Review: Ernst Jünger’s “Storm of Steel”

Ernst Jünger sometime after World War II

Yesterday I sat down and began reading the Mystery Grove Publishing Company edition of Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger. I meant to start it some time ago but simply never got around to it. I am glad I waited, though, because my state of mind at present is more disposed to deal with the subject, that being war. The War in Ukraine has made me consider the nature of war and its meanings. Therefore, reading about Jünger’s experience was of special interest, primarily due to recommendations and comments made by some other trusted readers. So, finally, I read it, and I loved it.

First and foremost, Storm of Steel is a memoir, a lived experience. The bulk of the book focuses on the very real actions of both Jünger and the men he led. It is not, primarily, a philosophical or a moral work, though at times it does take on a sort of quasi-spiritual element (for instance, the Verey-lights or the dreams, or the mystery of the “other,” the enemy). Therefore, this review is not going to focus on his day to day actions or the battles themselves. I suggest you read the book itself for that. Instead, I want to focus on some of the broader meanings from the book and the takeaways I have, especially from some of Jünger’s comments on war and meaning.

One of the first things you begin to notice throughout the memoir is his extraordinary luck, for that is the only way to truly describe it. He was hit fourteen times and suffered twenty punctures. He was directly shot a total of six times. And there are other, countless times throughout the book where he either miraculously survives what should have, or even was (to others) a deadly blast or even situation. He also, multiple times, avoids a battle or a day in which he almost certainly would have died, as his comrades did. I cannot imagine reading this book and not seeing in it the hand of Divine Providence; nothing else can explain his survival.

Another thing you notice when you read his descriptions of the carnage, the friends he saw blasted into pieces beside him, and the way he killed others, is a sense of cool detachment. Some may even take away from this the idea that he does not care or is not affected. This is entirely wrong. If you pay close attention, you will notice that it is only through force of will that Jünger is capable of keeping his composure. As we know, many soldiers who survived the First World War experienced severe shell shock. When you read of Jünger’s experience, you must appreciate the fact he did not go mad (though he certainly got close at times, as he admits). As an officer, he could not afford to. He had men to lead. “You are the company commander, man!” he says to himself, after being nearly blown up and running away in one of the worst battles he describes(pg. 138). Another compelling part of the book that helps explain how he was able to withstand the horrors of this war is his description of the feeling of being the “victim of a pitiless thirst for destruction” shortly after he describes a period of time where he and his men had to sit in a ditch during artillery fire (pg. 101). He goes on to say, of those moments, “With horror you feel that all your intelligence, your capacities, your bodily and spiritual characteristics, have become utterly meaningless and absurd. While you think it, the lump of metal that will crush you to a shapeless nothing may have started on its course” (pg. 101). He asks “Well, why don’t you jump up and rush into the night till you collapse in safety behind a bush like an exhausted animal? Why do you hang on there all the time, you and your braves? (pg. 101). He explains, “Unknown perhaps to yourself, there is some one within you who keeps you to your post by the power of two mighty spells: Duty and Honor. You know that this is your place in the battle, and that a whole people relies on you to do your job” (pg. 101). He also said, of his command, “When God gives an office, He gives the understanding for it” (pg. 138). There are instances where he cries and and where his nerves were tested to their limits, and he makes it clear numerous times that many of the things he saw and experienced he would never forget, but he never broke, and this he seems to ascribe to the ideals of Duty and Honor. These ideals are also why Jünger manages to have respect for his enemy, especially those who pose the greatest risk to himself.

But we need to discuss ideals more, because this is something you must understand to properly grasp the book as a whole. In the last two pages of the book, Jünger describes how, during his stay at a war hospital in the final days of the war, “[He] was gripped by the sad and proud feeling of being more closely bound to [his] country because of the blood shed for her greatness” (pg. 175). Take note already of two things here: pride in fighting for his country, which he believes to be great. He then goes on to talk about how when he first entered the war, he thought it would merely be a “festival on which all the pride of youth was lavished.” Of course, it was from from it. It was suffering. It was mud-filled trenches and craters. It was rats. It was shrapnel. It was wounds. It was loss of friends, of comrades. It was nerve wracking. It was torturous. It was brutal. During this time, he did not think “about the ideal [he] had to stand for” because there was no time to think. But because of these afflictions, “the idea of the Fatherland had been distilled…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?”

The lesson he learned, then, from the uncaring and machine-like warfare of the Great War, is that “life had no depth of meaning except when it is pledged for an ideal, and that there are ideals in comparison with which the life of an individual and even of a people has no weight.” In this case, the ideal was his country, his Fatherland, his Duty, his Honor. Despite the German’s defeat, Jünger felt that “though the aim for which I fought as an individual, as an atom in the whole body of the army, was not to be achieved, though material force cast us, apparently, to the earth, yet we learned once and for all to stand for a cause and if necessary to fall as befitted men.” Jünger found meaning, purpose, and even a sense of pride in his role as an atom, as a cog in the machine, because ultimately he felt that machine was serving something great, a cause worth fighting for, perhaps even the machine itself! Further, to the great astonishment of many no doubt, Jünger described his generation as “favoured” thanks to their being “hardened as scarcely another generation ever was in fire and flame,” which allowed them to “go into life as though from the anvil; into friendship, love, politics, professions, and into all that destiny had in store.” Finally, he believed even the fallen had achieved a higher purpose. “We stood with our feet in mud and blood, yet our faces were turned to things of exalted worth. And not one of that countless number who fell in our attacks fell for nothing. Each one fulfilled his own resolve. He then quotes John 12:24, wherein Jesus says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (KJV). The optimism! It is as if war has taken on a spiritual component to Jünger (recall also his comment about God and offices). It is shocking to the modern ear to see a man speak of war in such a way, when we have been conditioned to think of war as something purely evil, something which has no value and which cannot do any good for any one any where.

It is with this very attitude, in fact, that Jünger takes issue. “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 force1” (pg. 175-176). Is this true? Does modern man understand the Christian martyr of old who was willing to boil alive or be eaten alive by animals? Is our resolve that strong? Is our spirit that unshaken? Are our ideals truly that great, that we would sacrifice everything for them? He goes on:

When once it is no longer possible to understand how a man give his life for his country—and the time will come—then all is over 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. In the cold light of reason everything is a matter of expedience and sinks to the paltry and mean. It was our luck to live in the invisible rays of a feeling that filled the heart, and of this inestimable treasure we can never be deprived.”

Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel

This hit me hard. We live in the time Jünger predicts will come. We do not, today, understand how a man gives his life for his country. It might register to the average person why someone in, say, Ukraine, would give up their life to defend their home. This is easily grasped. But what of the Russian? Can the modern mind comprehend it? Can the Last Man understand why the young Russian soldier would volunteer for a war in Ukraine where he knows he could die? Further, could the modern mind understand why an American might have volunteered to fight in Vietnam? Most soldiers who fought there weren’t drafted, by the way. In fact, only 25% were draftees, compared to 66% in World War II, the righteous war in the minds of most today. As recruitment numbers plummet for the U.S. Armed Forces, due to a variety of reasons that we need not discuss here, it is worth asking these questions. It is also worth asking what people would die for, besides their country, if anything at all. If your ideals are not worth that much, are they truly ideals? Or is “everything a matter of expedience,” waiting to be discarded and forgotten when it becomes inconvenient? Are your ideals just petty political or religious stances (yes, petty religion exists) that would crumble under pressure? For many, I suspect their “ideals” are that, or less.

For this reason, the valiant and honorable soldier, whether he survived or was killed in battle, who fought for his ideals, can truly be looked upon as a model and as a person who actually felt they were valuable, who actually felt their life or death had a larger purpose. War, then, becomes more than mere material destruction, and is instead a transformative and even, uplifting and transcendent experience. Such words will certainly cause many to tremble, whether in fear or anger, but it is clearly true, because Ernst Jünger himself, like many great warriors before him, got as much from his wartime experience. If this man, wounded fourteen times, who saw his friends evaporated right in front of him, who stood in the mud and the blood and was deafened by non-stop artillery, can find meaning and come closer to a clearer and brighter picture of his ideals through war, then I suspect we can at least find some meaning in our comparatively insignificant day-to-day mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual sufferings; just as long as we remember our Duty and our Honor, and our mission. From a Christian perspective we know we have various missions, both temporally and spiritually. The part we play as an individual who is also part of great mass of people, a Church, is that of a warrior, a combatant in the spiritual war waging with great loss of souls right now. Unlike in temporal wars, though, we cannot be a casualty if we have faith in Christ and live a Christian life. Eternal victory has already been achieved, but battles still wage on, and the Devil now attempts to take as many souls to hell with him as he can. It is our job to not join the ranks of the enemy, but to hold our line and even add to its numbers.

This is hardly all I have to say about Jünger, or war for that matter, but I shall end things here.

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