We begin this chapter in what has long been thought of as a quintessentially male arena: the battlefield. Towards the close of The Storm of Steel (1929), the extraordinary memoir of his experiences as an officer in the First World War, the German writer Ernst Junger recounts the story of how he escaped being captured, shooting enemy soldiers as he ran, even though his own body was riddled with bullets. Narrated with the surgical precision that was to become his trademark as a novelist — ‘continuous loss of blood gave me the lightness and airiness of intoxication’ he notes as he describes dodging and then returning enemy fire — Junger’s recollections come to a halt in a military hospital where the tone of his writing abruptly and rather unpredictably changes (Junger 1929 : 312). Declaring himself to be ‘no misogynist’, the author cannot help but confess that:
I was always irritated by the presence of women every time that the fate of battle threw me into the bed of a hospital ward. One sank, after the manly and purposeful activities of the war, into a vague atmosphere of warmth.
Only the ‘clear objectivity of the Catholic nursing sisterhoods’ offers an ambience that is at all ‘congenial to soldiering’, a blessed relief from the usual oppressively maternal regime (314).
To be sure, women do have their charms. Earlier in the narrative, when a ‘friendly’ seventeen-year-old, alone in her cottage, serves him a peasant supper Junger is immediately struck by the ‘ease of manner that one finds so often in France among quite simple girls’ (66). For a moment he almost seems to forget that he is a member of an army of occupation and that he is enjoying his enemy’s hospitality. But in the rather less idyllic setting of the military hospital a line must be drawn in the sand that will keep femininity at bay, despite the fact that these nurses are enlisted Germans sent to provide him with the care he so desperately needs. It is as if the tenderness of women might somehow further corrode the soldier’s armoured psyche, already put at risk by his physical injuries. From the indignities of the hospital bed it seems impossible to recover the sense of gallant condescension that had once allowed him to find the young French woman so enchanting, so unthreatening.
The ferocious splitting of the nurses into the compassionate and the dispassionate, and the demand for a carefully distanced, rigorously unemotional system of care, speaks volumes about the precarious nature of Junger’s male ideal. His memoirs show masculinity at a historic turning point, a moment when ideas about what it meant to be a man were under maximum pressure from mass military mobilization and new, more deadly technologies of warfare. Underpinning the descriptions of manoeuvres and scenes of combat in The Storm of Steel is an account of Junger’s constant struggle to secure his sense of value as a man in the midst of the most appalling conditions, an account that lays bare the fragility of masculinity, its hopes and its weaknesses. Junger learns to measure his tour of duty by a pitiless military code that is both intensely patriotic — the book closes with the words ‘Germany lives and Germany shall never go under!’ — and thoroughly preoccupied with upholding one’s honour in front of the men from the lower ranks whose composure quickly slips away as soon as privation and danger strike (319).
Masculinity for Junger requires careful definition, a discriminating eye. It may be rooted in social class, but class is a matter of birth and breeding, of what one is, not of what one achieves: its highest good is the nation, yet some nations, including his own as well as France, are prone to ‘excessive national feeling’, falling into vulgar and demeaning posturing, and failing to give the enemy his due (52). Women are no less of a problem, causing soldiers to forget themselves and thereby undermining true military decorum. When the men fraternize too closely with the civilian population they are liable to soften, to neglect their duties. Recalling one such episode in the village of Fresnoy-le-Grand, Junger remembers ‘the sounds of carnival in every billet’ and coyly observes that ‘Venus deprived Mars of many servants’ before the ‘old Prussian discipline’ was restored (119).
Of course, Junger’s larger purpose is to commemorate the dead and to remind his readers why his comrades died. For once we cease to understand what it means for a man willingly to die for his country the whole idea of the Fatherland becomes meaningless: it too will have died. But, on another level, Junger is defending what he regards as a model form of masculinity, one that is deserving of authority and respect, despite the terrible loss of life in which it is implicated. In a sense, The Storm of Steel seeks to make that loss intelligible through a direct appeal to a virtuous and selfless code, the ethic of the true warrior. In cultivating a militaristic sensibility, Junger draws upon the full resources of German literary culture, quoting Nietzsche, Goethe and Schiller in the grand manner and pitting the ‘manlier’ Schiller against the decadent French sentiments of Stendhal. Junger thus seeks to occupy the moral and cultural high ground, to ennoble his fellow officers even in — perhaps especially in — defeat.
Junger’s writing helps us to see some of the intensive cultural work that goes into securing masculinity and why so much seems to ride upon what men take themselves to be. But if Junger’s project of masculine regeneration is simply one attempt among many to shore up contemporary manhood, to restore it to its rightful place within the modern nation state (and restore the nation to its proper standing in the world), how does it relate to those gentler or less abrasive versions of masculinity with which it has been, at best, in competition, at worst, locked in a life and death struggle? To put this question in perspective we need to turn to a cultural history of masculinities.