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The Diaries by John Strand
March 5 - April 3, 2005

A note on The Diaries by the playwright

This play is fictional. But it is inspired by history-specifically, events in the life of a real person. During the Second World War, the German writer and entomologist Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) served in the Nazi military as a captain. He was assigned to occupied Paris. Fluent in French, widely traveled and well educated, a published novelist and a frankly spiritual, even religious man, Junger kept a careful record of his time in France and on the Russian Front in the Caucasus. His diaries of this period, still available in German and French, are a remarkable portrait of life in a city under siege in the midst of war. They are also a portrait of a tolerant, enlightened officer, one who declared himself anti-war and even anti-Nazi. But are his diaries true?

The thing that fascinates me about Jünger and his war diaries is this: How are we to believe him? After all, the diarist, to a large degree, is his own and only witness. If he has reason to lie, or even to persuade the reader subtly toward a conclusion... Well, that's where the battle between truth and fiction begins. It is a part of that larger war, never-ending, between the past and the present.

John Strand lives in Washington DC. His plays include, among many others, Tom Walker, Lovers and Executioners (Charles MacArthur Prize for Outstanding New Play, 1999) both commissioned by and premiered at Arena Stage, Washington, D.C.; The Diaries, commissioned by and premiered at Signature Theater, Arlington, Va.; and, most recently, a translation of Alfred de Musset's Lorenzaccio, commissioned by and premiered at The Shakespeare Theatre last year. He is also the author of the book for The Highest Yellow, a musical about Vincent Van Gogh, with music and lyrics by Michael John La Chiusa, commissioned by and premiered at Signature Theater earlier this season. Strand lived in Paris for 10 years, where he was director of New York University's Experimental Theatre Wing. He has worked extensively as a journalist and critic, having written for the dailies Le Monde, International Herald Tribune and The Washington Post. He has been an editor for Paris Passion and Art International magazines and was co-founder of the literary and arts review, Paris Exiles.

Ernst Jünger (1895-1998), the son of a wealthy chemist, was born in Heidelburg, Germany. At the age of seventeen he ran away from home to join the Foreign Legion, but his father brought him back home. Soon he returned to military service when he joined the German Army on the outbreak of the First World War. Jünger fought on the Western Front and was wounded in 1915. After the Battle of the Somme, Jünger was awarded the Iron Cross and is transferred to Divisional Intelligence as a reconnaissance officer.

Jünger also studied zoology, geology and botany. In 1920 Jünger published his first book, The Storm of Steel. Its glorification of war made it a popular with Germany's young people who dreamed of regaining power after Germany's disastrous defeat in 1918. His work was very popular with members of the Nazi Party and after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 he was offered a seat in the Reichstag. Although he supported the Nazi party he refused the offer and concentrated on his writing.

Jünger joined the German Army on the outbreak of the Second World War and served on the staff of the military command in occupied France where he was involved in the planning of Operation Sea Lion. In 1942, Jünger became increasingly critical of the atrocities committed by the SS in occupied Europe and was dismissed from the army after the failed July Plot against Hitler. His criticisms of Adolf Hitler and his totalitarian system appeared in his book The Peace (1948) and in his war diaries (1949), which were also critical of Nazi Germany.

An excerpt from Ernst Jünger's diaries

"To the left of us was the great railway embankment in the line which we had to cross, rising out of the mist. From loopholes and dugout windows built into the side of it rifles and machine-guns were rattling merrily. I strode on in a fury over the black and torn-up ground, from which rose the suffocating gas of our shells. I was entirely alone. Then I caught sight of the enemy. A figure crouched, wounded apparently, three meters in front of me in the middle of the pounded hollow of the road. I saw him start at the sight of me and stare with wide-open eyes as I walked slowly up to him holding out my revolver... Gritting my teeth, I pressed the muzzle to his forehead and with my other hand gripped hold of his tunic. With a cry he snatched a photograph from his pocket and held it before my eyes... of himself, surrounded by a numerous family. I forced down my mad rage and walked past. Now I look back on four years in the midst of a generation predestined to death, spent in caves, smoke-filled trenches, and shell-illuminated wastes... a monotonous calendar full of hardships and privation, divided by the red-letter days of battles. Hardened as scarcely another generation ever was in fire and flame, we could have gone into life as though from the anvil... into friendship, love, politics, professions... into all that destiny had in store."

Stranger to Myself

The diary of a German soldier's experiences in World War II, titled Stranger to Myself was published in Germany not long ago. Willy Peter Reese, an infantryman who fought on the Russian front and died in 1944 at the age of 23, kept a diary in which he details how the Nazi war machine corrupted ordinary people and how a civilized people obediently followed Hitler into a war of conquest and destruction. Reese, the son of a tax accountant, was a 20-year-old trainee bank clerk when he was called up in 1941. With brutal honesty, Reese describes part of Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, one of the most ruthless, bloody and gigantic military assaults in history.

Reese, a slight man, who wrote poems and was keen on literature and the arts, typed the diary into a manuscript during his last leave in 1944. His mother kept it for decades, and, after her death, it was passed on to a relative who gave it to its publisher. In entry after entry Reese shows how German soldiers killed scores of prisoners of war, raped and pillaged, and how the Nazi war machine corrupted seemingly civilized and ordinary people who obediently followed Hitler into a war of conquest and destruction.

"We had no feeling for the suffering of others and bragged about what we had conquered and about such things as the effect that a pistol could have on a defenseless woman... as the dead piled up and the desperate fought on behind the walls of their corpses... my comrades fell... blown to pieces... wounded... with nervous breakdowns... This was no longer a battle... only murder... we found our missing comrades cut to pieces and maimed... and we took no prisoners either... an inferno of fire, steel and blood... we danced in the railway carriages and fired into the air... made a captured Russian woman dance naked for us... smeared her breasts with boot polish... and made her as drunk as we were... We had no feeling for the suffering of others, and bragged about what we had conquered and about such things as the effect that a pistol could have on a defenseless woman."

Reese hated the Nazis but he had a simple explanation for his obedience: "We didn't want this. But we much preferred to submit ourselves to the fate of battle ... than to a certain death through the enemy's military courts... As the fighting wore on, indifference undermined our soldiers' discipline... Most of us numbed ourselves with superficiality, cruelty, or hatred..."

Reese went missing in June 1944, as the Germany army struggled to slow the Soviet advance toward Berlin. His last entry: "I loved life."

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