07.18.12 7:00 PM ET
David's Book Club: Storm of Steel
"If you'd be a teacher, by your students you'll be taught." So goes the saying, and it's true.
This spring, my son was assigned a paper asking him to compare two novels dealing with similar themes. He knew he wanted to write about All Quiet on the Western Front, one of his favorite books. What to pair it with? The obvious choice was an equally anti-war book from the Allied side, such as Goodbye to All That. I suggested instead that he pair it with Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel, a book from the same side of the trenches, but with a very different point of view on the war. Jünger had delighted in the war and had defiantly written to say so.
My son wrote the paper and got a good grade. But I had a dirty secret: although I'd read about Storm of Steel, I had not in fact read the book I'd just recommended.
Loading an audio version of both Storm of Steel and All Quiet onto my iPod, I listened to the two back-to-back in late May, early June. I finished the last chapters of Storm of Steel engaged in the kind of body-hardening exertion Jünger would approve of: running up and down the steep switchback causeway leading from the Sorrento cliffs down to the sea.
Storm of Steel has nothing like the literary power of All Quiet. Jünger's project precludes description of the horrors so unforgettably narrated by Remarque: a man's back ripped off to reveal the pink lungs gasping their last; artillery barrages so ferocious they unbury the bodies of the dead, rip them apart a second time and hurl them into the sky; the pulsing and gurgling sounds of a man bleeding to death.
When death comes in Storm of Steel, it comes fast and clean. Even when an artillery shell drops into the middle of the company he is commanding—for Jünger, the most terrible experience of the war—the mess is despatched in a sentence or two. You can well understand why Jünger's first readers found his politics disturbing. Yet Jünger—who lived to be 102, dying finally in 1998—was no Nazi. Anti-democratic, yes. Anti-semitic, yes. Ready to wear the German uniform again in 1939, yes. But alienated from the Hitler regime too and perpetually suspect by it, also yes.
In the edition of Storm of Steel published in the 1930s, however, Jünger presents himself as simply a German nationalist, fighting for his country and what he describes as "the Prussian ideals of 1870." Beyond that, he expresses scant curiosity about why Germany went to war in 1914, and how it fought.
Jünger's units were based for much of the latter part of the First World War in occupied Belgium. He tells what are intended as amusing anecdotes about the cowardice of the Flemish civilians, while clucking appreciatively over the snug comfort of the Flemish towns. He does mildly suggest that the German demand that Belgian civilians salute German officers was perhaps too punctilious—but at the same time he insists that beyond such symbolic acts of deference, German occupation was if anything too mild. You'd never know that the Belgium was pushed to famine by deliberate German policy, a policy which Jünger witnessed and which provided the fresh eggs he remembers with such fondness.
But then, none of the politics of the war interest very much the narrator of Storm of Steel. Remarque joins his front-line story to a scathing account of life behind the lines, where the narrator's mother is left to die of cancer in a charity hospital by a society that has committed all its resources to violence. Remarque laments a generation where even the survivors are psychically mangled. Jünger, less prophetically, predicted that the generation that fought in the trenches would lead Germany to new greatness. The only general comment of Jünger's that has any astuteness comes at the very end of the book, when he suggests that future generations will leave behind the bellicose nationalism of 1914 just as they had the religious enthusiasm of the Crusades.
What does fascinate Jünger, and about which he has the most interesting things to say, is the issue of physical courage. Slight and bookish, Jünger became one of the most decorated German soldiers of the First World War, winning the Iron Cross, the Knight's Cross, and the "Pour le Merite," then the highest medal of them all. He was wounded six separate times by 14 different bullets or shrapnel shards. Some of those pieces of metal also exited his body, bringing his puncture total to 20. He describes occasions on which he was gripped by fear, one occasion where he fled the battlefield (promptly to return), but manifold examples of courage: his own, his soldiers', and those of his British enemies. (For the French soldiers he encounters, however, he expresses nothing but contempt.)
It's that fascination with the mechanics of courage that explains the book's perennial hold even on readers discomfited—or worse—by its underlying attitudes. Jünger describes the experience of coming under artillery fire as equivalent to being trussed to a pole while an enemy swings a sledgehammer at your head. You are pinioned, helpless, awaiting the blow that will annihilate you, aware even as you contemplate death that the round that will kill you may already be flying through the air toward you.
Courage is something more than the will to endure. It's a coolness in moments of extremity: a coolness that notes the placement of a cooking pot when Jünger bursts into a French trench at the head of a raid- and that then enables him to use that pot as an exit marker when the raid goes wrong and he must make an escape. In another raid, this time on a British trench, Jünger's men are cut off and captured. Badly wounded himself, he still finds cover and hides. When he is at last detected, rather than surrender, he shoots down the British officer who approaches him, evades the revengeful troops, and sprints back to his own lines, almost hallucinating from loss of blood. Where does this spirit come from? In large part from a hyper-consciousness of being watched—watched by his comrades, watched by his conscience, watched perhaps above all by the literary audience already in his mind during his war years.
And here we are, a century later, watching still.