This review appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
The Forest Passage by Ernst Jünger, trans. Thomas Friese
(Candor, NY: Telos Press, 2013)
This is a book about freedom. It was first published in 1951 as a response to the Nazi experience and the perceived threat of Soviet expansion. Its explicit focus was resistance to the totalitarian state. Yet its implicit focus is resistance to all forms of social control, including the soft totalitarianism of present-day mass democracy. And this why Ernst Jünger’s classic remains relevant today, and that is why Telos Press has reissued it.
Ernst Jünger (1895–1998) was twentieth-century Germany’s most prolific author. He was also the most controversial. He was a highly decorated soldier in World War 1 who first gained literary fame writing about his war experiences. Jünger aligned himself with the political Right during the 1920s and 1930s and wrote scathing attacks against the Weimar regime and the decadence of liberal democracy and communism. He championed a German nationalism based on aristocratic and martial values.
His early writings gained him a reputation as a fascist and militarist, an image that haunted him for the rest of his long literary career. But Jünger distanced himself from Hitler and the Nazis early on, realizing that the political Right and Left differed little; both led to totalitarianism. The war and Germany’s defeat changed Jünger’s perspective even more. His militarist leanings changed to an existential quest—a way to find freedom in the modern world, in which the mechanisms of total social control continued to multiply.
To Jünger the problem of totalitarianism went beyond the physical violence inflicted by the tyrannical state—it was metaphysical. The modern world, with its inherent materialism, created nihilism. Here the consumerism of mass democracy is as materialist as the historical materialism of Marx. Where there is no transcendent spiritual reality, there is no meaning. And a society without meaning eventually loses its freedom and dies.
Fear is a corollary to nihilism. It results from the dynamic and paradoxical nature of modern social change. As collective power and security increase, so does individual insecurity and helplessness. And this is because human survival is now based on enormous and complex systems. But when they fail, all fails. Jünger believes this is why people accept totalitarian control. “Coercion is most effective where fear is most acute.”
This awareness of human vulnerability also has its positive aspect. Despite all the progressive cant, Jünger believed humans remain dependent on the workings of inexplicable (spiritual) forces. This awareness is the essence of a wise and free man. And this is the essence of the forest path. To Jünger it is the path to a higher freedom—spiritual freedom—on which man rediscovers himself to be utterly unique, “a human being as God created him.”
To Jünger the forest is one of the most important metaphors for spiritual freedom, one evoked throughout Western history:
Here we find the Garden of Eden, the vineyard, the lily, the grain of wheat of Christian parable. We find the enchanted forest of fairy tales with its man-eating wolves, its witches and giants; but also the good hunter, and the sleeping beauty in whose shadow time stands still. Here, too, are the forests of the Germans and Celts, like the Glasur woods in which the heroes defeat death—and, again, Gethsemane with its olive groves.
Jünger contrasts this spiritual freedom with the “1789 ideal of freedom.” This is liberal freedom, which is hollow because it severed itself from spiritual and moral truths. Its ontological foundation is the will of the people, which, taken to its extreme, leads to totalitarianism. Every totalitarian regime speaks on behalf of the people—all the people. And when all the people do not give absolute consent to this absolute ideal, the state uses violence to achieve it.
But, to Jünger, such total control is ultimately impossible. There are weaknesses in every totalitarian system. And here, using his military perspective, he sees “a series of weak points that simplify and condense the possibilities of attack.” And there are those who can exploit those weak points and open a path—the forest path—to a higher freedom.
Jünger terms those who choose the forest path “forest rebels.” But despite the name, they usually have no political clout. But they do have great spiritual and ethical influence as they have a vision of a higher truth that challenges that of all totalitarian regimes. As such, most are artists and religious seekers. And that is why totalitarian regimes persecute these individuals in particular.
The forest rebel is not an anarchist, as anarchists desire social change. Nor is he a libertarian who pursues freedom on his own terms. The forest rebel witnesses to a higher freedom and helps others—those willing—to find that freedom via the forest path. The role of the forest rebel and the way of the forest path are open to all, as all humans have an innate desire for freedom. But only a few have the courage and conviction to purse it.
From Jünger’s standpoint, the forest rebel is a true aristocrat. He has overcome fear and sacrifices even unto death to secure this path for future ages. Jünger makes the point that the origins of aristocracy lay not in exploitation of people but in their protection “against monsters and demons.” And those monsters and demons remain alive in modern totalitarianism.
Jünger asserts that a counter-reformation is necessary, one feeding off and creating a “mirror image” of materialistic nihilism. And it is critical that art, philosophy, and especially religion aid resistance. He believes there is still a tremendous spiritual awareness in the modern world as witnessed by the growing number of spiritual sects. Many of these seekers will not come to established churches, but Jünger sees churches as necessary to provide assistance.
Yet the churches cannot provide existence. A person must achieve that for himself. Jünger believes the individual and his sacrifice are essential to human existence because sacrifice ultimately defines human freedom. He cites the importance of individual sacrifice in history—in particular that of Socrates and Jesus. “The trial of Socrates is never ending.”
To many modern American conservatives, Jünger’s ideas will seem elitist and eccentric, even quaint. Furthermore, to implement them would be foolish and counterproductive. For if conservatives abandon society for the forest path and the rebel life, the enemy will be able to monopolize all channels of power. The forest rebels may escape, but the masses will not. Defeat is almost assured.
Jünger would answer that the forest path is not necessarily a physical removal from society. It is metaphysical. Thus one can live a practical life and still pursue a higher moral and spiritual existence. Moreover, pursing the forest path has its practical side. It is, in fact, political realism. The spiritual life, the life of virtue, is the ultimate reality. As such, it is a real alternative to totalitarianism. And change is possible if enough follow this path.
Thus defeat is not assured if a vocal and persistent minority resists: “a tiny group of resolved individuals can be dangerous,” as their will “can outweigh that of ten, twenty, or a thousand men.” One need only look at how a small number of persistent Marxists, feminists, and homosexuals have reshaped Western society in the past few decades.
Charges of elitism against Jünger are not untrue, but he is not an elitist in the modern pejorative sense. He holds to the classical and Christian ideal of the necessity of an aristocracy, an aristocracy wedded to the life of virtue. Jünger has noted elsewhere that despite the modern rhetoric of inclusiveness, permissiveness, and tolerance there is no place for true aristocracy or aristocratic values in the modern world. His vision is a restoration of those values.
To Jünger conservatism is inherently aristocratic, not bourgeois. Modern conservatives have adapted to the modern world, and in doing so have adopted many bourgeois (liberal) ideas. This has had some practical benefit by giving conservatives a political voice—albeit a small one. But this accommodation also carries a price. It has obscured the life of virtue and the core of conservative ontology, which is spiritual.
One criticism that can be leveled against Jünger is that his discussion and definition of higher moral and spiritual values—those to be sought on the forest path—remain vague. He mentions Christianity and the importance of the churches. But his spiritual ideal remains more general, even pantheist. He speaks often of the importance of “being” (here the influence of his close friend Martin Heidegger is clear) but does not give details.
It must be noted, however, that this book was one of the first Jünger wrote about his own spiritual quest, one that took him from a generic Protestant upbringing to agnosticism, atheism, pantheism, and finally a return to Christianity when he became a Roman Catholic a few years before his death. In a similar vein his idea of the forest rebel changed over the years into that of the “anarch.” The anarch is a stronger and more developed beacon of personal power and freedom.
Even readers who reject Jünger’s solutions to totalitarianism will appreciate his insights into and prescient warnings about the modern condition. Already sixty years ago he warned of the power of technology. “The myriad antennae rising above our megacities resemble hairs standing on end—they provoke demonic contacts.” He notes how the need to hear the news several times a day is another aspect of fear, which becomes paralyzing in the age of instant communications. He believed it was imperative that we overcome “the magical gleam” of technology.
He also warns that modern society will increasingly be confronted with terrorism and criminality. These individuals will be heroes to many. Why? Because they challenge the system and thus represent freedom. But Jünger warns that criminality is incompatible with the pursuit of any higher freedom. It is always tempting, but the forest rebel “cannot be lawless, he must follow the eternal law.”
One warning that is especially relevant today is his skepticism of government involvement in medicine. He believes this will only lead to greater social control:
All these healthcare enterprises, with poorly paid doctors on salaries, where treatments are supervised by bureaucracies, should be regarded with suspicion; overnight they can undergo alarming transformations.
Here again people succumb to government control because of fear. One of the greatest fears for modern man is to be without health insurance. Jünger was an ardent believer in the importance of developing personal health care, as good health was another facet of freedom and a means to thwart government control.
Despite his eccentric and aristocratic views, Ernst Jünger remains one of the most important modern thinkers on the political Right. And if more people read and understand him, it will become clear he is no fascist, and never was. But he was certainly a great visionary and may well be one of the great conservative writers of the twentieth century. ♦
Tobias J. Lanz teaches politics at the University of South Carolina. He is editor of Beyond Capitalism and Socialism: A New Statement of an Old Ideal.