieved, he reasoned, by completing it and transforming a debilitating ‘passive’ nihilism into an ‘active’ nihilism that would lay the ground for a new flourishing of life. In one of his grander proclamations, Nietzsche would eventually proclaim himself to be ‘the first perfect nihilist of Europe’ who has ‘lived through the whole of nihilism, to the end, leaving it behind, outside himself.’ (2). Thus nihilism was for Nietzsche only a ‘pathological intermediate state’ that brought with it the possibility of its own overcoming and the foundation of a new order of values.
Jünger would also make this idea his own, arguing that only by further accelerating the processes seemingly depriving life of its meaning might it be possible to break through to the other side of nihilism. Accordingly, in the early 1930s, he would write that ‘there is no way out, neither sideways nor backwards; it is instead necessary to intensify the force and speed of the processes in which we are caught up’ (3). For Jünger, this would mean an unrestrained embrace of technique and social mobilisation that found their purest expression in the conflagration of total war. The global catastrophe that did ensue in the following decade did not ultimately lead to the spiritual rebirth for which he had hoped and, abandoning his earlier bellicism, Jünger would retreat for the rest of his life into quietism, although he never abandoned his central problematique of nihilism. It is this intellectual trajectory I will seek to reconstruct in the course of this essay, examining the various publications and interventions he made throughout this period and suggesting ways in which his work still retains some relevance for us in our own time.
The experience of the First World War decisively shaped Jünger’s outlook. Like many young men of his generation, he enthusiastically went to war on the Western Front in 1914. Much more uncommonly, he retained his enthusiasm and sense of exhilaration until the end, serving with considerable distinction as a stormtrooper and awarded in 1918 the Pour le Mérite, the highest German military honour available. In stark contrast to his compatriot Erich Remarque, or the English war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, he did not see the war as senseless suffering. Instead, Jünger celebrated the warring spirit, seeing amid the industrial and mechanised horror of the battlefield the advent of a new humanity. Or rather, it was for him precisely the apparent senselessness of the unfolding massacre that demanded some higher purpose be rescued from it, particularly after the calamitous defeat of Germany and the ignominious terms of the Versailles Treaty.
Jünger did not harbour any illusions about the impact of technology on the battlefield, rendering traditional chivalric and heroic conceptions of the warrior unsustainable. Skill and courage were no guarantee of glory or survival when the vast military machines pitted against each other mercilessly consumed the human matériel fed to them, reducing men to ‘a kind of charcoal, which is hurled under the glowing cauldron of war so as to keep the work going’ (4).
And yet if Jünger readily acknowledged that the industrialisation and mechanisation of warfare threatened to dwarf man and render combat meaningless, he remained determined to continue asserting the warrior’s centrality and enduring ability to imbue conflict with purpose:
‘The battle of the machines is so colossal that man almost completely disappears before it… Combat took on the form of a gigantic, lifeless mechanism and swept an icy, impersonal wave across the ground. It was like the cratered landscape of a dead star, lifeless and radiating heat. And yet: behind all this is man. Only he gives the machines their direction and meaning. It is he that spits from their mouths bullets, explosives and poison. He that elevates himself in them like birds of prey above the enemy. He that sits in their stomach as they stalk the battlefield spewing fire. It is he, the most dangerous, bloodthirsty, and purposeful being that the Earth has to carry.’ (5)
For Jünger, the war was not to be primarily justified with reference to specific values or national interests, of which defeat would have ultimately made a mockery. Instead, war and sacrifice were to be their own justification.
‘Death for a conviction is the highest accomplishment. It is proclamation, deed, fulfilment, faith, love, hope and goal; it is, in this imperfect world, a perfect thing, absolute perfection. In this the cause is nothing and the conviction everything. One can die stubbornly for an indubitable error: that is the greatest thing there is.’ (6)
Above all, Jünger was determined to stay true to Nietzsche’s injunction to affirm life and the manifestations of the will to power, however seemingly insufferable they might be. Over and above courage and martial skill, it was the ability to endure and transcend the horror of the battlefield that was to be the mark of the warrior.
Jünger did display some ambivalence as to whether technology had in fact come entirely to dominate its creator, or whether man retained the ability to give to machines their purpose and meaning. Indeed, this appears to be one of the key tensions Jünger grappled with, ultimately seeking to fuse man and machine into a totality summoned by the uninhibited mobilisation of all energies, above all that of will. This vision was to be at the heart of his political activism during the Weimar period, all of which would culminate in 1932 in The Worker, his most ambitious work up to that point.
Jünger wrestled in particular with the problem of meaning and human agency in a world increasingly dominated by technology and instrumental rationality
For all its excesses, Jünger’s response to the war was essentially a search for an existential validation of all the suffering and horror he had witnessed. In this, he was like many others who emerged from the trenches at the end of the war. Many felt some sense of purpose was desperately needed, all the more in the states that had been defeated. Such an impetus played no small part in the postwar vigour of radical political movements, whether fascist or communist, that sought to realise social and political change commensurate to the conflict’s bloodletting when they were not directly emulating mass mobilisation and martial discipline. But Jünger does not only give us an insight into the psyche of the veterans of the Great War. The thrills and sense of heightened existence war provides are recurrent features of personal accounts of war throughout the ages. So that most disturbingly of all, Jünger’s exalted prose also forces us to confront the fascination and aesthetic attraction that war and its spectacles continue to exert upon us.
In his interwar writings, Jünger moved from his recollections and reflections on the Great War to a more ambitious analysis of the social and political turmoil that ensued. Sharpening his central problematique of nihilism and its overcoming, he came to see in the postwar tumult a sign that the timorous bourgeois liberal societies of the 19th century were about to be swept away by a new technological age of total societal mobilisation and armed conflict. Anticipating the totalitarian regimes that were germinating as he wrote, the convergence between these writings and fascist ideology has 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, 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.
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. In 1926, Jünger 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, as well as associating with left-wing writers such as Bertolt Brecht, Erich Mühsam and Ernst Toller. Such intellectual constellations remind us of the ideological complexity and fluidity of Weimar Germany all too often obscured by a post-Second World War standpoint. 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 early 1930s.
The first of these publications was the brief essay Total Mobilisation in which we find Jünger’s formulation of the fundamental principle of the age, namely that of the increasing mobilisation of all available energies and the concomitant sundering of society from all its traditional moorings. He argues that ‘the process by which the growing conversion of life into energy, the increasingly fleeting content of all binding ties in deference to mobility, gives an ever-more radical character to the act of mobilisation’. (7) This escalation towards total mobilisation ultimately ‘expresses the secret and inexorable claim to which our life in the age of masses and machines subjects us’. ‘Each individual life becomes, ever more unambiguously, the life of a worker’, so that ‘following the wars of knights, kings, and citizens, we now have wars of workers.’ (8) In sum:
‘The image of war as armed combat merges into the more extended image of a gigantic work process. In addition to the armies that meet on the battlefields, originate the modern armies of commerce and transport, foodstuffs, the manufacture of armaments – the army of work in general. In the final phase, which was already hinted at toward the end of the last war, there is no longer any movement whatsoever – be it that of the homeworker at her sewing machine – without at least indirect use for the battlefield. In this unlimited marshalling of potential energies, which transforms the warring industrial countries into volcanic forges, we perhaps find the most striking sign of the dawn of the age of work.’ (9)
Jünger would subsequently develop these ideas in The Worker. A lengthy and at times rambling work, the essay is nonetheless the most systematic attempt by Jünger to provide an account of the new age. Heidegger held the book in particular esteem, dedicating to it an entire semester of teaching in 1939-40 at the University of Freiburg, and declaring that it provided ‘a description of European nihilism in the phase which succeeded the First World War’, and constituted a work which itself ‘belongs to the phase of active nihilism’ (10).
Jünger’s notion of the worker is assuredly not socialist (11). First and foremost a metaphysical conception, the figure of the worker embodies the wider mobilisation of energies increasingly observable within both capitalist and socialist societies. Jünger is also at pains to distance himself from racialist theories prevalent at the time, insisting that ‘within the landscape of work, race has nothing to do with biological conceptions of race’, and that ‘the figure of the Worker mobilises the entire human stock without discrimination’ (12). Nor are women exempt from the process of mobilisation, given they too can be called upon to master the machines and take up arms.
Opposed to the figure of the worker is that of the bourgeois, the bearer of an enfeebled nihilistic existence concerned merely with creature comforts and petty self-interest. ‘The bourgeois person is perhaps best characterised as one who places security among the highest of values and conducts his life accordingly.’ (13) Jünger contrasts the secure bourgeois world with the ‘heroic and cultic world’ that confronts and masters pain through an objectification of the body in the service of a higher calling. The bourgeois can therefore only relate ‘to pain as the power to be avoided at all cost, because here pain confronts the body not as an outpost but as the main force and essential core of life’ (14). Jünger however invokes a ‘cunning of pain’, insisting that ‘no claim… is more certain than the one pain has on life’, and that ‘even the individual is not fully free from pain in [the] joyful state of security’ promised by liberal societies. After all what is boredom ‘other than the dissolution of pain in time’? (15)
And so we can already glimpse the world beyond nihilism, since ‘the age of security has been superseded with surprising speed by another, in which the values of technology prevail’ (16). Now technology and social mobilisation were ineluctably ushering in the age of the worker by imposing their own conceptions and necessities on the bourgeois order of life:
‘Wherever man comes into the orbit of technique, he is confronted with an unavoidable either-or. It is for him either to accept its peculiar means and to speak its language or to perish. But if one accepts them – and this is very important – one makes oneself not only the subject of technical processes, but also simultaneously their object.’ (17)
Jünger thus believed he could detect the emergence of a new humanity at one with technology and the demands of total mobilisation and which would found new values in place of the old hollow idols. He would soon witness the ascent to power of a regime no less millenarian in its ambition to stake a claim on the future. And yet Jünger would always keep his distance from the Nazis, even as they courted him and held up his war writings as exemplary. Declining an invitation by Goebbels to serve as party deputy in the Reichstag in 1927, and refusing all honours offered after 1933, he retreated to the German countryside, and ceased all overt political writing.
In 1939, he did however publish an allegorical tale entitled On the Marble Cliffs that was widely perceived to be a veiled critique of Hitler and the Nazi state on the eve of the Second World War, prompting the Völkischer Beobachter, the official newspaper of the NSDAP, to write that Jünger was flirting with a bullet to the head. Reportedly spared at the personal instruction of Hitler who admired his war service, Jünger would return to the Werhmacht as a captain in 1939 but would find himself largely at a remove from the frontline during this new global conflagration.
While Jünger’s predictions of the demise of liberal societies proved erroneous, his writings of this period are nonetheless replete in insight. Rational organisation and technical optimisation were reaching ever deeper into the core of being, blurring the boundaries of human and machine. Powerful energies were everywhere being galvanised and marshalled before being unleashed in a total war that would ravage nations and cost the lives of millions. Nor would mobilisation cease at the conclusion of this latest bout of bloodletting, with the two superpowers still standing soon locked into the deadly nuclear embrace of an all-encompassing Cold War.
Aged 44 when conscripted upon Germany’s entrance into the Second World War, Jünger would spend most of the war in an administrative posting in Paris, where he mixed in literary and artistic circles, meeting collaborationist figures like Pierre Drieu La Rochelle and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, but also Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. As during the First World War, Jünger kept a diary that would eventually be published in 1948 under the title of Strahlungen (‘Radiations’).
It is markedly different in tone to Storm of Steel. Now devoid of much enthusiasm for the war, he appears almost indifferent to the wider drama playing itself out across Europe, before becoming sombre as the fate of Germany darkens, reports of atrocities in the East filter through, and his eldest son is killed in Italy (18). Already looking ahead to the end of the conflict, Jünger also worked during the war on an essay called The Peace, which proposed a vision of a united federal Europe and was circulated among the internal opposition to Hitler in the Wehrmacht. Several of these figures would be subsequently involved in the failed attempt on the Führer’s life in July 1944, a plot Jünger was seemingly aware of but took no direct part in.
His response to the war was essentially a search for an existential validation of all the suffering and horror he had witnessed
The end of the war would nevertheless see Jünger being called to account for his interwar writings. Having refused to submit to denazification, he was barred from publishing for four years and returned to live in the German countryside where he would reside until the end of his life. His remarkable longevity allowed for an abundant literary production, penning novels, essays and diaries ranging from science-fiction and magical realism to early ecological thinking and reflections on his multiple experiences with psychedelics. I will however restrict myself here to discussing Jünger’s immediate postwar writings, since we find within them a clear statement of both the continuities and breaks with his prior thinking. Of particular importance is the text he originally composed in 1950 on the occasion of the Festschrift for Martin Heidegger’s sixtieth birthday, Über die Linie (‘Over the Line’).
We find there a restatement of Jünger’s belief in the possibility of overcoming nihilism, of crossing the ‘line’. More than this, he insists that in the wake of the latest global conflagration, and the shadow of a possible new war between East and West, we are in fact on the very cusp of such an event. Jünger thus maintains that nihilism should not be ‘considered as the end, but rather as a phase in a spiritual process that encompasses it’ (19). Just as Jünger had sought a higher meaning in and purpose to the industrial horror of war in the trenches, he is here equally determined to see in the latest bout of mechanised bloodletting the augury of a new dawn. The ‘decisive question’ of the age, therefore, is to ascertain ‘how much genuine anarchy, and thus still unordered fertility, is concealed in [the] chaos’ unleashed by the nihilistic triumph of technique (20). The failure of the Nazis was to offer only an ‘ametaphysical solution, the purely technical execution of total mobilisation’ that thereby lacked spiritual elevation (21).
Jünger would eventually concede that his wilful postwar optimism had been premature, admitting in a later interview that ‘after the defeat, I was essentially saying: the head of the snake has already crossed the line of nihilism, it has exited from it, and the entire body will soon follow, and we will soon enter a much better spiritual climate… In fact, we are still far from it.’ He would however maintain till the end his belief that an overcoming of nihilism was approaching, now postponed to the 23rd century. In the meantime, it would be necessary to withdraw from the inhospitable age in which we find ourselves, a stance he would first express in terms of a ‘flight into the forest’ (22), and then in the form of the ‘anarch’, an independent sovereign individual who exists above the hustle and bustle of politics. Jünger would adhere to this quasi-mystical quietism for the remainder of his life.
Assessing the legacy of such a complex and controversial figure as Jünger is an inherently fraught exercise, in which any argument made for his relevance runs the risk of being seen as an endorsement of his most reprehensible views. As could be expected, Jünger has to date typically found more of an audience on the right. But he is too idiosyncratic for easy categorisation. The labels of conservative, nationalist, fascist, revolutionary, and anarchist might all in some way be affixed to him while still seeming insufficient. Without it being in any way an exoneration, Jünger is perhaps best grasped by reference to aesthetic rather than political propensities. In this he remains profoundly Nietzschean, following his guide’s assertion that ‘only as an aesthetic phenomenon can existence and the world be eternally justified’.
It is also undeniable that Jünger’s prophecies were repeatedly confounded by the course of events. The new order reconciling man with technique never materialised; in its place came a murderous regime that would fall drastically short of his vision and reduce Germany to ruins. Liberal societies were not swept away by the tide of history; he would live to see them outlast both their communist and fascist rivals. Total war did not provide the opportunity for the realisation of a new heroic ethos; it would lead only to increasingly undifferentiated massacre and ultimately the spectre of nuclear annihilation. With almost comical obduracy, he persisted in forecasting the imminent overcoming of nihilism, even if eventually he had to resign himself to never witnessing it.
Much of this is due to Jünger’s proclivity for metaphysical thinking, which tended to lapse into sheer mysticism. And yet, for all the ways that Jünger erred, there is a case to be made for the enduring pertinence of his insights into the centrality of technique to modern societies and the tendency towards society’s ever greater mobilisation for the purpose of war, even where their manifestations did not take the forms he had expected. So while it may no longer require the centrally planned war economies of the first half of the 20th century, the world nonetheless remains perpetually on the edge of nuclear armageddon. The marshalling of military power of apocalyptic proportions has thus remained compatible with the kind of liberal bourgeois societies Jünger believed were otherwise destined to disappear due to their inferior attunement to the needs of war (it is true that Britain and the US prevailed in the Second World War, but one might question how authentically ‘liberal’ these societies were at the height of their respective war efforts).
With almost comical obduracy, he persisted in forecasting the imminent overcoming of nihilism, even if he eventually had to resign himself to never witnessing it
Similarly, the Cold War may never have attained the intensity of armed conflict, but it was still an all-encompassing struggle. Less a clash of ideologies that rung increasingly hollow, the conflict was first and foremost one of competing military-industrial-scientific complexes that endured until one of them reached a point of complete enervation. Nor has the end of Cold War entailed true demobilisation, the threat of superpower rivalry having given way to a proliferation of security practices that assert the need continuously to monitor and pre-empt all potential threats and authorise calculated violence wherever deemed necessary. Moreover, it can be readily observed that the logic of rational optimisation has only further extended itself into all facets of social life, seemingly submitting all previous belief systems to its imperatives without replacing them with any new values other than those of individual comfort and security.
Jünger in many ways anticipated much that the late Paul Virilio would subsequently argue regarding war and its relation to speed and logistics. Indeed we can find in Virilio’s work echoes of Jünger’s interwar writings, with the difference that he bemoans what Jünger celebrates when he asserts that speed is inherently fascistic. This doesn’t make him any less prone to eschatological thinking, however, with his thesis of the imminent ‘global accident’ and his appeal to a form of Christian salvation. No wonder that both men approvingly cite Hölderlin: ‘where there is danger, also grows that which saves’. Whatever metaphysical comfort there is to be found in such a conviction, it is questionable whether it offers any political stance other than that of reckless voluntarism or withdrawn quietism, each successively adopted by Jünger.
Yet it is still possible to find in Ernst Jünger a vital interlocutor as we commemorate the centenary of the Great War whose convulsions birthed our modern world. At their fever pitch, his writings can be read as a purposeful exacerbation of the tendencies manifest in his times, propelled by a quixotic mission to rescue a sense of agency and meaning from that cataclysmic conflict and its aftermath. While ours may be a different time, we nonetheless still wrestle today with the question of the place of the human in a world in which technology and war continue to play such a central role. So that, as much as Jünger erred in his historical prognoses and political commitments, his struggle with the problem of nihilism in the age of technique may very well still be our own.
Antoine Bousquet is a reader in international relations at Birkbeck, University of London. His new book, The Eye of War: Military Perception from the Telescope to the Drone is published by University of Minnesota Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
This is an edited version of an essay published on The Disorder of Things.
(1) Quoted in ‘Technology and Modernity: Spengler, Jünger, Heidegger, Cassirer’, by David Roberts, Thesis Eleven, Vol 111, August 2012, p22
(2) The Will to Power, by Friedrich Nietzsche (translators, Walter Kaufmann & R.J Hollingdale), Vintage Books, 1968, p3
(3) Der Arbeiter: Herrschaft und Gestalt in Sämtliche Werke, Band 8, by Ernst Jünger, Klett-Cotta, 1981, p101
(4) La Guerre Comme Expérience Intérieure, by Ernst Jünger, (translator, François Poncet), Christian Bourgeois Editeur, 1997, p128
(5) Ibid, p162
(6) Ibid, p160
(7) ‘Total Mobilisation’, by Ernst Jünger, (translators, Joel Golb & Richard Wolin), in The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader, MIT Press, 1998, p126
(8) Ibid, p128
(9) Ibid, p126
(10) The Question of Being, by Martin Heidegger, Vision Press, 1959, p40
(11) Der Arbeiter: Herrschaft und Gestalt, Ernst Jünger, in Sämtliche Werke, Band 8, Klett-Cotta, 1981, p141
(12) Ibid, p75
(13) ‘On Danger’, by Ernst Jünger, in New German Critique 59, Spring-Summer 1993, p27
(14) ‘On Pain’, by Ernst Jünger, Telos, 2008, p17
(15) Ibid, p13
(16) Ibid, p46
(17) Der Arbeiter: Herrschaft und Gestalt, by Ernst Jünger, in Sämtliche Werke, Band 8, Klett-Cotta, 1981, p82
(18) At the news of his son’s death, Junger would write in his diary: ‘since childhood, he sought to follow his father. And here, at the first attempt, he betters him, overstepping him infinitely.’
(19) Über die Linie, by Ernst Jünger, Vittorio Klostermann, 1950, p5
(20) Ibid, p16
(21) Ernst Jünger: A Writer of Our Time, by J.P. Stern, Bowes & Bowes, 1953, p12
(22) Der Waldgang, by Ernst Jünger, Klostermann, 1951