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Storm of Steel, by Ernst Junger, translated by Michael Hoffman

London: Penguin, 2003. Pp. 289. No illus., maps, notes, biblio., or index. 15.00 . ISBN:0-147-243790-5.

This is a new translation of a forgotten classic from the First World War. Ernst Junger was one of the more fascinating literary figures of the 20th Century. He ran away from home to join the French Foreign Legion in 1913, joined the German Army the next year, fought through World War I, and then wrote this book, followed by many others. He spent World War II serving as an infantry officer, mostly on occupation duty in Paris, and seems to have spent his days chatting with various French literati. After that war he continued his writing career (his last book was published when he was 90) and lived long enough to have Francois Mitterand deliver an address at his 100th birthday party, before passing away in 1998 at the age of 102.

I have read elsewhere that Storm of Steel, his first and most important book, was more influential in post-World-War-I Germany than any other book, including Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. In part this is due to the timing of the publication of the two books: Storm of Steel followed right on the heels of the war, coming out in 1920, while Remarque waited more than a decade before writing his book. In part it’s authenticity, for this isn’t a novel, it’s a first-person account of World War I, told with you-are-there intensity, and the author has pretty impressive credentials; Junger was the youngest man ever awarded the Pour le Mèrite. In part it’s the way the author approaches his subject: this is, for the most part, a relentlessly unsentimental book about the war and the author’s comrades. You never get too attached to any of the characters in the story, because they die in droves every time there’s a battle. You have to marvel at the perseverance of the author (wounded repeatedly, but never so seriously as to keep him out of the front lines once he recovers) and cringe, frankly, at the horrors of combat in World War I.

This translation is much newer than the standard one, done by an Englishman a decade after the book was published, and still kicking around. Frankly, I wasn’t that happy with this translation, either, even though I don’t speak German. For one thing, some of the language is clumsy (“specialism” when the context suggests “specialty” would have been better, for instance) and for another there’s only one footnote in the whole book where the author discusses something that’s unclear. There’s another passage, for instance, where the author refers to the “Volunteers of Langemarck” without telling you who they were. A German in 1920 would know, but it would be nice to have a footnote in the 21st Century English language version explaining that these were legendary college student soldiers who charged the British lines (and were slaughtered) singing patriotic songs.

That being said, the book’s fascinating, to be frank, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who’s studying modern warfare. World War I was the first modern war, in many respects, and because of various factors, it was not only horrific, it seemed never-ending. Storm of Steel conveys that, and is a very interesting book.

Reviewer: David W. Nicholas   

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