By Nils Fabiansson
On Sunday the 17th February 2008 it is 10 years since the German writer, philosopher and notorious diary-writer Ernst Jünger passed away, 102 years old. Jünger became famous after the publication of his autographical war-book "In Stahlgewittern" 1920 ("The Storm of Steel. From the Diary of a German Stormtroop Officer on the Western Front"). Jünger had experienced the First World War 1914-1918 and had 16 pocket-size diary notebooks after his almost four years in the trenches of the Western Front – "quite a pile of them", as he put it, totally 1500 pages.
Most of the diary notebooks are titled "Kriegstagebuch" ("War Diary"). The first seven notebooks are similar dark-green hardbacks, the other are all different in format and color; some notebooks have ruled, others have plain or squared pages. A thin larger notebook titled "Fauna coleopterologica douchyensis" is a log of 143 beetle finds in the trenches. Some periods Jünger made several entries each day in his notebooks; some periods – mostly leave and rest periods – are not covered at all, and some entries are written up several days later. The notes are written in old hard-to-read German handwriting, in grey or blue lead-pencil, or black, green or purple ink. Very few parts have been erased, crossed-out or cut from the diary. There are some 40 drawings, from small margin sketches to full-page drawings or maps. There are also a few editing notes added, and notepapers or clippings tucked inside the covers.
Ernst Jünger mentions in his published books several times both the actual diary notebooks and the specific map case in which he kept them together with the books he was reading for the moment, and he also describes moments he was keeping his diary. Jünger wrote:
"I would advise anybody who takes part in a war or any other unusual experience for a long period, to keep a consecutive diary, if it be only a succession of jottings which serve later on to give memory its clues. […] They force the writer of them to seize upon the essence of his experiences and to get above – if only for a few minutes a day – the familiar surroundings and to put himself in the position of a spectator. The daily experience will appear in a new light, just as a well-known landscape changes as soon as you try to sketch it. […] It takes more energy than one might think to put a few facts together day by day when it is not a matter of life and death. […] In any case the effort to observe goes with the habit of making notes, and when a man is in a situation like this that only these few years can offer and that can never recur in the same form, he ought to keep his eyes open and try to seize its unique features."
Ernst Jünger also described his own diary notes from the war in detail:
"Sometimes the writing is composed and careful and in ink; and I know at once that I was sitting then at my ease in one of those little cottage in Flanders or Northern France, or in a quiet sector in front of my dugout, smoking a pipe and disturbed at worst only by the distant hum of the last scout on his evening patrol of the sky. Then come disjointed and distorted lines in pencil, scrawled by the flicker of a candle in some overcrowded corner of a hellish hole before an attack, or during the endless hours of heavy shelling. Finally, sentences in agitated phrases, illegible, like the wave-lines of a seismograph recording an earthquake, with the ends of the words whipped out into long strokes by the rapidity of the writing – these must have been flung on paper after the attack, in shell-holes or fragments of trench swept by machine-gun bullets like a swarm of deadly hornets."
Jünger wrote and published his diaries up to his last days, the last as late as 1997. Jünger’s original notebooks are kept at the German Literature Archive.
More to read in "Das Begleitbuch zu Ernst Jünger ‘In Stahlgewittern’"
(The Reader’s Companion to Ernst Jünger’s ‘The Storm of Steel’).
About the author:
I am a Swedish historian and archaeologist, living in cold Stockholm. I have written a reader’s companion to the German writer, philosopher and notorious diary writer Ernst Jünger’s (1895-1998) autographical war-book "The Storm of Steel" from 1920, which is based on his war-diary of his experiences in the First World War (1914-1918). My readers’s companion was published in Germany in December 2007. Although the book is in German, it is richly illustrated in full colour and several of Jünger’s original diary drawings are published for the first time.
Bruce Chatwin visited Jünger in the mid-1970s. He wrote in The New York Review of Books that In Stahlgewittern “is quite unlike anything of its time – none of the pastoral musings of Siegfried Sassoon or Edmund Blunden, no whiffs of cowardice as in Hemingway, none of the masochism of T. E. Lawrence, or the compassion of Remarque”. (Bruce Chatwin, ”An Aesthete at War”, The New York Review of Books, Vol. 28, No. 3, March 5, 1981. <http://www.nybooks.com>.)
The English translation of the original book, "The Storm of Steel", was published in USA and UK in 1929 (also pocket in USA 1930). It was then published in several facsimile editions in USA from the 1980s to the early 2000s. A new English translation appeared in 2003, published by Penguin Modern Classics (the eight imprint in January 2008).