Berghahn Books Logo

berghahn New York · Oxford

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Instagram

Jünger in Paris: A Writer’s Wartime Account in the City of Lights

Allan Mitchell takes a look at Ernst Jünger, an under-appreciated twentieth century writer, but an important social figure. The Devil’s Captain: Ernst Jünger in Nazi Paris, 1941-1944 follows the writer at wartime, where he spent his stint in Paris as a military officer whose chief duty was to “mingle with French intellectuals.” Below is an excerpt from the volume, which was originally published in May 2011 and is soon to be released in ebook format.



Very few, if any, critics of German literature would rank Ernst Jünger among the greatest writers of the twentieth century. He simply does not compare, as a novelist, with giants like Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, or Robert Musil. His signature work, Auf den Marmorklippen, has been often justly praised for its chiseled language and allegorical imagination. But for later generations raised on soaring flights of science fiction, Jünger’s 1939 work must seem brief, rather stilted, and now somewhat dated. In any event, it pales beside Buddenbrooks and Der Zauberberg, Das Urteil and Das Schloss, or Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften.


True, the political implications of Jünger’s fiction merit scrutiny, but that does not vitiate the commonplace that truly great literary conceptions always transcend the time and place of their authorship.



The earliest German works about Jünger stretched from the frankly harsh recriminations of Peter de Mendelssohn to the learned, albeit somewhat belabored defense of him by Karl-Heinz Bohrer. Positioned between them were two outstanding general studies of the Weimar intellectual scene before 1933 by Kurt Sontheimer and Hans-Peter Schwarz. Sontheimer identified Jünger as one of the many anti-democratic polemicists who emerged after 1918 and who could not escape the charge of thereby becoming gravediggers of the Republic.


Casting Jünger as a “conservative anarchist,” Schwarz critically analyzed both the style and content of his writings to arrive at much the same conclusion. Together, this pair all but demolished the claim in Jünger’s defense that he was merely producing a seismographic record of his time; rather, he actively helped to shape that record. It is no putdown to refer to these early examinations of Jünger’s career as pioneering, and their influence was still evident at the end of the twentieth century when more biographical treatments began to appear, such as those by Martin Meyer, Paul Noack, and Steffen Martus, all of whom concentrated less than their predecessors on the problematic ethical aspects of Jünger’s activity before 1933 and more on his political and philosophical bent thereafter. They arrived therewith at evaluations of Jünger that can fairly be called balanced.


Yet, by the beginning of the twenty-first century there was still no full-scale biography of Jünger. That scholarly lacuna was soon filled in 2007 by the simultaneous appearance of two 600-page tomes by Heimo Schwilk and Helmuth Kiesel. Without suggesting a whitewash of Jünger, both of them were manifestly well disposed toward their subject, although their estimations of him differed in approach.


Schwilk has produced a rather conventional life-and-times biography from cradle to grave. He sees Ernst Jünger as a perennial outsider who was nonetheless a hard-bitten nationalist and, as such, a committed enemy of the Weimar Republic. Hence, he seems to imply that Jünger was, if anything, rhetorically more radical than the Nazis in his opposition to any participation in the parliamentary process.


If there is a weakness in this account, it is the disappointingly hasty treatment of Jünger’s activity during the German Occupation of France. The entire period from 1936 to 1943 is handled by Schwilk in a single 25-page chapter in which his geography of Paris is generally fuzzy and sometimes inaccurate (for instance, Jünger’s residence in the Hotel Raphael was not located, as he imagines, near the Bois de Boulogne). Still, Schwilk has otherwise made excellent use of Jünger’s journals and of the resources at the Marbach archive. He has therewith created a bedrock of Jünger biography that is likely to be budged only slightly in the future.


Kiesel is much more interested in Jünger the writer than Jünger the warrior. As a distinctively literary historian, he tends to move from one of Jünger’s published works to another in order to draw a portrait of him as a German Dichter und Denker. Thus he devotes nearly sixty pages to an analysis of the composition, revisions, and reception of In Stahlgewittern between the two world wars; and the novel Auf den Marmorklippen receives twenty pages of summation and criticism. Like Schwilk, he glides over Jünger’s four Paris years in less than thirty-five pages, hardly more space than is accorded to his unsuccessful postwar novel Heliopolis.


It is not surprising, therefore, that Kiesel’s main effort is to locate Jünger within the pantheon of twentieth-century European literature by offering extended comparisons with such authors as Goethe, Nietzsche, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Spengler, Thomas Mann, and Gottfried Benn, as well as the French writers Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Maurice Barrès. While he faults Jünger for an all too permissive attitude toward Nazi war crimes, particularly against the Jews, he insists that such a stance was quite typical of German intellectuals and cautions that one should not exaggerate Jünger’s negative influence. It remains to be seen whether this somewhat apologetic appreciation of Jünger will withstand the rebuttals that are sure to come, yet the depth of research by both Schwilk and Kiesel is to be commended and will not easily be gainsaid.


As for Anglophone scholarship, three earlier attempts to introduce Jünger to an international audience are worthy of mention. The 1992 study by Marcus Paul Bullock is an unstructured and rambling treatise that posits Jünger’s extreme right-wing position of the Weimar years as the essential starting-point for any interpretation of him. Bullock thereby borders on an unacceptable reductionism, but he manages to sprinkle in some arresting aperçus of Jünger’s more important writings.


By contrast, the well organized 1999 volume by Elliot Y. Neaman, although marred by far too frequent minor errors, succeeds in presenting a more complex and balanced image of Jünger, which focuses on the political and scholarly reception of his career during the post war era after 1945. These two studies have to some extent crowded out the solid but standard biographical treatment of Jünger’s early career by Thomas Nevin, which appeared in 1996 and has now been superseded by Schwilk and Kiesel.


In addition, note should be taken of two works by German émigré historians long settled in the United States and writing in fluent English: Klemens von Klemperer and Dagmar Barnouw. Their markedly more critical reading of Jünger is reminiscent of the cluster of German scholars such as Sontheimer and Schwarz, mentioned above. They all place him into the context of antirepublican intellectuals following the First World War, and each chastises him for his cozy relationship with ultranationalism, if not fascism. The ultimate implication of these intellectual histories is cogently stated by Klemperer: “However unwillingly on his part, he was used by the Nazis; however unwittingly, his thought led into the German catastrophe.”




Allan Mitchell received his PhD from Harvard in 1961, then taught at Smith College (1961-1972) and the University of California, San Diego (1972-1992). His most recent books include The Great Train Race: Railways and the Franco-German Rivalry 1815–1914 (Berghahn Books, 2000); Rêves Parisiens: L’échec de projets de transport public en France au XIXème siècle (Ponts-et-Chaussées, Paris, 2005); A Stranger in Paris: Germany’s Role in Republican France, 1870–1940 (Berghahn Books, 2006); and Nazi Paris: The History of an Occupation, 1940–1944 (Berghahn Books, 2008).