A Certain Idea of France: Ernst Junger's Paris Diaries 1941-44

Article excerpt

Wir sassen dann eine Weile auf der Place du Tertre im Garten der

Mere Catherine und gingen danach in Schneckenlinien um Sacre

Coeur herum. Die Stadt ist eine zweite geistige Heimat fiir mich

geworden, wird immer starker zum Inbild dessen, was an alter Kultur

mir lieb und teuer ist.

[We sat then for a while on the Place du Tertre, in the garden of Mere

Catherine, and afterwards wandered in the streets that spiral around

the Sacre Coeur. The City has become a second spiritual home for me,

and is becoming ever more stongly the epitome of what is dear and

precious to me in the old culture.][1]

Ernst Junger's view of Paris and of France, during his period of duty there from 1941 to 1944, is often reminiscent of that of his literary counterpart, the German officer in Vercors's Le Silence de la mer. Junger arrived in Paris, which he already knew from before the war, with a whole series of preconceptions with regard to, French culture, and with a strong sense of the romantic associations, from both literature and history, of all that lay around him.

His diaries depict him as living on a number of different levels; working in the Wehrmacht headquarters, dining luxuriously in the best restaurants, mingling with the French intelligentsia in their salons, but also spending a lot of time in solitary wandering around the city, often in nostalgic mood. And always reading, reading . . . His breadth of reading, particularly of French literature, was enormous.

Junger was a complex and elusive figure. His reaction to contemporary German policy, which has often been discussed, was one of distaste, but inaction. It was epitomized by his feelings when, leaving Maxim's after a lunch with Paul Morand and his wife in June 1942, he saw for the first time, as he sauntered down the Rue Royale, three young girls wearing the yellow star:

Zu Mittag im' Maxim', wohin ich von Morands eingeladen war ... In

der Rue Royale begegnete ich zum ersten Mal in meinem Leben dem

gelben Stern, getragen von drei jungen Madchen, die Arm in Arm

vorbeikamen ... Nachmittags sah ich den Stern dann haufiger. Ich

halte derartiges, auch innerhalb der personlichen Geschichte, fur ein

Datum, das einschneidet. Ein solcher Anblick bleibt nicht ohne

Ruckwirkung - so genierte es mich sogleich, dass ich in Uniform war.

[At midday to 'Maxim's', to which the Morands had invited me ... In

the Rue Royale I encountered for the first time in my life the yellow

star, worn by three young girls passing by arm in arm ... During the

afternoon I saw the star more frequently. I consider this, even within

one's personal history, as a decisive event. Such a sight does not go

without a reaction - I immediately felt embarrassed at being in

uniform.][2]

Just over a month later, at the news of the way in which Jews were being deported, he again, privately, showed his sympathy; but the impression he gives is one of helplessness in face of insuperable forces:

Gestern wurden hier Juden verhaftet, um deportiert zu werden - man

trennte die Eltern zunachst von ihren Kindern, so dass Jammern in

den Strassen zu horen war. Ich darf in keinem Augenblick vergessen,

dass ich von Unglucklichen, von bis in das tiefste Leidenden

umgeben bin. Was ware ich sonst auch fur ein Mensch, was fur ein

Offizier. Die Uniform verpflichtet, Schutz zu gewahren, wo es irgend

geht. Freilich hat man den Eindruck, dass man dazu wie Don

Quichote mit Millionen anbinden muss.

[Yesterday, a number of Jews were arrested, to be deported - They

first separated parents from their children, so that you could hear the

wailing in the streets. Not for a moment must I forget that I am

surrounded by unhappy people, by people suffering in their deepest

being. …