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November 06, 2009

Blut, Eisen and Survival

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Great War brought forth a number of books dealing with the soldier's life, some fictional, others autobiographical. Probably the best known is All Quiet on the Western Front (In Westen Nichts Neues -- nothing new in the west). Most of the well-known ones had an anti-war tone.

I bought an account better known in Europe than in America -- Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger (29 March, 1895 – 17 February, 1998) -- two and a half years ago, but didn't get far into it. Having read more about the Great War in recent months, I grabbed it for trip reading here in California and now I've nearly finished it.

As you can see from Jünger's dates, he lived almost until his 103rd birthday. But it's a wonder he got past 11 November, 1918.

Jünger was in the thick of things on the Western Front from early 1915 until the end with short time-outs for leave, NCO and officers training as well as hospital stays. He was a highly aggressive junior officer who went on dangerous raids largely for the hell of it. By the end of the war, he had been awarded the pour le Mérite, the highest German military order.

The Wikipedia article linked above deals with Jünger's political and literary life and goes wrong, in my judgment, regarding Storm of Steel which it characterized stating "This book by which Jünger became suddenly famous has been seen as glorifying war."

I do not see glorification of war in the book. Nor do I see it as anti-war. It strikes me as being brutally descriptive of both the élan of Jünger and some fellow soldiers and the literal blood and guts suffered by the unlucky.

The notion of luck is key to understanding Jünger's narrative. He experienced a number of close calls, yet survived. Others caught the British sniper's bullet in the throat, were ripped apart by shrapnel or buried in a collapsed trench during artillery bombardment.

Derring-do and courage are present and perhaps some might call that "glorification." But balancing those accounts are many passages dealing with the dead and dying. Jünger takes care to describe the case of newly married Lieutenant Zürn after a battle: "Now he was lying on a door, half-stripped, with the waxy colour that is a sure sign of imminent death, staring up at me with sightless eyes as I stepped out to squeeze his hand."

Jünger was a realist.



posted by Donald at November 6, 2009


Interesting - has something happened recently that's caused an uptick in interest in this book? I was unfamiliar with it, but saw it mentioned several times in the last week or two, while engaged in standard random popping around. Looked interesting, put it on the Amazon list, and now it shows up here. Just coincidence? (I notice it's now "temporarily out of stock" at Amazon.)

Posted by: Moira Breen on November 6, 2009 12:22 PM

This book is free online. I started it but didn't get in. No one knows of a free recording of it read aloud online, do they? Librivox doesn't have it.

Posted by: Eric Johnson on November 6, 2009 3:41 PM

Is there any substitute for war? I don't think so. A certain amount of poison builds up in the system, the individual system, the societal system, and it can only be purged by war.

At the individual level, explosions, at regular intervals, are absolutely necessary to purge the system of poison and restore equilibrium. At the societal level we call these explosions war.

This particular war, the first world war, was greeted with rapture by the young men and not so young men on both sides. Europe had experienced a century of peace and the buildup of poison had sickened the continent to its core.

The problem with war is not war, it is the modern technology available to the warrior.

Posted by: ricpic on November 6, 2009 6:17 PM

I wish somebody would make a war movie with all of the soldiers dressed as clowns...that would take care of the glorification problem.

Posted by: Robert on November 7, 2009 7:55 AM

No, war is glorious only because it's so terrible. It is both the best and worst of things. It's easy to be just, fair, magnanimous in peace, but try being like that to a guy who is your sworn enemy; that is the true measure of a man.

The quality of a man's goodness is measure by the evils he can overcome, and there is no greater evil than war.

Donald, one of the other great war books is also written by a French/German, The Forgotten Soldier , by Guy Sajer. Very, very moving book. It really makes you angry when people take cheap shots at combat veterans. Especially those who've never known the horror of war.

Posted by: slumlord on November 7, 2009 4:25 PM

Thanks for the tip, Donald. I ordered his book. BTW, it is available at Amazon, but you have to look at used and other vendors. I bought a new copy from an Amazon associate vendor.

Robert, Germany seems to have taken your advice. Check out their officers' baby blue uniforms.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on November 7, 2009 5:42 PM

Quite a decent WWI account and once fairly well known. I don't know if I still have a copy, but I recall reading Storm of Steel about forty years ago. It's a work worthy of keeping alive.

Posted by: mike shupp on November 7, 2009 5:50 PM

> The problem with war is not war, it is the modern technology available to the warrior.

Whatever it is, it's a big problem.

I think I have a little of that poison. I guess I could slink across the border and wreak havoc on Canada with a water gun, but I should probably just bow-hunt a deer.

I don't see the Belle Epoque as poisoned. Do you not see it as 10 times awesomer than 1914-now, culturally speaking?

The world wars are certainly seen as a turning point for culture, but I think nukes and ICBMs probably have a under-appreciated effect on culture and life. My hypothesis is, no nuclear ICBMs, no cultural market for a Roissy or the like, who can deprogram men from NPR-like mildness and genderlessness.

Posted by: Eric Johnson on November 7, 2009 6:23 PM

Scuse me, I think I was wrong. I don't think the whole text is free (at least not in english).

Posted by: Eric Johnson on November 7, 2009 6:26 PM

The problem with war is not war, it is the modern technology available to the warrior

Posted by: free Chinese Mobile softwares|china mobiles games|china mobiles themes on November 8, 2009 4:44 PM

free Chinese Mobile Softwares agrees with you, ricpic!

I think the modern technologies are a big fucking problem. Those technologies mean that romanticizing mass killing is something the human species can really no longer afford.

Frankly, the record of war before modern technologies is not great either.

Posted by: MQ on November 9, 2009 4:18 PM

ricpic: "Europe had experienced a century of peace..."

Well, aside from

the Greek Revolution (1821-1833)
the Russo-Turkish War (1828-1829)
the Polish Uprising (1831)
the Portuguese Civil War (1834)
the First Carlist War (1833-1839)
the Second Carlist War (1846-1849)
the Swiss Civil War (1847)
the Hungarian Uprising (1848-1849)
the Austro-Piedmontese War (1848-1849)
the Crimean War (1853-1855)
the Italian War of Independence (1859-1860)
the Polish Uprising (1863)
the Schleswig-Holstein War (1864)
the Austro-Prussian War (1866)
the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)
the Third Carlist War (1872-1876)
the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878)
the Serbo-Bulgarian War (1885-1886)
the Greco-Turkish War (1897)
the Italo-Turkish War (1912)
the First Balkan War (1912-1913)
the Second Balkan War (1913)

and an immense number of colonial campaigns, yes, Europe was at peace.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on November 10, 2009 12:05 AM

Junger lived until he was quite alter, 103
Gadamer lived until he was 100
Levi-Strauss died at 101, or thereabouts

Three makes a trend . . . the secret for a long life is being a professor.

Posted by: bjk on November 10, 2009 5:34 PM

Speaking of WWI Hitchens has an article in last month's Atlantic mentioning some WWI fiction and non-fiction.

Posted by: I_Affe on November 12, 2009 8:44 PM

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