To howl with the wolves, or to fight them
Ernst Jünger in Kirchhorst (1939–1948)
14 August 2019 — The news reports on the car radio circle around the sense of crisis that is spreading in Germany like an ink stain. The DAX is plummeting, the economy contracts, car manufacturers are still reeling from the effects of Dieselgate and lagging behind in electrification, climate change has escaped our control. Greta Thunberg was at Hambacher Forst to support the activists who want to protect the forest from being razed by energy giant RWE (for open pit coal mining). A group of protesters chained themselves to the railway to delay a shipment of VW cars. The world is changing. Elsewhere things are not much better: the Trump administration welcomes a No Deal-Brexit, Hong Kong is a powder keg, US and China are squaring off in trade and in the South-China Sea.
I returned to Wienhausen just in time to catch dusk settling over the marvelous river Aller. Pure Caspar David Friedrich. I’m in love with that lazy bastard.
The German writer Ernst Jünger lived in the village of Kirchhorst, near Hannover, from 1939 to 1948. In the late 1930s he worked on his most famous novel, On the Marble Cliffs. Later he was mobilised as a Wehrmacht officer. He took part in the military campaign through Belgium and northern France. All this was compellingly documented in his diary Gardens and Streets (‘Gärten und Strassen’). Followed a long stay as a liaison officer in Paris and a short stint in the Kaukasus. At the end of the war, he returned to Kirchhorst. 90% of the city centre of Hannover had been destroyed in the 88 bombing raids of the 1940s. The difficult period preceding the armistice offered the material for his Kirchhorst Notes (‘Kirchhorster Blätter’), followed by The Vineyard Cabin (‘Die Hütte im Weinberg’; also labelled Years of Occupation) which ran until the end of 1948. All these writings have been collected in ‘Strahlungen’. At that point, he was ready to leave Kirchhorst and to relocate to Wilflingen in Baden-Württemberg. During these years of Allied occupation, he started to work on his utopian/dystopian novel ‘Heliopolis’.
11 August — Last night I dreamt about Ernst Jünger. Probably this was triggered by the short online documentary I watched yesterday evening. And my bedtime reading of his strange, creepy essay The Passage into the Forest (‘Der Waldgang’). What struck me in the video was the vitality and boyishness of the very late Jünger. The mischievous, metallic laughter that escaped him at regular intervals. And the contrasting moods of thoughtfulness that repeatedly drifted across his face.
The dream was vivid, with Jünger and myself meeting in an intimate setting. He was affable and forthcoming. I don’t recall any details apart from me asking whether he didn’t miss his books. Initially he brushed my question aside, but then gave it some thought and confessed that he did yearn for his library. In the dream there was an invisible third person present, namely Sophie Ravoux, with whom Jünger allegedly had a romantic liaison when he served at the censorship bureau in wartime Paris. Her presence was merely felt, and she wasn’t even mentioned in our exchange.
Despite the innocuous title, the diary pages of Gardens and Streets cover the outbreak of the Second World War and Jünger’s involvement as a Wehrmacht officer in the invasion of Belgium and France in the spring of 1940. The record starts in the spring of 1939, shortly after Jünger’s move to a new house in Kirchhorst, near Hannover. In these days he was working on his On the Marble Cliffs, a book that has been widely understood as an oblique critique on the Nazi regime. About the ‘Cliffs’ proper we learn nothing from these diary pages. The author only talks about his project in the most circumspect way.
Soon the war erupts and Jünger is called to serve. After a short training stint he spends the winter on a defensive post on the Rhine redoubts near Rastatt. From May 1940 onwards his infantry unit is swept up in the Westfeldzug. However, Jünger and his men never come to be involved in battle. The Blitzkrieg unfolds at a speed that infantry units are barely able to keep up with. The campaign takes him as far as Bourges, south of Paris and back up to the Lorraine, after which he returns to Germany.
Jünger’s observations captivate by virtue of the unsettling contrast between his “salamandrian sense of peace” and self-control and the shocking scenes of carnage (“… a monstrous foyer of death” …) that he witnesses as German troops pour into French territory. The composure not only radiates from the crystalline prose typical for this author, but also from the many finely chiseled and dazzling observations of personal encounters, books read, scenes from the natural world and works of art that Jünger passes along the way. In the chaos of a military campaign Jünger himself remains an unperturbed gentleman-warrior. The contrast between chaos and order is also reflected in his idiosyncratic philosophical outlook that meshes a Platonic streak with a thoroughly modern sensibility as regards the foundational role of the human subject as basis for truth.
“Heraclitus is right: No one crosses the same river twice. The mystery of such change is that it corresponds to changes in our inner being — we form the world, and what we experience is not subject to chance. Things are attracted and chosen by our condition: the world is as we are. So each one of us is able to change the world — that is the tremendous meaning given to human beings. And that is why it is so important that we work on ourselves.”
“Thus in nature, in growth, all measures are already preformed that human art can invent. Our freedom lies in the discovery of the preformed — in our creative acts we penetrate into Creation. The highest thing we can achieve in this way is an inkling of the unchangeable measure of beauty.”
The passage quoted can be puzzlingly read as a constructivist manifesto, or as an expression of a gnostic worldview or as a neo-Platonic doctrine. Which one is it? These kinds of questions seem unavoidable when coming to grips with Jünger.
12 August 2019 — The hotel’s ‘city bike’ was a bit of a bummer: a dusty, 3-speed women’s bike with a soft saddle, mushy tires and a basket on the rear rack. But I rode it 65 km regardless, most of it with a stiff breeze head-on.
It was a beautiful day. Balmy, with mild temperatures throughout. The sun was mostly present but time and again went into temporary hiding behind a sky-wide flotilla of clouds. The land here in Niedersachsen is flat and mostly given to relatively large scale agriculture. Compact forested areas dot what would otherwise be a monotonous landscape. I was surprised to discover that there is practically no moor left. Apparently there are isolated pockets but I didn’t see any. One distinctive feature in the area is the monumental slag heaps that have emerged as the result of potash mining. It is a dying industry but its vestiges are monumental, even pharaonic.
I mounted my bicycle GPS on the hotel bike but decided to roam rather than to plot a fixed trajectory. I stayed away from the main roads where there are no cycling paths and Germans tend to drive very fast. Instead I used the tarmacked passages that criss-cross the farming lands in nearly straight lines. On the whole this drifting approach worked well (I had to retrace my steps only once).
My goal for the day was ‘das Beinhorner Wäldchen’, a ribbon of forest just west of the small town of Burgdorf. Jünger often visited the place when he went on an errand and on his way to and from Kirchhorst invariably passed through that wooded area at Beinhorn. On 14 December 1944, he writes in his diary just this: “Break at the Beinhorn Forest, which is one of my spiritual places, like the Place des Ternes in Paris. Here I decided to engage in a second complete Bible reading, in the Lutheran translation, with notes.”
First, there is the Great War. Jünger was a highly decorated junior officer in the war and one of the select few recipients of Germany’s highest military distinction, the ‘Ordre pour le Mérite’. Jünger’s Storms of Steel (‘Im Stahlgewittern’), his fictionalised account of his war experience, is also the most likely way to get acquainted with the author. I have a puzzling personal relationship with the First World War. It is a conflict that seems to affect me emotionally in a very direct way. More than once I found myself very moved when visiting memorial sites in France and Flanders. It seems like there is some latent memory about the horror witnessed during those years. I can’t otherwise explain it. In any case, here is a very obvious area for me that leads to a rapport with Ernst Jünger.
Jünger is, however, more than an exemplary warrior. He is a protean figure, impossible to pin down: soldier, certainly, but also man of letters, scholar, prophet, aristocrat, dandy, hermit, intrepid traveler … He is often described in terms that seem to exclude one another: ‘conservative revolutionary’, ‘classical modernist’. All in all, he seems to be a man from another, almost mythical era. His capacity to maintain his creative powers into very old age (he almost live to be 103) certainly contributes to his aura.
I have a somewhat ambiguous assessment of Jünger as author. His diaries (particularly the mid-life, war-time ‘Strahlungen’) are brilliant, full of potent images from the natural world, from his dreams, and riddled with deep reflections informed by classical authors and religious texts. These writings have an alluring, hermetic character as if they present a brilliant surface layer on a truth that can only be discovered by the initiated.
Although On the Marble Cliffs led me to Jünger, I am less convinced by his novels. Now they strike me as rather stilted and old-fashioned. And I have yet to discover his essayistic work, but I’m expecting him to be much more in his element there. Whatever the genre, Jünger is an accomplished stylist who writes a finely chiselled, restrained and somewhat ponderous prose that resonates with my love for classical German literature.
What about Jünger’s ideas? That’s not an easy question to answer either. For a start, there is not a single Jünger. One might make a distinction between the young, the middle-aged and the older writer. But overall, Jünger doesn’t fit well with our present times. Many would consider him reactionary and politically incorrect. His cultural criticism is squarely elitist and has little patience with democratic dawdling. I am in two minds about this, as I am about Nietzsche’s thinking of which Jünger’s clearly is an offshoot. Nevertheless, somewhere deep down I feel attracted to this craggy stoicism and uncompromising individualism. Also, one shouldn’t forget that we are talking about a man who lived through ‘times of exception’: two world wars, and an interbellum under the shadow of the unjust Treaty of Versailles (viz. Gregory Bateson), and failing capitalism (the 1929 crash), life in a murderous totalitarian state. This era asked for uncompromising ideas. Finally, there is a visionary side to this author which resonates with core ideas from the systems tradition. Partly this is rooted in Jünger’s deep interest in natural history (botany, entomology), partly in his speculations about culture in an age dominated by technology (they converge in a literary fable such as ‘The Glass Bees’, for instance).
12 August 2019 — I didn’t get to Beinhorn until early afternoon and it was a disappointment. Whatever is left of the forest seems to be off limits because of a gravel quarry operated by a cement company. Also, the road from Burgdorf to Kirchhorst is a busy thoroughfare, luckily outfitted with a decent cycling path. But there is hardly any ‘genius loci’ to be enjoyed here.
I pressed on to Kirchhorst then, to visit the Jünger house at Steller Strasse 15. The village today is almost absorbed in the metropolitan area of Hannover. The house was not difficult to find. It’s a vicarage, located in the shadow of an attractive, wooden village church (hardly mentioned by Jünger). At present it again fulfills its original purpose and there is nothing that alludes to Jünger’s stay here, not even a memorial plaque. A lady pointed me to a beech tree on the nearby cemetery in which the author allegedly carved his initials and the roman numerals XXXIX as a reference to the year his family took possession of the house. I was pleased with my visit. The place felt well and in my mind Jünger’s diary notes assumed much greater plasticity. It had been worth the trip.
The Kirchhorster Blätter cover the period between his departure from nearly-liberated Paris (August 1944) and the taking of Hannover by troops from the US Ninth Army (April 1945). It’s a brilliant collection of reflections, obviously coloured by the general mood of despair of those days. Hannover continued to be the target of ceaseless waves of Allied bombings. Scenes of Piranesian gloom (a Jünger expression) abound in the Blätter. But it hardly surprises that Jünger was also transfixed by the demonic beauty of the colossal squadrons that steamrolled Nazi Germany.
The starless center of gravity of these pages is, however, the death of Jünger’s 18-year old son Ernstel who served in a mechanised infantry (‘Panzergrenadiere’) unit at the Italian front. Ernstel fell late in November ’44, but his parents only learned about it six weeks later. Jünger was shaken to the core: “The pain is like rain, which initially is evacuated wholesale, then slowly penetrates the ground. The mind does not grasp it all at once. We have now also entered the True One, the only church of this war, a secret brotherhood.” (and while the reflection is touching enough the reference to a ‘secret brotherhood’ also reveals that Jünger is not free from Teutonian kitsch).
From then onwards, thoughts about his son’s death are a sombre motto theme in the diary. For a long time after the war, Jünger remained suspicious about the circumstances of his son’s death. And not without reason, as early in 1944 Ernstel had been arrested while he served as a Marinehelfer, on account of his overt critique on the Nazi regime and on Hitler himself. After almost three months in custody he was discharged, but he felt compelled to quickly join an infantry unit to be safe from interference by the Gestapo. Only in 1995 Jünger received confirmation, in the form of a letter by one of Ernstel’s former comrades, that his son had not been executed by a loyal Nazi supporter in his own unit but was killed by an enemy bullet.
Jünger takes up his reading of the Bible again, starting afresh with the Book of Genesis. Early spring lightens the mood of his reflections. His deep reverence for the unceasing cycle of renewal shines through. And also the dissolution of twelve years of suffocating Nazi regime feels like a blessing. The last days covered by the diary are tense. The arrival of American troops is imminent, the house is flooded by refugees and Jünger is in charge of a Volkssturm unit with orders to delay the enemy tanks as long as possible. He kept his intention to do nothing of the sort concealed so as to avoid last-minute complications with Nazi fanatics. On 10 April the US troops poured into Kirchhorst and the Blätter end.
12 August 2019 — I returned to Burgdorf and took the train to Celle, ambled through the attractive old town, spent some time in the only decent bookshop I could find and had a meal before I set off to cover the remaining 10 km to the hotel at Wienhausen. I followed the dreamy Aller river that meanders through a touchingly bucolic landscape. The summer evening ambiente was magical. I stopped frequently to savour the atmosphere. One place in particular held me in thrall: a vast clearing bordered by a monumental forest edge. These sights speak of a lost world. It seems as if the real world starts right there and we are looking at it from the outside.
“… here it comes down to howling with the wolves or to fighting them.”
Jünger’s Waldgang essay from the early 1950s makes for uncomfortable reading, in tone and in substance, and also in the mixture of the two. The voice here is supremely controlled and equanimous but calls in no uncertain terms for a radical form of resistance. The mix has something Mephistophelian and chills to the bone. Qua substance there is much which goes against the grain of my personal worldview.
Der Waldgang is an individual act of resistance in an era that is affected by total nihilism. With great vitality nihilism clothes itself in the garb of liberal democracies and totalitarian regimes alike. Moral relativism, obsession with technology, statistical laws that explain the behavior of ‘the collective’, and fear, particularly fear, are the order of the day.
“In fact, increasing automation and fear feed upon each other. Technical supports constrain people in their agency. This engenders comfort, but it inevitably also brings about a loss of freedom (…) Merely the need to check the news regularly during the day is a sign of fear. The delusions grow and paralyse in an upward spiral movement.”
Seven decades later we are moving relentlessly but terror-stricken into an age of big data, artificial intelligence, fake news and round-the-clock social media frenzy. Terror domesticates.
“The position of a domesticated animal gives way to that of an animal ready for slaughter” [In German it sounds more bitingly “Die Lage des Haustiers zieht die des Schlachttiers nach.”]
The metaphorical ‘passage into the woods’ is to resist this remorseless movement towards serfdom. Even as an isolated individual: “Es geht nicht mehr um Zahlenverhältnisse, sonders um Seinsverdichtungen.” (Again, in English it sounds more tamely “This is not a matter of quantities but of quality of being.”) The ‘Woodman’ extends the heroic archetype of the soldier holding the ‘Verlorene Posten’ (the untenable position). But the one who disappears into the woods is not a soldier, or an anarchist for that matter. It’s a new archetype that has as its core purpose to embody a radical freedom, beyond doubt and pain.“Today, freedom is the big theme. It is the power that is able to subdue fear. The main duty of the free person is to model it in an effective way and to reveal it in resistance.” Jünger’s view resonates here more with contemporaneous existentialists than he cared to admit.
The tactics of the ‘woodmen’ vary. They disrupt when they can, they blend in when necessary. Displays of kind-heartedness and generosity can also signal resistance. Underlying all is a radical autarky, a careful avoidance of the strictures of the system, a focus on the here and now, a distaste for abstractions, a contact with the numinous and the sources of moral rectitude that have not yet been spoiled by nihilism.
Jünger criss-crosses these themes rhapsodically in 33 short chapters. The voice is barely raised, but the granite prose deals blow after blow to our smug, post-modernist worldview. There is much in these pages from which I instinctively recoiled. But I also sensed that there is a piece of truth in there that demands to be acknowledged. We need to get rid of our fear and sense of guilt — not, as mainstream conservative pundits would like us to believe, in favour of a ‘rational weighing of risks’ — but in response to an uncompromising sense of merit and self-respect.
13 August 2019 — The visit to Bergen-Belsen was depressing. The area is enchantingly beautiful and it was a perfect day. But the thought of the 70.000 people who perished there. At the exhibition I read up on Irma Grese and Elizabeth Volckenrath — twenty-somethings who used to work as hairdressers and shop assistants and turned into beastly ‘Oberaufseherinnen’. Jünger: “Behind the next counter, our executioner may appear. Today he sends us a registered letter, tomorrow he’ll deliver a death sentence. He’ll punch our ticket today and tomorrow he will put a bullet in the back of our heads. He’ll do both with the same pedantry, the same sense of duty.” I noticed another striking example of Nazi pedantry on some of the facsimile documents on display: apparently they had typewriters with a separate ‘SS runes’ key. I ate a cheese sandwich at the cavernous museum restaurant and felt bad about it. It’s not a place to eat. When I walked back to the car there was a rowdy group of adolescents on the museum concourse acting out a rather bizarre scene with military salutes and even a ‘Hitlergruß’. I wasn’t sure and stopped to observe. They fell back in line. There’s this leaden feeling after having spent time at these places. I also experienced it at the Verdun necropole, the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin, and in the inner city of Dresden.
Onwards then. I drove north to the Lüneburger Heide. A German friend advised to visit the Totengrund, a giant depression (a ‘kettle hole’) centrally located in a natural park. The time was right too with the heather in full bloom. The walk took me three hours. It was a ‘Waldgang’ of sorts, but not in a Jüngerian mood of defiance and aloofness. I was pre-occupied, unfocused. My mind scattered over all kinds of anxieties.
One of the most intriguing facets of Jünger was his life-long interest in the natural world. His passion for flowers and insects got hold of him as a young boy. In the 1920s Jünger studied zoology at Leipzig University, before dropping out to devote himself to his writing. He developed into an indefatigable botanist and entomologist, traveling around the world, until very old age, in search of new specimens. Several species of beetle have been named after him. At the end of his life the Jünger estate at Wilflingen contained a collection of 40.000 insect specimens.
There is something quirkily old-fashioned about this collector’s obsession. It’s as if a focus on the neatly categorised marvels of nature allowed Jünger to stay sane amidst the political turmoil and bloodshed of the 20th century. His novel ‘On the Marble Cliffs’, published in 1939, foregrounds two brothers who are spending their days botanising from their isolated base on an escarpment overseeing the unruly territory of the ‘head forester’. Metaphorically it has been read as Jünger’s inner emigration in the face of the alarming and sordid rise of nazism. Contributing to the grand Linnean scheme of life, by categorising and naming minute and fragile creatures, is an ultimate attempt to protect a modicum of order amidst chaos.
Here again surfaces the puzzling contradiction between a mystical Platonism and thoroughly modern sense of contingency, so typical for Jünger. On the one hand, he seems to suggest, the visible natural world is underpinned by an immutable cosmic order. A narrow range of systemic patterns shines through the teeming variety of organic life. The flower is a mandala that offers us a glimpse into the fundamental structure of nature. However, despite our patient efforts to describe and to catalogue, the abundance continues to escape our sense-making faculties. The map of the world will always remain unfinished. Every ordering by the human mind, therefore, is temporary and subject to emendation by nature’s spawning complexity. We are left to the establishment of a few boundary markers, a number of personal beacons (‘Fixpunkte’) to help us to navigate the unfolding territory.
Jünger’s attunement to natural forms and processes, for the lie of the land, is an expression of the geopoetic core of his life project. Geopoetics is a project of world-making that pivots on ‘a sensitive contact between human beings and the cosmos’. Kenneth White: “Geopoetics moves over into presence-in-the-world, experience of field and territory, openness of style, in a relationship of configurational complicity with the cosmological poetics of the universe.” Ernst Jünger, early in 1940, when he had just left Kirchhorst for military service:
Returning from the shooting, I rode through an old oak copse of the Hardt and thought, half in my mind, “This ought to be pasture for a black woodpecker.” At the same moment, as if emerging out of thought, I saw the animal, for the second time in my life, with a glowing red mop of hair sweeping in wavy flight from a scrawny treetop. I understood it almost as a miracle, like a creation of my own — very similar to how the things you think about come forward in dreams. And yet I have often felt this way in my life with flowers, animals and also with people. This is also one of the higher levels and unfathomable attractions of hunting insects; the whole scholarly apparatus that supports it is just a tool. Wherever the feeling of harmony seizes us with power, the details jump magically forward, as if added with a final brushstroke.
16 August 2019 — The image that stays with me from this week’s trip is that of the meandering river Aller. It is beckoning me. In conjunction with my Jünger pilgrimage I’m discovering the work of François Jullien, French sinologist and philosopher. Here is a quote from the prologue to his book ‘Living Off Landscape’:
“We can pause before the landscape as before a ‘spectacle’: a spectaculum. (…) But a landscape can be something else entirely. It can draw into the ceaseless play of its correlations and stir our vitality with its various tensions. (…) For a landscape ceases to be a ‘corner’ of the world. What is revealed instead, arising suddenly and whole, is the stuff of worlds, the stuff that gives rise to a world. And thus, discreetly, a place becomes a link. I begin to establish a sense of connivance with the landscape, a sense that I can no longer take my leave. (…) It hooks into the vital. (…) I thereby clear the way for another possibility: that we might consider this thing called ‘landscape’ not longer as the ‘part’ of the land that nature ‘presents’ to an ‘observer’, in the ordinary definition, but as a resource on which living can indefinitely draw.”