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A German Officer in
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B+ : fascinating if limited and idiosyncratic experience of the Second World War
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The complete review's Review:
A German Officer in Occupied Paris is, somewhat surprisingly, the first translation of Strahlungen I-II -- Ernst Jünger's The War Journals, 1941-1945.
Jünger, a decorated World War I hero, was already internationally well-known before the time covered in these diaries, his memoir of that First World War, In Stahlgewittern (1920, but repeatedly revised) already translated into English -- as The Storm of Steel -- in 1929 (and more recently, in Michael Hofmann's 2003 translation, as Storm of Steel).
Many of the letters I receive take on an ominous, eschatological tone, like cries from the deepest regions of the vortex, that place that gives us a glimpse of rock bottom.At times, his turns away from the war around him are almost comical in their (admitted) willfulness -- not least in this beautiful scene from the times of height of the Allied bombings, in February, 1945:
Discourse at the garden gate:A number of people are referred to by pseudonyms, even as their identities aren't in the least hidden by them: Jünger's wife Gretha is called 'Perpetua', his mistress 'Charmille' and 'Doctoresse' -- and Hitler is referred to only as: 'Kniébolo'. Beyond that, Jünger name-drops right and left, as he moved in what might otherwise be considered very fine circles -- otherwise but for the fact that we're talking about Nazi-occupied Paris, and more than a whiff of collaboration hangs heavily over these, such as the salon of Florence Gould. Jünger socializes with Céline and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, as well as Paul Morand (The Man in a Hurry, etc.) and Jean Cocteau; he visits the studios of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque (yes, both hung around in Paris during the war years) -- "two great painters of our age", he acknowledges. And Max Beckmann -- denounced as a degenerate artist by Hitler and laying low in the Netherlands -- sends his greetings via a mutual acquaintance.
Among the most remarkable scenes is the visit he makes in July, 1944 to the house of art collector Jean Groult, with its incredible collection (all still on site at that time, in and alongside the "Pompeiian galleries, terraces with parrots and ringneck doves"). Jünger also mentions:
The coal shortage is a nuisance. The household requires a staff of more than twenty.Jünger has many interests. He is old-school social, many of his days filled with making and receiving visits. He is cultured -- interested in theater, music, art -- but also of a scientific bent, with a great interest in entomology. As to the political -- he's more of the historical-sweep school than concerned with (or willing to go on record about ...) most of the war-warped politics of the day, though he's certainly less than thrilled with what Hitler has wrought (even as he sees the seeds of a possible great revival in the coming destruction). Among the more interesting-cryptic notebook entries is one from August, 1942, when he writes: "Destroyed papers in the morning, including my plan for an effective peace that I had composed last winter"; one wonders what he had in mind .....
He is, above all, a bookish man -- and delights in what Paris has to offer in this respect, from the books he can buy to the general literary ambience. As late as January 1944 he takes the time to visit Verlaine's grave -- and is impressed to find a bouquet there: "Not every poet still has fresh flowers on his grave after fifty years".
When he's due to go east he laments:
I shall miss the world of books; I have spent precious hours in it -- oases in a world of carnage. Walking along either bank of the Seine represents perfection in its own right; time flows by easily. It's hard to imagine how to improve on this, and it would not be anywhere near as beautiful if the books cost nothing.He frequents the books stalls and the antiquarian shops -- and picks up some nice odds and ends, casually noting, for example:
Went to Berès in the evening, where I looked at books. I bought the old Malleus Maleficarum [Hammer of Witches] by Sprenger in the Venice edition of 1574. The purchase would have excited me more twenty years ago, when I was studying hallucinogens along with magic and Satanism.Jünger's choice of reading can be eclectic, and is certainly wide-ranging: "I am reading the back issues of Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Insektenbiologie [Journal of Scientific Entomolgy], alternating with the Jewish War by Flavius Josephus" (6 December 1943) to the December 1944 mention that: "I've begun to read about the quite topical subject of shipwrecks" or picking up the journal Zalmoxis, where he's impressed by two articles by Mircea Eliade ("Every sentence contains fecundity"). Mostly, however, it's literature he immerses himself in. Jünger often makes brief notes about the authors and books he is reading, sometimes little more than asides but generally quite interesting. He rereads Faulkner's Pylon: "because it describes the abstract hell of the world of technology with such precision" (a particular concern/bugbear of his), and finds Malraux is one of those: "rare observers with an eye for the war-ravaged landscape of the twentieth century". Washington Irving's Sketch Book is: "one of those works of great literature that I have neglected for too long", while he is stymied by Dumas' (misspelled here as 'Alexander, sigh) novels:
The annoying thing about such texts is that their author avoids describing nuanced and gentle impressions while recording and exaggerating lurid ones. Reading them is like walking through meadows thronged with larger-than-life blossoms, while grasses and moss are absent.Beginning with Brave New World, Jünger goes through an Aldous Huxley phase, never quite won over (finding his: "lack of structure tiresome") but acknowledging that: "Huxley -- the precise observer and analyst -- delivers the scientific scaffolding of our era" and suspecting that he just might "enjoy posthumous recognition". Jünger sums up:
His is a case of an anarchist with conservative memories who opposes nihilism.Jünger notes how the conditions of this war affect him (and, presumably, others) as reader: "One feels that huge numbers of books will not cross those custom barriers of the mind that he erects" He can turn to de Tocqueville's Democracy in America ("Amazing insights are to be found there"), Adalbert Stifter ("the Hesiod of the moderns"), and Kipling ("His later dandyism combines with a good knowledge of all those aspects of morality and amorality that are necessary for dominance"). Appropriately enough, he dips into Pepys. The Other Side-author Alfred Kubin ("that old sorcerer") sends him a couple of things, and he reads Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes and the decadents Octave Mirbeau (praising Torture Garden: "for clearly delineating the beauty and savagery of the world") and Huysmans.
The one author he returns to most often is Léon Bloy -- "not yet a classic writer, but some day he will be" --, who fascinates him:
His mind has a certain condensed quality of something boiled down, like a soup made from extinct fishes and mussels whose flavor has intensified. Good to read when the appetite has been destroyed by too much bland food.Part of the attraction seems also to be Bloy's: "shockingly powerful hatred, which can vie with Kniébolo's own"; ultimately, Jünger sums up:
Bloy is like a tree rooted deep in a swamp yet producing sublime blossoms at its top.This, of course, also reflects Jünger's own situation, as he finds himself mired in a world of rot yet continues to reach, long for, and embrace the simple-beautiful.
Jünger also gets quite caught up in Bible, reading it closely, especially in the latter stages of the war. Religion is not put at the fore here, but belief is important to him; still, it's striking when, at one point, he seems to lose all other faith and suggests:
Of all the cathedrals only one remains -- that built by the dome of our folded hands. In that alone lies our security.Jünger is also hopelessly old-fashioned in his clinging to ideals of nobility -- one reason for his disdain for Hitler, who represented anything but. It allows him to have a glimmer of hope for the future: out of destruction tradition can arise again. The war brought about a: "decline in our ability to discriminate moral categories" -- but not just the war, but the whole technological approach brought to it, and brought to society in general. Jünger sees an epic failure here, technology the worst (or at least most mishandled) of advances:
As a product of the purely masculine intellect, it is like a predator whose overwhelming menace mankind has not immediately recognized. We have foolishly raised this animal in close quarters with ourselves, only to discover that it cannot be domesticated.So also, for him, war is being fought all wrong, on a fundamental level:
I am overcome by loathing for the uniform, the epaulettes, the medals, the weapons, all the glamour I have loved so much. Ancient chivalry is dead; wars are waged by technicians. Mankind has thus reached the stage described by Dostoevsky in Raskolnikov. He views people like himself as vermin.How far his delusion goes can be seen when he meets a fan -- "one of those readers who was introduced to my works as a child and has grown up with them". Yes:
For me it is a pleasure to see how young people who have learned from me can get right to the point. The fate of Germany is hopeless if a new chivalric order does not emerge from its youth, and especially its workers.So also he mourns those who pay the price in the aftermath of the failed attempt on Hitler's life on 20 July 1944, the German officers of the old school: "of the last chivalric men, of those freethinkers -- the very people who are superior to the others, whose feelings and thoughts are but petty emotions".
Jünger does not mention Hitler particularly often -- understandably cautious, too, though the observations he makes are astute, from how: "Propaganda takes precedence over everything else" to Hitler's reliance on: "dissension, partisanship, and hatred". So also, he finds:
In brief, the nineteenth century was a rational one, while the twentieth century is sectarian. Kniébolo feeds on this -- hence the complete inability of the liberal intelligentsia even to perceive where he stands on matters.As the tide turns to inevitable defeat, in the summer of 1944, he observes:
The leadership is trying to promote hope in new and unknown weapons because they are incapable of new ideas. The complete lack of judgment shown by the masses as they permit themselves to be deceived into s a state of euphoria remains remarkable.By the time he hears Hitler's New Year's address in 1945 Jünger sees only the abyss:
This descent into ever-darker regions is horrifying -- it is a meteoric plunge from the sphere of salvation. Destruction must inevitably grow from these chasms and fire spew forth from them.As the war winds down, even Jünger can't ignore the collapse around him. There's the fear of harm to loved ones at home, as the Allied bombing raids reach there as well. There's the personal tragedy of his son falling, late in the war, on the Italian front. And yet, as he notes while taking the train in the spring of 1944, passing by a succession of bombed-out cities: "It is horrible how quickly we grow accustomed to the sight."
Early on, Jünger delineates and admits what he believes (or hopes ?) his record will amount to:
Concerning this journal. It captures only a certain layer of events that take place in intellectual and physical spheres. Things that concern our innermost being resist communication, almost resist our own perception.Yet in this odd mishmash, there's much that is personally revealing too; certainly a good (if not fully three-dimensional) picture of the man emerges.
Far-ranging, A German Officer in Occupied Paris is an odd picture of the Second World War. There's much that Jünger is careful about revealing -- understandably, too, since his writing could be held against him at any time, if it was inspected. Still, it's striking when he writes about learning in October 1943 about the mass-killings of Jews, by gas and other methods: it's information that appalls him, yet he then also goes no further in probing it, and it does not seem to lead him to question his own role in this horrible machine of death any more than anything else had, or will.
In an endnote the translators note that some factual (dating) errors in the text suggest: "an occasionally erratic chronology of personal material", and in his Foreword Elliot Neaman gives the example of Jünger's account of climbing to the roof of the Hotel Raphael as Paris was being bombed -- the problem being that on that date: "On 27 May 1943, however, there were no air strikes over Paris". [In an unfortunate proofing-slip, Neaman writes 27 May 1943, when of course the entry is from 27 May 1944.] Jünger's account certainly seems carefully -- cautiously -- constructed, but what misrepresentations there might be don't seem overly significant: that this is a intensely subjective (with all the limitations that implies) work surely is a given. This is more a book of impressions -- one man's impressions -- and while Jünger restricts himself to aspects of his life (i.e. leaving much of his professional work out of the picture), even this limited picture is certainly an intriguing one, both regarding his person, and the environments (Occupied Paris; the Eastern Front; near-provincial Kirchhorst) he describes.
It appears the German title of these diaries -- Strahlungen -- comes from how he imagines the reading experience might be seen in these heightened times (or perhaps in some future (when the hated technicians have made advances in even this area)) -- and suggesting, also, how he imagines or maybe even wants the reading experience already to be for these writings:
Books in name only, but actually psychological machines to manipulate people. The reader enters a chamber and gets a dose of cosmic radiation. After reading the book, he becomes someone else. Reading, too, is now different -- it is accompanied by the awareness of danger.Jünger's chivalric world-view will hardly convince, and readers are unlikely to be changed anywhere near as much as Jünger might wish or imagine (unlike those youthful, impressionable Germanic readers of his earlier work he encounters ...) but, even for all its limitations, A German Officer in Occupied Paris is a remarkable slice of World War II, and makes for fascinating reading.
- M.A.Orthofer, 17 January 2019
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German author Ernst Jünger lived 1895 to 1998.
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