Ernst Jünger and the Nazis.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
Feb. 23 2007 7:30 AM

Ernst Jünger

Did he help Hitler rise?

(Continued from Page 1)

We should not delude ourselves that an Aryan ­non-­Nazi, no matter how exalted his intellect, could exercise the privilege of remaining uninfected. Ernst Jünger is a case in point: perhaps the case in point, because he was incomparably the most gifted writer to remain on the scene. In his wartime diaries, the strange usage isolated in my opening quotation keeps on cropping up. It centers on a single word. The word is Zeitstil, which can be translated as "the style of the times." In early December 1942, we find Jünger visiting the Russian front. He hears about dreadful things happening to Russian prisoners. First of all, he convinces himself that the prisoners are partisans, and can thus expect no quarter. When this thesis starts to look shaky, he convinces himself of something else: that both sides are behaving dreadfully, and it all belongs to "the style of the times." Later on in the same month, he hears from a general (the generals were always at home to Jünger, whose prestige was immense) that the Jews are being slaughtered. Jünger's reaction is: "The old chivalry is dead: wars from now on will be waged by technologists." Once again, it is the style of the times. And so it was, but not in the way he meant it.

Jünger had lent his literary gift to the idea of German militaristic renewal. Until the news about the extermination camps was finally and unmistakably read to him by a German general in 1943, no amount of horrifying truth could induce him fully to admit that he had made a mistake. His way out of such an admission was to blame the style of the times: i.e., to console himself with the belief that everyone was at it, led back to barbarism by the modern spirit of technology. The style of the times was a powerfully useful idea. It didn't even need to be put into words. It could be put into silence. In his elegant, learned, and, finally, disgraceful NotesTowards the Definition of Culture, published in 1948, T. S. Eliot simply declined to admit that the Holocaust might be a pertinent topic in a discussion of what had happened to Europe. Closer to the scene but equally untouched, Eliot's admirer and colleague Ernst Robert Curtius achieved a similar feat of inattention. If pressed on the point, both savants would have blamed the new technological order: the style of the times.

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But there was no such thing as the style of the times, except in the sense that they themselves personified: a style of not concerning themselves with the catastrophic results of a political emphasis they had been given ample opportunity to recognize as the first and most deadly enemy of the humanist culture they claimed to represent. The humble Victor Klemperer, if they had been forcibly reminded of his name, would have been dismissed as small beer by both of them. Ernst Jünger would have behaved better. To give him the respect he has coming, he finally realized that the massacre of the Jews could not be wished away. But he never quite gave up on the airy notion that the style of the times was to blame for things like that.

Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.