Did he help Hitler rise?
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 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.
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.
Reprinted fromCultural Amnesiaby Clive James © 2007 by Clive James, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company Inc. This material may not be reproduced, rewritten, or redistributed without the prior written permission of the publisher. Photograph of Ernst Jünger by Sophie Bassouls/Corbis Sygma.