Ernst Jünger and the Nazis.

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

Ernst Jünger

Did he help Hitler rise?

Click here to launch The Clive James Show

The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z. (Note: There is no "I" in the Clive's Lives series.)

Things like that belong to the style of the times.
Ernst Jünger, Caucasian Notes

Ernst Jünger. Click image to expand.
Ernst Jünger
Advertisement

Ernst Jünger was born in Heidelberg in 1895 and reached maturity just in time to volunteer for service in World War I, during which his bravery won him the Pour le Mérite, Germany's highest military decoration. After the war, his book Storm of Steel launched him on a literary career that amounts to as big a problem for the student of 20th-­century humanism as Bertolt Brecht's. In Jünger's case, however, the problem came from the other direction. Jünger emerged from the trenches as a believer in national strength, which he thought was threatened by liberal democracy. Though he never gave his full allegiance to the Nazis, he was glad to accept military rank in the Wehrmacht, and wrote approvingly about the invasion of France, in which he accompanied one of the forward units. After the plot against Hitler's life in July 1944, he fell under suspicion, but his prestige and his Pour le Mérite made him untouchable. Never an active conspirator, he thought he was fulfilling his duty to civilized values merely by despising Hitler. The thought of killing Hitler did not occur.

In his ­post­war years, Jünger wrote contemptuously against the apparatchiks of the East German regime, who found it easy to condemn him for his right-wing track record, describing him in their official literary lexicon as "an especially dangerous exponent of West German militaristic and neofascist literature." Having missed his first chance to identify a totalitarian enemy in good time, he didn't miss the second. Demonstrating powers of compression and evocation that could pack a treatise into a paragraph, his two collections of linked short essays, On the Marble Cliffs and The Adventurous Heart, are the easiest introduction to his literary talent and political vision. The talent is unquestionable. The vision is quite otherwise. But when he finally realized what Hitler had done in pursuit of the ideal of strength that he had himself cherished, even he was obliged to consider that his espousal of Darwin (the struggle for existence) and Nietzsche (the will to power) might have depended on some sort of liberal context for its rational expression. He died in 1998, his name much honored, with good reason, and much in dispute, for better reason.

A phrase like "the style of the times," quoted above, can be ­self-­serving, because it removes the obligation to place blame. Even before Hitler launched Germany on a catastrophic war, Jünger should have been able to assess the toxicity of the Nazis by the intellectual quality of some of the people who were trying to get beyond their reach. In retrospect, his phrase "the style of the times" enrolls itself among many euphemisms that served to sanitize the effects of the Nazi impact even on the learned professions. Jünger, as an Aryan, was safe from that impact. He should have cared more about what happened to those less privileged. A learned man, Jünger knew all their names: even the names of the minor figures, the spear carriers and ­walk-­ons. In the late 1930s, in a race for a foreign chair of philology, the obscure Victor Klemperer was beaten to a safe seat in Ankara by the illustrious Erich Auerbach. If Klemperer had secured the prize instead, and got away to safety, it is unlikely that he would have written anything with the bold scope of Auerbach's Mimesis. We should not romanticize Klemperer because of what he went through: Millions went through it, too. But we are compelled to admire him for what he made of it. Fated to stay where he was, he was granted the dubious reward of experiencing from close up what the Nazis did to the German language; reading his analysis in his ­two-­volume diary, I Shall Bear Witness and To the Bitter End, we can only conclude that the Nazis wrecked the language they had usurped. They wrecked it with euphemism: They spoke and wrote the officialese of slaughter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

Republicans Want the Government to Listen to the American Public on Ebola. That’s a Horrible Idea.

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Tom Hanks Has a Short Story in the New Yorker. It’s Not Good.

Brow Beat

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.