18 December 2010

ZEIT interview with Ernst Jünger in 1989

The following is my unofficial translation of an interview with Ernst Jünger which appeared in the ZEIT magazine in 1989. The interviewer is André Müller.

I leave it to the reader without comment - in any case, even the most objective translation contains something of the translator.

A friendship developed from my original working contact with Ernst Jünger, who I interviewed for ZEIT on November 8, 1989. We corresponded and he called me at regular intervals, initially to let me know about favorable critiques or newspaper articles, but later also to ask my opinions or share something personal. I visited him five times, twice at his house in Wilflingen and three times at his nephew´s,* where he stayed when he came to Munich for the annual meeting of recipients of the Bavarian Order of Maximilian. According to Jünger, I owed this interview to the second wife of Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the journalist Charlotte Kerr, who had requested a television interview with him. He said she had warned him about me. I was a dangerous chap with whom he should be on guard. He responded to her that he understood that as a compliment and decided to accept my request. After some hesitation, he even agreed to a recording.

After publication of the interview, he wrote me: “At any rate, you tried to bring the conversation onto a different track than the one on which it had rolled for decades to the point of nausea.” The fact that I had not confronted him with the accusation, constantly repeated in the media, that he had prepared the way for National Socialism with his early writings gave him hope that he had found in me someone who could publicly “take up the fight” for him. He used this formulation several times. His position with respect to the discussions about his person was contradictory. On the one hand, he emphasized again and again he had more important things to do than defend himself against the attacks; on the other hand, he sent me material defending him, among them a copy of a letter from Francois Mitterand, who was one of his admirers, newspaper articles from France in which he was celebrated as a “second Goethe”, letters from fans, and passages of prose I was to help him publish. Only when I made it clear that I was no good for such jobs did the shell of his apparently unshatterable composure crack. Now he showed his feelings. The hostilities hurt him. He “would not be here at all”, had he not had his old friends. It appeared to him as though Metternich had been resurrected, “but paradoxically as a function of media determining today what was to be considered true, while the actual truth only circulates anonymously.”

He called his being put on the same level with Leni Riefenstahl in a ZEIT article a “rat’s whistle”. At the beginning of 1995, the revilement, which had in the meantime become a major theme of our telephone conversations, led to a blunder hardly noticed by the press but representative for me of the handling of Jünger in Germany. In January a dance performance by the choreographer Hans Kresnik with the title “Ernst Jünger” was debuted at the Berliner Volksbühne. An anti-semitic slogan attributed to Jünger was projected onto the stage curtain as preparation for the audience. Weeks later the theatre had to answer for its error. The phrases came from someone else**. For ZEIT the incident was worth only a short gloss. The mistake repeated in the magazine’s review of the performance was amended, but an attempt was simultaneously made to substantiate Jünger´s “own anti-semitism” with the following citation: “To the degree that the German will gains definition and form, so even the most muted illusion of a Jew to become a German in Germany will become unrealizable, and he will find himself before his last alternativ: in Germany to either be a Jew or not to be.” *** I sent Jünger the gloss. He wrote back: “I attribute this to the labour pains of my next birthday, **** which seems to be an annoyance for some.”

Previously we had often chatted about his stance in the 1930’s regarding the Jewish question, among other occasions during our meeting of February 17, 1993 that the photographer Joseph Gallus Rittenberg was able to film on video. Part of the film was broadcast during the Sat I “News and Stories” show in April 1994. Anti-semitic statements, Jünger explained to me, could not have been made by him, they would be inconsistent with his disposition: “I only declared that the Jews and Germans had so far estranged themselves from one another that it would have been better for them to separate.” I asked him how he imagined that would happen. He answered: “The Jews could have emigrated. That would have certainly been to their advantage.” One might find that shocking, but it is not wrong. I can here refute the assertion that Jünger was trying to cover up his opinions published during the Third Reich by not included these newspaper articles, which could be used to incriminate him, in the collected works. During only my second visit he asked me if he should add them as a special edition to the collected works in order to put an end to these suspicions. He no longer remembered all that he had then written, it was “sloughed-off snakeskin”, “old chestnuts”, but it would be beneficial if his antagonists could have them in context. I dissuaded him. He should not spoil the game of those who so enjoyed their own flairs.


You sought out death very early.

ERNST JÜNGER: I don’t know. You could say I have a different relationship to death than the normal one.

One determined by curiosity.

JÜNGER: Yes, and that earns me many critics among people who are uncomfortable with it. I was accused of having attended the execution of a deserter during WWII with a supernatural curiosity.

You yourself described it that way. *****

JÜNGER: Certainly. But of course this curiosity would be further heightened if it concerned my own death.

Unfortunately you would not be able to write about it.

JÜNGER: I've also been reproached for the famous glass of champagne that I drank on the roof of the hotel “Raphael” while the British bombarded Paris. ****** But that’s how things are. When someone says, the people down there are unpleasant to me, as well as those flying overhead, and I'd rather drink a glass of champagne with the dead, well, that irritates a lot of people.

In WWI you were already launching yourself into daring solo actions, usually without a helmet, relishing the danger.

JÜNGER: My God, the whole thing didn’t really scare me that much.

Did you have a death wish?

JÜNGER: I wouldn't say that.

Why did you put your life unnecessarily on the line?

JÜNGER: A young man doesn’t reflect on these things. He doesn’t philosophize in this direction. Back then people said that everything was getting too slack. They wanted a real war again. A recent young Italian visitor said to me that his biography lacked a war. But he was certainly imagining something else. The classical war has become impossible. Nonetheless, never have so many wars been fought as at present. Think about Lebanon, Nicaragua, something going on everywhere. What is happening in the DDR is also a powerful movement*******. A lot is obscure. One could say, the Age of Aquarius is a transition. One doesn’t know what is right, what is valid and what is not.

In your book on WWI “Storms of Steel” you write: “Grown up in an era of security, we all felt the desire for the unusual, for great danger.”

JÜNGER: Yes, sure.

With the war, you were “seized, as if inebriated”. You expected a “happy shooting match” on “meadows of bloody dew”.

JÜNGER: You know, I wrote this book as a high school student.

How do you feel when you read it today?

JÜNGER: I pat that young man on the shoulder for exposing himself this way.

In your book “Battle as inner experience” the talk is of a “blood lust” that “hangs over the war”, of “orgies of wrath” and the “joy of dying” in the “sputtering craters of impulses believed already lost”.

JÜNGER: I don’t even know anymore what I all let out then.

Soldiers are “jugglers of death”, “magnificent predators”, “life means killing”. Battle appears as “masculinity pushed to the peak”, in other passages as “the male form of procreation”. Has this become alien to you?

JÜNGER: One undoubtedly gains a certain distance. But I definitely took part in that great enthusiasm, which has become almost incomprehensible today.

Not to me.

JÜNGER: Really?

You couldn’t endure peace.

JÜNGER: You don’t think so?

Pascal wrote that man cannot tolerate quietness because it drives him to despair. He has to get his mind off it.


You needed the war to distract yourself.

JÜNGER: I could have lived happily as a zoologist and occupied myself only with the observation of animals. I wanted to go to Africa. I would have prefered that to waging war. In 1913 I entered the Foreign Legion and went to Algeria. To some extent I was the first emigrant.

But you imagined this continent to yourself …

JÜNGER: ...with cannibals and so on.

You were looking for adventure.

JÜNGER: Of course.

Closeness to death.

JÜNGER: Yes, these are approaches, for sure. My drug experiments also fit in here. After the war, I was at one of the first sessions with Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD. Until then no-one even knew that it existed. I see drugs as keys that open our eyes to a hidden world. But one must be careful. I had big difficulties with my book “Drugs and Inebriation”, as if I had wanted to mislead young people with it.

You explicitly incorporated the risk of death. In your 1949 novel “Heliopolis” you ask: “Must the strongest arcanum not also necessarily be deadly?”

JÜNGER: Yes, I chose the idea of the master key there. For me drug experiences are a general experiment which will probably find a solution in the next century.

In what form?

JÜNGER: All kinds of people are working on it, chemists, psychologists. Many people today put themselves into a particular frame of mind with the help of pills. People are looking for something. But they are often not equal to the task. And as a result many victims are claimed.

Do you still take drugs today?


You will be ninety-five in March. One can hardly believe it.


Especially since you still write books.

JÜNGER: Sure, but this is a simple physiological phenomenon in the first place. There have been others older than me. Fontenelle******** for example turned one hundred.

Did he still write?

JÜNGER: Yes, but in a lacklustre manner. One should rather give it up at that point. If you say someone is still writing books at such an old age, you could equally say, he walks on his hands through St. Mark’s Square. It’s a curiosity, but it has nothing to do with literature. What is important is that the literary quality is still high.

Are you healthy?

JÜNGER: I am healthy, and you know, a healthy person never thinks about their health.

Do you experience death’s proximity, which in some sense you have involuntarily reached, as equally enthralling as those adventures you took on out of your own initiative?

JÜNGER: I have never occupied myself with this question.

What do expect when it is all over?

JÜNGER: I presume that a lot will be more congenial than is commonly imagined. One often sees a very cheerful expression on death masks. When he was already passing on, Leon Bloy responded to the question on what he was feeling: an immense curiosity. Tolstoy wrote in “The Death of Ivan Iljitsch”: in the place of death there was light. In my collection of last words there is the case of a man who was hung. The rope broke. He lay down below. He was asked: what did you experience? He said that he had had the impression of having attended a hanging in another world.

He saw himself getting hanged.

JÜNGER: Yes, it’s good. I’d welcome it if people could sometimes disappear, in order to see themselves from above.

They would feel freer.

JÜNGER: Exactly.

You coined the phrase “self-distancing” for this. A man becomes an observer of the events in which he is involved. As perpetrator or victim, he remains untouched because of the distance.

JÜNGER: That's right. One can get into situations which are unpleasant. But one can still make something of them. Let’s say one is involved as a soldier. Some of them play cards in the lulls in combat, others read.

That means man can preserve his freedom by regarding the situation into which he has gotten as a sort of spectacle.

JÜNGER: Yes, of course.

Seen this way, to give an extreme example, a Jew in the concentration camp could also feel free.

JÜNGER: In theory, without doubt.

But you don’t make this demand?

JÜNGER: My goodness no.

That has often been misunderstood.

JÜNGER: I consider it better if one tries to put oneself into the individual’s situation. Everyone dies for themselves only.

What you have written about the meaning of sacrifice is also unclear.


The millions of war deaths were necessary for the new to arise.

JÜNGER: Yes, but these are matters to be handled very cautiously indeed. One says this or one says the opposite, and it is always wrong. The very word “sacrifice” raises questions. What is a sacrifice? There are voluntary sacrifices, which I agree with, a sacrifice that I make, and then there are people that are sacrificed against their will. I find the violation of the unarmed very unpleasant.

Unpleasant certainly, but not meaningless.

JÜNGER: You know, these are themes that are in fact taboo. They are secrets. One shouldn’t talk about them.

Your son fell in 1944 in Italy*********. He was eighteen years old. Was this death meaningful?

JÜNGER: This was in any case no poor misled child. He inscripted himself voluntarily and he fell. This is not meaningless.

In your diaries the entry regarding the news of his death is one of the few passages where one senses that you feel pain. Do you find it difficult to write about your feelings?

JÜNGER: I express myself reluctantly on these things.

Golo Mann had a problem with this. One learns too little about your suffering in your books.

JÜNGER: That’s news to me. I was recently with Golo Mann. He had a pain in his foot. And he had written in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung about some or other people he had as opponents. I wouldn’t do that.

Because you are not bothered by having opponents?

JÜNGER: Well, it's obviously not nice.

Are you vulnerable?

JÜNGER: Everyone is vulnerable.

Were you hurt that Gottfried Benn, with whom you were friends, bad-mouthed you behind your back?

JÜNGER: Did he bad-mouth me?

He called you “mushy, conceited, self-important and in bad taste”.

JÜNGER: He commented on a few things in my book “Strahlungen”, and he had reasons to be annoyed, since his relationship to the Third Reich was very different from mine. I distanced myself from the National Socialists very early, which he did not do. He perhaps resented me for that.

You also say you recognized Hitler’s character early.


Nevertheless you made him a gift of your books and received from him, in some sense as thanks, his “Mein Kampf.”

JÜNGER: That’s something different.

Have you read his book?


In your 1959 primary work “At the wall of time”, in which you speak of meaningful sacrifices, you write that the perpetrators are also necessary as “instruments of world change”.

JÜNGER: You’ve read the book. That makes me glad.

Were you thinking of Hitler with this sentence?

JÜNGER: No, not at all.

But the idea is rather insistent. No other person in this century changed the world so much.

JÜNGER: Clearly. Without Hitler, the world would look different today. But he became a most disastrous figure for us.

Disastrous, but necessary as an instrument.

JÜNGER: Yes, but anyone expressing such ideas already counts as a fascist.

Did you have this experience?

JÜNGER: No, because I have never expressed this idea.

What you say about the future of mankind also remains unclear. On the one hand you herald the arrival of a golden age in which there are neither borders nor wars, on the other you retain it possible that man might go extinct.

JÜNGER: One shouldn’t say everything. Readers can also think for themselves. I am just reading in Nietzsche, so many animal species have disappeared and appeared, that even if man disappeared, nothing would be missing. He wrote this more than a hundred years ago. That’s astonishing.

Would you regret the absence of man?

JÜNGER: Yes, I also regret the fact that there are no longer dodos. Every loss is regretable.

At the same time, you emphasize, it is an opportunity for renewal.

JÜNGER: That is an obvious fact, even in a purely mathematical sense. If the polar icecaps freeze over, it is somehow an issue, yet at the same time land is freed up. The opposite happens when they melt and land is flooded. This need not mean that there can be no human life then. When you consider that the intelligence of dolphins already approachs human intelligence today, then you can imagine a whole new world arising. It’s actually much more comfortable in water since gravity is less bothersome.

You’ve always remained an optimist despite your clear vision.

JÜNGER: If you say so.

What gives you hope?

JÜNGER: I study myth and one learns there that titanism, the period in which we presently find ourselves, has always come to grief. Nietzsche’s Superman failed. My bet is on the artistic man, on the connection with the divine in general.

Are you Christian?

JÜNGER: No. That’s not even necessary. The individual enters into society now and then, as Stirner says. This can be the nation, the family or a religious community. He views it as a circus, finds one act good, the other less, then he leaves again. Whatever he does, he remains himself. I called him the anarch.

In contrast to the anarchist.

JÜNGER: Yes, exactly.

You write that the anarch realizes himself in every regime. He lives in external conformity, inconspicuously. He fights his own war, even when marching in rank and file. He knows that if he wants he can kill in any moment, himself also by the way.

JÜNGER: Of course.

Have you considered that for yourself?

JÜNGER: Killing?

Killing yourself.


You expressed yourself in particular depth regarding suicide in “On the line”.

JÜNGER: But that’s a long time ago.

I quote: "There is a certitude about an existence become unfeasible. It is then pointless that the heartbeat, the circulation, the kidney secretions continue, like the ticking of a clock on a corpse. The consequence would be gruesome decay.”

JÜNGER: I wouldn't express myself that way today.

Why not?

JÜNGER: It seems rather extreme to me.

There is also an error in reasoning, since you could, if you observed what you’ve written elsewhere, escape the despair by making your bodily functions the subject of observation.

JÜNGER: Yes, but that’s already a very modern thought. One could imagine a man in a space ship orbiting the earth, who could no longer be helped. The matter would get very transcendent there, touch on transcendence itself.

Have you been in similar situations?


You were never truly alone.

JÜNGER: At least not so much that one could say I had cabin fever. I’m too much involved in my thoughts for that.

Moreover you managed to establish a bourgeois existence for yourself.

JÜNGER: Yes, this is actually the best one for an anarch. I’m now in my second happy marriage. But even with my wife I live in a quite lonesome manner. It often happens that we eat breakfast and dinner together, but in between each does their own thing.

Your wife is an archivist by profession. When you met her, you circumscribed your wedding plans with the phrase, you would find her a better occupation.


You formulate love matters so cooly.

JÜNGER: Well….

You have let little out about your relationship with the opposite sex.

I omit such avowels. Taboo areas exist, don’t they? But I embrace the fact that women now get so-called equal rights. This has to do with the transition into a spiritualized zone, though women have of course always been spiritual beings.

Will there be more intimate material in your estate?

JÜNGER: From my side for sure not.

So in order to fathom your psyche we'll have to stick to your literary characters. In the novel “The slingshot” you describe a timid, fearful, acutely sensitive young boy.

JÜNGER: Yes, these are individuations.

In your story “A Dangerous Encounter” the character of a tender young man is even more clearly illustrated. The looks given him by women puzzle him. “He felt threatened by them” is what is written.

JÜNGER: Dear me!

Photos from your adolescence also fit here; in contrast to your warlike pronouncements they show a soft, almost feminine teenager.

JÜNGER: Really? I have no idea of that. Other people have interested themselves in it. The whole house is full of busts. They all did my head, from Breker to Wimmer.

It seems that you wanted to overcome your soft nature with the warlike one.

JÜNGER: Is that right? Overcome it? Good! Very good.


*) Gert Deventer, son of Ernst Jünger’s sister Hanna.
**) The citations originate from the nazi journalist Ernst Rhode.
***) Citation from a 1930 article published in the periodical "Die Kommenden".
****) Ernst Jünger’s 100th birthday is intended - 29 March 1995.
*****) Described in "The first Paris Diary", entry on 29 May 1941.
******) Allusion to a passage in "The second Paris Diary", entry on 27 May 1944: »The city with its red towers and cupolas lay in daunting beauty, like a calyx being receiving a deadly pollination from above. All was spectacle, pure elevated power affirmed by pain.«
*******) On 9 November 1989, a day after the interview, the first border crossings to the west were opened in Berlin.
********) Bernhard Le Bovier Fontenelle, french philosopher, 1657­1757
*********) Ernst, son from Jünger’s first marriage with Gretha von Jeinsen
Published on 8 December 1989 in ZEIT under the title "Ja, gut".


Richard said...

..."You've read my book. That makes me glad".

All those EJ critics who hadn't read his books - or only a suiting fraction of his vast output and world-view.
They just walked in what Walser dubbed the "general fog of opinions"...

Delightful reading.
Must read it again.

Simon Friedrich said...

Richard, I once met Jünger, also at his home in Wilflingen, in 1995, he had recently turned 100. Although my German back then was very poor, I remember him saying when my colleague pulled out a copy of "An der Zeitmauer" to autograph, that he was particularly disappointed in the lack of interest in this book.

This made me read it,I have now read it twice and will do so once more soon.

Cheers Simon.