Storm of Steel [REVIEW]
“Trench fighting is the bloodiest, wildest, most brutal of all ... Of all the war's exciting moments none is so powerful as the meeting of two Stormtroop leaders between narrow trench walls. There's no mercy there, no going back, the blood speaks from a shrill cry of recognition that tears itself from one's breast like a nightmare.”
In Stahlgewittern (Storm of Steel) is the war memoir of Ernst Jünger, a German veteran of World War One. First published in 1920, it was one of the earliest memoirs to come out of the Great War. Jünger’s characteristically German frankness has led Storm of Steel to stand the test of time. To this day it is one of the best personal accounts of Trench Warfare.
Jünger’s personal life is as interesting as his writing and warrants a brief mention. As a young man, Jünger was an avid outdoorsman and an aspiring poet. In 1913 he joined the French Foreign Legion and briefly served in North Africa before getting kicked out for being underage. With the onset of World War One, Jünger enlisted in the German Army as an Infantryman. In four short years he was commissioned as an officer and acquired a staggering seven wounds (including a gunshot to the head, and a gunshot to the chest). He was also awarded an impressive stack of medals, including the Pour le Mèrite (Germany’s highest military honor). Jünger was one of only eleven Infantry Officers to be awarded the medal. After the war Jünger went on to oppose Nazism, participate in the plot to assassinate Hitler, publish a long list of books (including his Hunter S. Thompson-esque experiments with LSD and Ether), become an accomplished Biologist, and lived to be one hundred and three. However it is his first book, Storm of Steel, which merits the most attention.
Few memoirs have described combat with such bluntness. Jünger never shies away from taboo topics. He treats despair and horror the same way he treats joy and satisfaction. Storm of Steel chronicles the absolute carnage of the trenches while simultaneously exposing the ways in which war is unchanging. He humanizes the German Army in a way that is too often neglected due to humanity’s aversion to Nazi war crimes of World War Two. The often incorrectly cited quote, “history is written by the victors” proves incorrect when it comes to Jünger. Along with Remarque and Stark, Jünger left behind some of the most compelling stories of the First World War from the rare viewpoint of the vanquished. The people Jünger served with come to life in his writing. It is impossible to read his story and not empathize with them. He describes the young men he joined with, and their motivations for enlisting,
“We had come from lecture halls, school desks and factory workbenches, and over the brief weeks of training, we had bonded together into one large and enthusiastic group. Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war.”
Most service members who volunteer during a conflict can relate to Jünger’s “yearning for danger” if they are honest with themselves. The majority of wartime enlistees do so out of a desire for adventure rather than some patriotic call to duty. In another instance of honesty at the expense of himself, Jünger describes reacting with bewilderment at receiving enemy fire rather than the disciplined response one would expect of a highly trained soldier. Despite being told repeatedly what to expect, many soldiers find themselves in a brief state of disbelief the first time they are on the receiving end of enemy fire. Jünger recounts this phenomenon,
“In a curious failure of comprehension, I looked alertly about me for possible targets for all this artillery fire, not, apparently, realizing that it was actually ourselves that the enemy gunners were trying for all they were worth to hit.”
His descriptions of the drug-like euphoria troops become addicted to predate what The Hurt Locker unsuccessfully attempted to show audiences in 2008. Jünger’s skill with a pen allows Storm of Steel to transport the reader into the trenches of France, and relive the moments his senses sharpened in preparation for hand-to-hand combat.
“These moments of nocturnal prowling leave an indelible impression. Eyes and ears are tensed to the maximum, the rustling approach of strange feet in the tall grass in an unutterably menacing thing. Your breath comes in shallow bursts; you have to force yourself to stifle any panting or wheezing. There is a little mechanical click as the safety-catch of your pistol is taken off; the sound cuts straight through your nerves. Your teeth are grinding on the fuse-pin of the hand-grenade. The encounter will be short and murderous. You tremble with two contradictory impulses: the heightened awareness of the huntsmen, and the terror of the quarry. You are a world to yourself, saturated with the appalling aura of the savage landscape.”
Despite Jünger’s strong feelings towards War in general and the diplomatic circus that led to the First World War, one of the strongest aspects of Storm of Steel is its complete lack of political commentary. It is wholly void of pro-war propaganda, and equally lacking in apologetic anti-war sentiment. This is the book’s strongest characteristic. Jünger is sometimes criticized as being a warmonger due to the fact it does not contain the Afterward many readers expect, some final paragraph denouncing, “war is a racket.” After his detailed descriptions of the brutality of close quarters combat it is a natural conclusion to think Jünger would wholeheartedly be a pacifist. Rather Jünger simply sets out to honestly describe war on an individual level and leave the politicking up to posterity. He succeeds wholesale. While most war memoirs proudly claim to have a neutral stance few live up to their claim. Storm of Steel has been in print for one year shy of a century, yet it has not lost any relevancy. This is a must read for anyone interested in World War One, military history, or a no-strings war memoir.
Mac Caltrider served in the United States Marine Corps as a rifleman from 2009-2014, during which time he deployed twice to Afghanistan. He holds a Bachelor of Art in History from the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Mac is an avid reader and shares his love of books along with his growing pipe collection on Instagram through @pipes_and_pages