The long-lived and controversial Ernst Jünger made his military name in 1914-18 as the youngest officer to win Germany’s highest honour, the Pour le Mérite. He made his literary name with Storm of Steel (1920), a bestselling record of trench fighting written up from war diaries. On volunteering again in 1939, he kept up his diary as an officer in occupied Paris and on the eastern front. Afterwards Jünger poured out books late into his nineties. By then he had swept Germany’s top literary prizes and been visited in his Swabian retreat by the statesmen of Europe, including Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand.

Gide, Brecht and Borges were among contemporary admirers, but Jünger is nowadays probably less read than read about. As a participant and observer in terrible times, he became the object of unending dispute, not least in Germany. To critics, Jünger participated too much and judged too little. To defenders, he was indeed on the hard right, but no fascist and, besides, his prose was what mattered, not his politics.

Jünger’s life lasted 102 years and fell into neat parts. Born to bourgeois prosperity in 1895, he had excellent schooling. At 18, he joined, ran away from and was recaptured by the French Foreign Legion, a folly from which his father, a chemical engineer, had to rescue him. Luck followed Jünger into the trenches where, by his count, he was hit 14 times, leaving 20 scars, including exit wounds.

In the 1920s, Jünger joined the “Conservative Revolution”, dashing off books and pamphlets against the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first try at achieving together two things Jünger detested: liberalism and democracy. For the civilisational ills, real or imagined, of modern life, he blamed bourgeois liberals. Of democracy, he wrote in 1915: “I hate it like the plague.” Jünger’s preferred alternative had fullest expression in The Worker (1932), a vision of an assembly-line society guided by elite artist-soldiers. Critics aptly called it rightwing Bolshevism.

After Hitler took power, Jünger, who was not a Nazi, withdrew from public life. On the Marble Cliffs (1939), his fable about peaceable lake-dwellers crushed by demon-led ruffians, was widely, but not universally, taken for quiet resistance.

Now translated into English for the first time, his second world war diaries show readers a middle-aged Captain Jünger as he revealed a private self, no doubt with an eye to eventual publication: camera-like, complicit, revelling in civilised pursuits by day; weary, frightened and guilty-feeling at night. Aphorisms, philosophical half-thoughts and religious musings jostle with odd, though seldom funny, dreams. Small pleasures flank sudden horrors. Jolting images appear and vanish as if on the surface of a lake. None of it adds up. No line is drawn or balance struck. Jünger, the political conservative who scorned modernity’s disorder, wrote a very modern, unconservative prose.

He went to literary parties, visited Picasso and Braque, and hunted out rare editions. A learned observer of nature, he enjoyed parks and the countryside, where he collected beetles (he was an expert). Of his work as a military censor keeping an eye on the French press, he writes little, although he recorded the running conflicts between army staff and party officials in Paris. From colleagues in the east he heard sketchy but convincing reports of the death camps. Seeing three girls in the street wearing yellow stars caused him shame. He had contacts among the army plotters who attempted to kill Hitler in July 1944, but seems to have taken no active part.

Earlier that year, when his son Ernstel, a naval cadet, was put under arrest for seditious talk, a desperate Jünger had dashed back on leave, put on his Pour le Mérite and pleaded successfully with the judge. Instead of prison, Ernstel was sent to join Germany’s fighting retreat in northern Italy, where he was killed in November. When this English segment of the diaries ends, Jünger was home near Hanover, burning nightly from Allied bombs. He continued work on his “Appeal to the World’s Young”, a semi-mystical vision of Christian understanding among peaceful nations.

After 1945, Jünger again withdrew into private life, but continued to publish. Seclusion encouraged attention. His reputation grew. Scholarly editions appeared. In three last decades, doubters aside, he enjoyed growing recognition, travelled the world, deepened his knowledge of nature and voiced concern about human damage to the planet.

For English-speaking readers who do not know his work, A German Officer in Occupied Paris shows the many sides of this complex, elusive writer. It includes Jünger’s gruelling winter months in the Caucasus in late 1942, as the German front collapsed, but omits the 1939-40 entries, available in German and in French translation, when a more zestful Jünger experiences the rewards of the successful invader. An introduction by San Francisco-based historian Elliot Neaman offers some historical and biographical background. A frequent contributor to the hard-right German magazine Junge Freiheit, Neaman is quiet about how Jünger’s experience of life did little to dent his loathing of liberalism and democracy.

On a country walk along a bomb-pitted road near his home late in 1944, Jünger indulges a moment of conservative relish, telling himself that it is liberals who are to blame for all that has befallen. How wonderful it is, he writes sarcastically, “to watch the drama of the old liberals, Dadaists and freethinkers, as they begin to moralise at the end of a life devoted completely to the destruction of the old guard and the undermining of order”. “Blame the liberals!” was conservatism’s charge at birth. It hobbled the Weimar Republic and bedevils politics today. Not to pity Jünger’s personal travails would be defective. Not to respond to his prose would be deaf. Politically, he had learnt nothing.

A German Officer in Occupied Paris: The War Journals 1941-1945, by Ernst Jünger, Columbia University Press, RRP $40/£30, 496 pages

Edmund Fawcett is the author of ‘Liberalism: The Life of an Idea’

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