From Gestalt to Ge-Stell: Martin Heidegger Reads Ernst Jünger
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From Gestalt to Ge-Stell
Martin Heidegger Reads Ernst Jünger

Ernst Jünger’s book Der Arbeiter (The Worker),1 which was published in 1932, is his last and final reflection on the battlefield experience in the trenches of World War I. Having joined the German army as a young volunteer in 1914, Jünger was, at the end of the war, one of only a handful of young lieutenants who had managed to achieve two goals that had proved elusive for almost everybody else: to receive the Ritterkreuz and Pour le mérite, the army’s two highest medals, and to survive the machine-gun barrage of the first days of the war, the gas attacks that came a year later, and the Material-schlachten of the final and unsuccessful German attack on the Western Front in 1918. The aura of invincibility resulting from such an exceptional fate is described in Jünger’s work.

Shortly after the war, Jünger turned his war diaries into a series of books, which earned him a solid reputation as both a modern hero and a literary author from the early days of the Weimar Republic on. What distinguishes Der Arbeiter from such books as In Stahlgewittern (Storm of Steel) or Das Wäldchen 125 (Copse 125) is the leap from crisp and lucid descriptions to a treatise that reads like a manifesto and that, not content with a diagnosis of its own world historical situation, aims at predicting the future destiny of mankind on the planet earth in the age of technology. It is a remarkable symptom that no English translation of the book is available to this day because the copyright has been blocked by the author himself.

Reading Der Arbeiter together with Heidegger’s essay “Questioning after Technology” after many years, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, I was struck by the number of parallels in both the arguments and the terminology of these texts, not only with Benjamin’s essay “On the Origin of the Work of Art in the Age of [End Page 79] Mechanical Reproduction” but also with his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” It is, of course, easy to locate Benjamin, on the one side, and Jünger and Heidegger, on the other one, to the so-called Left and Right of the political spectrum, but in doing so we should at least be aware of two facts: One, Jünger’s work rejects such simple classifications, which more often than not amount to a refusal to think. And two, his book places itself explicitly above and beyond this distinction because it dates back to the seating order of the French Convention, the foundational body of bourgeois societies.

Granted, the way in which Jünger appropriates the socialist term “worker” for his own purposes amounts to a violent gesture. The fact that he chooses to use the German Arbeiter instead of “proletarian” is a political statement in itself. But it is also true that one of his crown witnesses for the new order of the world he is proclaiming is none other than Lenin. Such terms as “total mobilization” and “imperial dictatorship” are coined in reference to that author.

For Jünger, the world political map splits into three parts. There are the liberal–bourgeois societies of the West: France, the United States, and—with certain residues of aristocracy—Great Britain. Then, there is the socialist society of the Soviet Union. And, finally, there is Germany. What we now call the Third World figures as “colony” and as such takes part in Jünger’s world political game only as far as the colonized people, in the name of universal human rights, are giving a lot of trouble to the victorious nations of World War I. Der Arbeiter opens with the claim that, since Germany never really was a bourgeois country, it is the nation in which the advent of a new world order is ready to happen. There is only one other nation that is equally engaged in what Jünger calls a revolution sans phrase, a revolution that does not need an ideology because it...


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