A German Officer in Occupied Paris: Ernst Jünger (The War Journals 1941-1945)

“Who will stand by us after these spectacles have finished?”

It wasn’t easy to read Ernst Jünger’s A German Officer in Occupied Paris. There’s the entire: “they were the bad side” aspect of things of course, but my difficulties … no my discomfort … from reading this book came from a different source. More of that later.

The lengthy, informative introduction from Elliot Neaman offers a summary of Jünger’s life and views. Ernst Jünger fought in WWI and was wounded 14 times. Following WWI, he wrote Storm of Steel (which I’ve never read and probably wouldn’t like), and was “one of Germany’s foremost authors of the war generation.” When WWII arrived, Jünger, in his mid 40s, joined his old company,  and in 1941, he served as a military censor in Paris. Not only did he read the letters home written by German soldiers, but he read “French newspapers and other publications for signs of insubordination.”  While performing that job, Jünger kept a journal, and it’s a rather peculiar read.  The book contains two journals “from his tour of duty in Paris, his sojourn in the Caucasus, and his visits and then homecoming to the house in Kirchorts.”

A German Officer

As I read the Paris entries, the title of Richard Attenborough’s film “Oh What a Lovely War,” kept coming into my head. Yes I suppose someone had to serve in Paris, the lucky buggers, while others were on the Eastern Front.  Jünger’s office was in the Hotel Majestic and he socialized with “intellectuals and artists across the political spectrum.” Jünger carried on several affairs and waxes on about beauty. We read about his dreams and what he was reading. Where was the war?? It was all a bit horrifying, and yes I read about how he sympathized with various people and knew about the plot to kill Hitler, but honestly, the journal left a bad taste in my mouth. Not that I expected Jünger to bitch about Hitler (mention is made in the intro of how Jünger burned many personal papers), and Jünger seems too intelligent to be caught venting spleen on the pages of his diaries, and yet …. there’s something also repugnant here.

Like a God in France, Jünger operated on the edge of politics in Paris, rather like a butterfly fluttering among the resistors and collaborators. He didn’t trust the generals, who had taken a personal oath to Hitler, to be able to carry out a coup. Jean Cocteau later quipped: “Some people had dirty hands, some had clean hands, but Jünger had no hands.”

More than anything, the diary raised, for me at least, the question of moral culpability. Jünger “saw himself as part of the resistance to Hitler even though he believed that active opposition was pointless.” He refused many official posts under Hitler, and the intro goes into depth regarding Jünger’s involvement/knowledge of plots against Hitler.

I thought about The White Rose. Most of the members of White Rose were very young. Their courageous acts did not have the desired political results, so did they die for nothing? And yet when I read about Jünger, living in luxury, doing well and rubbing elbows with all sorts even as he did not approve of Hitler, well it sort of turned my stomach. At one point, Jünger references “charnel houses” and writes about “the monstrous atrocities perpetrated by the Security Service after entering Kiev. Trains were again mentioned that carried Jews into poison gas tunnels. Those are rumors, and I note them as such but extermination is certainly occurring on a huge scale.” And yet then Jünger immediately moves, bizarrely, into this WTF moment, denying individual mandate and responsibility, mourning how war has lost its  elegance and turned grubby.

I am overcome by a loathing for the uniforms, the epaulettes, the medals, the weapons, all the glamour I have loved so much. Ancient chivalry is dead; wars are waged by technicians. 

A new dark reality, a darker mood that can’t escape the scenes he faces, enters Jünger’s entries as he experiences life in Russia:

The deluge of sludge even penetrates the interiors of the buildings. In the morning, I was in a field hospital that rose from the center of a yellowish-brown morass. As I entered, the casket of a first lieutenant was being carried toward me.

Yesterday he succumbed to his sixth wound of the war. Back in Poland, he had sacrificed an eye.

The journals contain interesting sections, but Jünger’s self-censoring damages the read. If I read an eyewitness account from someone who lived through some horrific/incredible moment in history, I want details. But it’s impossible to tell what Jünger was really thinking, and so perhaps one tantalizing aspect of the book is psychological more than anything else. All this stuff is swirling around his life but we hear about the harmless social fluff for the most part. For example, he notes “In Charleville, I was a witness at a military tribunal. I used the opportunity to buy books, like novels by Gide and various works by Rimbaud.” I wanted to hear about the tribunal, but alas, it vanished into Jünger’s book buying.

Review copy

Translated by Thomas Hansen

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13 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction

13 responses to “A German Officer in Occupied Paris: Ernst Jünger (The War Journals 1941-1945)

  1. Marina Sofia

    What happened to him after the war, do you know? Sounds to me like he was preparing his justifications and defense should the Germans not prevail…

    • He lived to be 102! One son committed suicide and another died under suspicious circumstances during WW II. Seems like he was always a controversial figure on all sides of the equation.

  2. How bizarre. I wasn’t aware of this aspect of Junger’s life, only his role in WW1. Does the introduction give a sense of Elliot Neaman’s perspective on the tone and content of these journals?

  3. This isn’t news to me. In Germany he’s considered highly controversial because he certainly glorified the war to some extent. I read several of his books and loved them all because of the language but he has a problematic side. I don’t think however he glorified war for political reasons more because he felt it had an esthetic. But it’s been ages since I last read him. His short fiction is remarkably beautiful.

    • Don’t think I’ll read any more. Yes I agree. It seems to be an aesthetic ideal for Junger but it’s distasteful to try and place that on to the holocaust in a lamenting the old standards-kind-of way

      • I agree. Very distasteful. I never read those books by him. I read some of the later ones before I got aware of this. Many say his WWI account is excellent and not glorifying though. Like you, I’m not sure I’ll read more.

  4. By chance I just finished Storm of Steel the other week; it’s very different from the other WW1 “classics” I have read and in its way very powerful. It’s in a new translation by Michael Hofmann, who in his introduction alludes to the rest of Junger’s life and this book in particular. It certainly sounds like a queasy read, unlike the more “straightforward” WW1 material. Amazing, when one reads in Storm how often he was shot and blown up, and the unearthly bombardments he experienced, that he only died in 1998.

  5. Interesting…I had thought he spent WWII under a sort of house arrest. He despised the Nazis, but loved war. Storm of Steel is remarkable, the more so if you have read a lot of the other famous accounts of WWI. He alone among these writers was thrilled and exalted by the experience. I don’t think he was capable of grasping the events of the world except as grist for his personal, and very idiosyncratic, mill.

  6. I don’t think I want to read this, I imagine I’ll find it as distasteful as you.

    PS:I think there’s a saying in German “Happy like God in France”.

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