From warrior to worker: Jünger's Total Mobilisation

Ernst Jünger
Ernst Jünger's name is usually associated with his masterpiece, the realistic account of his wartime experience entitled Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern, 1920), as well as his following literary representations of the Great War on the Western Front in Copse 125 (Das Wäldchen 125, 1925) and Fire and Blood (Feuer und Blut, 1925). And yet he’s one of the most problematic authors of the period, whose legacy constantly raises opposing reactions and judgments. It is almost impossible to form a clear opinion on his thinking, to frame his intricate biographical trajectory in defined historical, political and cultural streams. We simply run the risk to miss the point in trying to interpret Jünger’s meditations on World War One in the light of the following decades and of the Nazi Germany. Maybe it would be wise to give up any accusation and defense and simply recognize the complexity and above all the “otherness” of his cultural world in comparison to ours, especially when he praises the energies unleashed by the Great War as a heroic reaction to the European world-weariness and seems to turn into what scholars have often described as a “aesthetic of carnage”.

This attitude could help us to face the sometimes unavoidable discomfort in reading some of Jünger’s works, as it is the case of the collection of essays appeared in 1934 with the title Blätter und Steine (Leaves and Stones), to which we direct the attention today. We invite to discover all the texts gathered in this collection, but particularly representative of Jünger’s literary output of the interwar period is the short writing entitled Total Mobilisation (Die totale Mobilmachung, first published in 1930; an English translation by Joel Golb and Richard Wolin in The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader, edited by Richard Wolin), which resumes the arguments of his key-work Der Arbeiter (The worker, first published in 1932 as final reflection on his battlefield experience) and expresses the core of the ideals of the traditional German conservatism in opposition to the new revolutionary one.

In Total Mobilisation Jünger moves from his recollections on the war to almost philosophical reflections on the following social and political upheavals. In his eyes the First World War appears a technological triumph on human beings, since all armies, and even the humankind as a whole was physically, mentally and socially determined by the available technology. The Great War dramatically shows that the romantic heroic ideal was no longer manifested in acts of outstanding individual bravery, but rather in the often meaningless and helpless fulfillment of one's duty. The rhetoric of Nation and Homeland simply disguised the transformation of the State in a gigantic factory for mass-production for war purposes. We just need to recall some pictures of the thousands of victims lying on the battlefields of the World War One, maybe compare them with some images of the workers in the war industries or of the artillery storage. Speaking about “total mobilization” the author discloses so how «the image of war as armed combat merges into the more extended image of a gigantic work process». According to Jünger, the almost ontological transformation occurred with the Great War has indeed determined a clear sundering of society from all traditional moorings and transformed it in an anonymous society, in which life is converted in energy subjected to a radical mobilization: «In addition to the armies that meet on the battlefields, originate the modern armies of commerce and transport, foodstuffs, the manufacture of armaments – the army of work in general. In the final phase, which was already hinted at toward the end of the last war [i.e. the Great War], there is no longer any movement whatsoever – be it that of the homeworker at her sewing machine – without at least indirect use for the battlefield.»

Die totale Mobilmachung is a difficult essay, which should be considered as part of a wider discussion including among others Heidegger’s essay “Questioning After Technology” or Benjamin’s “On the Origin of the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.  It deserves therefore a more complex analysis, but we leave our readers to formulate their own interpretations of this work. Here we just invite to trust Jünger’s observation that this new and radical ideal of mass technological mobilization of the society probably «makes the World War a historical event superior in significance to the French Revolution», prefiguring the degeneration of European civilization into totalitarian systems.

Trieste 1914. The city and the war.

The city of Trieste was and still represents a special observatory for understanding what’s going on in the heart of Europe,  for following out the changes in the Danube region, the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Established in Roman time, Trieste voluntarily entered the Habsburg realm in late 14th century, also to strengthen his position against its main competitor for trade in the Adriatic, namely Venice. However only in 1857, after the extension of the Vienna railway to Trieste, the city completely coupled with the high Austrian protective tariff and became the major port of the Empire and, by the eve of the First World War, the eighth busiest port on earth. Besides the entrepreneurial class and the high bourgeoisie, it offered a lively stage also for the middle and the working class, which has been growing over a short period of time due to the economic expansion.  But Trieste was not only an important port and industrial and financial centre, it had a deeper symbolic meaning for the Habsburg Empire, since it declared that the vast continental sovereignty of the Dual Monarchy consisted also of a maritime power. At the same time, the city was also a cosmopolitan cultural centre, attracting writers, artists and intellectuals and bringing them in contact to each other (just think about the friendship between James Joyce and Italo Svevo). Like the Habsburg Empire, also Trieste was a multiethnic city: it grew as a result of the high immigration of people from all over Europe and combined cultural, religious and linguistic diversities. Politically and culturally related to the Habsburg, and yet opened to the Slavic world, Trieste remained geographically and historically linked to Italy, at the point that Italian remained its working and cultural language.

If we consider all these elements, it’s easy to put one leg of a virtual compasses on this city and draw with the other one a circle on the geographical and historical meaning of the First World War, especially on the eastern front. And this is what a new exhibition in Trieste tries to do. Located in the Magazzino delle Idee, (near the Main Rail Station, entrance from the dock, on the sea side), and supported by the Province of Trieste in partnership with the Regional Institute for the History of the Liberation Movement in the Friuli Venezia Giulia, as well as the State Archives of Trieste, the Italo German Historical Institute in Trento and the Universities of Ljubljana and Trieste, this small but interesting exhibition Trieste 1914. La città e la Guerra enables the visitors to approach the Great War through the specific lens of this city. It offers a narrative pattern which runs from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, whose funeral procession run through Trieste in summer 1914, to the increasing limitations of both the civil and economical life (by the prohibition of associative activities and control of the citizens’ movements, on the one hand, and the naval blockade which caused the collapse of the maritime industry, on the other hand), from the conscription of all young male sent to the front and the related family tragedies to the terrible famine suffered by those still living in Trieste during the World War One, from the echoes coming from the near battlefields of the Isonzo-front and the Carso to the Red Cross intervention for the population.

The exhibition has free entry and offers informative material in Italian, English, Slovenian, German and English. It also includes a series of conferences and special guided visit for schools. For further information, please contact the Provincia di Trieste at this email address:

Great War and childhood. A conference in Milan with Manon Pignot

While looking for international and cross-themes that can help all the players of the Centenary in building new bridges of knowledge, a simple and terrible fact emerges: the War of 14-18 was also the first cruel intrusion of trauma in the lives of millions of children. All wars eventually turned into such an intrusion, but with this conflict we assist to a violent impact of the reality of war in family life, economy and psychology and probably for the first time we're allowed to speak about a childhood experience of the mass war. Many efforts were undertaken to deploy huge masses of little boys and girls for war purposes. One of the worldwide experts in this field is Manon Pignot, professor at University of Picardie and author of many studies about the "children of great war". Among her books we now recall Paris dans la grande guerre, L'enfant-soldat: XIXe-XXIe siècle, Allons enfants de la patrie : Génération Grande Guerre and La guerre des crayons : Quand les petits Parisiens dessinaient la Grande Guerre. Notwithstanding the multiple attempts to approach such delicate theme that deals both with a great amount of sources and with the difficult of interpretation, we are still far from giving a clear portrait of the European children of the time. At any rate, this portrait remains an important goal for historians since we have to keep in mind that the war trauma and experience occurring to boys and girls are shaping the imagery of the Second World War generations. So, beside the important and immediate research, there is a kind of long-term return in terms of knowledge and implications.

The Italian venue of "Institut français" in Milan is going to host  a conference with Manon Pignot next 21st of October. Here is the website of the organization.

Photos of animals in World War One: the Goumiers and their horses

Many North African soldiers fought for France during the Great War and played a decisive role in it. Today we’d like to direct our attention especially to the French colonial troops, whose history still remains marginal in the commemoration of the centenary. In 1914 about 15.000 Moroccan soldiers were organised in different military formation and according to recent statistics their number oscillates between 34.000 und 40.000 throughout the war. Among the different companies of the Moroccan troops special attention is due to the Goums (from an Arabic word meaning “people”). At least 23 Goums were employed from 1914 till 1916, each of them comprising between 200 and 300 Berber auxiliaries. 

Goumiers first came from Algeria and were employed during the first intervention in Morocco in 1908 by the French Army. The format of these indigenous irregular troops was then adopted to enlist the Moroccan Muslim levies. Moroccan Goums were made up of men all from the same tribe or region, who often lived together in dourars with their families and were therefore tied together by strong community bonds. These companies remained separate from the regular Moroccan regiments of the French African Army, and usually mixed cavalry and infantry in one unit (an unusual thing for that time). Their element was the mountainous terrain of the Atlas range. Their skill and fierceness were renowned, contributing so to the “Berber myth”: Goumiers were believed to not fear death and have all physical and cultural qualities of endurance that make them perfectly fit for combat. We can find this image also in the international press, as the photo we offer today testifies. It is taken from the magazine L’illustrazione italiana, January 1915, where it was originally published to depict how the Goumiers used their horses as shield to protect themselves. But to us, today, this photo represents rather a further testimony of the hopeless symbiosis between animals and human beings in the battlefields of the Great War.

We thank Eugenio Bucciol, the author of the book Animali al fronte and the editor of the same for the permission to publish this picture.