History’s Fool by Thomas Meaney

The long century of Ernst Jünger

On the Marble Cliffs, by Ernst Jünger, translated from the German by Tess Lewis

Ernst Jünger is the intractable land mine of German literature. Demolition squads of scholars have stencil-brushed the casing and every wire of the corpus; warning tape encircles the mother lode of fifty books, which are still capable of sending readers sky-high. Millions of soldiers came home from the First World War missing a body part or a piece of their mind. Jünger, who learned not to flinch at the abyss—who positively courted shrapnel, was wounded seven times, and ended up one of the most decorated soldiers on the German side—came out with a style. Terse, clean, cool: he ran against the grain of the language and pressed the decadent accents of l’art pour l’art into the service of total war, treating incoming bombshells as if they were Madame Bovary’s parasols. “The odd thing was that the little birds in the forest seemed quite untroubled by the myriad noise,” he wrote of his first artillery onslaught on the Western Front. “In the short intervals of firing, we could hear them singing happily or ardently to one another, if anything even inspired or encouraged by the dreadful noise on all sides.”

Jünger leapt into infamy in 1920 as the author of the war memoir Storm of Steel. Ever since his turn to fiction later that decade, he has been hailed as a sublime prophet of doom-laden modernity and dismissed as the purveyor of the purest kitsch of the postwar. The Dresden poet Durs Grünbein—no Jünger partisan himself—once divided Cold War German writers between those who studied Jünger openly and those who studied him in secret. Jünger’s international admirers have included Jorge Luis Borges, Hannah Arendt, Julien Gracq, François Mitterrand, Alberto Moravia, Henry Kissinger, Neo Rauch, and Elon Musk. Equally striking have been his detractors: Theodor Adorno (“so little talent that positive negation is already baked into his success”), Walter Benjamin (a “depraved mystic”), Jean-Paul Sartre (“I hate him, not as a German, but as an aristocrat”), W. G. Sebald (“a very blatant example of how not to respond to catastrophes”), and Thomas Mann, who called Jünger a “pioneer and ice-cold playboy of barbarism.”

Corporal Hitler adored Lieutenant Jünger for his manly heroics in the trenches; he read all of Jünger’s war books; his esteem was undented even after Jünger was linked to a plot to kill him. Hitler’s fellow Austrian Elfriede Jelinek diagnosed a suppressed feminine side in the coldest of cold soldiers when she befriended the ancient Jünger in the Nineties. Few of Jünger’s biographers have been able to resist the image of the subject as a “seismograph” of the twentieth century.

The same man who bayonet-charged the English army at the Somme watched on television as the Americans flattened Baghdad with laser-guided bombs. The same Jünger who steamed with hatred for the French occupiers of the Ruhr came to worry about the prospects of a planet with Chinese automobile drivers. Surveying the span of his one hundred and two years, one finds several Jüngers to choose from: the dandy storm trooper on the Western Front; the rabid nationalist pamphleteer of the Weimar Republic; the solemn postwar advocate of Christian Eurofederalism; the uncanny futurist who in his novels dreamed up prototypes of the drone and the smartphone, as well as a video database of all happenings in world history…