Nazi Germany produced two wartime diaries of equal literary and historical significance but written from the most different perspectives conceivable. Victor Klemperer wrote furtively, in daily dread of transport to an extermination camp, a fate he was spared by the firebombing of Dresden. Ernst Jünger, by contrast, had what was once called a “good war.” As a bestselling German author, he drew cushy occupation duty in Paris, where he could hobnob with famous artists and writers, prowl antiquarian bookstores, and forage for the rare beetles he collected. Yet Klemperer and Jünger both found themselves anxiously sifting propaganda and hearsay to learn the truth about distant events on which their lives hung.
One might ask why it has taken 70 years for Jünger’s diary to appear in English translation, for there is no more detailed account of the occupation from the German point of view. But Jünger was always controversial, up to his death in 1998 at the age of 102. In Germany, polite opinion has never forgiven him for Storm of Steel, his memoir of World War I that saw in the experience of combat an ultimate test of manhood. “The finest, most visceral account of battle since the Iliad,” according to the New Statesman, his book made him a hero among German nationalists and ensured his privileged status in Nazi Germany. As it happens, Jünger was anything but a Nazi.