The Forest Rebel

“His hand was against every man, and every man’s hand against him”—Genesis

“The world was not his friend, nor the world’s law”—Shakespeare

A German academic, colleague and close friend, Alexander Wimmer (LMU Munich), recently suggested I should read Ernst Jünger’s Forest Passage (1951) as it may potentially be of interest to Robin Hood scholars. Although Jünger does not refer to Robin Hood in his book, having read the book I believe that Jünger’s remarks will indeed be of interest to all who enjoy studying the history of the Robin Hood legend.[1]

Ernst Jünger

Before we come to discussing the thesis of Jünger’s book some brief biographical details will be necessary, and will probably explain why he arrived at the thesis he did.

Jünger (1895–1998) was born in Heidelberg to fairly wealthy parents. He went on to serve the German Imperial Army in World War One and became a highly decorated officer. Jünger continued serving in the military during the early years of the Weimar Republic until his demobilization in 1923. When Hitler came to power in 1933 the Nazi Party looked to Jünger—a Conservative, a strong military man, who was popular with the old Prussian elite and the people—as a natural ally. He refused to be associated with the Nazis, however, and was vocal in denouncing the party’s suppression of rural workers’ movements; neither was Jünger a fan of the Nazis’ “blood and soil” ideology and, having spoken out against this frequently, he was derided as an “intellectual” in Völkischer Beobachter (the official Nazi newspaper).[2] Jünger was clearly a man of his word, as Hitler’s forces tightened their grip over the German nation, he wrote the Völkischer Beobachter requesting that none of his writings should ever appear in the Nazi’s newspaper. His overt opposition to Nazi ideology made Jünger a target for the usual house searches by the Gestapo.

Ernst Junger in 1919.

When war broke out in 1939 and Germany invaded France Jünger was compelled to serve in the German army—which had always been independent of the German state—although he was not given a combat role. Instead he was given an administrative position as an intelligence officer in Paris. However, this meant that he could pass on information to resistance forces which helped, among other things, to save Jewish people’s lives. Yet after the war Jünger’s role as an army captain, even though it was in an administrative capacity, made him an object of suspicion among the occupying allied forces who prohibited him from publishing anything until 1951.

The English translation of the Forest Passage

The Forest Passage (1951)

In the year that he was allowed to publish again Jünger released his essay The Forest Passage (Der Waldgang). In this book he grappled with what it meant to be a free and sovereign individual in a world where tyrannical regimes can all too easily come to power, and where the state can monitor citizens’ thoughts and actions (he had of course lived under the autocratic rule of the Hohenzollerns, the German Nazi state, and on his figurative doorstep was communist East Germany).

Tomb of the unknown soldier in Arlington, VA.

Almost all western societies, argues Jünger, hold in reverence two “anonymous” figures: the figure of the worker, whose efforts drive society forward to a state of civilization; and the figure of “the unknown soldier,” who “lives in every capital” and represents the nation at its best and most heroic.

Alongside the Worker and the Unknown Soldier, Jünger would have us venerate a third figure: The Forest Rebel.

To be a forest rebel one must enter into the forest or go through the “forest passage.” This is purely metaphorical. Jünger chose the metaphor of the forest because it has a central place in human history and myth and stands for a “pure” freedom:

The teaching of the forest is as ancient as human history and even older. Traces can already be found in the venerable old documents that we are only now partly learning to decipher. It constitutes the great theme of fairy tales, of sagas, of the sacred texts and mysteries.[3]

Jünger’s forest is almost a state of mind that an individual must reach he or she is to retain their freedom, and—in however small a way you can—play a part in eroding the power of a tyrannical state. It is where an individual comes to “know” themselves and discovers “their invulnerable core” of bravery and free thought—a state of mind where the propaganda put out by a despotic state has no effect on you. The forest passage is therefore the process of regaining individual political and intellectual sovereignty in the face of powers which would erode it.

William Tell is arrested for not saluting Gessler’s hat (mosaic at the Swiss National MuseumHans Sandreuter, 1901)

Thus the forest and the forest passage is not a romantic search for some rural Arcadia free from life’s cares. Instead the lessons of the forest, when applied to the real world, are highly political and thus

The forest in this sense is everywhere; it can even be in a metropolitan neighbourhood.

Technology and modern political structures dictate that, for most people, becoming a forest rebel can only ever be a mental process. But when living under a dictatorship one can feel “mentally outlawed.”

The first example that Jünger gives is interesting as it shows how a forest rebel mentality might be attained in the modern world. We are asked to look at a situation where a dictator is holding a plebiscite—for it is important for dictators to continue giving people the illusion of choice—and the said dictator is fully expectant that 98% of the population, having been brainwashed by propaganda and fear, will vote for whatever measure is being proposed.

A man enters the ballot box. He knows that he is being watched by the policemen in the building; he knows that the ballot paper upon which he casts his vote can probably be traced back to him somehow; yet the voter defiantly casts his vote against the dictator. In that moment

He is transformed into a combatant who makes a personal sacrifice, perhaps even into a martyr.[4]

This man has willingly placed himself in danger’s path. The man or woman who does this is, figuratively, a forest rebel, who, in the face of state abuses of power, has sought in some way to recover his “old ancestral [sense of] freedom.” The man’s nay vote may be meaningless on its own,—the dictator’s policy, whatever it be, will still become law,—but it has the power to shake the forces of tyranny. Now the despot knows that in the population there is one man against him and his regime. Even though this man is just one man, he is dangerous to the dictatorship because he can subtly influence others with his ideas:

There is the danger that one fine morning they will transmit their characteristics to the masses … this is a ruler’s nightmare.[5]

Their own individual cause might therefore be a lost cause and the Forest Rebel will always be in a minority. Our hypothetical voter might indeed be arrested by the policeman standing nearby—the powers of a tyrannical state can all-too-often overpower a forest rebel. But as we have seen, such people are dangerous to despots because, for however long they are at large, their actions can inspire others—when this happens the despots have to contend with a number of forest rebels whose actions may take more forcible forms of resistance than stepping into a ballot booth and casting a nay vote.

To be a Forest Rebel in a modern dictatorship one therefore has to be brave in the face of mass surveillance, but the Forest Rebel has two further “essential” characteristics:

He allows no superior power to dictate the law to him, neither through propaganda nor force; and he means to defend himself … by exploiting the instruments and ideas of the time.[6]

The annals of world history, Jünger tells us, are full of examples of “forests” and forest rebels. It is here that national myths of forest rebels are very instructive because

Myth is not prehistory; it is timeless reality which repeats itself in history.[7]

Such myths always tell of people who, in their own way and in their own time, defied the wishes of a tyrannical regime however they could and fled to “the forest.” It is a shame that the book does not mention our favourite outlaw Robin Hood, although Jünger does refer to the legendary archer William Tell—

An individual by whose example the people became aware of their own native power over the oppressor.[8]

Other examples that Jünger chooses are the Spanish guerrillas who fought against Napoleon during the Peninsula War, although Jünger counsels us that being a Forest Rebel is not about attaining “national liberation”—although liberation from a tyrannical regime (whether “home grown” or imposed by a foreign conqueror) may be the result of a number of forest rebels’ actions.

The resistance of the Forest Rebel can therefore take many forms and it is up to the rebel to decide what form their resistance will take. Jünger tells us, like he does at the beginning, that they can be defiant voters. They may—much like Jünger did while serving in the German army in occupied France—“hide behind the mask of a profession.”[9] Forest Rebels can also be writers and poets. Jünger especially praises these authors because their “warfare” against state power is usually carried out in public via the medium of print. These writers’ words—with the pen being mightier than the sword—can oftentimes be more powerful than the actions of a resistance fighter seeking to disrupt an enemies’ supply lines because words reach a wider audience, and may inspire others to enter into their own forest passage.

A sovereign individual–a Forest Rebel–may sometimes feel that becoming a criminal is his only option. I sense that Jünger himself would prefer this not to be the case, for associations with criminality can often mar the Forest Rebel’s moral cause. Although under despotic regimes becoming a conventional crimimal or outlaw is often the only way to resist tyranny and certainly the persistence of themes of criminality in high and low culture, for Jünger, is also evidence that the ideal of the truly sovereign individual/criminal remains a popular ideal.

For Robin Hood scholars the book is definitely worthy of a read. Robin Hood is a figure who, in the many retellings of his story—my own favourite being Ritson’s in 1795—is, quite obviously, a Forest Rebel who resists tyranny. The outlaw’s story has been re-adapted by people to serve as a symbol of resistance to tyranny. Robin’s forest of Sherwood likewise represents a place of freedom from despotism. To quote again Ritson’s oft-cited phrase, Robin Hood was

A man who, in a barbarous age and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence, which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained, (for all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people,) and, in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks, by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his patriotic exertions and virtuous acts, will render his name immortal.[10]

To me, therefore, The Forest Passage gives lessons as to how we can keep the “spirit” of Robin Hood alive in modern times, and give it more political meaning beyond the quite basic notion of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

One cannot, as Shakespeare’s Duke Senior does in As You Like It, retire to the forest of Arden and “live like old Robin Hood of England.” However, the modern Forest Rebel living under a despotic regime and working in the office, writing in his study, or actively working in the resistance, resists despotism where he can, is prepared to take risks, and has consequently recovered his political sovereignty.

By Stephen Basdeo


[1] The quotations from Genesis and Shakespeare, so eagle-eyed readers will notice, are taken from Joseph Ritson’s biography of Robin Hood in 1795 which dealt with issues of sovereignty.

[2] Much of this is summarised from key points of Ernst Jünger’s Wikipedia entry: Wikipedia [online], ‘Ernst Jünger’, accessed 20 February 2021. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org.

[3] Ernst Junger, The Forest Passage, Trans. Thomas Friese (Wewelsburg: Kali Yuga [n.d.]), p. 47.

[4] Ibid., p. 24.

[5] Ibid., p. 29.

[6] Ibid., pp. 39–40.

[7] Ibid., p. 39.

[8] Ibid., p. 65.

[9] Ibid., p. 67.

[10] Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, 2 vols (London: T. Egerton, 1795), I, pp. xi-xii.

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