Ernst Jünger, Total Mobilisation and the Work of War


Bogdan Costea and Kostas Amiridis | Academia – TRANSCEND Media Service


This review article explores three interconnected texts written in the 1920s and 1930s by the German intellectual Ernst Jünger: Copse 125, Total Mobilisation and The Worker Dominion and Form. They contain his original analyses of the relationship between war, destruction, organisation and technology. Jünger argued that entering the realm of total organisation, that is, organisation which claims its ground to be scientific, calculated, planned, rationally-administered and technological, destruction is subtly appropriated into, and thought of, as a process of production. Jünger understood war as an increasingly ‘necessary’ and permanent requirement of the politics of peace and freedom. He anticipated the transformation of destruction into a major field of experimentation with, and through, complex state and private organisational networks (civilian, military and corporate), and into a prime arena of scientific, technological and managerial development. He analysed the emergence of new political discourses and systems whose common ground was to invoke permanent insecurity, risks and dangers and claim the need to manage the peaceful existence of liberal societies.


This review article introduces to scholars of organisation studies three works by Ernst Jünger (1895–1998), one of Germany’s most celebrated writers on war in the 20th century: the volume of war diaries entitled Copse 125, from the summer of 1918 (Jünger, 1930a); the essay Total  Mobilisation, from 1930 (Jünger, 1930b); and the major synthesis of 1932, The Worker. Dominion and Form (Jünger, 1981). Writing nearly a century ago, Jünger would have understood, and greeted most enthusiastically, the thematic of this special issue. How might his analyses still be relevant today when war seems to have changed so much and in so many ways? The answer comes from the congruence of his concerns with those of this special issue. He was interested in how military, political, economic and scientific agencies had formed a new alliance that brought war under the sign of technological, organisational and scientific mobilisation. Equally central was the question of the expansion of war’s spatial reach to become truly ‘planetary’ both in physical and in political terms. He wrote, in a brief note added in 1980 to

Total Mobilisation, that ‘The rearming of the world powers has attained planetary weight; to it corresponds the potential of all armament’ (Jünger, 2015: 142). He too was preoccupied by the changing ethos of war both in macro-political terms and in the minute details accompanying the new relationship between humans and machines which was rendering war into technologically-driven work. Also, he saw the increasing danger of war deriving from the appropriation of destruction under the spell of a specifically modern and unparalleled confidence in the rationality of mass-production, technological progress and their cor-responding managerial processes and organisational forms.

A recent instance showing the affinity of Jünger’s analyses with current events and concerns emerged in a discussion at a panel at the annual meeting of the Association of the US Army in Washington, on 4 October 2016. Addressing the possibility of direct conflict among military super- powers, two of United States’ top commanders (Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and training, and his deputy, Maj. Gen. William Hix) argued that such a conflict (between the United States, Russia and China) would be ‘lethal and fast’ – and the ‘stopwatch’ would not be under control. Considering the possibility of a ground war accelerated by artificial intelligence and precision weapons, Maj. Gen. Hix explained that

The speed of events is likely to strain our human abilities. The speed at which machines can make decisions in the future is likely to challenge our ability to cope, demanding a new relationship between man and machine. (Defense One, 2016)

The similarity between these comments and Jünger’s analyses is significant. Witnessing the wholesale annihilation and self-mutilation which first befell Europe a century ago, he understood that its sources point to deeper and more disturbing historical processes. For him, that war brought to the fore the same enchantment with power expressed in the will to the technological acceleration of organised destruction we witness even more emphatically today. What struck Jünger, perhaps more than anything else in World War I (WWI), was the way in which the relentless pursuit of destructive power was turning technology into a self-destructive force against its very creators who remained unable to understand what was unfolding through their own actions. He notes, in diaries from 1918,

 No – war is not a material matter. There are higher realities to which it is subject. When two civilized  peoples confront one another, there is more in the scales than explosives and steel. All that either holds of any weight is in the balance. Values are tested in comparison with which the brutality of the means must  – to anyone who has the power to judge – appear insignificant. A strength of will, all-embracing and concentrated to the last pitch in the highest untamed expression of life asserting itself even in its own annihilation, is brought into play. (Jünger, 1930a: ix–x)

WWI was fought not only between armies but also between the systems of modern science, engineering and production. Machines had triumphed, and in the name of their ‘rational power’, human life could be blindly gambled away. Jünger recognised the formation of what President Eisenhower would call, in 1961, ‘military-industrial complexes’. He thus turned his attention to an organisational analysis of war: what happens when it becomes a planned, calculated, organised, work-like ‘performance’, an enterprise to be administered with minimal exertion and risk to one’s own ‘assets’, whose operations and processes are to be executed with ‘surgical precision’, from a distance and preferably with means that overcome limitations of physical geography – features of military work recognisable a century later? The answer, truly frightening to Jünger, was that war is transformed into an instrument integral to the arsenal of peace itself, inextricable from the continuous expansion of organisation and order, of security, and thus a necessary guarantee of ‘universal freedom’.

In 1970, the philosopher George Steiner wrote that

Ernst Jünger came nearer than any other writer, nearer even than the poets, to forcing language into the mould of total war. … The chaotic hell of the Somme and Langemarck grew into more than a searing memory or an instance of life turned lunatic. The fire-storm of the big guns, the moon-landscape of craters and flares, the somnambular frenzies of hand-to-hand fighting, seemed to Jünger to compact certain essential truths and mysteries in man. After such battle there could be no peace, only an armistice. (In Jünger, 1970: 7)

This is not a simple compliment: Steiner captures the direction of Jünger’s works about war. In this sense, WWI had been only a fragment of what was to come. War was not incongruent with the expansionist economic and political tendencies of global powers. And the most frightful aspect was its new political legitimation: war should be left to reason, technology and their progress as the ultimate defenders of freedom.

Jünger saw WWI as the threshold of a new age of belligerence, the inauguration of ‘nothing short [than] a century of death’ (Malesevic, 2010: 120). ‘The war that will end war’, as H. G. Wells (1914) wished it, had been but ‘the war that ended peace’, as Margaret MacMillan (2013) argued a century later. For Jünger, the war of a century ago was a sign of Friedrich Nietzsche’s (2005) uncanny diagnosis, in 1888, that modernity will enter a phase in which ‘there will be wars such as the earth has never seen’ (p. 144). Instead of an empty prophecy, for Jünger this was an insight into the indissoluble bond taking shape between the central promises of modern individualism and of Liberalism (promises of security, freedom and unlimited self-assertion) and the permanent mobilisation of war against any imaginable danger (or risk) that might threaten them.

In this sense, as part of his emerging critique of bourgeois liberalism and modernity, Jünger’s writings about WWI differ from its mainstream poetic and metaphysical interpretations. For most authors, the slaughter could have had only one meaning: to reveal that war was an alien, aberrant, event in the history of civilised, modern, indeed humanistic, Europe. While Jünger dwells, like others, on the macabre imagery of destruction, mutilation and death, unlike theirs, his visions are harder to decipher. For one thing, his profound indignation with technological death and its claims to rational organisation are expressed in almost heartless, cold and detailed descriptions. Moreover, there grows in parallel a complex imagery of the cosmic relevance of war: being under fire generates an atmosphere of dramatic intoxication, an eruption of powers in which humanity reveals its demonic capacity to engage with elemental forces. For Jünger, war is a discovery in which he revels because it seems to offer a spectacle of the forges and workshops in which history itself is  being stamped out and synthesised in a clearer expression than peace can offer. At times, there is no human community left, for him, other than in the monumental and devastating suffering of the trenches. An ambiguous aesthetics of heroic death seems to haunt Jünger’s writings, and Walter Benjamin (1979a, 1979b) seized it in his review of War and Warrior, in 1930, pointing out that the mystification of war was coming dangerously close to the imagery of emerging Fascist ideologies, even though he had himself been impressed by Jünger’s war diaries and deployed similar images in short writings of the 1920s (Benjamin, 1979a: 103–104). In the event, Jünger never became a fascist or a national-socialist; to the contrary, he rejected all the advances of the Nazis to join their movement, extensively documented by Jünger scholars such as Paetel (1949), Hervier (1978, 2014) and Kiesel (2007). But he remained, at the same time and like so many German intellectuals at the time, a patriot and fervent critic of the German humiliation at Versailles and the Weimar regime’s incapacity to govern.

Jünger’s stark and uncomfortable vision of war admits perhaps a different kind of analogy: one  between his texts and Francisco Goya’s paintings and drawings of the Spanish Civil War a century earlier (in works between 1808 and 1812) and of the cultural decadence of Europe in the  Black  Paintings for the period 1819–1823. Akin to Goya’s visions of the brutality and certainty of finitude in Saturn Devouring His Son and of decadence in The Pilgrimage to San Isidro, Jünger’s vision of war and its place in modern culture was also driven by a sense of its inevitable recurrence, echoing that of Nietzsche (1968) who, concluding a note of 1888, wrote, ‘life itself is a consequence of war, society itself a means to war’ (p. 33). Jünger went further: having experienced a war of the kind Nietzsche anticipated, he recognised, both in it and in Nietzsche’s thinking, the philosophical heritage of one of the founders of Western thought, Heraclitus:

One must realize that war is shared and Conflict is Justice, and that all things come to pass and are ordained in accordance with conflict. (Heraclitus of Ephesus, 1979: 66–67, Fragment LXXXII)

He returned frequently to Heraclitus’ fragments on war because he understood them not as pointing to an inherent belligerent instinct. For him, Heraclitus does not praise war but rather clarifies the most pressing question about it: how does war reflect those historical moments when social, political and cultural orders fail to grasp that their self-assurance has crossed the threshold towards hubris, and the limits of a certain system of values have been reached?

Copse 125: the soldier as ‘worker of destruction’

Jünger spent 1351 of the 1547 days of the war in the trenches where he kept copious, detailed, notes and diaries covering 567 days, in their vast majority, days of battle (Schöning, 2014: 42). Copse 125
 (subtitled A Chronicle from the Trenches of 1918) followed his famous In Storms of Steel (cov-ering the period of the Somme battles – Jünger, 1930d, 2003b). However, Copse 125 is not strictly a battle diary; it covers about six weeks of relative calm in the summer. His company had been ordered to defend a small piece of land around a small copse of trees (‘Bois du Rossignol’ on civil-ian maps), near a village in Belgium:
It had not the least strategic importance, and yet at that time it had a meaning for all Europe as a local symbol of power where many lines of fate intersected, and against which were set in motion a strength in men and machinery that could have reclaimed a whole province. Hence it is well worth while to make it the point of a survey whose aim it is to reach beyond the episodal to the universal. (Jünger, 1930a: xi)

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Bogdan Costea is a professor in the Department of Organisation, Work & Technology in Lancaster University Management School. He explores how core philosophical arguments about the nature of the self, meanings and implications of work, and human organisation reappear encoded in the contemporary culture of managerialism. Together with Laurence P. Hemming, he is co-author of the first English translation of Jünger’s The Worker.

Kostas Amiridis is a lecturer in the Department of Organisation, Work & Technology in Lancaster University Management School. His research focuses on the historical development of managerialism and the philo-sophical dimensions of business and capitalist ethics.

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