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  • A Power Couple in Occupied Paris
  • Jeffrey Mehlman (bio)


capriccio tenebroso

On December 7, 1941, as the world reeled from the shock of the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, Ernst Jünger, stationed with the German occupying forces in Paris, dropped by the Institut allemand in Paris and had a shock of his own. Céline was there, we read in Jünger's war diary, and proceeded to deliver himself of a diatribe on Germany's undue leniency in its policy toward the Jews. "If the Bolsheviks were in Paris, they would let you see how things are done; they'd show you how to cleanse a population, neighborhood by neighborhood, house by house. If I had a bayonet, I'd know what had to be done."1 For the aristocratic German officer, the words of the obsessed French master came as a revelation. Here, in full bloom, was the "monstrous power of nihilism [die ungeheure Stärke des Nihilismus]." The author of Le Voyage au bout de la nuit, who was prone to invoke the life sciences in his rants, was like an "iron machine" monomaniacally set on killing others. As such he was the embodiment of a world mad with technology, the very target of Jünger's onslaught against nihilism in this phase of his career.

Céline makes his next appearance in the war diaries toward the end of the war. On June 22, 1944, Jünger learns that the author-novelist, [End Page 812] immediately following the Normandy landing, applied for permission to seek refuge in Germany. (It is the stuff of what may be the novelist's masterpiece, D'un château l'autre.) Jünger records his contempt: "Curious to see how individuals capable of cold-bloodedly demanding the heads of millions of men fret over their filthy little life [ihr eigenes lumpiges Leben]. The two factors must be linked."2 Exit Céline.

Oddly enough, Jünger does not mention the name Céline in his diaries, but refers to him as "Merline." The other individual prominently referred to—disparagingly—in the diaries by an invented name is Hitler, who received the grotesque sobriquet "Kniébolo." Plainly it was in Jünger's self-interest to mask his apparent contempt for Hitler with a nickname, but why resort to the same tactic for Céline? Light is cast on the question by a curious episode following the war. Jünger, leafing through the French translation of his Paris war diary, was stunned to see the name of Céline where he had written Merline. Céline, upon seeing his name in Jünger's text, had flown into a rage, accused the author of Auf den Marmorklippen of being a police spy, and was said to be considering a libel suit. Whereupon, in 1951, Jünger sent Céline a somewhat abject letter of apology, first published by Der Spiegel on June 6, 1994:

Cher monsieur Céline,

A painful incident obliges me to write to you. Upon examining the translation of my diary, which has just been published in Paris, I came upon your name while reading a passage which, in the original German edition, mentions the name "Merline." This change, which I deeply deplore and whose causes are unknown to me, occurred without my knowledge. I reject your point of view, but nothing is more foreign to me than the intention to do you ill. In the event that you are attacked because of this passage, do not hesitate to contact me. I would then be able to contest the assertion that the reference is to you.

My best wishes,

Ernst Jünger3

Jünger's solidarity with the anti-Semitic "nihilist" is palpable—and he acted on it. In 1951, he testified to a judge that the name Céline was a mere printer's error.4 The aesthete-aristocrat had no desire to rock any boat. For those perplexed by how an alleged anti-Hitlerian could [End Page 813] have performed so flawlessly in Hitler's occupying army, the post-war letter to Céline may prove illuminating. The message, after all, was: I disagree...


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