It’s convenient that the hundredth anniversary has come around, but the real reason I’m reading these is that I was trying to get rid of some books I bought on impulse that are now cluttering up my life.
I got started with Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger. When he died in 1998 at the age of 102, Junger was the last living holder of Pour le Merite, the highest military honor of the German Empire (says Wikipedia). I bought the book a few years ago when I was reading Clive James’ stimulating Cultural Amnesia, a kind of rambling encyclopedia of little known interwar types. The impression I get is that Junger is a little hard to figure out. His memoir is important, gripping, well written stuff, but though he was never a Nazi, he’s too militaristic for many people to stomach.
Junger hardly ever looks up from the details of his war in the trenches on the Western Front. He enlisted first as a rifleman, wanting to be responsible only for himself, but after being wounded the first time he changed his mind and became a commissioned officer. Even after several promotions, he seems to have been most interested in leading night raids into no man’s land. He certainly never talks politics, only alluding by way of matters of morale in the ranks. Though there’s no shortage of gore, and he’s fairly frank about what seem to have been minor nervous breakdowns, he gives the impression of having suffered nothing that a hot breakfast wouldn’t fix. The long and even the mid term view is completely missing from this book. The beginning and the end of the war are not discussed.
Overall, Storm of Steel is a dull, even simple read, but I get the sense that there could be a lot going on under the surface. A psychologist or an historian might really be able to sink his or her teeth in. What, for example, to make of the publication history of the book? Junger worked from his diaries, and the first version was apparently more or less a transcription; later versions changed emphases, reducing explicit gore or, so I hear, loading up on military cliches. The translator of my Penguin edition merely remarks that a full treatment of this subject has not been undertaken. I imagine it would shed light on a few instances where Junger might be deceiving himself. For example, after a disastrous raid in which much of his platoon disappeared, he says he felt simply terrible, but then quotes a subordinate who admired Junger’s spirited way of leaping over entaglements. A phrase like “disturbed only by mosquitoes, shelling, and occasional bombardments of gas” might be drollery, but there is a limit.
While I was still reading Junger, I checked out Norman Stone’s WWI: A Short History. It certainly is short. While I hesitate to criticize a work that obviously required a colossal effort of synthesis and compression, I am finding his writing difficult. I don’t usually need to read a sentence two or three times to work out syntax and antecedents. It is proving to be an interesting check on Junger; Stone contradicts Junger, for example, in insisting that the Germans enjoyed long advantage in munitions production. I think I could do better than these two works, entertaining as they are, if I were to make a real effort at learning more about this topic, but I’m not sure I have the time now. But just in case, are there any books that have helped you understand WWI?