Ernst Jünger and the problem of Nihilism in the age of total war

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Bousquet, Antoine

As a singular witness and actor of the tumultuous twentieth century, Ernst Jünger remains a controversial and enigmatic figure known above all for his vivid autobiographical accounts of experience in the trenches of the First World War. This article will argue that throughout his entire oeuvre, from personal diaries to novels and essays, he never ceased to grapple with what he viewed as the central question of the age, namely that of the problem of nihilism and the means to overcome it. Inherited from Nietzsche’s diagnosis of Western civilization in the late nineteenth century to which he added an acute observation of the particular role of technology within it, Jünger would employ this lens to make sense of the seemingly absurd industrial slaughter of modern war and herald the advent of a new voluntarist and bellicist order that was to imminently sweep away timorous and decadent bourgeois societies obsessed with security and self-preservation. Jünger would ultimately see his expectations dashed, including by the forms of rule that National Socialism would take, and eventually retreated into a reclusive quietism. Yet he never abandoned his central problematique of nihilism, developing it further in exchanges with Martin Heidegger after the Second World War. And for all the ways in which he may have erred, his life-long struggle with meaning in the age of technique and its implications for war and security continue to make Jünger a valuable interlocutor of the present.
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