Junger’s Story and the “Scientific War”

Above all else, what made the First World War the calamity that it became were the new technologies of warfare. The era of peace which had preceded the outbreak of war in 1914 had also been the era in which a new generation of weapons and battlefield devices were born. As Professor Porter-Szucs indicated, it was the application of these new technologies into the battlefield which made the First World War so terrifying, and had such a lasting affect on the psyche of the soldiers and civilians who had witnessed the use of such technologies.

Thus what makes Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel such a frightening account is the graphic depiction of how these new technologies wrought such horrors on the bodies and minds of those who experienced it firsthand. Modern artillery, which made for an invisible enemy; machine guns which struck fear in the men of a forward advance; poison gas, perhaps the most terrifying weapon in its lethality and silence… for the average soldier such features of modern warfare, quite divorced from the warfare of past generations, destroyed notions of manhood and warrior-culture which had become the dominant discourse on conflict in the Belle Époque.

As Junger put it: “It was the days at Guillemont that first made me aware of the overwhelming effects of the war of material” (108) The most unnerving irony of the “war of material,” for Junger, was that these new weapons and technologies which prolonged the war and created its nightmarish character, were fielded to bring about a swift end to the conflict. Junger realized the effects of such a “scientific” war: “it seemed that man, on this landscape he had himself created, became different, more mysterious and hardy and callous than in any previous battle.” (109)

In Junger’s narrative, the destructive new technologies and weapons of war presented the conflict as both a national and personal tragedy. Junger’s account made the war years more palpable, more real, and in its graphic detail, seemed to indict a whole epoch of European exceptionalism. Though Junger is often cited as quasi-fascist in his glorifications of warfare, reckless bravery, and the intensities of battle, he was far from it. Lost in the intricacies of history was his true intent: to detail how the First World War stood alone in the history of warfare in its intensity; an intensity for which European culture and technology of the decades preceding the outbreak of the war were culpable. Junger’s final epiphany made him realize the worth of his “four years’ schooling in force.” (109) It was not a new love for the Fatherland, but a new courage and energy which only his generation of soldiers could possibly possess:

“Hardened as scarcely another generation ever was in fire and flame, we could go into life as though from the anvil; into friendship, love, politics, professions, into all that destiny had in store. It is not every generation that is so [favored].” (317)

Junger hardly glorified war, and he exhibited in detail the destructive technology which had nearly destroyed his generation. Junger claimed that the war “was an incomparable schooling of the heart.” (xii) This conviction, coupled with the even greater destruction of the Second World War, has led to the steady wane in the popularity of Junger’s magnum opus. Junger’s conviction that this “scientific” war hardened him and made him better able to handle the trials and challenges of life, appealed to that part of the “lost generation” (especially in Germany, which had suffered a particularly stinging defeat) which longed for the battlefield and would come to fill the ranks of the Freikorps and the Nazi Party.

Junger’s Storm of Steel acutely links the technological advances of the preceding era of European history with the unprecedentedly brutal war it produced. In contrast to the fictionalized, less lurid and more sentimental All Quiet on the Western Front, Storm of Steel presents the first truly modern war in all its terror and violence. As such, it appealed to those who nostalgically remembered the war for its perceived character-building and camaraderie, those that would become paramilitaries and would help wage the Second World War.

At the same time, however, Junger’s account has been discredited for its perceived propagation of fascism and militant nationalism. While the author was convinced of the value he had gained from his war experience, such should not be mistaken for a glorification of warfare and violence in itself. He consistently decried the violence of the First World War, even though he felt he had gained in character and strength from having experienced it. Junger’s account has been discredited as the work of a far-right, warrior who loved warfare. Rather it is the account of a young soldier who dared to gain in character from his time in a war that, in its “scientific” destruction was unlike any other before it.

 

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