Treat Your S(h)elf: A German Officer in Occupied Paris: The War Journals, 1941-1945 by Ernst Jünger (2019)
Keeping a journal: The short entries are often as dry as instant tea. Writing them down is like pouring hot water over them to release their aroma.
- Ernst Jünger, A German Officer in Occupied Paris: The War Journals, 1941-1945 (2019)
Paris is very much my home these days and so I enjoy reading about the history of this beautiful city. It is difficult to live in Paris today and conjure up much sense of the city in the early 1940s. It is indeed, as it is called throughout the world, the City of Light. But back in 1940 when France fell and Paris occupied until its liberation on 24 August 1944, it was a city in darkness. Like so much else that happened in France during World War II, the Nazi occupation of Paris was something entirely more complex and ambiguous than has generally been understood.
We tend to think of those four years as difficult but minimally destructive by comparison with the hell the Nazis wreaked elsewhere in the country. But as recent historians have shown the Nazi occupation was a terrible time for Paris, not just because the Nazis were there but because Paris itself was complicit in its own humiliation. As the historian Ronald Risbottom has shown in his compelling book, ‘When Paris went Dark’, “Even today, the French endeavour both to remember and to find ways to forget their country’s trials during World War II; their ambivalence stems from the cunning and original arrangement they devised with the Nazis, which was approved by Hitler and assented to by Philipe Petain, the recently appointed head of the Third Republic, that had ended the Battle of France in June of 1940. This treaty - known by all as the Armistice - had entangled France and the French in a web of cooperation, resistance, accommodation, and, later, of defensiveness, forgetfulness, and guilt from which they are still trying to escape.”
It is almost certainly a unique event in human history, one in which a ruthless and unscrupulous invader occupied a city known for its sophistication and liberality, declining to destroy it or even to exact physical damage on more than a minority of its citizens yet leaving it in a state of “embarrassment, self-abasement, guilt and a felt loss of masculine superiority that would mark the years of the Occupation. To this day, more than one visitor or foreigners living in Paris are struck by how sensitive Paris and Parisians remain about the role of the city and its citizens in its most humiliating moment of the twentieth century.
Indeed bringing up the subject with French friends, my French partner’s family, or even relatives (by marriage - such as a French aunt married to my Norwegian uncle or the French partners of my cousins here in France) is like walking on egg shells. It brings up too many distant ghosts for many families. Nearly every household has a story. It can be one of resistance or one of collaboration or (more likely) one of passive indifference and acceptance.
And yet I remain fascinated and intrigued partly because of historical interest and partly out of curiosity about the human condition under stress. In Britain - despite the trauma of daily bombardment from German bombers - the country was never invaded. And so whilst war brings out the best and worst in people, it was altogether a different experience to the one experienced by mainland European countries. I don’t think we British truly have understood of life was really like under occupation and the choices people are willingly or not made just to survive the war.
The history of Paris from 1940 to 1944 gives the lie to the old childhood taunt: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. The Germans for the most part spared Parisians sticks and stones (except, of course, Parisians who were Jewish), but the “names” they inflicted in the form of truncated freedoms, greatly reduced food and supplies, an unceasing fear of the unexpected and calamitous, and the simple fact of their inescapable, looming presence did deep damage of a different kind. It traumatised the city and its inhabitants in ways very little understood by others, especially Britain.
The carefully curated image of French resistance against the Nazis has been asked to serve critical functions in that nation’s collective memory. The manufactured myth served to postpone for a quarter of a century deeper analyses of how easily France had been beaten and how feckless had been the nation’s reaction to German authority, especially between 1940 and 1943. And yet the myth of a universal resistance was important to France’s idea of itself as a beacon for human liberty. It was also badly needed as an example of the courage one needed in the face of monstrous political ideologies.
There remained the ethical questions that would haunt France for decades: Which actions, exactly, constitute collaboration and which constitute resistance? It is still asking these questions over 70 years later. But behind such question lies a deeper and more haunting question of moral culpability that many are quick to throw responsibility - along with their own shame of inaction - onto others but not look inwards at their own guilt and passivity.
But what about the occupiers? What did they feel? Were the German Wehrmacht during the day simply tourists sitting in cafes, dining on gourmand food, buying silk stockings and the latest fashions for their wives back home and by night drinking and debauching on the cultural and seedy delights of Paris?
Moral culpability is a question that Ernst Jünger, the celebrated German author, never asks himself of his time as a German officer in Paris. But culpability is a question that looms large after reading the war journals of Ernst Jünger from 1941-1945, now published by Columbia University Press as A German Officer in Occupied Paris: The War Journals, 1941-1945. It should have been re-titled as a ‘A German writer pre-occupied by Parisian night life and his navel’.
Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) was what is sometimes called a “controversial” figure. A First World War hero who was wounded seven times, he was undoubtedly uncommonly brave. He also insisted that those who were less brave should play their part, forcing retreating soldiers to join his unit at gunpoint. His 1920 book Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern), recounting his war experiences and portraying war in a heroic light, made him famous. In the 1920s he became involved in anti-democratic right-wing groups like the paramilitary Freikorps and wrote for a number of nationalist journals. He remained aloof from the Nazis, however, and, while he boasted that he “hated democracy like the plague”, was more of a nationalist than a racist.
Jünger spent much of the Second as an officer stationed in Paris, where these war journals are an almost daily record of the views and impressions of a well-read literary figure, entomologist, and cultural critic, now available for the first time in English translation in A German Officer in Occupied Paris. Posted in white-collar positions in Paris with the German military during the 1940-1944 occupation.
Nazi Germany produced two wartime diaries of equal literary and historical significance but written from the most different perspectives conceivable: Victor Klemperer and Ernst Jünger. 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.
For English-speaking readers who do not know his work, A German Officer in Occupied Paris shows the many sides of this complex, elusive writer.
In the judicious and helpful foreword by San Francisco-based historian Elliot Neaman, who says. “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.”
Jünger had visited the city prior to the war, was fluent in French, and now had the contacts and the time to become even more familiar with the French capital. During his stay in Paris he met painters such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso as well as literary figures including Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Jean Cocteau, all of whom figure in his Journals, which reflect a view of Paris that had become a tourism mecca during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
To Jünger, Paris was “a capital, symbol and fortress of an ancient tradition of heightened life and unifying ideas, which nations especially lack nowadays” (30 May 1941). After wandering around the Place du Tertre, near the Sacré Cœur Cathedral in the Montmartre section of Paris, he wrote: “The city has become my second spiritual home and represents more and more strongly the essence of what I love and cherish about ancient culture” (18 September 1942). At the same time, Jünger was aware of the “shafts of glaring looks” with which he was sometimes viewed by locals as he wandered in uniform through the city’s streets and byways (18 August 1942, 89, and 29 September 1943).
A German Officer in Occupied Paris is divided into four parts: the “First Paris Journal,” his writings from 1941 through October 1942; “Notes from the Caucasus,” continuing his account through February 1943; the “Second Paris Journal,” covering the period from his return to Paris through the liberation of France in the late summer of 1944; and finally the “Kirchhorst Diaries,” his account of having been placed in charge of the local militia [Volkssturm] and his reflections on the bombings and imminent defeat of Germany.
The “First Paris Journal” reflects the comings and goings of a German officer and writer happy to rediscover Paris at a time when it seemed clear that Germany had won the war and would dominate France and perhaps Europe indefinitely. Closer physically to the fighting following his transfer to the East in October 1942, Jünger devoted greater attention to the fighting and the raw nature of the German-Soviet struggle in “Notes from the Caucasus.”
By the time he returned to Paris and began his “Second Paris Journal” in February 1943, the Germans had been defeated at Stalingrad and it had become increasingly evident that a titanic struggle loomed and that the Germans might well lose the war.
The final section, the “Kirchhorst Diaries,” is set against the backdrop of the Allied invasion of Germany, accompanied by intense bombing and the destruction of German cities and homes including Jünger’s own, and the seemingly countless numbers of civilian refugees seeking shelter and food. Through it all, Jünger continues his reading, including that of the Bible, his book collecting, and visits to antiquarian booksellers when possible, and his chats with various literary figures in Paris and, at times, in Germany.
Much of the material in the Journals is introspective, with Jünger addressing his innermost thoughts and dreams. Snakes also appear with some frequency in the Journals, for example, in the entry of 13 July 1943, where during a restless night because of air raid sirens in Paris, he recalls having dreamt of dark black snakes devouring more brightly colored ones. In the Journal entry, he linked snakes back to primal forces incarnating life and death, and good and evil. This connection, he noted, was the reason people fear the sight of a snake, “almost stronger than the sight of sexual organs, with which there is also a connection” (13 July 1943). Following a conversation with the “Doctoresse,” the name that Jünger used for Sophie Ravoux, with whom he was intimate and had an affair in Paris, he described his own manner of thinking as “atomistically by osmosis and filtration of the smallest particles of thoughts.” His thought process, he explained, ran not according to principles of cause and effect but rather at the “level” of the vowels of a sentence, on the molecular level; “This explains why I know people who couldn’t help becoming my friends, even through dreams” (22 January 1944). Addressing Eros and sexual organs, Jünger added that he wished to study the connections between language and physique. Colours also had spiritual values, “Just as green and red are part of white, higher entities are polarised in intellectual couples—as is the universe into blue and red”.
Jünger’s position as an army captain gave him a panorama of the war that left no room for heroes. Violence became a grim leveller that made ideologies interchangeable. Germans on the eastern front were reading On the Marble Cliffs as a condemnation of Soviet Russia rather than of Nazi Germany. Hitler had unleashed a dehumanising force on the world, one that made Russians, Germans, the French Resistance and Allied pilots all look the same, locked in an escalating cycle of cruelty. Jünger witnessed Allied planes strafing screaming children in the streets, releasing bombs timed to explode while presents were handed out on Christmas Eve. Accounts drifted in of Parisian friends, who had once tried to transcend national boundaries with him through measured discussion in the salons, being harassed as collaborators. His summary of this second war could have been a reverse of the first: ‘Inactivity brings men together, whereas battle separates them.’
The picture of Jünger’s political views that emerges in his Journals, however, is a highly chivalric and military elitist one in which a small number of bold idealists, for lack of a better term, struggle against demos and technocracy, democracy and technicians, who are destroying the soul of an older European society. Writing while back home in Kirchhorst on 6 November 1944, following the expulsion of the Germans from France and walking around viewing the destruction wrought by the Allied bombs in Germany, he observed: “As I walked, I thought about the cursory style of contemporary thinkers, the way they pronounce judgment on ideas and symbols that people have been working on and creating for millennia. In so doing they are unaware of their own place in the universe, and of that little bit of destructive work allocated to them by the world spirit.”
He went on to criticise “the old liberals, Dadaists, and free-thinkers, as they begin to moralise at the end of a life devoted to the destruction of the old guard and the undermining of order.” Jünger then referred to Dostoevsky’s novel The Demons, in which the sons of Stepan Trofimovich “are encouraged to scorn anything that had formerly been considered fundamental.” Having destroyed their father, these “young conservatives,” now sensing “the new elemental power” of “the demos,” are then dragged to their deaths. In the ensuing chaos, “only the nihilist retains his fearsome power.” Jünger mentions Hindenburg, and the destruction of the conservatives by the Nazis is clearly implied (6 November 1944).
In August 1943, he described his political views as a combination of Guelph (relating to the medieval supporters of the Pope against the Holy Roman Emperor), Prussian, Gross-Deutscher (in support of a Greater Germany including Austria), European, and citizen of the world “all at once.” As he put it, “My political core is like a clock with cog wheels that work against each other.” However, he added: “Yet, when I look at the face of the clock, I could imagine a noon when all these identities coincide” (1 August 1943).
While violence raged all around, Jünger continued his secret diary, for publication after the war. This ended for him when American tanks rumbled through his village in April 1945, Jünger proclaiming that the deeper the fall, the greater the ensuing rise. Jünger survived investigation in the immediate postwar period and went on to become a grand old man of German literature, with a considerable following at home and abroad. A year before his death he was – as the phrase goes – received into the Catholic church. Having lived through a violent century he expired in his bed in his 103rd year.
The war journals is a highly nuanced, albeit self-made, picture of a human being in the middle of World War II, who is a flirtatious fascist, yet who apparently seems to care for other human beings, regardless of their so-called social strata or race. Take for example this entry dated Paris, 28 July 1942, “The unfortunate pharmacist on the corner: his wife has been deported. Such benign individuals would not think of defending themselves, except with reasons. Even when they kill themselves, they are not choosing the lot of the free who have retreated into their last bastions, rather they seek the night as frightened children seek their mothers. It is appalling how blind even young people have become to the sufferings of the vulnerable; they have simply lost any feeling for it. They have become too weak for the chivalrous life. They have even lost the simple decency that prevents us from injuring the weak. The opposite is true: they take pride in it.”
Having said that, I found some of the contents repugnant as Jünger, a devout entomologist, easily writes about finding a new insect while fires are burning all around Paris in 1943. Indeed Jünger paints himself as the detached botanist-scholar, determined to survive and help the world recover in peacetime. For him, the best way to avoid being sucked into the vortex of violence was to disconnect from emotion and group mentalities: to feel nothing and be on no one’s side, only bearing witness. A detached eye in the storm.
His journal is a hedonistic carousel, as he frequented theatres, literary salons and Left bank bookstalls along the Seine, as well as having a meeting of artistic minds with Picasso, Braque and Cocteau. It’s possible to make your way through this collection and have a grand ole time, enjoying the moments when Jünger encounters celebrities like Picasso, or when Monet’s daughter-in-law gives him the key to the gardens at Giverny for his own private tour, or when he describes another gourmet meal with the well-heeled of Parisian society: “The salad was served on silver, the ice cream on a heavy gold service that had belonged to Sarah Bernhardt.” Jünger relishes his name-dropping and his contacts with the upper crust. He sees himself as one of the Übermenschen: “In this country the superior man lives like Odysseus, taunted by worthless usurpers in his own palace.”
The author himself gets lost in the fog of mystic self regard as all artistic writers are prone to do and confesses that in an entry labeled 26 Aug 1942: “At times I have difficulty distinguishing between my conscious and unconscious existence. I mean between that part of my life that has been knit together by dreams and the other.”
To read the diary in chronological order is to realise 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.
Over and over again I had to remind myself this is a diary. Diaries by definition have one eye on self serving posterity.
So it’s not surprising that Jünger would tweak reality to create this image of poetic detachment. With his constant stories of indulgence in Paris, the reader might assume he had no job while he was there. In fact he was censoring letters and newspapers, a cog in the Nazi machine he so despised. He omits anything that would make him appear a villain. An ongoing extramarital affair in Paris is barely hinted at. But neither does he try to look a hero, omitting how he passed on to Jews information of upcoming deportations, buying them time to escape.
Should he have continued to enjoy his life as a flâneur for so long? He had solid proof of what was going on, debriefed as he was on the mass shootings and death camps on the eastern front. Throughout his career he had railed against inertia, lauding men of action who sacrificed themselves for a just cause. And then such a cause presented itself. Jünger’s colleagues in Paris were involved in the Stauffenberg plot of 1944, and asked for his help. He was one of the most influential conservative voices in Germany at the time, one of the few that Hitler’s followers might have taken seriously. Yet he refused to commit himself during the chaos. Instead, Jünger waited for evil to destroy itself: a fireman who fought the blaze by waiting for the building to burn down. As usual, he inhabited a grey area.
Jünger remains a problematic figure of controversy, perhaps even emblematic of the aged old question how does one respond to brutish evil? There are no easy answers. Addressing the French who collaborated with Germany during the war Robert Paxton, a well regarded historian of Vichy France wrote, “Even Frenchmen of the best intentions, faced with the harsh alternative of doing one’s job, whose risks were moral and abstract, or practicing civil disobedience, whose risks were material and immediate, went on doing the job. The same may be said of the German occupiers. Many of them were “good Germans,” men of cultivation, confident that their country’s success outweighed a few moral blemishes, dutifully fulfilling some minor blameless function in a regime whose cumulative effect was brutish.”
Was Jünger one of those they called a ‘good German’? Eating sole and duck at the famous Tour d’Argent restaurant, while gazing down at the hungry civilians in the buildings below was the choice Jünger made. In his 4 Just 1942 diary entry he wrote, “upon the grey sea of roofs at their feet, beneath which the starving eke out their living. In times like this - eating well and much - brings a feeling of power”.
We are always told to speak truth to power. Before we can speak one must think. But thinking truth to power is never enough in itself unless one acts out truth to power. Words without action is nothing. So the question one has to ask even as one reads from the detached safety of distance and time: how would one act in his shoes or indeed a Frenchman’s shoes?
More than anything, the diary raises, for me at least, the question of moral culpability. It’s impossible to tell what Jünger was really thinking, and so perhaps one tantalising aspect of these war journals 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 damn book buying.
And yet if you judge Jünger by his diary entries alone then it would be very easy to find him guilty. But diaries conceal as much as they reveal. 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.
So grey areas get more grey when we either try to step back and be detached to render a verdict on Jünger or if we step into his shoes to get inside his head. This is the limitation of a secret and coded diary, no matter how scrupulously written and how fascinating they are to read. Diaries are written for oneself or an imagined other; they play on the satisfactions of monologue. Letters are shaped by the contingencies of distance and time between writer and recipient; they become over time scattered in various places and must be “collected” to form a single body of writing.
Diaries are shaped by moments of inspiration but also by habit; they are woven together by a single voice and usually are contained between covers. Diarists play with the tension between concealing and revealing, between “telling all” and speaking obliquely or keeping silent. Like letter writing, diarists inscribe the risks and pleasures of expression and trust. The diary is an uncertain genre uneasily balanced between literary and historic writing. The diary belongs to the woman where history and literature overlap. So it’s easy to conclude that we will always have ambiguity and tension between these two polar opposites.
After 1945, Jünger again withdrew into private life, but continued to publish. Seclusion encouraged attention. His reputation grew. Scholarly editions appeared. In three last decades, doubters aside, he enjoyed growing recognition, travelled the world, deepened his knowledge of nature and voiced concern about human damage to the planet. Jünger poured out books late into his nineties. By then he had swept Germany’s top literary prizes and been visited in his Swabian retreat by the statesmen of Europe, including Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand.
Jünger’s experience of life did little to dent his loathing of liberalism and democracy. On a country walk along a bomb-pitted road near his home late in 1944, Jünger indulges a moment of conservative relish, telling himself that it is liberals who are to blame for all that has befallen. How wonderful it is, he writes sarcastically, “to watch the drama of the old liberals, Dadaists and freethinkers, as they begin to moralise at the end of a life devoted completely to the destruction of the old guard and the undermining of order”. “Blame the liberals!” was the reactionary’s charge at birth (there is a profound difference between true conservatism and the extreme reactionary). It hobbled the Weimar Republic and bedevils politics today. Politically, he had learnt nothing. Today Western Europe society is eating itself inwards through the corrosive influence of the woke-ness of cultural Marxism and the conservative now finds himself/herself in the sweetly ironic position of defending the tenets of true liberalism.
For English-speaking readers who do not know his work, A German Officer in Occupied Paris shows the many sides of this complex, elusive writer. These diaries are invaluable about the man and his times. Jünger is nowadays probably less read than read about. So these war journals are to be welcomed and to be read with great interest.
For some these journal entries alone will still provide material to debate the moral choices made - and evaded - by Jünger. To critics, Jünger participated too much and judged too little. To defenders, he was indeed on the hard right, but no fascist and, besides, his prose was what mattered, not his politics. Not to pity Jünger’s personal travails would be defective. Not to respond to his prose would be deaf. But all of us can ponder Jean Cocteau’s final verdict, who liked Jünger and considered him a friend but whose aloofness troubled him: “Some people had dirty hands, some had clean hands, but Jünger had no hands.” Jünger may have washed his hands of his time in Paris but the hand of history forever tapping on his shoulder is less forgiving.