An essay on Ernst Jünger’s concept of the sovereign individual
by Abdalbarr Braun
Ernst Jünger says in his acceptance speech for the prestigious Goethe prize in 1982, “I’ve had the experience that one meets the best comrades in no-man’s-land. I’ve always been pleased with my troops (Mannschaft) in war and my readership in peace. A hand that holds a weapon with honor, holds a pen with honor. It is stronger than any atom bomb, or any rotary press.” With these words Jünger bestows an honour on us, his readership. He equates us with his comrades-in-arms in times of peace, but is it a wonder after all? If you are a reader of Ernst Jünger, you must be in either one of two camps, those who consider his opus with genuine admiration or the detractors, those sceptics, “whose contribution does not equal to one blade of grass, one mosquito wing”.
Ernst Jünger was both literally and metaphorically a warrior of the 20th Century. Not only did he survive two world wars but also the ideologies of the 20s and 30s. He would cross swords with the bourgeoisie, and later after the war with the Frankfurter School of philosophy and Gruppe 47 proponents. But all of his achievements both on the battlefield of war and on paper serve as a guide to our being in the world, above all his achievements are not only personal, they are also a contribution to us his readership.
Jünger’s first book, The Storm of Steel gives us an insight to his character and his future development as an author and individual. It is here that the seeds are sown, that great men of any war are not soldiers; they are warriors, they fight to test themselves and above all to uphold the truth, whatever the reality of that may be. They do not fight for ideologies, but instead they are initiated in earth, blood and fire. By his own admission Jünger was never a good soldier. He admitted to being useless in basic training and the field drills. In his own words: “I had hoped to go from there (the battle field) without being praised. From the beginning, I’ve always had particular allergy to honors. That this happens to be the case, I probably owe to field marshal Von Hindenberg, who said to me in his sonorous voice: ‘Don’t you know that this is not good that the king of Prussia has awarded his highest order to such a young man. Nothing much came of my comrades, who received the Pour le Merit in 1864, 1866, and 1870.’ He was right. In two world wars, I was only able to achieve Captain. And could be happy that it didn’t cost me my head as it did Rommel and other brothers in my order.”
Jünger made up for this seeming lack through his bravery and concern for his comrades in no-man’s-land. He was one of the few who survived the trenches. He went through the baptism of fire and iron to be wounded 14 times (not an insignificant number). “Exactly at the times when the force of things threatened to hammer the soul soft, men were found who unawares danced it away as over nothingness.” Jünger reflects introducing to us the knowledge that the human soul is indeed stronger than the material world, a point not lost on his readers.
He attributes his survival, not to any skill of his own, but rather to the higher power of fate, a portent of his later writings. Jünger leads us through this most nihilistic of wars, with the cool eye of the observer. In its midst the only meaning he can find is a personal one, one of the initiation of life and death. All of those men who survived the horrors of this mass-suicide found one of two things, either the inward strength to master the madness of the material war or insanity. Jünger found out who he was by the end of the war and would carry on this inward strength to the end of his life, not only benefiting himself but his readers too.
Never being concerned about the shells that went off around him, would equally help him in the ideological years after the war. After Versailles Jünger responded to the selling out of Germany by embarking on a war of words with the bourgeois Weimar Republic supporters. Jünger contributed to any cause, be it right or left on the political spectrum, that wanted the best for Germany. These were Jünger’s nationalistic years.
The fires of Jünger’s youth were not completely spent on the battlefield. Attacking all those people he envisioned as selling out Germany brought him into the centre of many radical parties that longed to have him as spokesman. The Nazis courted him, as did the Communists. He wrote for the various propaganda organs of the right and left. He was even invited to a place on Nazi electoral list, which he luckily declined, a near miss. Later Jünger will stand accused of writing a thinly veiled critique of the Nazi tyrannies in On the Marble Cliffs. The Volkische Beobachter stated that Ernst Jünger…”begibt sich in der Nähe eines Kopfschüsses.” Which loosely translated means that he is coming very close to a bullet in the head, one of the methods used by the Nazis for political executions, another brush with death.
Jünger himself says that he had finished with the Nazis after Krystal Nacht, the Nazis’ attack on the Jewish businesses of Germany. It didn’t take this erudite observer much to recognise that both Hitler and the Nazis were proletarian scum and that nothing higher could ever come from them. On one occasion Jünger was asked what he thought of Hitler, he replied, “Er war nur ein kleiner Mann”. (He was just a little man.)
But with the war over that was not the end of his troubles, now he had to deal with the Allies, who believed him to be a contributing ideologue to the Nazi war machine. Jünger refused to undergo the denazifaction program of the Allies and as a result was hung with the prohibition to publish for some years, from 1945 to 1949 to be precise. Now the attacks would come from the liberal left at the head of which was the Frankfurter School. Still Jünger took it all in his stride and would gain in stature in the post war Germany, until the chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl and the prime minister of France, Francois Mitterand would visit him in his Wilflingen home. Recognised as a man of letters, his death at 102 was mourned by all.
But what was Jünger’s contribution? How are we, his readership, to profit from his experience? We might profit in many ways as the scope of Jünger’s opus is vast, covering such diverse topics as botany and etymology or “War as an inner experience” and modern nihilism, but to me the triumvirate of the Krieger (warrior), Anarch, and the Waldgaenger are his legacy and we, his readership, are his inheritors.
Paul Noack in his biography of Jünger’s life sums up for us the nature of Jünger’s contribution with these words. Jünger believed “…that every failure only comes from ourselves, and therefore can also be overcome in ourselves. That is the way that he (Jünger) wanted to show: he guides Over the Linethrough the Wall of Time into a future of a different sort.”
And it is Jünger’s opus that gives us the means to bridge the modern nihilism of this age through the figures of the Krieger, Anarch and Waldgaenger. I have spoken of the significance of Jünger’s life from the perspective of a warrior and its potential differences with the soldier as well as its indications for us. Now we must turn to the Anarch and the Waldgaenger, which are both an extension of each other and the warrior.
Let us state unequivocally that the Anarch is not an anarchist, or to use Jünger’s own definition, “The Anarch is to the anarchist, what the monarch is to the monarchist…” So it follows that sovereignty is the meaning sought here. The Anarch is sovereign like the monarch. And from this conviction of sovereignty, he does not need to rely on others. But what is the frame in which this becomes necessary or even desirable? In our modern times this approach to politics is desirable, even lifesaving. Again it must be said that Jünger’s own character typifies this sort of behaviour in the face of the tyranny of modern political nihilism. The Anarch is capable of survival because he can outwardly assume any form, be it a clerk behind a counter or a soldier in the military, while inwardly he remains free, able to think and observe. He, in his inward migration, does not nihilistically implode into himself, but remains aware of the circumstances around himself but not affected by them. It is not his goal to be dialectically resistant to the tyranny, rather he is observant as if following the Confucian code: “Attacking false systems merely harms you.” Aware of the inherent falseness of any sort of tyranny, he does not need to jeopardise his life or that of others by attacking something that itself will come to an end. Rather he becomes a preserver of knowledge, a philosopher, poet and historian. He waits, studies, and preserves until a time when he can contribute. Otherwise it is his duty to pass on what he knows, preserving it for a time when his inheritors can put it to use.
Jünger himself in one description of the Anarch says: “…His inner strength is far greater. In fact, the Anarch’s state is the state that each man carries within himself. He embodies the viewpoint of Stirner,…that is the Anarch is unique. Stirner said, “Nothing gets the best of me.” The Anarch is really the natural man. He is corrected only by the resistance he comes up against when he wishes to extend his will further than is permitted by the prevailing circumstances. In his ambition to realise himself, he inevitably encounters certain limits; but if they did not exist his expansion would be indefinite…”
“The Anarch can don any disguise. He remains wherever he feels comfortable; but once a place no longer suits him he moves on. He can, for instance, work tranquilly behind a counter or in an office. But upon leaving it at night, he plays an entirely different roll. Convinced of his own inner independence, he can even show a certain benevolence to the powers that be. He’s like Stirner, he’s a man who, if necessary, can join a group, form a bond with something concrete; but seldom with ideas. The Anarchist is an idealist; but the Anarch, on the contrary, is a pragmatist. He sees what can serve him – him and the common good; but he is closed to ideological excesses. It is in this sense that I define the Anarch’s position as a completely natural attitude. First of all, there is a man, and then comes his environment. That is the position I favor at the moment.”
Jünger took this position in World War II and before, during the tyranny of the Nazi regime. He became invisible despite his writings in the Wehrmacht. This also enabled him to have contact with the resistance within Paris and the German General Staff itself. His writing entitled The Peace, (Der Friede) was a plan for post-war Europe, although contrary to every Nazi policy, it found a great reception among the Staff, even if fate would never allow it to be played out.
The Anarch gives us the means to observe and understand the materialist age we find ourselves in, without jeopardising our own sovereignty. Because the Anarch is the natural form of man, by Jünger’s own definition, we should not be mistaken that we are talking about the individualist or individualism as it has become known today. Individualism itself is an extension of the rampant nihilism of our age and therefore an illness to be overcome. The individual is a private being closed in his own world. The individualist even rejects the naturalness of a social milieu free of the exploitation of the modern servile state. If we are talking of the Anarch as a natural man then we must also mean a man who is social in his form. The sovereign individual is always capable of joining together with others of his kind. It means to be an individual only in the truth with which one faces oneself, otherwise it has nothing to due with individualism. Still this Anarch may not find many people who understand him or what it means to be natural. If this figure is a threat to the status quo, he is an Anarch, if not we must suspect the individual.
By extension the Waldgaenger is the Anarch who has had to retreat into the wilderness because he has been exposed as the Anarch, the free sovereign man and is in danger of being killed. So he must range the forest, or the city for that matter, but it requires a style of resistance to the forces of tyranny. He will have to take up the fight and this is the indication that the Anarch again is not an individual in Jünger’s meaning, because although the Waldgaenger can and might have to fight alone, it is futile to do it without support, one cannot live the Hollywood film of the lone hero. This is simply a psychological indoctrination for the masses enforcing the nihilistic idea of the individual and must therefore be recognised for what it is, a baseless myth.
The retreat into the forest comes today under certain conditions which Jünger describes for us, “The Waldgang (retreat into the forest) followed upon proscription. Through it man asserted his will to survive by virtue of his own strength. That was held to be honorable, and it is still today in spite of all indications to the contrary. Waldgängers (Rangers in the forest) are all those, isolated by all great upheavals, and are confronted with ultimate annihilation.”
“Since this could be the fate of many, indeed, of all, another defining characteristic must be added: The Waldgaenger (the Ranger) is determined to offer resistance. He is willing to enter into a struggle that appears hopeless. Hence he is distinguished by an immediate relationship to freedom which expresses itself in the fact that he is prepared to oppose the automatism and reject its ethical conclusion of fatalism. If we look at him in this fashion we shall understand the roll which the Waldgang plays not only in our thoughts but also in the realities of our age. Everyone today is subject to coercion and the attempts to banish it are bold experiments upon which depends a destiny far greater than the fate of those who dare to undertake them.”
Here we have it in its essence, we see its nature as broad capable of taking many forms, but all to the same end, the preservation of the dignity and freedom of man in its original and most natural form. This is beyond the polemics of modern philosophy and politics. It is the removal of the coercion that has become characteristic of the modern mega-state and its master the banking titan.
Jünger: “The Waldgang is not to be understood as a form of Anarchism directed against world technology (technik), although this is a temptation, particularly for those who strive to regain a myth. Undoubtedly, mythology will appear again. It is always present and arises in a propitious hour like a treasure coming to the surface, but man does not return to the realm of myth, he re-encounters it when the age is out of joint and in the magic circle of extreme danger…”
The Waldgang is the stuff of myth, but not created by the likes of us. Myth has its root in the disclosure of the divine and it is only the natural man, a man who is beyond the concepts of liberty, fraternity and equality that might achieve this. Where the modern concepts of the Enlightenment prevail, so prevails the tyranny of the state. Here the Anarch becomes potent in his reflection even dangerous, he has recognised the tyranny and if he is exposed he must choose the method of retreat into the forest or pay the price.
In our age we cannot underestimate the heritage that Jünger has left us. All around us we see the levelling effects of technology. It becomes more and more difficult to be free in the golden cage of the world state. Who are the men and women that are still sovereign in this age? It is certainly becoming more difficult to find real ‘Anarchs’ devoted to learning and freedom, but they are there; some of them are the readership that Jünger honours so greatly and others are unaware of Jünger, but possess a natural inclination to his thoughts.
These ideas have never been popular, even with some of his loyal readers. Jünger himself had burnt himself on the hot iron of modern democracy. Naturally those who believe in the saying of Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government, but the best we’ve got,” will certainly disagree with Jünger’s political analysis, but the further we go down this strange path called the modern world, the more we must realise how much Jünger’s political analysis rings true. Modern Democracy is a sham, covering up the all too real and undemocratic exploitation of people, wealth, and resources, siphoning it off into the hands of the few, in the name of the many. We have entered the age of the Anarch and who knows what will come next?
ABDALBARR BRAUN – 7 March 2002
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