The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z. (Note: There is no “I” in the Clive’s Lives series.)
Things like that belong to the style of the times.
—Ernst Jünger, Caucasian Notes
Ernst Jünger was born in Heidelberg in 1895 and reached maturity just in time to volunteer for service in World War I, during which his bravery won him the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest military decoration. After the war, his book Storm of Steel launched him on a literary career that amounts to as big a problem for the student of 20th-century humanism as Bertolt Brecht’s. In Jünger’s case, however, the problem came from the other direction. Jünger emerged from the trenches as a believer in national strength, which he thought was threatened by liberal democracy. Though he never gave his full allegiance to the Nazis, he was glad to accept military rank in the Wehrmacht, and wrote approvingly about the invasion of France, in which he accompanied one of the forward units. After the plot against Hitler’s life in July 1944, he fell under suspicion, but his prestige and his Pour le Mérite made him untouchable. Never an active conspirator, he thought he was fulfilling his duty to civilized values merely by despising Hitler. The thought of killing Hitler did not occur.
In his postwar years, Jünger wrote contemptuously against the apparatchiks of the East German regime, who found it easy to condemn him for his right-wing track record, describing him in their official literary lexicon as “an especially dangerous exponent of West German militaristic and neofascist literature.” Having missed his first chance to identify a totalitarian enemy in good time, he didn’t miss the second. Demonstrating powers of compression and evocation that could pack a treatise into a paragraph, his two collections of linked short essays, On the Marble Cliffs and The Adventurous Heart, are the easiest introduction to his literary talent and political vision. The talent is unquestionable. The vision is quite otherwise. But when he finally realized what Hitler had done in pursuit of the ideal of strength that he had himself cherished, even he was obliged to consider that his espousal of Darwin (the struggle for existence) and Nietzsche (the will to power) might have depended on some sort of liberal context for its rational expression. He died in 1998, his name much honored, with good reason, and much in dispute, for better reason.
A phrase like “the style of the times,” quoted above, can be self-serving, because it removes the obligation to place blame. Even before Hitler launched Germany on a catastrophic war, Jünger should have been able to assess the toxicity of the Nazis by the intellectual quality of some of the people who were trying to get beyond their reach. In retrospect, his phrase “the style of the times” enrolls itself among many euphemisms that served to sanitize the effects of the Nazi impact even on the learned professions. Jünger, as an Aryan, was safe from that impact. He should have cared more about what happened to those less privileged. A learned man, Jünger knew all their names: even the names of the minor figures, the spear carriers and walk-ons. In the late 1930s, in a race for a foreign chair of philology, the obscure Victor Klemperer was beaten to a safe seat in Ankara by the illustrious Erich Auerbach. If Klemperer had secured the prize instead, and got away to safety, it is unlikely that he would have written anything with the bold scope of Auerbach’s Mimesis. We should not romanticize Klemperer because of what he went through: Millions went through it, too. But we are compelled to admire him for what he made of it. Fated to stay where he was, he was granted the dubious reward of experiencing from close up what the Nazis did to the German language; reading his analysis in his two-volume diary, I Shall Bear Witness and To the Bitter End, we can only conclude that the Nazis wrecked the language they had usurped. They wrecked it with euphemism: They spoke and wrote the officialese of slaughter.
We should not delude ourselves that an Aryan non-Nazi, no matter how exalted his intellect, could exercise the privilege of remaining uninfected. Ernst Jünger is a case in point: perhaps the case in point, because he was incomparably the most gifted writer to remain on the scene. In his wartime diaries, the strange usage isolated in my opening quotation keeps on cropping up. It centers on a single word. The word is Zeitstil, which can be translated as “the style of the times.” In early December 1942, we find Jünger visiting the Russian front. He hears about dreadful things happening to Russian prisoners. First of all, he convinces himself that the prisoners are partisans, and can thus expect no quarter. When this thesis starts to look shaky, he convinces himself of something else: that both sides are behaving dreadfully, and it all belongs to “the style of the times.” Later on in the same month, he hears from a general (the generals were always at home to Jünger, whose prestige was immense) that the Jews are being slaughtered. Jünger’s reaction is: “The old chivalry is dead: wars from now on will be waged by technologists.” Once again, it is the style of the times. And so it was, but not in the way he meant it.
Jünger had lent his literary gift to the idea of German militaristic renewal. Until the news about the extermination camps was finally and unmistakably read to him by a German general in 1943, no amount of horrifying truth could induce him fully to admit that he had made a mistake. His way out of such an admission was to blame the style of the times: i.e., to console himself with the belief that everyone was at it, led back to barbarism by the modern spirit of technology. The style of the times was a powerfully useful idea. It didn’t even need to be put into words. It could be put into silence. In his elegant, learned, and, finally, disgraceful NotesTowards the Definition of Culture, published in 1948, T. S. Eliot simply declined to admit that the Holocaust might be a pertinent topic in a discussion of what had happened to Europe. Closer to the scene but equally untouched, Eliot’s admirer and colleague Ernst Robert Curtius achieved a similar feat of inattention. If pressed on the point, both savants would have blamed the new technological order: the style of the times.
But there was no such thing as the style of the times, except in the sense that they themselves personified: a style of not concerning themselves with the catastrophic results of a political emphasis they had been given ample opportunity to recognize as the first and most deadly enemy of the humanist culture they claimed to represent. The humble Victor Klemperer, if they had been forcibly reminded of his name, would have been dismissed as small beer by both of them. Ernst Jünger would have behaved better. To give him the respect he has coming, he finally realized that the massacre of the Jews could not be wished away. But he never quite gave up on the airy notion that the style of the times was to blame for things like that.