The WWI Diary of Ernst Jünger Newly Published Memoir Recalls Horror of Western Front
Part 2: "A Clean Head Shot"
After one battle a trench "looked like a butcher's bench even though the dead had been removed. There was blood, brains and scraps of flesh everywhere and flies were gathering on them."
Jünger writes with unmasked pride about killing a British soldier with "a clean head shot." He records how a medic, Kenzira by name, who is still conscious after being struck by two shell splinters, one in the lower right side and one in the back, says: "The shot is fatal, I can feel it quite clearly."
He gives a breathless description of the German spring offensive of 1918 in which he led a storm troop attacking British machine gun positions. "In a mixture of feelings brought on by excitement, bloodthirstiness, anger and alcohol consumption we advanced in step towards the enemy lines," he wrote on March 21, 1918.
In another passage from that day, he wrote: "I was incredibly hot. I tore off my coat, some people helped me buckle up again. I still remember calling out several times very energetically: 'Now Lieutenant Jünger is taking off his coat' and people laughing at that."
Jünger's war hero status and his books made him an idol of the German right in the 1920s and 30s. "The Nazis worshipped him but he didn't want anything to do with that rabble," said Krumeich, the historian. "He represented the idea that, happen what may to my body, I am indestructible, Germany is indestructible. That was a powerful argument among young people at the time."
Some 10 million soldiers and civilians died, and 18 million were seriously wounded in the war, according to conservative estimates. A generation was decimated -- 35 percent of German men born in Jünger's birth year of 1895 were killed. But the war has faded from Germany's public memory in recent decades as the country was preoccupied with confronting the Nazi period and the Holocaust that followed it. The death in 2008 of the last German veteran known to have fought in World War I, Erich Kästner, went largely unnoticed.
Can Germany Have War Heroes?
Jünger's book could help open up a new chapter of remembering the conflict in Germany, and historical interest is bound to increase with the coming of the 100th anniversary of its outbreak in 2014, said Kiesel.
"None of the victorious nations shunned calling their soldiers heroes. But it has always been problematic to describe Jünger as a hero, there was always an outcry against it. The time may have come to approach that difficult debate again to restore a certain equality, even if these solders were involved in a war for which Germany bears the main guilt."
It may also be interesting to explore why Jünger didn't noticeably suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, an affliction that has hit large numbers of soldiers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kiesel said keeping a diary to write down the events in detail shortly after they happened may have helped.
But most importantly, Jünger's crystal-clear descriptions unwittingly offer a fresh reminder of the devastation and terror caused by all wars.
An entry on August 28, 1916, written during the Somme battle, reads: "This area was meadows and forests and cornfields just a short time ago. There's nothing left of it, nothing at all. Literally not a blade of grass, not a tiny blade. Every millimeter of earth has been churned up and churned again, the trees uprooted and torn apart and ground to sludge. The houses shot to pieces, the bricks crushed into powder. The railway tracks turned into spirals, hills flattened, everything turned to desert. And everything full of corpses who have been turned over a hundred times. Whole lines of soldiers are lying in front of the positions, our passages are filled with corpses lying over each other in layers."
- Part 1: Newly Published Memoir Recalls Horror of Western Front
- Part 2: "A Clean Head Shot"