On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Ernst Jünger’s death, PHILITT spoke with Julien Hervier, his translator, friend, and biographer who reflected on the life of one of the great German writers of 20th century.
PHILITT: Ernst Jünger is known today for his war writings which would establish him as a major author, from his first book Storms of Steel, published in 1920. The war was destruction but also revelation for him. What did it reveal to him?
Julien Hervier: The truth of the Man. At the start of the Great War, Ernst Jünger was a young man from a bourgeois family, adventurous and psychologically unstable. He was immersed in the Christian morality proper to the society of his time, although his family was rather distant from religion and his father was a fervent rationalist. In the course of the conflict, he discovered what Freud had perfectly analyzed in the same era, but far from the fighting: the unleashing of instinct that breaks all moral barriers erected by civilization. It revealed itself to him without God – he then call himself totally atheist – man was disoriented in the moral scheme. There is, on this subject, a beautiful passage from his novel Lieutenant Sturm: the hero seduces a young prostitute and confesses his instinct to kill and his violent impulses during the assault. It’s as if he was seeking a form of forgiveness in which absolution is given, not by a priest, but by a benign person. We can compare this reaction with an episode from Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, in it an old Republican peasant dramatically describes the loss of his belief in God; he finds its leaves him helpless before the necessities of war, as if he sees himself forced to kill, to whom could he confess his error and how would he be absolved of his sins?
PHILITT: What was Jünger’s place in this intellectual abundance of the interwar German Conservative Revolution?
Julien Hervier: Following the war, there was a whole nebula of extremist movements, on the right as well as on the left, which spent their time dividing themselves. Ernst Jünger collaborated with a certain number of small magazines on the nationalist right. He then appeared as one of the most remarkable personalities of this movement, because of his glorious war experience, symbolized by his exceptional decoration “Pour le mérite.” This decoration was actually given to numerous superior officers, but very rarely to simple infantry lieutenants. He possessed an exceptional combatant’s prestige which would then serve to protect him from Hitler. Moreover, intellectually, he was considered the most brilliant writer in this nebula. From the point of view of style or thought, he is incontestably the most prestigious. In the philosophical scheme, his brother Friedrich Georg had received a much deeper philosophical education than his; furthermore Heidegger considered him a better philosopher than Ernst. But very rapidly, from his arrival on the front, he was seriously wounded and thus didn’t have the occasion to distinguish himself and attain the same military prestige as his brother. Younger and not having experienced the war, though having combat experience in the Freikorps, Ernst von Salomon was also a representative writer of this German right, but he doesn’t situate himself on the same literary level.
PHILITT: Jean-Pierre Faye, in the line of Albert Béguin, didn’t hesitate to write “Thus three friends, Schmitt, Jünger, Heidegger – the strange trio of thinkers – contributed to the language of this Reich that devastated Europe in the Second World War.” What response do you have to these excessive, to say the least, statements?
Julien Hervier: You know Talleyrand’s quote: “All that is excessive is insignificant.” What Faye wrote is purely ideological and of little interest. Here we’re denying a complex reality. What is true on the other hand, it’s that there were degrees of compromise more or less elevated. The altitude at which Carl Schmitt’s thought moves is undeniable, but he was also a careerist eager for honors and success. And at the level of simple moral decency, the moral decency of Orwell or Camus, he behaved in an inadmissible manner when he justified the massacres of the “Night of the Long Knives” by raison d’État. His initial engagement on the side of Hitler was indeed scandalous, even if he then became more critical and ended up being viewed negatively by the regime. Heidegger was in turn a philosopher who didn’t understand what Nazism really was. Against a flood of scientist and purely materialist enthusiasm for technical progress, especially among the Anglo-Saxons and Russians, he thought that this new German party could allow the philosophy of being to resist decline. It’s quite clear that he could only have been disappointed; furthermore he recognized this major error, this “big mistake.” Ernst Jünger, unlike the other two, never joined the Nazi party; and his allegorical novel On The Marble Cliffs was considered at the time, as much by Hitler’s partisans as by his enemies, as a novel of opposition to the Führer, as a work of resistance. The judgment of his contemporaries has more weight than ours.
PHILITT: The Soldier, the Worker, the Rebel, the Anarch, all of these are at the heart of Jünger’s work. What do they tells us about his era?
Julien Hervier: The Worker (Arbeiter in German) is a figure linked to the evolution of technical thought, itself arising from the philosophical thought of the West. It is part of a historical logic of the development of Western civilization, and the man of technology is currently present everywhere. Nevertheless, we must be specific: translated into French, Arbeiter can also have a very particular meaning: that of “worker,” especially since the industrial revolution as analyzed by Karl Marx. But the Jüngerian Arbeiter is a vaster figure, he can also be a general as much as a businessman. Jünger defines him as someone whose values come from technology and its prodigious development over the past past three centuries. He’s a figure of reference, ontological in nature, linked to the essence of civilization. The figures of the Rebel or the Anarch are moral figures. In order to define them, Jünger often used the image of the Leviathan, to which they are contrasted. Leviathan, such as the state conceived by Hobbes in the 17th century, or the present technological state, a state whose omnipotence we see reinforcing itself, thanks to modern means of control over the individual. We are in a world where Big Brother’s control is pervasive and resistance is needed. The “Rebel”, it’s a French translation, but the original German word, der Waldgänger, evokes someone who seeks refuge in the forests. It’s for that reason that in French the book is entitled “Treatise on the Rebel or the Recourse to the Forests.” Jünger refers to the old Icelandic practices in which rebellious people banished from society found refuge in the forests. But Jünger always insisted that, in the modern world, the Rebel doesn’t necessarily hide in nature but he can hide in the most populous cities, camouflaged in the eyes of the state. With the Anarch, he wanted to go further in his analysis of resistance. It must totally shift in relation to the scale of value they seek to impose on us. If we only want to invert it, we are lost, as Montherlant pleasantly wrote: “There is nothing that resembles a torpedo boat more than a destroyer.” Starting from the moment where you accept the problem as posed by your adversary, you are lost. You only reverse his values. The Anarch refuses this game. He doesn’t create a party, and this sense, he distinguishes himself from the anarchist. He is alone while the anarchists are part of a collective movement.
PHILITT: Reading his Parisian Journals, one is instantly struck by a certain passivity, a comfortable atonia during the Second World War. The man of action then disappeared, replaced by the contemplative spirit that he would remain until the end of his life?
Julien Hervier: Jünger couldn’t show what he thought. In a totalitarian regime, if you say that you’re against it, you are immediately shot or sent to a concentration camp. So showing his opposition in an explicit manner would be suicidal and useless. So he only followed the assassination attempt planned by Stauffenberg from afar. He could have still been executed as an accomplice if they reported him; it was punishable by death, even if he was not actively engaged in the operation. One of the motifs of his mission in the Caucasus, at the end of 1942, was to gauge the reactions of officers on the Eastern front, in case of an attempt against Hitler. Furthermore, high treason against the state was incompatible with his vision of the soldier. In his journal he mentions the Roman general Coriolanus, the subject of Shakespeare’s play, who revolted against his country and dreads his fate.
PHILITT: Regarding his work, Jünger mentions “an old and a new testament.” Do you share this vision of two Jüngers?
Julien Hervier: It’s true that an enormous difference exists between the young 20 year old thirsting for action who found the bourgeois world stifling, and the man who matured and became a sort of old sage, absorbed by his research on insects whose progressive disappearance he deplored in an ecological spirit. His evolution is incontestable.
PHILITT: You just wrote a book on Drieu la Rochelle. Une histoire de désamours (Gallimard); what intellectual and personal links did the two men entertain in Paris during the Occupation?
Julien Hervier: They only met rarely, but Drieu la Rochelle had an admiration for the author of Storms of Steel. It was a reciprocal esteem. Rapidly wounded on the field of battle many times, the French writer spent relatively little time on the front; on the contrary, Ernst Jünger fought for the entire duration of the entire war, despite numerous wounds. Their service records had nothing to do with each other, even if Drieu was also very courageous and experienced the exaltation of war. For him, modern war has two aspects: the exhalation of the charge, when he took part in the assault on Charleroi; and panicked terror in the face of the superpower of technology, which expresses itself in his cry of absolute terror at Verdun, under the bombardments that they had to passively endure. This battle embodied all the horror of modern industrial war. What brings these two writers closer together is both the exaltation of physical courage and the vision of war as the revealer of human truth. Neither of them were followers of Rousseau, neither of them believed in fundamental human goodness. However, they diverged on their analyses regarding technology. As from a certain side, we can consider The Worker as an apology for technology: Jünger considers it as something that imposes itself with the same obvious character as the laws of nature. The evolution of Western society cannot escape it. We observe it even more today: for example, how to organize de-growth today, without putting millions of people into unemployment? We are caught in the gears, the world has entered into total dependence on technology. The two authors were great readers of Nietzsche but on this precise point, at the time where he wrote The Worker, Jünger was more Nietzschean than Drieu, as for him, we must day yes to the state of the world as it is. It’s useless to oppose it.
PHILITT: Novalis, the poet, the figure of Romanticism from Jena, exercised a considerable influence on Jünger. Was he the last of the German Romantics?
Julien Hervier: There is indeed an entire aspect that underlines Ernst Jünger’s romanticism, particularly concerning the dimension of the dream. He presents very beautiful narratives of them in his journal. His most beautiful novel, in my opinion, On the Marble Cliffs is also a reinterpreted dream. A dream that he had during a voyage to Rhodes by boat which is not far from the visions of the Apocalypse in the Christian tradition. This dimension of the dream, of the relation to nature, to the unconscious, this refusal of a mechanized vision of the world: all this links him with the German Romantics but also the French symbolists. He is much closer to Rimbaud and Baudelaire, who he admired, than the French Romantics.
PHILITT: We are very familiar with Jünger the warrior, but much less so with Jünger the dabbler in drugs. What was he seeking in what he called “psychonautics?”
Julien Hervier: Precisely, he sought to break the purely rational and materialist comprehension of the world. He was a man of risk who wanted to touch the boundaries. He wanted to see what was on the other side. As much on the field of battle, in violent action, as in the framework of psychological experimentation, but always under the control of instruments of reason. Thus he had did first LSD experiments with his friend Albert Hoffman, the inventor of this drug, and practiced these experiences under strict medical control.
PHILITT: A writer who converted to Catholicism at the end of his life but whose writings nevertheless reveal a profound pagan mystique, what was the place of religion in his life?
Julien Hervier: Having spoken with his wife about it, I can affirm that his conversion to Catholicism at the end of his life was purely social. The Catholic readers of Jünger often want to imagine this moment as a true conversion. But Jünger’s entire body of work tends to show that there is a religious dimension and a form of spirituality among all peoples. He was not far from believing that it was of little import if one worships the Christian Trinity, Jehovah, or Allah … Thus there are texts by him where he says he’s willing to adopt the religion of the place where he finds himself: if he had lived in a Muslim country, he would be a Muslim. In his elderly years, he was perfectly integrated in the Swabian and Catholic world of Wilflingen, whose parish priest he was close to. He believed that in contemporary Western civilization, where death was skirted around, Christian religion remained capable of honoring human beings when they passed. In this sense, his interment was one of solemnity and grandiose simplicity. That’s Chateaubriand genius of Christianity. That’s the reasons for his conversion.
PHILITT: How would you analyze the difference in the perceptions of his work between France and Germany?
Julien Hervier: He’s read a lot more in Germany than in France, even if, among us, there is a little circle of people inspired by Jünger. But in comparison with Germany, his readers are relatively less there. In the “Society of Friends of Ernst and Friedrich Georg Jünger”, there are very few French people. Only three or four of us are coming to the Heiligkreuztal colloquium this year where I’ve sometimes found myself to be the only French person. For a long time, in France, we appreciated literary quality above the political opinions of writers. People hardly questioned their political color then. In Germany, after the fall of Nazism, the question was much more sensitive; unfortunately in France as well, now we’re tending to enter in this logic. Just look at the problems currently posed by Céline and Maurras, though nevertheless commemorations do not mean that we admire people, only that we recognize the importance of the historical role they played. In this domain, the contemporary French mentality tends to blandly join the German mentality.