Ernst Jünger: Storm of Steel

October 8, 2013

41THFV0041L._AA160_I was astonished to find writing about the First World War that was even more horrific than Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, but Storm of Steel manages it. It’s the account of four years on various sectors of the Western Front by a German lieutenant who survives (clearly) though wounded and hospitalised seven times, and who was eventually awarded the Empire’s highest military decoration at the age of twenty-three.

Jünger was a nationalist, and some feel his writings glorify war. I was interested, when I looked up what happened to him after, that he refused to support the Nazis or be used by them, that he experimented with LSD and other substances in the 1960s and survived to the age of 102 (among lots of other things).

What stood out for me is that this book is clearly factual – a memoir – in a way that All Quiet isn’t. It was written in 1920, so has immediacy, though not the reflectiveness of the memoirs of British writers such as Graves, Blunden or Sassoon. He fights in Flanders and on the Somme, describing the British attack of 1 July 1916 from the other side. He takes part in the German offensive of spring 1918. His picture of occupied France and Belgium is at odds with other accounts I have come across.

He pulls no punches in his descriptions of war and its effects on people and places. Comrades are mutilated and killed by the score, and he moves on, sometimes allowing that he is affected, but mostly focused on survival for himself and his comrades. You can see how his experience of war over time makes him a better soldier and survivor, even in the chaos of the First World War. You can also see how he gradually realises that Germany will be outfought. I say outfought, because we see the effects of the Allied blockade through the increasingly poor quality of the soldiers’ food, contrasted with the plenty discovered in captured British trenches and dugouts. Equally, the impression is that it’s superior firepower that tips the balance for the Allies: they just shell the daylights out of whatever they plan to attack; there is no limit to their resources, whereas it becomes increasingly clear that Germany is running out of materiél.

The nature of the war also becomes clearer in terms of what each side was faced with. Germany’s great advantage was to have attacked in the first place, and to have had a couple of years to entrench themselves and build fortifications, and it’s clear from the book and from what I saw on my recent trip to the Somme, that these were formidable. Then they could just sit tight. (OK, I oversimplify a little…). The Allies had, therefore, to throw everything they could at the enemy. This led to the total wasteland that we are familiar with from photographs. However, when the war gradually developed into one of movement, however slight, it meant that things were more even: the descriptions of hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches in 1918 are some of the most gripping and horrific in the book.

Only very occasionally do we get a glimpse of the degradation of humanity as a result of war that Remarque portrays so brilliantly in his novel. But I didn’t find myself agreeing with those who felt that Jünger’s book glorifies war. It’s a remorseless account of the effects of human stupidity on those who have no power to change and shape their world, but who want to survive.

2 Responses to “Ernst Jünger: Storm of Steel”

  1. Thanks for the review. I’ve had this book for ages and your interesting take on it has spurred me on to get round to reading it. Do you also know Junger’s novel “On the Marble Cliffs?” I’m going to review it on my blog soon.


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