Ernst Junger’s “On the Marble Cliffs” as a parable of staying true to yourself

Olena Semenyaka
National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”

"There are periods of decline when the pattern fades to which our inmost life must conform. When we enter upon them we sway and lose our balance. From hollow joy we sink to leaden sorrow, and past and future acquire a new charm from our sense of loss. So we wander aimlessly in the irretrievable past or in distant Utopias; but the fleeting moment we cannot grasp."

"So I swear to myself in the future to fall alone in freedom rather than to accompany the servants on the path to triumph."

- Ernst Jünger "Auf den Marmorklippen" ("On the Marble Cliffs," 1939)

In the "Afterword" (notes) to his novel written in 1972 Ernst Jünger remarked that the book was noticed far beyond Germany and was re-published in Riga and Paris at Army's expense (the German publishers, naturally, had problems with Goebbels' censorship). He also mentioned rumors about pirate editions in Ukraine and Latvia, which spread soon after the end of war, although the first official translation beyond the Iron Curtain appeared in 1971 in Bucharest.

In France Jünger served as a captain in headquarters of the German Army Commander for France, General Otto von Stülpnagel, and was responsible for the "Operation Sealion," which was the name for planned invasion of Great Britain, as well as censoring letters and controlling communication between the Army and the Party. Besides, he was responsible for French-German cooperation in matters of culture. In 1942 Jünger published his diaries "Gärten und Strassen," which, translated in French, made him popular among foremost French intellectuals, including that of Resistance (Sacha Guitry, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Jouhandeau, Paul Léautaud, Céline, Gaston Gallimard, Paul Morand, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Henri de Montherlant, and Florence Gould).

After Jünger was banned from publishing due to refusal to exclude the critical reference to the 73rd Psalm, the Army published his "Myrdun: Briefe aus Norwegen" in 1943. In spite of having close relations with many activists of Resistance and even members of the failed plot aimed at assassination of Hitler (Otto von Stülpnagel and Hans Speidel), which was attempted on July 20, 1944, Jünger did not participate directly in the conspiracy, although his tract "Peace, an Appeal to the Youth of Europe and to the Youth of the World" (1943) was very popular in this and other circles. His only punishment, as opposed to the fate of the executed, was dismissal from the Wehrmacht as "unfit for service." Hitler, who admired Jünger's war prose, as usual, forbid Goebbels and Goering disturb him.

In 1944 his Jünger's son Ernst was sent to a punishment battalion for subversive conversations in his unit. It was told that young Ernst said his fellow soldiers "If we win, we'll have to hang Kniebolo" (it is said that Jünger described Hitler under this codename as a combination of words "knien" (kneel) and "Diablo" in his French diaries). Young Ernst was killed near Marble cliffs of Carrara in Italy on 29 November.

"On the Marble Cliffs" is often viewed as an allegory of Nazi regime; however, in the same notes to the novel Jünger wrote that it became clear even in the occupied France that this was the "shoe that fits various feet." In later interviews he repeated that such allegories might be viewed as exposition of Stalin's regime. As a matter of fact, in the notes Jünger expressed his discontent regarding the very political interpretation of the novel which definitely goes beyond the current and the episodic in human life.

Moreover, Jünger pointed out at his growing allergy on the word "resistance," because the main thing is to stay true to oneself, not opposition or collaboration with the regime (this idea will be developed in his futuristic novel "Eumeswil" (1977), where he discusses Anarch's relation to power and law in particular). Jünger reminded of the fact that man should be able to show his guts (reveal his will physically, spiritually and morally) anytime, especially when there is danger, and this is what the most important.

A noteworthy excerpt from Bruce Chatwin's essay "An Aesthete at War" (1981), which is a review of a selection of books written by Jünger (mostly diaries, but also "On the Marble Cliffs") and about him (J.P. Stern's "Ernst Jünger: A Writer of Our Time") in The New York Review of Books:

"'On the Marble Cliffs' is an allegorical tale, written in a frozen, humourless, yet brilliantly coloured style that owes something to the nineteenth-century Decadents and something to the Scandinavian sagas. The result is a prose equivalent of an art nouveau object in glass, and the plot is much less silly than it sounds in précis:

Two men - the narrator and Brother Otho (not to be distinguished from Jünger himself and his own brother, the poet Friedrich Georg) are aesthetes, scientists, and soldiers who have retired from war to a remote cliffside hermitage, where they work on a Linnaean classification of the region's flora, and harbour a lot of pet snakes. Far below lies the Grand Marina, a limpid lake surrounded by the farms, the vineyards, and cities of a venerable civilization. To the north there stretches an expanse of steppe - land where pastoral nomads drive their herds. Beyond that are the black forests of Mauretania, the sinister realm of the Chief Ranger (Oberförster) with his pack of bloodhounds and gang of disciplined freebooters in whose ranks the brothers once served.

The Oberförster is planning to destroy the Grand Marina:

"He was one of those figures whom the Mauritanians respect as great lords and yet find somewhat ridiculous - rather as an old colonel is received in the regiment on occasional visits from his estates. He left an imprint on one's mind if only because his green coat with its gold-embroidered ilexes drew all eyes to him... (His own eyes), like those of hardened drinkers, were touched with a red flame, but expressed both cunning and unshakeable power - yes, at times, even majesty. Then we took pleasure in his company and lived in arrogance at the table of the great..."

As evil spreads over the land "like mushroom-spawn over rotten wood," the two brothers plunge deeper and deeper into the mystery of flowers. But on a botanical expedition to the Mauritanian forest in a rare red orchid, they stumble on the Oberförster's charnel house, Köppels-Bleck, where a dwarf sings gaily as he scrapes at a flaying bench:

"Over the dark door on the gable end a skull was nailed fast, showing its teeth and seeming to invite entry with its grin. Like a jewel in its chain, it was the central link of a narrow gable frieze which appeared to be formed of brown spiders. Suddenly we guessed that it was fashioned of human hands..."

The brothers' discovery of the orchid gives them a "strange feeling of invulnerability" and the strength to continue their studies. But one day, just before the Oberförster launches his attack on the Marina, they are visited by one of his henchmen, Bracquemart, and the young Prince of Sunmyra.

Braquemart is a "small, dark, haggard fellow, whom we found somewhat coarse-grained but, like all Mauritanians, not without wit." The Prince, on the other hand, is "remote and absentminded" with an "air of deep suffering" and the "stamp of decadence." This pair, of course, is planning a coup d'état, which fails when the Oberförster unleashes his blood hounds.

The leader of the pack is called Chiffon Rouge, i.e. Red Flag, and, in a scene of appalling ferocity, everyone gets mangled and killed except for the two brothers, who are saved by the miraculous intervention of their own pet lance-head vipers. Later (1), at Köppels-Bleck, they find the heads of the two conspirators on poles, Bracquemart having killed himself first "with the capsule of poison that ail Mauritanians carry." But on the "pale mask of the Prince from which the scalped flesh hung in ribbons... there played the shadow of a smile intensely sweet and joyful, and I knew then that the weaknesses had fallen from this noble man with each step of his martyrdom..." - which description can be compared to the photo of Adam von Trott, as he heard the death sentence, in the People's Court, five years after Jünger wrote his book.

"On the Marble Cliffs" sold 35,000 copies before it was suppressed early in 1940. How it suppressed through the censor machine of Dr. Goebbels is less of a mystery when one realizes that Braquemart was modeled on Dr. Goebbels himself who was flattered and amused by it, and later alarmed by its popularity among the officer caste. Jünger himself claimed then - as now - that the fable is not specifically anti-Nazi, but "above all that."

And I don't doubt that he conceived it as contemptuous, sweeping, Spenglerian statement on the destruction of the old Mediterranean-based civilization of Europe: the Oberförster could, at a pinch, stand for Stalin as well as Hitler.

At a meeting of the Nazi Party, Reichsleiter Boulher is supposed to have said: "Mein Führer, this time Jünger has gone too far!" but Hitler calmed him down and said: "Let Jünger be!" All the same, the writer's friends advised him to get into uniform; and so by the fall of 1939 he found himself with the rank of Captain, posted to the Siegfried Line, convinced, by now, that the private journal was the only practical medium for literary expression in a totalitarian state."


1. The narrator found the heads of the Prince and Bracquemart during the very battle and brought the head of the Prince to his house. Later it was put into the foundation of the renewed temple.

© 2012

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