Review of A German Officer in Occupied Paris. The War Journals 1941 – 1945 by Ernst Jünger
Nazi Germany produced two wartime diaries of equal literary and historical significance but written from the most different perspectives conceivable. Victor Klemperer wrote furtively, in daily dread of transport to an extermination camp, a fate he was spared by the firebombing of Dresden. Ernst Jünger, by contrast, had what was once called a “good war.” As a bestselling German author, he drew cushy occupation duty in Paris, where he could hobnob with famous artists and writers, prowl antiquarian bookstores, and forage for the rare beetles he collected. Yet Klemperer and Jünger both found themselves anxiously sifting propaganda and hearsay to learn the truth about distant events on which their lives hung.
One might ask why it has taken 70 years for Jünger’s diary to appear in English translation, for there is no more detailed account of the occupation from the German point of view. But Jünger was always controversial, up to his death in 1998 at the age of 102. In Germany, polite opinion has never forgiven him for Storm of Steel, his memoir of World War I that saw in the experience of combat an ultimate test of manhood. “The finest, most visceral account of battle since the Iliad,” according to the New Statesman, his book made him a hero among German nationalists and ensured his privileged status in Nazi Germany. As it happens, Jünger was anything but a Nazi.
Born in 1895, the son of a chemist, Jünger got off to an unpromising start. A chronic discipline problem, he was repeatedly forced to change schools until at last in 1913 he lied about his age, joined the French Foreign Legion, and found himself in the Algerian desert. By the time that the German foreign office could extricate him, World War I was looming. He enlisted immediately, and, for the first time in his life, he flourished.
World War I, for Jünger, was not the grinding mechanized mass-slaughter we know from the war poets. Serving for the duration, he watched the replacement of sanguinary frontal assaults by storm-troop tactics, where small detachments of well-armed soldiers trained in hand-to-hand combat would overrun selected points and break through the enemy’s rear. Such a form of warfare rewarded personal initiative and bold leadership, which Jünger took as the principal lesson of the war. By the time he won the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest military honor, he had already been wounded 14 times in combat.
After the war, Jünger studied zoology, where he cultivated the acute observational skills that distinguish his writing. He came to despise the Weimar Republic and flirted with nationalist groups, including—briefly—the Nazi Party. In 1926, he sent one of his books to Hitler, who proposed a meeting. By the time it fell through, Jünger was already having misgivings. He decided that Nazi racial ideology was embarrassing (“peinlich”), and he thereafter held aloof, making certain that he and Hitler never met personally.
Jünger was far too capricious and eclectic a thinker to fit into any straitjacket. Had the Nazis read Storm of Steel carefully, they would have noticed that it was strikingly free of nationalist or political content. Jünger’s belief system was an idiosyncratic mysticism that drew equally from science and religion; by temperament he was essentially a German romantic, for whom intense personal experience led to an understanding of the fundamental unity of nature. As a result, his circle of friends was as wide as could be, including the dadaist artist Kurt Schwitters and even Communists or Communist sympathizers such as Ernst Niekisch.
All this brought him into open conflict with Joseph Goebbels, who recognized an enemy in Jünger and attacked him in print. For his part, Jünger never joined the Nazi Party, and he refused to let his writings appear in Nazi publications. Twice his rooms were searched by the Gestapo, looking for incriminating documents about his Communist acquaintances. Under the circumstances, it defies belief that Jünger ever dared keep a diary, let alone one of such uninhibited candor as the one he kept from April 1941 to August 1944 during his tour of duty in occupied Paris.
Shortly after his arrival, a German officer was assassinated in Nantes and Hitler decreed that a hundred randomly selected hostages be shot in reprisal. Before their execution, they wrote final letters, which Jünger was given to translate. Affected by their dignity and composure, he was struck by how often the same words recurred, particularly courage and love. The conduct of those facing death always interested him, and as the war progressed, he began collecting accounts of shipwreck and starvation.
The most disagreeable act Jünger was called upon to perform was supervising the execution of a recaptured deserter. Jünger pitied him (he had been denounced by the French girlfriend who had been concealing him) and even considered backing out of the ordeal by feigning illness. But he decided it would be “shabby” to foist the duty on someone else and that he could see it through with less brutality than anyone else. The account of that execution, carried out in the pleasant Bois de Boulogne, has drawn more criticism in Germany than any other incident in the diary. Jünger was condemned for reshaping his published account from the version in the original manuscript, which he indeed did, although not to minimize his culpability but to sharpen its literary quality.
But this was the point of the criticism, that by taking refuge in a self-indulgent aestheticism, Jünger fled the moral choices imposed by the war. To be sure, to dip into the diary at random is to get the impression of a dandy and flâneur. A literary celebrity, Jünger enjoyed entrée to the highest circles. He could visit Picasso and Braque in their studios and debate their art in fluent French, or ponder the meaning of dreams with Jean Cocteau (“someone who dwells in a special, but comfortable, hell”), who sent him passes to screenings of surrealist films. With seemingly endless leisure time, he took long walks and indulged his habit of exploring cemeteries, writing lyrical but precise accounts of the tombstones, their inscriptions, and the plant and insect life teeming around them. He even found time to contemplate the city’s curious dog cemetery.
At times Jünger does not even seem to know he was fighting a war. After the D-Day landings, he went to bed reading a 14th-century chronicle of the life of Saint Louis. Not even an air raid could ruffle his coolness; his entry of September 15, 1943, is typical. He began the day interpreting one of his tormented zoological dreams, later inspecting the Gothic church of Saint-Séverin with his Parisian mistress, and then later, at the sound of the air sirens, went to his hotel rooftop to observe the bombardment and see planes torn apart by flak and watch as “something of considerable size, sepia-brown, gathered speed as it fell—most likely a man attached to a smoldering parachute.” Yet after all that, as he did every night, he could still take a book to bed:
Read further in Huxley, whose lack of structure is tiresome. His is a case of an anarchist with conservative memories who opposes nihilism. In this situation, he ought to employ more imagery and fewer concepts. As it is, he seldom exploits the real strength of his talent.
Jünger could have been writing about himself here. It is this ice-cold detachment—the plummeting pilot and then the literary criticism—that makes him repellent to the casual reader.
But to read the diary in chronological order is to realize that Jünger’s submersion in art and literature was his way of preserving his humanity while serving the machinery of a lethally violent state. One way of doing this was through a voracious program of reading, chiefly literature and history, often reading two or three books at once. One is not surprised at the German and French reading but at the abundance of English writers, whom he read in the original—Melville, Joyce, Poe, Conrad, Kipling, Thomas Wolfe, Thornton Wilder, the Brontës, ad infinitum. The range is also remarkable. Jünger pivots from the 1772 fantasy Diable amoureux to a biography of the painter Turner to Crime and Punishment. And throughout the entire diary, one finds him reading the Bible, cover to cover, which he began shortly after his posting to Paris.
One is surprised to see how little Jünger has to say about the actual course of the war. Major events, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor or Hitler’s declaration of war on America, pass by unmentioned or with a stray comment. Here we see the fatalism of the jaded World War I veteran, who has long stopped believing that “decisive” battles decide anything. But Jünger’s real interest, to which he pays acute attention, is the process of moral corruption that he sees as the inescapable legacy of the lemurs, his code word for the Gestapo and other servants of Nazi tyranny. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in his obsessive recording of all that he can learn about German war crimes.
For American readers curious about the extent of German knowledge and complicity in genocide, this is the central question. Even as well-connected a celebrity as Jünger had to rely on the occasional visitor from the Russian front to learn firsthand of Nazi atrocities. It is not until November 4, 1941, five months after the invasion of Russia, that he first records a “hideous mechanism for executing prisoners,” which required them to strip and be measured by a weighing machine that was actually a lethal air gun. By March 1942, he was fully informed about the activities of the Einsatzgruppen, the units charged with the organized killing of political enemies, primarily Jews, behind the front lines: “certain butchers…who have singlehandedly slain enough people to populate a midsize city.”
If I correctly understand his cryptic entry, Jünger learned of the results of the Wannsee Conference from General Jodl, chief of the operations staff, on February 8, 1942, just 19 days later. And so when Jünger described his first sight of yellow stars in Paris on June 7, 1942, he knew full what it portended.
On Rue Royale, I encountered the yellow star for the first time in my life. Three young girls who were walking past arm in arm were wearing it. This badge was distributed yesterday, and those who received it had to part with a point from their clothing ration in return. I then saw the star more frequently that afternoon. I consider things like this, even in my own personal history, a significant date—I was immediately embarrassed to be in uniform.
For all the criticism that Jünger has served up a self-serving exculpatory diary, the truth is that he leaves his most selfless acts unmentioned. It is known that he gave advance warning to Jews facing deportation: The writer Joseph Breitbach was one, as he subsequently confirmed, and Walter Benjamin was possibly another.
None of this, for obvious reason, could be committed to paper, nor could the names of Adolf Hitler or any of his henchmen. Instead, their appearances are marked by Jünger’s felicitous code names. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi chief propagandist, is “Grandgoschier,” a character from Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel meaning “Big Throat.” SS Chief Heinrich Himmler is “Schinderhannes,” the name of a notorious German highwayman but also a pun on horse knacker. And Hermann Goering is simply “Head Forester,” citing the most fatuous of his many official titles.
Jünger thought a great deal about the mystic and symbolic power of sounds, and he reserved his most apposite pseudonym for Hitler, “Kniébolo,” a name that is at once menacing and absurd. It suggests a kneeling demon (Diabolos), a leitmotif of the diary as Jünger became ever more convinced of Hitler’s essentially Satanic character—in the literal biblical sense. Reducing Hitler the man to Kniébolo was congenial to Jünger’s way of dealing with the world, which was through metaphysical symbols and archetypes. One begins reading the diary with mild annoyance at Jünger’s fastidious recording of his dreams but soon realizes that they are part and parcel of the same actively questing mind, in which conversation and reading, art and dreams, all strain to make sense of the senseless. The result is a miracle of the diarist’s art, a diary as eventful and consequential as those of Samuel Pepys or James Boswell, but with an inner life.
Given the exceptional importance of Jünger’s diary, it deserved an impeccable translation and editorial notes. Distressingly, it has not received them. While the foreword delivers an excellent account of Jünger’s life and the importance of the diary, it does not say nearly enough about its publication history and revisions over the years. Unaccountably, and senselessly, it omits his preface to the original publication, Strahlungen (Rays or Emanations). There he gives his fullest account of how he edited the diaries for publication, refusing to censor or retouch, even for purposes of clarity, while skipping some personal details for reasons of taste (unlike James Joyce, whose Ulysses “registered every possible circumstance for using the toilet”).
The missing foreword also sheds light on the great question hanging over the diary, which is why Jünger, who was intimately associated with many of the July 20 conspirators against Hitler, did not join the coup. Above all, it would have been valuable to hear Jünger’s justification of keeping a wartime diary in the first place: “In a totalitarian state it remains the last possible conversation.”
A German Officer in Occupied Paris has won universal praise, but no reviewer has called attention to its errors of translation. For example, Hitler is described as insisting on taking personal command of “two tank battalions” after the D-Day landings, when the German text reads “two panzer corps,” the difference between 2,000 men and 100,000. Literary translators are not expected to be military historians, but, given the topic, they might have consulted one.
Other errors show embarrassing carelessness. For example, the final entry of the book describes the dramatic entry of American troops in Jünger’s town on April 11, 1945. Just before their arrival, the soldiers commanding the local artillery unit destroyed their guns and dispersed, while their commander, “who wanted to escape in civilian clothes, committed suicide”; in fact, according to the original German text, he was killed by his own men.
Even worse is the rendering of the entry for August 10, 1944, when Jünger was preparing to abandon Paris on the eve of its recapture by the Allies. On that day, we are told, he bought a small notebook like those he used “when I was a journalist in more stirring times.” The reader will wonder what times were more stirring than the summer of 1944. In fact, the German text explains quite clearly that he bought a notebook “of the sort which in more dangerous situations I substitute for the big diary.”
We naturally assume that a translation published by a university press will achieve a minimal accuracy in translation, and we do not expect our reviewers to search for errors. I would not have spotted these errors (and others) had I not by chance read the German original shortly before the translation appeared.
For the moment, though, it is all we have in English. Even in its imperfect and incomplete form, it should be read by anyone with a serious interest in the horrific events of the past century. There is still ample material here to debate the moral choices made—and evaded—by Jünger, and to ponder Cocteau’s final verdict, who liked Jünger but whose aloofness troubled him: “Some people had dirty hands, some had clean hands, but Jünger had no hands.”