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Spring 2016

Finding Freedom in a Totalitarian Age

book cover imageEumeswil.
By Ernst Jünger.
Translated by Joachim Neugroschel.
Introduction by Russell A. Berman.
Telos Press, 2015.
Paperback, 330 pages, $27.

Tobias J. Lanz

Ernst Jünger (1895–1998) was twentieth-century Germany’s most prolific writer. Throughout his long career he wrote novels, essays, memoirs, travelogues, and political tracts that examined the meaning of the massive social changes of that most violent century. Eumeswil is considered his major work.

The book, first published in 1977, has been reissued by Telos Press, which has already republished four of Jünger’s other works. Telos has been actively promoting Jünger because he is an important modern writer who has received little recognition in the English-speaking world despite his massive output. Language is one reason, politics the other. Ernst Jünger was a man of the right whose life and ideas were and remain controversial, especially with the liberal academic-literary establishment.

Controversy began soon after the start of Jünger’s writing career. He was a highly decorated soldier in World War I and parlayed his experiences into several best-selling books. In Stahlgewittern (Storm of Steel) was the most famous. He was quickly criticized for extolling war and violence. Jünger was also chastised for supporting the militarist right during the chaotic interwar years. And he wrote many tracts defending martial and aristocratic ideals.

Jünger’s intimate contacts with the Nazis did not help his reputation. Hitler greatly admired this activist soldier-writer, and after the Nazis came to power Jünger was offered a seat in the Reichstag and in the German Academy of Poetry. Joseph Goebbels also tried to recruit him into the Nazi Party. But Jünger kept his distance from the Nazis. He rejected the Reichstag and Academy offers and never joined the party.

Jünger reenlisted in the Wehrmacht in World War II and served in France and Russia. But he saw little combat, spending most of his time in Paris socializing with artists and writers. He was also on the periphery of the plot to kill Hitler. Ernst Jünger clearly rejected Nazism. He saw it as a plebeian distortion of true conservatism, which for him was always aristocratic. Moreover, he knew Nazism was violent, a view expressed in his 1941 classic novel Auf den Marmorklippen (On the Marble Cliffs), a thinly veiled critique of totalitarianism—both right and left.

It was already clear that Ernst Jünger’s thinking had changed prior to World War II. The change accelerated after the war as Jünger retreated to live in southern Germany. More importantly, he also retreated from the world of politics and militarism, embarking on an existential quest to find meaning in an increasingly materialistic and nihilistic world. The rest of his life was spent travelling to distant lands, experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, observing nature (he was an accomplished entomologist who discovered several beetle species and had several named after him), and writing.

Despite Jünger’s clear rejection of Nazism and his apolitical postwar life, he was never forgiven by the literary establishment for his active but brief dalliance in right-wing politics. Criticism and controversy followed him until his death at age 102, in part because he never relinquished his elitist ideals nor ever apologized for anything he wrote or said. More, he never ceased critiquing the progressive historical vision of the political left. Most significantly, he saw little difference between modern right- and leftwing ideologies. Both are destructive.

This is what makes the republication of the novel Eumeswil important. In this book Jünger names the powerful authoritarian features in our present postmodern world. These are often masked by the language of peace and equality and the impressive achievements of science and technology. Humanity appears freer than ever. But Jünger reveals his doubts in Eumeswil.

The title is taken from a fictional North African city-state, which exists in the distant future after great cataclysms have destroyed civilization. The story blends science fiction, history, and natural imagery with Jünger’s distinct philosophical vision. His vision examines the consequences of modern progress—technological power, political and economic centralization, and the destruction of nature and culture.

Eumeswil is governed by a tyrant—the Condor—who has developed effective methods of political control. The spiritual and philosophical beliefs that once gave purpose to human existence have vanished, resulting in a mass society where pleasure and comfort are the only remaining goals. Jünger’s parallels between Eumeswil and the Western world today are obvious—nihilism reigns in both.

Eumeswil is a world—like our own—in which technology is highly developed. Here Jünger accurately predicts the rise of mass communication and information technologies. He describes the “luminar,” a combination holograph, time machine, and archive that can recall actual scenes from history. And he notes that everyone owns a “phonophore” a smartphone that keeps people connected but also gives the state surveillance capabilities and hence greater political control. It is a world in which technician and technocrat govern.

Eumeswil is clearly autobiographical, as the main figure is an historian, Martin Venator, who like Jünger must deal with political tyranny in its various forms. The story is written in fragments—like diary entries—capturing Venator’s thoughts and observations. Venator also has a night job. He is the night steward at a bar called the Casbah and was brought there by the Condor. Through his position he becomes intimate with the Condor and gains insight into the inner workings of the regime, just as Jünger did with the Nazis.

Other characters with distinct historical or biographical references include Martin Venator’s two teachers—Vigo (a reference to the philosopher Giambattista Vico) and Bruno (to the philosopher Giordano Bruno). Both play the role of Jünger the social observer. Then there is the Domo, a stereotypical Nazi party operative. He is close to the Condor and understands the modern police state and the importance of technology in creating a docile and conformist society.

Other characters with clear historic connections are Attila, a Condor confidante known for his explorations of remote and wild lands (again an allusion to Jünger’s travels) and the Condor’s political rival—the Yellow Khan (a reference to the Khans of Asian history and to Josef Stalin). Jünger also has odd characters like the ornithologist, Rosner, and a grammarian, Thofern, who give insights into nature and language respectively.

Jünger also develops a parallel narrative about Venator’s family and past. Martin is estranged from his father, a political progressive, and also an historian, who rejects the Condor and Martin’s association with him. The Condor is reviled because his authoritarian regime overthrew the progressive regime of the tribunes (a reference to ancient Rome), championed by Venator’s father. This is another biographical connection, as Jünger also rejected his father’s progressive nineteenth-century political ideals.

Jünger does not develop his characters in great detail. Yet they are all interesting personalities who provide insights into the many aspects of authoritarian political power. And Jünger’s historical anecdotes and detailed nature descriptions further enrich the narrative, always giving the reader some tantalizing insight to ponder. But the book’s real theme is freedom. Martin Venator is dutiful in his work, but his passion is freedom—inner freedom while enduring the machinations of authoritarian power around him.

Jünger had also been developing this idea of freedom in his own life since his break with militarism and organized politics. He defines himself as an anarch. And the character Martin Venator is the fullest expression of the life of the anarch in all of Jünger’s writings. An anarch is a true individualist who is not committed to any political creed or regime. In contrast, an anarchist needs society, because he wants to reform society. The anarch remains aloof, thus free.

True freedom cannot be found in political systems and institutions. And Martin Venator the historian knows this well because all political systems and institutions that have existed throughout history ultimately fail. Much of the novel traces Venator’s growing awareness of future political collapse and the tensions it creates. He prepares for this. Jünger, again using his own military experiences, describes how Venator constructs a secret bunker and defenses in preparation for this calamity.

Venator builds this shelter on the periphery of the city—hidden in the forest along the banks of the upper Sus River. The forest is another symbol of freedom for Jünger, who first developed this theme in his 1951 book Der Waldgang (The Forest Passage) (also reissued by Telos Press). The forest is wild and thus the alternative to the artificial human world, where power and control exist.

Jünger suggests that the life of the anarch is open to all. But one must be alert, disciplined, and prepare diligently for the violent changes that authoritarian systems are capable of unleashing. Even progressive liberal regimes of the present day West can quickly descend into chaos. His insight into our contemporary world is again uncanny. There is currently a growing tension in the wealthy industrialized nations about the future and many, like Venator, have taken to preparation—“prepping”—for some environmental, military, or economic collapse. Be aware. Be prepared, suggests Jünger.

Jünger is equally prescient in diagnosing current economic problems. He talks about the importance of gold and its intrinsic economic, even eternal (spiritual) value. He remarks how democracies must print ever-greater quantities of paper money to provide benefits to the masses. Here money soon vanishes. As a result, money becomes “fictive.” In Eumeswil this is not the case. Gold is still valued. The Condor pays in gold and people hoard the precious metal as paper loses its value every day.

We learn at the end of the book that Martin Venator is dead and his estranged brother Cadmo has reestablished the liberal order. The Condor and his regime and cohorts are also gone. Yet the return to a liberal order is no happy ending. To Jünger the liberal system is but another form of totalitarianism. It is less violent than conventional dictatorships—soft totalitarianism— but achieves the same result—total control over a passive population. Nihilism remains.

Jünger’s sonorous prose can make it difficult for some readers to fully immerse themselves in the story. Yet others will find his impressive erudition appealing. This intimate knowledge of history, philosophy, and biology allows him to draw scenes in explicit detail. This attention to detail has always been a hallmark of his style, whether he is describing a battle or a butterfly. And his impressionistic and fragmentary style is one he believed best captured the essence of the contemporary world.

But the novel’s real value is as a social critique and political commentary. And here Jünger shows he is one of the most perceptive writers of the twentieth century. Eumeswil and his other works will continue be read in the future for this reason. The book is also enriched by a lengthy introduction and analysis by Stanford professor Russell E. Berman, editor of the Telos Journal. The introduction is especially useful in introducing Jünger the man and writer to those who have never read him.

Jünger’s admirers, including those at Telos Press and Journal, have always valued the role of Jünger the seeker and writer who brilliantly critiqued and defied modern totalitarianism in all of its forms. In particular, they laud his role as a free man, as the anarch. Yet Ernst Jünger developed another identity after the anarch. After many years of philosophical and earthly wandering he became a Christian—a Roman Catholic. This identity is never mentioned by either supporters or detractors.

Yet it is a quest he actually began during World War II when he became acquainted with the French Catholic writers George Bernanos and Leon Bloy. They convinced Jünger that there was more to life than nontheistic fatalism. Jünger was especially moved by Bloy’s tremendous faith in a faithless world. Jünger’s perspective also changed with the death in the war of his son Ernst, a German soldier.

Jünger wrote a book at the war’s end simply called Der Frieden (The Peace), in which he argued total war must now be replaced by total peace. This could only be accomplished, he said, when theology was restored to respectability in higher learning, something that no modern regime—right or left—had ever done. And this neglect was a distinctive feature and problem of the modern world.

The loss of religious belief is another theme in Eumeswil. Like our own age, materialism is the reigning philosophy in Eumeswil. The Condor and his government control the public through the promise of material benefits. As such, violence is no longer necessary. It is obsolete compared to the prudent use of comfort and pleasure. Yet materialism also leads to nihilism, for once the world loses any transcendent value it loses any meaning. Life becomes boring, which leads to despair and finally nihilism.

Perhaps the different incarnations of Ernst Jünger were but diversions on a long path to recognizing that what he, like the totalitarian world around him, had lost was the wisdom of the Western philosophical and religious tradition—the philosophia perennis. It was this knowledge and its necessary grounding in the science and application of first principles—not militarism, drug experiences, world travels, or even the private freedom of the anarch—that constituted life’s real quest. And Jünger finally found it when he converted to Christianity at age 101.  

Tobias J. Lanz, Ph.D. teaches in the political science department at the University of South Carolina.

Posted: May 1, 2016

Did you see this one?

Natural Law or Nihilism?
M. D. Aeschliman
Volume 29, Number 4 (Summer 1989)

The survival of any culture, or of the material fabric of civilization, requires vigorous imagination and readiness to sacrifice. By dullness and complacency are intellectual and social orders undone.

Russell Kirk

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