The Retreat into the Forest

The Retreat into the Forest

Editor’s Note:

The following essay is an anonymous translation of excerpts from Ernst Jünger’s Der Waldgang (1951) from Confluence: An International Forum, vol. 3, no. 2 (1954): 127–42.

Fear is one of the most characteristic phenomena of our age. Its appearance is all the more perplexing, because it follows closely upon an era of individual freedom in which even the misery which was still familiar to Dickens had become almost unknown. How did this reversal come about? Were one to choose a turning point, one would find none more suitable than the day of the Titanic‘s shipwreck. There light and darkness clash; the hubris of progress is confronted by panic, luxurious comfort by destruction, automatism by the catastrophe which appears as a traffic accident. Indeed, increasing automatism and anxiety are closely related. They appear whenever man limits the scope of his decisions in order to ease his fate by technological means. To be sure, these limitations result in a variety of conveniences; but they are accompanied by an increasing loss of freedom.

The individual is no longer rooted in society as a tree in a forest, rather he is comparable to the passenger in a rapidly moving vehicle whose name may be Titanic, but also Leviathan. As long as the weather holds and the outlook is pleasant, he will scarcely notice the curtailment of his freedom. He may even be filled with optimism and with the consciousness of power produced by the sense of speed. But all this changes when the fiery volcanic islands and icebergs emerge on the horizon. Then not only will technology claim a right to dominate fields other than the procurement of comfort, but at the same time the lack of freedom will become apparent–be it in the victory of elemental forces or in the fact that individuals who have remained strong acquire the means to exercise absolute power.

It may be objected that ages of anxiety and of apocalyptic panic occurred without a comparable automatism. This may be, for the automatism becomes terrifying only when it is revealed as one of the forms, indeed as the style of nemesis. The anxiety of modern man may be of a very special sort or it may be merely the contemporary incarnation of a recurrent cosmic anxiety.

This problem need not detain us. Rather we should ask a question which concerns all of us: is it possible to reduce the fear while the automatism of the age persists, or rather, while this automatism–as may be anticipated–makes further progress toward its ultimate perfection? Can we stay on shipboard and at the same time reserve our powers of free decision?

Can we not merely preserve, but strengthen the roots which still cling to the prime depths of Being? This is the essential question of our time.

The reader will have experienced a change in the nature of what is considered a question. We are constantly confronted by forces that question us. And their inquisitiveness is by no means motivated by a concern with ideas. In approaching us with their questions, they do not expect us to promote the cause of objective truth, or even to contribute to the solution of any specific problems. They are not concerned with our solutions, but with our answers.

This distinction is relevant. Increasingly, the act of questioning takes on the characteristics of a cross examination, a process which can be studied in the development which leads from the ballot-box to the questionnaire. The ballot is designed to determine a factual relationship, the will of the voter, and the act of voting is so organized that it may be expressed without outside intervention or influence. Hence the act of voting is accompanied by the feeling of security and even by the sense of power which distinguishes of sovereign expression of the free will within a sphere protected by law. But the contemporary, obliged to reply to a questionnaire, is far removed from this sense of security. His statements are far-reaching in their implications, for his fate may depend upon them. We see individuals confronted by a situation in which they are asked to procure documents designed to cause their ruin. And how trivial are the things which nowadays determine the destruction of man! It stands to reason that the change in the nature of the process of questioning points to an order of things altogether different from that at the beginning of the century. The old security has disappeared, and we must adjust our thinking accordingly.

Questions press in on us ever more closely, ever more menacingly, and the manner in which we answer becomes increasingly significant. And even silence has become an answer. These are the dilemmas of the age, and there is no escape from them. Another characteristic of our period is the intertwining of significant events with insignificant representatives. This is particularly remarkable in our great men. They make the impression of figures which can be seen in any number in the coffee-houses of Vienna or in provincial officers’ clubs.

These are the men who cause millions to tremble, who shape the fate of countless numbers. And yet they are the very men whom our time has selected with unfailing tact, do we consider it under one of its aspects, that of a tremendous wrecking enterprise. All these liquidations, rationalizations, socializations, electrifications, and pulverizations require neither culture nor character, both of which are a threat to the automatism. Wherever in our period power is essential, it is attracted by the individual in whom the insignificant is coupled with a strong will.

Such phenomena have occurred before in the history of mankind. They might be counted among the atrocities which are rarely missing when great transformations take place. More disquieting is the fact that cruelty threatens to become not an accompaniment but an inseparable element of the new power structures, and that the individual is exposed to it without any possibility of defending himself. There are several reasons for this, above all the fact that rational thinking is itself cruel and that this cruelty then enters into the process of planning. The extinction of free competition plays a special part, leading to a curious distortion. For competition is like a race in which the most skillful win the prize. Where it ceases, it is replaced domestically by great pressures for a general sinecure at the expense of the state, while external competition–the race between the states–continues. Terror steps into the resulting gap. The speed formerly produced by the race of competition must now be produced by fear. In the one case the standards of efficiency depend on high pressure, in the other on a vacuum. There it is the winner who sets the pace, here it is the man who is worse off. For this reason the state feels constantly compelled to subject a segment of its population to atrocities. Life has become gray, but it may well seem bearable to the man who, next to himself, sees the absolute black of utter darkness. These, and not their economic implications, are the dangers of extensive planning.

The selection of the persecuted groups is a question of secondary importance. They will always be minorities, set apart either by nature or artificial construction. Obviously, all who are distinguished by virtue of tradition or excellence will be endangered. It is understandable that under these conditions human beings would rather submit to the most oppressive burdens than to be counted among those who are “different.” Seemingly without effort the automatism succeeds in destroying the remnants of free will, and persecution becomes ubiquitous like an all-pervasive element.

Escape may be possible for a favored few, but it usually leads to something worse. Resistance only animates the Leviathan by giving him a welcome pretext for repressive measures. In the face of such conditions only one hope seems to remain, that the process may spend itself like a volcano spends its fiery ashes. But at this point a question arises, which is not at all theoretical, but an inevitable concomitant of every contemporary existence whether there is not, after all, another road that may be traveled, whether there do not exist mountain passes which can be discovered only after a long ascent. New conceptions of authority and great concentrations of power have arisen. In order to resist them, we require a new conception of freedom transcending the anemic abstractions we have come to associate with this term. The first prerequisite for this new awareness is that man must not content himself with being left in peace; that he must be ready to risk his life.

In that case, we shall soon learn that even in the states in which the power of the police has become overwhelming, independence is by no means extinct. The armor of the new Leviathan has its chinks which must be constantly sought out, an activity requiring both caution and audacity of a kind hitherto unknown. This suggests that elites are about to begin the struggle for a new freedom which will require great sacrifice and which must not be interpreted in a manner unworthy of it. In order to find analogies we must go back to ages of strength, say, to the period of the Huguenots or of the guerillas as Goya saw them in his Desastros. Compared to these, “the storming of the Bastille–an event which still provides nourishment for the current notion of freedom–appears like a Sunday stroll into the suburbs. Is there at least one root left which will open up the riches of the soil? Health and life depend upon it–beyond all civilization, and beyond its safeguards. This becomes evident in periods of extreme danger, when the apparatus not only forsakes the individual but even turns against him. Then each individual must decide whether he wants to surrender or to persevere by relying on his own and innermost strength. In this case he may choose the retreat into the forest (Waldgang).

The ship is a symbol of temporal existence, the forest a symbol of supratemporal Being. In our nihilistic epoch, optical illusions multiply and motion seems to become pervasive. Actually, however, all the contemporary display of technical power is merely an ephemeral reflection of the richness of Being. In gaining access to it, and be it only for an instant, man will gain inward security: the temporal phenomena will not only lose their menace, but they will assume a positive significance. We shall call this reorientation toward Being the retreat into the forest (Waldgang), and the man who carries it out the wanderer in the forest (Waldgänger). Similar to the term “worker” (Arbeiter), it signifies a scale of values. For it applies not only to a variety of forms of activity, but also to various stages in the expression of an underlying attitude. The term has its prehistory in an old Icelandic custom. The retreat into the forest followed upon proscription. Through it a man asserted his will to survive by virtue of his own strength. That was held to be honorable, and it is still so today in spite of all commonplaces to the contrary.

Wanderers in the forest (Waldgänger) are all those who, isolated by great upheavals, are confronted with ultimate annihilation. Since this could be the fate of many, indeed, of all, another defining characteristic must be added: the wanderer in the forest (Waldgänger) is determined to offer resistance. He is willing to enter into a struggle that may appear hopeless. Hence he is distinguished by an immediate relationship to freedom which expresses itself in the fact that he is prepared to oppose the automatism and to reject its ethical conclusion of fatalism. If we look at him in this fashion, we shall understand the role which the retreat into the forest (Waldgang) plays not only in our thoughts but also in the realities of our age. Everyone today is subject to coercion, and the attempts to banish it are bold experiments upon which depends a destiny far greater than the fate of those who dare to undertake them. The retreat into the forest (Waldgang) is not to be understood as a form of anarchism directed against the world of technology, although this is a temptation, particularly for those who strive to regain a myth.

Undoubtedly, mythology will appear again. It is always present and arises in a propitious hour like a treasure coming to the surface. But man does not return to the realm of myth, he reencounters it when the age is out of joint and in the magic circle of extreme danger. It is not a question therefore of choosing the forest or the ship but of choosing both the forest and the ship. The number of those who want to abandon the ship is growing, and among them are clear heads and fine minds. But it amounts to a disembarkation in mid-ocean. Hunger will follow, and cannibalism, and the sharks: in short, all the terrors that have been reported from the raft of Medusa. Hence it is advisable under all circumstances to stay aboard even at the danger of being blown up. This objection is not directed against the poet who reveals–through his life as well as through his work–the vast superiority of the artistic universe over the world of technology. He helps man to rediscover himself: the poet is a wanderer in the forest (Waldgänger), for authorship is merely another form of independence.

In general, we are not concerned with specific political and technological configurations. Their fleeting images pass, but the menace remains or returns with ever greater speed and with increased impact. The opponents come to resemble one another to such an extent that it is easy to recognize them as disguises of the very same power. Our task then is not to master the external phenomena here or there, but to subdue the age. That requires a sovereign will which, nowadays, is to be found less in heroic decisions than in the man who has forsworn fear in his own heart. The immense precautions of the state are directed against him and him alone, and yet ultimately they are destined to bring about his triumph. When he realizes this, he is liberated and dictatorships sink into dust. Therein lie the untapped resources of our age and not only of ours. This is the theme of all history and it defines history, setting it apart from the realm of the demons and from mere zoological events. It is anticipated by myth and by the great religions, and recurs forever. Again and again giants and titans appear with the same seemingly overwhelming superiority, only to be felled by the free man who need not always be a prince or a Heracles. The stone from the sling of the shepherd, the banner raised by a maiden, and a crossbow, have also been known to suffice.


At this point another question arises. To what extent is freedom desirable in the first place? Can it serve a purpose within our present historical situation? Is it not a distinctive merit of contemporary man–and a merit easily underestimated–that he knows how to renounce freedom to so large an extent? In many ways he is like a soldier marching toward unknown destinations or like a worker building a palace others shall inhabit. Nor is this his worst aspect. Should he be distracted as long as the process continues? There is no doubt that there are goals served by countless millions who lead lives which would be unbearable without this prospect and which cannot be explained in terms of sheer coercion. The sacrifices will perhaps reap them glory only in a distant future, but they will not have been in vain. The processes will continue, and as in all conditions ordained by fate, the attempts to delay the development and to revert to points of departure will only serve to further and to accelerate the course of events.

It is well to remain aware of the inevitable in order to avoid being lost in illusions. Freedom coexists with necessity, and only after freedom enters into a relation with necessity can the new state of mind emerge. Every transformation of the concept of necessity has brought with it a change in the concept of freedom. For this reason the notions of freedom of 1789 have become obsolete and are no longer effective against the coercion of our time. Freedom in itself is immortal, but in each period it appears in a different guise and must be conquered anew. History in the true sense can be made only by free men; it is the form given by the free to his destiny. In this sense, man can act as a symbol; his sacrifice includes and counts for the other members of the community. It cannot be our task, then, to change the design of the universe. But palaces could be built upon it and not only the ant-heaps anticipated by the utopias of our day. Let us consider a further objection. Should we restrict ourselves to a philosophy of catastrophe? Should we–and be it only in our spiritual preoccupations–seek out the waters of extreme danger, the cataracts, the maelstroms, the huge abysses?

This is an objection not to be underestimated. Much is to be said for the judicious man who maps out the safe itineraries with the firm will to persevere in his course. It is a problem which can assume practical aspects, as in the case of armaments. Armaments are designed for the eventuality of war, to begin with as a preventive measure. Subsequently, they lead to a borderline situation where preparedness seems to invite war. There are kinds of investment which, under all circumstances, must end-in bankruptcy. Thus systems of lightning-rods are conceivable which would ultimately bring on the thunderstorms. The same considerations apply in the spiritual realm. In considering the marginal case, we may overlook the routes ‘II open. However, one does not exclude the other. Rather reason demands that we consider all possible eventualities, and keep a response in readiness for each, as one does on the chessboard.

In our situation it is our duty to reckon with catastrophe, to sleep with it, so to speak, so that we shall not be caught unaware. Only in this manner can we acquire a reserve of security which will enable us to act reasonably. In a state of complete security our thought merely plays with the possibility of catastrophe. We include it in our plans as an improbable eventuality, and we protect ourselves with minimal precautions. In our days the reverse must be the case. We must spend almost our entire capital on the possibility of catastrophe precisely in order to keep open the middle road that has become as narrow as the edge of a knife.

But we are concerned here with the threat to which the individual is exposed, and with his fear, not with politics or political ideas. Fundamentally the individual is only interested in his profession, in his family, and in the pursuit of his inclinations, but, sooner or later, the age intrudes upon him. Either conditions gradually deteriorate or he is exposed to extremes. Expropriation, compulsory labor, and worse appear on his horizon. Before long, he will realize that neutrality would be tantamount to suicide–you must either howl with the wolves or fight them. Where in his distress can he find a third so solution which leaves him some freedom from the dynamics of the events? Only in his existence as an individual, in his own Being which remains unshaken. Anyone who has escaped from catastrophes knows that, in the last analysis, he owed his rescue to simple human beings who did not submit to the power of hatred and fear or to the automatism of slogans. They resisted the impact of propaganda and of technical suggestiveness, the impact of all demoniac forces of our civilization. Immeasurable may be the blessings when such virtue becomes visible in the leaders of nations, as it became manifest in Augustus. Upon this virtue empires are founded. The prince does not rule by killing, but by giving life. Therein lies one of the great hopes, that among the faceless millions one perfect human being may arise. Among such humans we may name Socrates whose example inspired not only the Stoa but countless spirits of all ages. We may differ in our opinions concerning the life and the teachings of this man; his death belongs to the greatest of all events. The world is such that prejudice and passion will ever again demand blood. It is necessary to realize that this will never be otherwise. The arguments change, but stupidity sits forever in judgment.

Men were brought before its tribunal first, because they despised the gods; then because they did not recognize a dogma; or again, because they offended against a theory. There exists no great word or noble thought in the name of which blood has not been spilled. The message of Socrates resides in the conviction of the invalidity of the verdict which testifies to a standard transcending the human scale. The true verdict was spoken long before the trial began and took expression in the exaltation of the victim. The trial is perennial, and the philistines who sat in judgment then may be met today on every street corner and in every parliament. The idea that this might end has always distinguished the shallow thinkers. But human greatness must be reconquered again and again. It triumphs whenever man masters the onslaught of vulgarity in his own heart. Therein resides the real substance of history; in the encounter of man with himself, that is to say, with his
own divine power. That must be understood if one wishes to teach history. Socrates called the sphere where he was counseled by a voice not to be expressed in words, his daimonion. It might also be called the forest. But what does it mean to the contemporary if we advise him to follow the example of the man who conquered death, the models of gods, heroes, and sages? It means that he participates in the resistance against the age, and, indeed, not against this age only, but against every age whose basic motivation is fear. It is in the nature of things that education today aims at the very opposite. Never before have such strange notions concerning the teaching of history existed. All these systems are designed to cut off the influx of metaphysics, to domesticate and to drill the spirits for the benefit of the collective. Even when the Leviathan is obliged to rely upon courage, as on the battlefield, it will attempt to keep the fighting man in place with a
second and stronger menace. In such states one depends on the police.

We touch here the core of modern suffering, the great emptiness, which Nietzsche called the growth of the desert. The desert is growing; this is the spectacle of civilization with its draining relationships. In this landscape we yearn for sustenance: “The desert is growing; woe to him who contains deserts within himself.” It will be well if the churches create oases. It will be better still if man is not satisfied even with that. The church can give us assistance, but not existence. The decision will take place within man; no one can spare him his travails. The great loneliness of the individual belongs to the characteristics of the age. He is surrounded and imprisoned by anxiety which closes in upon him like approaching walls. Anxiety becomes tangible in the prisons, in slavery, and in the battles of modern war. These experiences fill the thoughts, the soliloquies, perhaps even the diaries in years when a man may not even trust his closest neighbor. Yet the proximity of saving powers is also felt. The terrors are alarms, symptoms of ever more insistent questions which are being put to man. No one can spare him the answer.

The desert is growing; the faded, infertile spheres are multiplying. The fields which gave life purpose are disappearing; so are the gardens from which one can take nourishment without suspicion, the sheds which have familiar tools. The laws have become dubious, the weapons double-edged. Woe to him who harbors deserts; who does not contain, be it only in one cell, the substance which ever again guarantees fertility.


It is frightening how concepts and objects often change their appearance over night, and produce wholly unexpected results. That is a symptom of anarchy. Let us consider, for instance, freedom and the rights of the individual in relation to authority. These are determined by the constitution. Again and again, and, unfortunately, for some time to come, we will have to expect the violation of these rights by the state, by a party which has seized the state, by a foreign invader, or by a combination of these forces. It may be said that the masses, at least in our country, are in a state where they scarcely perceive the violation of the Constitution any longer. It seems that they are far more concerned with football games than with their own basic rights. Once this consciousness is lost, it cannot be restored artificially. The violation of a law can assume a legal varnish; for example, when a ruling party prevails upon a majority to change the constitution. The majority can be right and yet commit wrong, a contradiction that the simple-minded cannot grasp. Even at plebiscites it is often difficult to decide where the law ends and violence begins. These encroachments can gradually gain in strength until they assume the character of pure atrocities. Those who witnessed these actions, accompanied by the applause of the masses, know that traditional expedients are of no avail against them. Suicide is not to be expected from everybody, least of all when recommended from abroad. No fate is more hopeless than to live in a period in which the law has become a weapon. In Germany, resistance against authority is, or was, especially difficult because, from the days of legitimate monarchy, the population preserved a modicum of respect for the state. Hence the individual found it difficult to understand why the victorious powers prosecuted him, not merely by means of a blanket accusation of collective guilt, but also as an individual for having, for example, continued in his profession as a conductor of an orchestra or as a public official. Although this state of mind produced some grotesque results, we must not treat it as a mere curiosity. It is indicative of a new feature in our world, in which foreigners may accuse the individual as a collaborator with popular movements, while political parties try him as a sympathizer of unpopular causes. The individual is thus placed between Scylla and Charybdis; he is threatened with liquidation either because he participated or because he failed to participate. Hence, a high degree of courage is required which will enable him to defend the cause of justice all alone, and even against the power of the state. It will be doubted whether such men can be found. Some will appear, however, and they will be wanderers in the forest (Waldgänger). Even against his will, this type of man will enter the historical scene, for there are forms of coercion that leave no choice. It may seem strange that a single individual, or even several, should resist the Leviathan. Yet it is precisely through their action that the colossus reveals its vulnerability. For even a handful of determined men can become a threat, not only morally but physically. Again and again we witness that two or three gangsters can upset an entire metropolitan district, and cause lengthy sieges. If the relationship is reversed, if the authorities turn criminal and men of justice offer resistance, incomparably greater effects can be produced. The consternation of Napoleon at the uprising of Mallet, a single, but unbending man is a well-known instance.

Let us assume that a small number of truly free men are left in a city or state. In that case the breach of the constitution would carry a heavy risk. In this sense, the theory of collective guilt is justified, for the possibility of violating a law is directly proportional to the degree of resistance it encounters at the hands of freedom. An attack on the invulnerability and, indeed, on the sanctity of the home would not have been possible in old Iceland, in the form in which it was possible as a purely administrative measure in Berlin in 1933, in the midst of a population of several millions. As an honorable exception we should mention a young Social Democrat who killed half a dozen of the so-called auxiliary police at the entrance of his apartment. He still partook of the substantial Old-Germanic sense of freedom which his opponents celebrated in their theories. Naturally, he had not learned this from the program of his party. Let us suppose, furthermore, that the authorities would have had to expect an incident of this sort in every street of Berlin. In that case, things would have been different. Long periods of peace and quiet favor certain optical illusions. Among them is the assumption that the invulnerability of the home is founded upon the constitution and safeguarded by it. In reality, it rests upon the father of the family who, accompanied by his sons, appears with the ax on the threshold of his dwelling. This truth is not always apparent, however. Nor is it to be construed as an objection to the constitution. It is simply that the old saying still holds: the man must vouch for his oath; the oath cannot vouch for the man. The German has been reproached for his lack of resistance to official acts of violence and perhaps justifiably. He did not yet know the rules of the game, and he felt threatened from other directions where there has never been any question of basic human rights. Those who died in a hopeless struggle, unarmed, and in defense of their wives and children, are, as yet, hardly noticed. But their lonely destruction will become known. For it counts as a weight in the scale of history. We, who survived, must see to it, however, that the spectacle of coercion which met no resistance shall never be repeated.


We live in a period in which it is difficult to distinguish between war and peace, and the boundaries between merit and crime are obscured by intermediary shades. This deceives even sharp eyes For into every case of individual guilt enters the confusion of the age, the collective guilt. An aggravating circumstance is the fact that there are no sovereigns left, and that all who exercise power have risen by way of feuding political parties. This reduces from the very outset the capacity for actions oriented toward the welfare of the whole: that is, for impartiality, for generosity, and for development. Those who exercise power prefer instead to live off the whole; they are incapable of preserving it, and of increasing it through their inner abundance, through Being. Hence, capital is wasted by victorious factions for the benefit of shortsighted aims and conceptions.

The only consolation is the realization that this spectacle is part of a descent which leads in a definite direction and toward definite goals. In former times, phases such as the present were termed an interregnum. Their distinctive characteristic is the absence of ultimate values. But it is already a significant achievement that we recognize this, and the realization is of much greater value than the attempt to reintroduce old and obsolete values with the pretense that they might still be effective. Our eyes reject Gothic ornaments in the world of machinery; in the moral realm a similar law obtains.

When all institutions have become dubious or even infamous, when you hear prayers being offered not for the persecuted but for the persecutors, then the ethical responsibility shifts to the individual, or rather to the individual who is still unbroken, the wanderer in the forest (Waldgänger). It is a hard decision which he must make that he will reserve the right of independent judgment whatever the cause for which his approval or participation is solicited. It will require a considerable sacrifice, but it will also lead to an immediate gain in sovereignty. As matters stand, this gain will be felt as such only by very few. Yet the power of sovereign rule can come only from those who have preserved the awareness of the primal scales of value, only from the men who cannot be induced to renounce humanity by any superiority of force. The great experience of the forest consists of the encounter with the Ego, with the self, with the inviolate core and essence that sustains the temporal and individual appearance. This encounter, so decisive for the conquest of health and for the victory over fear, is also supreme in its moral value. It leads to the primal basis of all social intercourse, to the man whose example defines individuality. In this sphere we will encounter not only community but also identity. This is the symbolic meaning of the embrace: the Ego recognizes itself in the other human being in the saying, “This is you.” The “other” can be the beloved, the sufferer, or the helpless victim. In giving help, the Ego helps its own immortal essence and confirms the basic ethical order of the universe.

Countless men are alive today who have traversed the nadirs of the nihilistic process. They know that the mechanism reveals itself as an ever-greater menace, that man has entered into the interior of a huge machine which has been designed for his annihilation. They have learned that every form of rationalism leads to machine-like mechanism, and every mechanism to torture as its logical consequence, a fact which the nineteenth century failed to grasp. A miracle must take place if a man is to escape from such whirlpools. And this miracle has taken place times without number when among the faceless numbers there appeared an individual and gave succor. This was the case even in the prisons and, indeed, especially there. In every situation and in his relation to every man, the individual can become the brother–this is his genuine, his sovereign, trait. The origin of nobility was the task of protection–protection against the threats of beasts and monsters. This is the token of the aristocratic being, and it shines forth in the guard who secretly gives a piece of bread to a prisoner. Such actions can never cease, for the world subsists on them. They are the sacrifices upon which it rests.

Confluence, vol 3, #2, June 1954,



Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments