“The Storm of Steel” by Ernst Junger, Original 1929 Translation – Book Review
Recommendation: For those who want to better understand the German Soldiers of WWI and WWII
The author of this book – Ernst Junger, was a highly decorated and competent Prussian officer who fought in WWI. This book, published in 1920 and translated in 1929, is an account of his experiences during that war. Interestingly, and somewhat unsurprisingly, he later served as a Captain for Germany in WWII – a time period which this book does not cover. This book is enlightening and especially interesting because it reveals the perspective of the nationalist German – and helps us understand a little better, as modern Americans, the motivation and thoughts of the Soldiers our country fought against.
Perhaps most surprisingly, and intriguingly, is that CPT Junger was a critic of Hitler and refused to accept many positions offered to him by the National Socialists. They offered him a seat at the Reichstag, to head the German Literary Dept, and to go on Goebbels’ radio. He refused all of them. He apparently was even involved in the fringes of the Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler. It must also be noted that he was not anti-Semitic, and went so far as to leave his beloved Hanoverian veterans association once the Jews were expelled from it, and apparently, in low-risk situations, he did what he could to save Jews from being transported off during WWII. Yet, despite all of this, as one reads this book, it is very clear that he was a fervent nationalist who believed in a Germany that could be crushed but not conquered, and I think Junger serves as a gateway to understanding the common German people and how they could support Nazism as a whole.
From his own words, referring to WWI, Junger was proud of the war that his country brought on – and proud that it took the whole world to stop their force. Furthermore, despite being a critic of Hitler, Junger apparently hated “liberal democracy like the plague,” and was a critic of the Weimar republic. Despite these far-right traits, what makes his account so especially interesting is that Junger is very similar to a competent Soldier of any country and possessed many admirable traits. He believed strongly in duty and honor – a trait that made the Germans such a formidable enemy. Furthermore, Junger was a tactically proficient Soldier, and utilized many of the same basic infantry tactics that we utilize today – which was over 100 years ago. He was also fluent in French, and used this skill to obtain intelligence from his enemies. Most importantly, Junger was a very strong leader and able to perform in the most violent situations.
Despite some of the praise he deserves as a leader, what was most surprising to me as I read the book was that he seems to be mostly unaware of his brutality. Of course, some or most of this is a product of the trench warfare and the situation he lived in – such as supporting scorched earth tactics, but some of it is not. It’s very interesting that he consistently acquired food and goods from the occupied populations without note of remorse, and at times provided no quarter or little mercy to a surrendered enemy. He did show mercy and sympathy on more than one occasion in the worst situations, without a doubt, but in general showed a true disgust for his French enemy and demonstrated a lower regard for all human life. Yet, his view of human life was not as poor as some of his countrymen, who would jest about massacring unarmed men, and who Junger condemned for doing so. Even his observation and jokes seem off and perverse in a modern context. However, despite any misgivings, all in all, Junger’s “The Storm of Steel” contains many tactical and leadership lessons to be learned, and also provides a very unique outlook on WWI.
Some of the most interesting quotes:
“Of myself I could say with satisfaction that my command of the situation and my personal influence with my men had prepared a severe disappointment and an early grave for the officer who led the attack. We two had matched our wits in the same way as is customary in field exercises in training – except that we had not used dummy cartridges.
If these lines are read by any one belonging to the 1st Hariana Lancers I wish to expresss to him in this place my respect for a body of men who could claim as their commander such a one as he whom I had the honor to fight (page 87).”
“Unknown perhaps to yourself, there is some one within you who keeps you to your post by the power of two mighty spells: Duty and Honor. You know that this is your place in the battle, and that a whole people relies on you to do your job. You feel, “if I leave my post, I am a coward in my own eyes, a wretch who will ever after blush at every word of praise. You clench your teeth and stay (101).”
“And here I permit myself the observation that even artillery fire does not break the resistance of troops so surely as wet and cold (102).”
“…there crept over me a mood I had never known before: a certain falling-off of the fighting spirit, a war-weariness occasioned by the length of time I had been exposed to the war’s excitements. Nothing but war and danger; not a night that was not convulsed with shells. The seasons succeeded each other. Winter came and then summer, and one was always in the war. Tired of it and used to it, one was all the more dispirited and fed up with it just because one was used to it. One was blinded no longer by appearances (159).”
“At 1145, without any warning haven been given us, our artillery opened out on the position in front of us with the utmost fury. The result was more casulaties for us than for the English… I found what was left of my best platoon commander, a shapeless mess… I sent protest after protest to headquarters, vigorously demanding either the cessation of the firing or the presence of artillery officers in the trench (164).”
“By this time there was not a man who did not know that we were on a precipitous descent…Every man knew that victory could no longer be ours. But the enemy should know that he fought against men of honor. On such occasions I took care not to be carried away by a spirit of daredevilry. It would hardly have been appropriate to show that one looked forward to the battle with a certain joy in the face of the men whose dread of death was in many cases increased by anxiety for wife and child (169).”
“And so, strange as it may sound, I learned from this very four years’ schooling in force and in all the fantastic extravagance of material warfare that life had no depth of meaning except when it is pledged for an ideal, and that there are ideals in comparison with which the life of an individual and even of a people has no weight (175).”