Valor | The Last Blue Max | HistoryNet MENU
Ernst Jünger, Imperial German Army, Pour le Mérite, Western Front, 1918. (Tales from the Battlefield Tours; Hermann Historical Archive)

Valor | The Last Blue Max

By David T. Zabecki
January 2018 • Military History Magazine

Ernst Jünger, who died at age 102 on Feb. 17, 1998, was the last living recipient of the military class of the Pour le Mérite, awarded for extraordinary personal achievement. Germany still confers the civil class for achievement in the arts and sciences, but the military class (aka the “Blue Max”), was discontinued after World War I. Of the 13 million Germans who served in that conflict, only 687 received the Pour le Mérite. Jünger was among the last recipients, his citation signed by Kaiser Wilhelm II on Sept. 18, 1918.

Born in 1895, Jünger joined the French Foreign Legion in 1913, serving briefly in North Africa. At the outset of World War I the adventure seeker enlisted in the 73rd Fusiliers Regiment, which in December 1914 deployed to the Champagne Front and the following April moved to Lorraine. While recuperating from wounds that spring, Jünger volunteered for officer training. He returned to the 73rd as an officer candidate and was promoted to lieutenant that November.

Jünger was a reconnaissance officer and company commander on the Somme in 1916, then at Ypres and on the Hindenburg Line in 1917. In early 1918 the 73rd Fusiliers were trained as storm troopers, and that March Jünger commanded a storm company on the northern wing of Operation Michael, an offensive launched from the Hindenburg Line. In August the 73rd launched a desperate counterattack near Cambrai. Though surrounded and shot through one lung, Jünger continued fighting and managed to avoid capture, later receiving the Pour le Mérite for that action. He spent the rest of the war in a military hospital.

At war’s end Jünger was one of 6,000 officers retained in the 200,000-man Reichswehr. Working on infantry training manuals, he launched his own literary career in 1920 with the publication of Storm of Steel, a memoir based on his wartime journal. It is considered one of the best World War I narratives.

Jünger left the Reichswehr in 1923 to write and dabble in nationalist politics. At first drawn to National Socialism, he soon broke with the Nazis and from 1933 on was under Gestapo surveillance. Recalled to active duty in 1939 as a captain, Jünger served on Germany’s West Wall defenses until 1941. Reassigned to the staff of General Otto von Stülpnagel, commander of occupied France, the captain worked in the planning cell for the abortive invasion of Great Britain. While serving under General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel (a critic of Adolf Hitler who replaced his cousin as commander of occupied France), Jünger was implicated on the fringes of the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate the Führer and dismissed from the Wehrmacht. Stülpnagel was convicted of treason and executed.

Jünger earned a reputation as a leading memoirist of the German world wars generation, who often recalled with bitter glory their experiences in the trenches of the Western Front. He also wrote more than 20 novels and scores of poems and articles. For his contributions to literature he received the 1974 Schiller Memorial Prize, the 1981 Gold Medal of the Humboldt Society and the 1982 Goethe Prize. In 1984 he joined German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterrand for a Franco-German reconciliation ceremony at Verdun. A year later Jünger received his nation’s Grand Cross of the Order of Merit, awarded for helping to rebuild postwar Germany.

Jünger’s decorations included the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class, the House Order of Hohenzollern Knight’s Cross with Swords and the Wound Badge in Gold, the latter awarded for five or more wounds. Jünger was overqualified. As he wrote in Storm of Steel, “Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes, I was hit at least 14 times, there being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand-grenade splinters and two bullet splinters, which, with entry and exit wounds, left me an even 20 scars.” 

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