Ernst Junger’s ‘Sturm’

Ernst Junger is best known for his 1920 memoir, Storm of Steel, but he wrote a good deal besides. The publishing firm Telos is issuing translations of several of his works, and the latest, published today, is Sturm, a novella of 1923. Telos kindly let me read the text before publication, and here is my review:
Alexis Walker’s very readable translation gives us a chance to read a subtle novella about an intellectual in the trenches who sees the age of industrial-scale war as deeply dehumanising, yet recognises that this war has given him a sense of identity, and of community with others, which no peacetime experience could match.
Lieutenant Sturm may be a partial self-portrait of the author. His story begins when the third company are expecting a British bombardment and assault. Tension is high, and it is not unusual for some soldiers to be transformed by terror, as though they had seen ghosts. One morning the comrades found one of these quiet men dead on the latrine, swimming in blood. His right foot was bare; it seemed that he had pointed the weapon at his heart and pulled the trigger with his toes.
Sturm does not succumb to despair, but keenly analyses the war in which he is trapped. Before the war he had been a biologist, and he decides that modern warfare (or perhaps modernity itself) has created a disruption in the Darwinian natural processes: ‘Since the invention of morality and gunpowder, the phrase “the selection of the fittest” has lost ever more meaning for the individual.’ In a war of long-range mass slaughter, individual actions count for nothing. A soldier may resent ‘the slaveholding of the modern state’, but he is powerless to do anything about it.
Despite this analysis it is war, paradoxically, that has given meaning to Sturm’s life. Before enlisting, he had been ‘the man of books and coffee houses, the intellectual with the nervous appearance.’ He aspires to be a novelist, and we read the fictional vignettes that he shares with his fellow platoon leaders. They are all about men like his peacetime self, alienated from society and unable to make a meaningful connection with the rest of life. War, on the other hand, has brought Sturm close friendships; he feels that he and the other platoon commanders share a ‘profound spiritual union’ impossible in peacetime. The war may be terrible, and it may be mechanised and impersonal, but it allows him to glimpse possibilities of authenticity.
This authenticity is the touchstone by which he finds the war’s official rhetoric wanting. Those in command try to motivate soldiers by using fine language and glorifying ‘a hero’s death’. Such words have lost their meaning, and in contrast, Sturm remembers a sergeant who truly knew his men. Before an assault he told them: ‘Kids, we’re going over there now to gobble up the Englishmen’s rations.’ This, decides Sturm was ‘the best battle address’ that had ever heard, because it spoke about something real.
Many of the themes of this novella also appear in British fiction of the twenties, but the German military defeat has concentrated Junger’s mind, and has denied him the consolation that the end has justified the horrors. The ending of the book brings Sturm up against military reality, and he has to face a decision about the terms on which life is worth living. His choice is a grim one.
Junger is a remarkable writer. In this novella he comes across as a romantic with a loathing of modernity, especially as characterised by the overbearing state. The book is grim, and deeply pessimistic – but exceptionally interesting, and well worth reading.

5 Comments

  1. IL
    Posted October 1, 2015 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Interesting — I didn’t know about Sturm. NYRB pub’d his novel The Glass Bees a few years back:

    http://www.nyrb.com/collections/ernst-junger/products/the-glass-bees?variant=1094931969

    And I’ve wanted to check this out too, Copse 125: A Chronicle from the Trench Warfare of 1918,

    http://www.amazon.com/Copse-125-Chronicle-Trench-Warfare/dp/0865274452/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1443692046&sr=8-7&keywords=junger+storm+of+steel

  2. Tom Deveson
    Posted October 1, 2015 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Very interesting review – thank you.

    My old university teacher Peter Stern published a study of Jünger back in 1953:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ernst-Junger-Writer-our-Time/dp/B013KQYK9C

    In it, he says that Jünger wrote in ‘the style of a drill sergeant with a taste for philosophy.’

    There’s something in that, no?

    • Posted October 1, 2015 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

      Or maybe he was an intellectual deeply wishing he could simplify himself into a drill sergeant.

  3. Roger
    Posted October 1, 2015 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Junger’s Paris Journals from WWII are fascinating and horrible – there’s the question of whether he had been absorbed into the monstrosity of Nazism and was not morally aware of what he wrote or whether he was deliberately depicting it in a detached and uninvolved way to acknowledge his involvement.

  4. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted October 2, 2015 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Not too many years ago (ca2001?) Germany honored him with a commemorative postage stamp.


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