A War of Words

A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. Read the introduction to the series here, or the previous post here.

Monday, January 21, 2013 – to Munich

In a mere six hours, a TGV high-speed train traveling upwards of 200 miles per hour will take us from Gare de l’Est in Paris to the south German city of Munich.

In 1918 a highly decorated young German officer, after having suffered his last of several serious wounds, spent fourteen days “lying on the rumbling bed of a hospital train” as it plodded along the tracks, moving out of war-ravaged France and into the fields of western Germany, untouched by shellfire and ripening for harvest.

Ernst Jünger in uniform after the war (from the 1922 edition of Storm of Steel) - Wikimedia

The officer’s name was Ernst Jünger, who two years later turned his diary into the first and perhaps greatest postwar book about the Western Front: Storm of Steel. (The first major novel about the war and written by one of its participants was Henri Barbusse‘s Le Feu, published in 1916—a year before its author was formally discharged from the French Army.) While our trip to Munich won’t take us through the small town of Wilflingen and its Ernst-Jünger-Haus, this is the best moment in the trip to listen in on the profound debate waged, via postwar novels, by Jünger and his more famous contemporary, Erich Maria Remarque.

My guess is that, if pressed, most Americans would name All Quiet on the Western Front as the greatest WWI novel, and perhaps even come up with the name of its author, Remarque. If a high school or introductory college history course is going to assign a single book about the Great War, it’s still likely to be AQotWF. Whereas I hadn’t even encountered Jünger’s name until early in grad school, when I read both Storm of Steel and the more slender but similar Copse 125.

Other than that they served in the German Army on the Western Front and went on to pursue successful literary careers (Jünger especially — his last book to be translated into English was published in 1990, eight years before the author died at age 102), they couldn’t have had much less in common. Remarque was from the North, Jünger from the South, middle class while Remarque’s father was a laborer. Remarque was a conscript; Jünger volunteered not long after starting his university studies, seeking the adventure he hadn’t found during a disappointing year with the French Foreign Legion. Remarque emerged from the war a committed pacifist whose great anti-war novel was banned by the Nazi Party after it took power in 1933; Jünger…

Well… I’m going to steer clear of the testy question of Jünger’s postwar politics (sample this rather savage exchange to get a sense of the testiness involved). But it’s certainly fair to note that Storm of Steel changed rather interestingly from its original 1920 form. The first revision (1925; then translated to English, for the first time, in 1929) made the book less diary-like but, if anything, even more nationalistic. For example, consider these ruminations that came to mind while Jünger lay flat on his back during that fortnight-long train journey from the Western Front back to Hannover:

Once again the German landscape flitted by me, tinged this time with the first dyes of autumn, and once again, as on that time at Heidelberg, I was gripped by the sad and proud feeling of being more closely bound to my country because of the blood shed for her greatness…. almost without any thought of mine, the idea of the Fatherland had been distilled from all these afflictions in a clearer and brighter essence. That was the final winnings in a game on which so often all had been staked: the nation was no longer for me an empty thought veiled in symbols; and how could it have been otherwise when I had seen so many die for its sake, and been schooled myself to stake my life for its credit every minute, day, and night, without a thought?

As he continues this tribute to the formative powers of war, Jünger even invokes Dostoyevsky’s quotation of John 12:24 in The Brothers Karamazov and employs distinctively Christian themes like faith, sanctity, solemnity, and especially martyrdom to describe the sacrifice of German soldiers:

To-day we cannot understand the martyrs who threw themselves into the arena in a transport that lifted them even before their deaths beyond humanity, beyond every phase of pain and fear. Their faith no longer exercises a compelling force. When once it is no longer possible to understand how a man gives his life for his country—and the time will come—then all is over with that faith also, and the idea of the Fatherland is dead; and then, perhaps, we shall be envied, as we envy the saints their inward and irresistible strength. For all these great and solemn ideas bloom from a feeling that dwells in the blood and that cannot be forced.

Jünger Diary Entry
Entry in Jünger's diary for March 5, 1917, on the death of an English officer - Jünger-Haus

All of this culminates in a passage that Jünger eliminated as early as the 1934 (i.e., post-1933 Nazi revolution) edition:

We stand in the memory of the dead who are holy to us, and we believe ourselves entrusted with the true and spiritual welfare of our people. We stand for what will be and for what has been. Though force without and barbarity within conglomerate in sombre clouds, yet so long as the blade of a sword will strike a spark in the night may it be said: Germany lives and Germany shall never go under!

Whether out of his own change of heart or an understanding that the times they were a-changin’, Jünger tried to tone down the “Germany lives!” rhetoric in later editions. The Penguin Classics translation that most Americans will encounter is based on his 1961 “final revision,” in which that entire train-bound reflection on war, the nation, and martyrdom is gone, replaced by twenty-six sedate words that convey nothing more heated than a description of the “German landscape” as being “bathed in the lustre of early autumn.”

German first edition of All Quiet on the Western Front
The original German edition of All Quiet on the Western Front - Creative Commons (H.-P. Haack)

Nevertheless, the contrast with Remarque’s All Quiet (the 1930 film version of which I’ve already strongly recommended in this series) remains so strong that it’s hard to believe that both men—already sharing the highly unusual impulse to turn their memories and nightmares of warfare into prose (“highly unusual” given that most veterans went decades refusing even to talk about their experiences)—fought on the same side in the same war.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Remarque and Jünger were acquainted with each other, and would dearly love to have heard them debate the meaning of World War I (and war in general). In 1999 the German Nobel laureate Günter Grass took a shot at “recording” such a conversation in his odd blend of fiction and history entitled (in its English translation, by Michael Henry Heim) My Century. The resulting Jünger-Remarque dialogue is set in 1965, when Remarque was 67 and Jünger 70; Grass narrates as a young Swiss woman.

Much of it concerns mundane details of trench warfare and, well, their favorite wines and liqueurs. But then an exchange that starts with the two men agreeing about the hellacious nature of warfare on the Western Front reveals a basic split in perspective:

“And yet,” Herr Jünger said, “There was one element alive in us all, an element that spiritualized the desolation of war: the objective pleasure we took in danger, the chivalrous impulse to persevere in battle. Yes, I can state without compunction: As the years went by, the flame of the prolonged battle produced an increasingly pure and valiant warrior caste….”

Herr Remarque laughed in Herr Jünger’s face. “Oh, come off it, Jünger! You sound like a country squire. Cannon fodder quaking in oversized boots—that’s what they were. Animals. All right, maybe they were beyond fear, but death never left their minds. So what could they do? Play cards, curse, fantasize about spread-eagled women, and wage war—murder on command, that is. Which took some expertise. They discussed the advantages of the shovel over the bayonet: the shovel not only let you thrust below the chin; it gave you a good solid blow on the diagonal, say, between neck and shoulder, which then cut right down to the chest, while the bayonet tended to get caught between the ribs and you had to go all the way to the stomach to pull it loose….”

…after a pointed pause, [Jünger] took a swig. “True, true, my dear Remarque, but I still maintain that when I saw my men lying motionless, stonelike, in the trenches, rifles pointed, bayonets fixed, when I saw steel helmet after steel helmet, blade after blade shining by the light of a flare, I was suffused with a feeling of invincibility. Crushed we could be, yes, but not conquered.”

During the ensuing silence, which no one seemed able to break—Herr Remarque was on the point of saying something, then dismissed it with a wave of the hand—both men raised their glasses, but looked past each other as they simultaneously downed what was left in them. Remarque kept tugging on the handkerchief in his breast pocket, Jünger shot me glances that made me feel like a rare insect he needed for his collection, while I focused on my considerable portion of mousse au chocolat. (39-40)

If you’ve read even a little of the two authors (or, at least, their two most famous works), this exchange rings absolutely true. The convinced pacifist and the (unreconstructed?) nationalist who believes in the transformative power of war talk to, but ultimately past, each other.

Given Grass’ own politics, it’s easy to suppose that he sided with Remarque. (At the end of this section of the (hi)story, Grass has Remarque sign a copy of All Quiet with the inscription, “How soldiers turn to murderers.”) But he doesn’t rig the outcome of this war of words: if Jünger comes off poorly, it’s because he’s allowed to be himself.

And I’m not sure that Grass is wholly horrified by the Jünger-like words he puts in the mouth of this “Jünger.” If anything, he probably fits in a long line of what Michael Hofmann (the translator of the aforementioned Penguin Classics edition of SoS) calls “trustworthy and unlikely people—and trustworthy often precisely because unlikely: cosmopolites, left-wingers, non-combatants—[who] have stepped up to express their admiration [for Storm of Steel], often in suitably embarrassed or bemused fashion” (vii). Among such unlikely-trustworthy admirers of Jünger, Hofmann names Alberto Moravia, Bertolt Brecht, and André Gide, who confided to his diary in 1942, “…Storm of Steel is without question the finest book on war that I know: utterly honest, truthful, in good faith.”

By contrast with that assessment of Jünger, it’s hard not to recognize some level of artifice in Remarque’s remembrance. While Jünger issued forth his memories almost without filter (and then spent a good chunk of his life regretting that immediacy and trying to take back some of the honesty Gide so admired), Remarque (understandably) waited several years before putting out his version of the war. It might surprise anyone who’s read All Quiet on the Western Front, but here, in his own words, is how Remarque the soldier responded to being sent back to the front in late October 1918, just seventeen days before Armistice:

Feelings? Partly I’m glad, partly indifferent, and a little bit sad. Too bad for the beautiful winter, which would have become quite stimulating what with concerts, the theater, bliss in my room and the new love constellation which rose far on the horizon, happiness, because I can leave this rather stuffy air behind and breathe freely again! I’m almost looking forward to being in the field again.

Not exactly unambivalent, but hardly the words of a man who hates war and views himself as compelled to commit murder by his government.

Erich Maria Remarque
Erich Maria Remarque, 1929 - Bundesarchiv

I don’t mean to accuse Remarque of being dishonest, of faking his story in order to tap into the increasingly powerful “Never again!” zeitgeist of the late 1920s. Instead I’d echo what Thomas Thornton asks and concludes in a biographical essay included in a Remarque exhibition at New York University: “Was Remarque trying to create his own myth when he told and retold the story of how All Quiet came into being? Perhaps partially, but we don’t necessarily have to assume that he was deliberately misleading us.” That Remarque was prone to myth-making is beyond question. (Before publishing a single novel, he bought an aristocratic title, had his picture taken in a borrowed officer’s uniform, added the middle name of a then-more famous author, and changed the spelling of his last name to make it seem more French.) Yet All Quiet works and is still read (far more than any of his later, more ornate works) because so much of it feels so straightforward and unpretentious.

In the end, I tend to think that Remarque and Jünger embody two very different (dialectical? polar?) human responses to war:

The first finding war utterly repugnant and seeking to transcend it, or even render it obsolete; the second finding war utterly fascinating and, for all its terrible costs, something like a secular school of sanctification that, more effectively than peace, forms those who wage it into the people they’re meant to be.

I’ll return to this notion as this virtual course reaches its conclusion, but for now, I’d very much welcome comments:

  • Do you think there’s truth in each response to war?
  • Are you repelled by the language Jünger eventually took out of Storm of Steel, or do you, like André Gide, find him “utterly honest”?
  • Is Remarque (or, at least, Grass’ “Remarque”) right that war is just murder commanded by the state?

Tomorrow: Munich’s Pinakothek museums beckon.

<<Day 18          Day 20>>

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