I was surprised when I heard Ernst Jünger’s (1895-1998) Storm of Steel, a German stormtrooper’s World War I memoir, would be rereleased as a Penguin Deluxe Edition. While Storm of Steel is rich in detail and beautifully written, other books with a much more politically-correct revulsion to the carnage of World War I—such as All Quiet on the Western Front—are often preferred to this book.
Storm of Steel was first published in 1920, very soon after the end of the war, taking its chronology directly from Jünger’s wartime diary. Poetic and ethereal in its descriptions of trench warfare, Storm begins when Jünger, who quit the French Foreign Legion to serve his homeland, is shunted westward to the front line, and ends when he is bestowed the medal of merit near war’s end. There is no mention of the narrator’s life before the war, and no speculation about why a war is being fought at all, only the urgent reportage of the moment:
The tender green of young leaves shimmered in the flat light. We followed hidden, twisting paths towards a narrow gorge behind the front line. We had been told that the 76th was to attack after a bombardment of only twenty minutes, and that we were to be held in reserve. On the dot of noon, our artillery launched into a furious bombardment that echoed and re-echoed through the wooded hollows. For the first time, we heard what was meant by the expression, ‘drumfire’. We sat perched on our haversacks, idle and excited. A runner plunged through to the company commander. Brisk exchange. ‘The three nearest trenches have fallen to us, and six field guns have been captured!’ Loud cheers rang out. A feeling of up-and-at-’em.
This passage, from the third chapter, “Les Eparges,” is representative of how Jünger juxtaposes the chaos of modern war with the natural beauty of his surroundings, the adult realities of war with the naïve and misplaced enthusiasms of enlisted boys. The sentences are staccato, mirroring the ‘echoing,’ ‘re-echoing’ bombardment, and the use of fragments maintains an extremely close psychic distance.
Because Jünger wrote and published Storm of Steel so soon after the war, it is often considered to be much closer to the reality of combat than other more famous literary works on the war—those by Sassoon and Remarque, for instance—whose books were not published until much later. And because Storm did almost nothing but describe—and in a way, celebrate—the sheer experience of warfare, it became political by omission; soon Jünger and his book were wildly popular with the new German Right. At one point Jünger even found himself exchanging signed books with a starstruck young Adolf Hitler, whose adulation Jünger did not reciprocate. Despite such endorsements, Storm of Steel has survived as Jünger’s most influential work, despite a prolific output which lasted right up until the author’s death at age 103 in 1998.
In some sense it is easy to see why this classic memoir of World War I, which has never been out of print in its native Germany, remains important. In another sense, however, it is difficult to see why a book espousing the purity and quasi-baptismal effects of combat remains relevant. Jünger is indeed a titan of the twentieth century, but he’s Germany’s titan, hardly ours. Perhaps this is why this new edition of Storm of Steel includes a brief forward by the author of Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes, someone ostensibly concerned with the enduring importance of the experience of combat. While Marlantes ties Jünger’s experiences to his own in the Vietnam war, the foreword does not quite succeed in making Storm of Steel feel relevant beyond the war-memoir niche.
Jünger is more broadly relevant in Germany, Italy, and France, where he is remembered as one of the most important authors of the twentieth century. On this side of the Atlantic the Hanoverian has not done quite so well. Much of what exists in English is out of print and hard to come by. No other book depicts so beautifully the horror and the awful majesty of trench warfare, but that, in and of itself, does not a classic make. Does Storm of Steel really belong in a fancy deluxe edition next to Jane Austen’s Emma? As an avid reader of Jünger, I was excited to see this new edition, but I’m not sure I quite get it.