Ernst Junger on Love and Manliness in Storm of Steel

Today articles are written about whether lowlifes like Ellen Degeneres and George W. Bush should be friends, given that they disagree about political matters. The writers at Vox question whether or not Good Leftists should have any respect for their political enemies. And yet, the Left insists that it has a monopoly on the “politics of love,” a sentiment it attempts to extend toward the oppressed, as well as those who agree with them. But we might wonder: is it possible to love this many people? Doesn’t using the word “love” like this strip it of any meaningful content? Love distinguishes; it discriminates.  

In order to understand love better, we turn to a surprising source: Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel. Storm of Steel is a memoir of his experiences in WWI. [Note, pg numbers will refer to the Penguin Deluxe editon; however, I want to draw your attention to the recently published edition by Mystery Grove Publishing of an earlier translation. The earlier translation is well worth reading, even for veterans of Storm and Steel because it contains more of Junger’s observations about life and his nation. See also Mystery Grove’s illustrated history of the book.] 

Junger suggests to us an orientation toward the world that is entirely foreign to commonly prevailing notions. He provides a new—or, rather, an old—look at masculinity, and on the kind of love and self-respect men ought to strive to make themselves capable of.  

I. Junger’s Love of his Enemies 

The kind of love Junger has for his enemies is neither Christian nor Progressive. The basis of his love is respect or admiration for impressive deeds, skill, and resoluteness. Thus, he does not love all of his enemies equally! It may be that he thinks human dignity has to be won–it is not a given.

 Storm of Steel is filled with praise for enemies; we cannot even attempt to catalogue all of it here. One of his first and most striking thoughts on the matter: “Throughout the war, it was always my endeavor to view my opponent without animus, and to form an opinion of him as man on the basis of the courage he showed. I would always try to and seek him out in combat and kill him, and I expected nothing else from him. But never did I entertain mean thoughts of him. When prisoners fell into my hands, later on, I felt responsible for their safety, and would always do everything in my power for them” (58). He bears no festering resentment. Indeed, throughout the work he evinces much the opposite outlook: he notes the Scots showed by their fighting that they “were real men” and in turn, a mighty Scot is so impressed by Junger that he found him after war and wrote him a letter (248). Junger relies on trans-political judgments of men—he knows a courageous man when he sees him, and takes for granted that there is cross-cultural intelligibility when it comes to such judgments.  

We should note as well that Junger does not kill his enemies in cold blood. There are three successive episodes late in the work where he is faced with such a choice. First, he encounters a wounded man, crouching on the ground. He is an officer who produces a “photograph which he held up to me. I saw him on it, surrounded by numerous family, all standing on a terrace. It was a plea from another world…I hope…he got to see his homeland again” (234). Second, near the end of an exchange, Junger “ran into an English officer in an open jacket and loose tie; I grabbed him and hurled him against a pile of sandbags. An old white haired major behind me shouted: ‘Kill the swine.’ There was no point” (236). Third, during the Great Battle, Junger, after driving most British away from this part of the field, finds himself inside of a British shelter where a man is fitting bullets into a belt over his knee. Instead of killing him on the spot, he says, “Come here, hands up!” (238). The man flees and not knowing what he will do and Junger throws a grenade. 

What are we to make of these episodes? Junger is tough as nails and is not a stranger to violence. But he takes no pleasure in killing for its own sake. Perhaps in the middle example, where he says there is no point, he holds that the man he sees is harmless; or that he isn’t worth wasting a bullet on. At any rate, we might say that Junger sees needless cruelty as something not fit for a man who understands his own worth; for, the cruel man may be attempting to confirm his worth by imagining how terrifying he looks in the eyes of another (on this last point, see PhocaeanDionysius)

II. Junger’s Love of his Friends (and their love in return) 

Junger loves his comrades. Love is not incompatible with self-respect and manliness. And we note, that while he is warm with friends, he still distinguishes them hierarchically on the basis of their excellence. His friend Tebbe is killed at the one of the battles of Cambrai, and he remarks, “A friend of mine with noble qualities with whom I had shared joy, sorrow and danger for years now, who only a few moments ago had called out some pleasantry to me, taken from life by a tiny piece of lead! I could not grasp the fact, unfortunately, it was all too true” (216).

He pulls weaker comrades as close as he can to his own level of excellence: “As we raced on, I gave directions to the lost, pulled some men out of shell-holes, threatened others who wanted to lie down, kept shouting my name, and so brought my platoon, as if by miracle, back to Combles” (102).  

And, throughout the work, Junger records the noble deeds of his comrades, and makes sure they are reported to those higher up so that his men receive well deserved rewards. He does so with great joy and enthusiasm and without envy. Junger enjoys receiving honor when he receives it—but we never see him actively motivated during battle at the prospect of getting medals. He seems more concerned with being a good man. And by becoming a good man, Junger finds himself followed by his men “not only on the basis of rank, but also on character” (89). Indeed, when he has to choose men for an especially dangerous assignment, many of them volunteer and those who are not chosen “were almost in tears over their rejection” (184). And in his greatest moment of peril, when he can no longer move himself because of grave injuries, he “was not forsaken” for his “companions were keeping an eye on me, and soon fresh efforts were made to rescue me” (284). Junger depends on others, but, it was through his overwhelming virtue that he attracted such noble and able helpers.  

III. Junger’s Love of, and Respect, for Himself 

One way in which we do not respect ourselves today, is by our refusal to trust our judgments about things—indeed by our refusal even to make judgments! We say, “Who am I to Judge?”, when it comes to movies, music, and ways of life. However, this doesn’t mean American life is completely relativistic—far from it; for there are hard edges on this anti-nomianism, wherein things that even sniff of racism and sexism are held to be bad. But those who enforce these edges do not exercise judgment; our judgment is usually not clear when we are enveloped in a cloud of righteous indignation. They look to a law code for answers instead of thinking for themselves.  

With the hope of aiding myself and others in the return to our inborn power of judgment, I turn to some of Junger’s own judgments. Note how sure of these judgments he is. He does not waver. Our fear is that this would make him rigid and doctrinaire or incapable of learning; but this is far from the case. For, without attempting our own judgments of things, as good or bad, noble and base, just and unjust, how can we hope to respect ourselves—for we would have no basis from which to do so. And Junger is willing to re-calibrate his judgment when he is occasionally wrong, such as when he learns the hard way that German artillery tends “to shoot short at night” (155).  

 “You can’t say you really know a man if you haven’t seen him under conditions of danger” (211). There is equivocation here. Danger tests as sternly as anything can, the connection between our speeches and deeds. We often say to ourselves that we would die for those that we love—today, almost none of us know in the strictest sense if that is true. For the sake of brevity, I refer you to some of Junger’s judgments of his enemies and friends as further examples, though, we must look to his judgment of freedom’s value.  

Junger is sure of the value of freedom. Near the end of his tale, Junger recounts a doomed retreat.  Junger has taken a hit to the lungs. All around him Germans are surrendering to the British. “There was only the choice between captivity and a bullet” (285). Junger respects himself and that respect is contingent upon his being free. His does not slavishly pursue mere self-preservation in the hands of his foes. Instead he shoots the nearest enemy soldier and takes off. In liberal societies, we sometimes that love of oneself is so compelling that we have a right to do anything; we would have easily excused and not blamed Junger for surrendering. But Junger is not the kind of person who will submit. He will not be put in captivity—perhaps for such a specimen, captivity is death.  

IV. Conclusion 

Junger is thrown, and throws himself, into the fiercest fighting of WWI. He comes out on the other side having grown beautiful under harsh conditions. Junger is not some bro—but he can drink and carouse with the best. He is not a lame book worm—but we often hear of him reading, indeed on nearly the last page of the book, we hear of him reading Tristram Shandy (288; consider his lament at having to leave behind a beautiful, but much too heavy copy of Don Quixote 122). Rather, he is a complete human being whose overflowing of health allows him to take care of himself and others. 

In the West we have lived in an age of security—perhaps will begin to yearn for the extraordinary: “We had come from lecture halls, school desks and factory workbenches, and over the brief weeks of training, we had bonded together into one large and enthusiastic group. Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary” (5). But if we want to begin correctly, we have to learn how to love; how to love deeply; beautifully; and not indiscriminately.   


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