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Oswald Spengler

[speng-gler; Ger. shpeng-gluhr]
Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler (29 May, 1880 Blankenburg am Harz – 8 May, 1936, Munich) was a German historian and philosopher whose interests also included mathematics, science, and art. He is best known for his book The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes) in which he puts forth a cyclical theory of the rise and decline of civilizations. After Decline was published in 1918, Spengler produced his Prussianism and Socialism in 1920, in which he argued for an organic version of socialism and authoritarianism. He wrote extensively throughout World War I and the interwar period, and supported German hegemony in Europe. The National Socialists held Spengler as an intellectual precursor. But he was ostracised after 1933 for his pessimism about Germany and Europe's future, his refusal to support Nazi ideas of racial superiority, and his critical work the Hour of Decision.


Oswald Spengler was born in 1880 in Blankenburg at the foot of the Harz mountains, the eldest of four children, and the only boy. His family was typically conservative German petit-bourgeoisie. His father, originally a mining technician, who came from a long line of mineworkers, was a post office bureaucrat. His childhood home was emotionally reserved, and the young Spengler turned to books and the great cultural personalities for succor. He suffered imperfect health, and was a lifelong sufferer of migraine headaches and an anxiety complex.

At the age of ten, his family moved to the university city of Halle. Here Spengler received a classical education at the local Gymnasium (high school), studying Greek, Latin, mathematics and natural sciences. Here, too, he developed his affinity for the arts — especially poetry, drama, and music — and came under the influence of the ideas of Goethe and Nietzsche. He even experimented with a few artistic creations, some of which still survive.

After his father's death in 1901, Spengler attended several universities (Munich, Berlin, and Halle) as a private scholar, taking courses in a wide range of subjects: history, philosophy, mathematics, natural science, literature, the classics, music, and fine arts. His private studies were undirected. In 1903, he failed his doctoral thesis on Heraclitus because of insufficient references, which effectively ended a chance for an academic career. In 1904, he received his Ph.D., and in 1905 suffered a nervous breakdown.

Scholars remark that his life seemed rather uneventful. He briefly served as a teacher in Saarbrücken and then Düsseldorf. And from 1908 to 1911, he taught at a practical high school (Realgymnasium) in Hamburg. There he taught science, German history, and mathematics.

In 1911, following his mother's death, he moved to Munich, where he would live until his death in 1936. He lived as a cloistered scholar, supported by his modest inheritance. Spengler lived on very limited means and was marked by loneliness. He owned no books, and took jobs as a tutor or writing for magazines to earn an additional income.

He began work on the first volume of Decline intending to focus on Germany within Europe at first, but was deeply affected by the Agadir Crisis, and widened the scope of his study. Spengler was inspired by Otto Seeck's work The Decline of Antiquity in naming his own effort. The book was completed in 1914, but publishing was delayed by World War I. During the war, his inheritance was largely useless because it was invested overseas; thus Spengler lived in genuine poverty for this period.

After Decline came out in 1917, it was a wild success because of the perceived national humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles and later the economic depression around 1923 fueled by hyperinflation seemed to prove Spengler right (Spengler had in fact believed that Germany would win while he was writing the book). It comforted Germans because it seemingly rationalized their downfall as part of larger world-historical processes. It was widely successful outside of Germany as well, and by 1919 had been translated into several other languages. He rejected a subsequent offer to become Professor of Philosophy at the University of Goettingen, saying he needed time to focus on writing.

The book was widely discussed, even by those who had not read it. Historians took umbrage at an amateur effort by an untrained author and his unapologetically non-scientific approach. Thomas Mann compared reading Spengler's book to reading Schopenhauer for the first time. Academics gave it a mixed reception. Max Weber described Spengler as a "very ingenious and learned dilettante" while Karl Popper described the thesis as "pointless". The great historian of antiquity Eduard Meyer thought highly of Spengler, although he also had some criticisms of him. Spengler's obscurity, intuitionalism, and mysticism were easy targets, especially for the Positivists and neo-Kantians who saw no meaning in history. The critic and æsthete Count Harry Graf Kessler thought him unoriginal and rather inane, especially with regards to his work on Nietzsche. Ludwig Wittgenstein, however, shared Spengler's cultural pessimism. Spengler's work became an important foundation for the social cycle theory.

A 1928 Time review of the second volume of Decline described the immense influence and controversy Spengler's ideas enjoyed during the 1920s: "When the first volume of The Decline of the West appeared in Germany a few years ago, thousands of copies were sold. Cultivated European discourse quickly became Spengler-saturated. Spenglerism spurted from the pens of countless disciples. It was imperative to read Spengler, to sympathize or revolt. It still remains so.

In the second volume, published in 1920, Spengler argued that German socialism was different from Marxism, and was in fact compatible with traditional German conservatism. In 1924, following the social-economic upheaval and inflation, Spengler entered politics in an effort to bring Reichswehr general Hans von Seeckt to power as the country's leader. But the effort failed and Spengler proved ineffective in practical politics. In 1931, he published Man and Technics, which warned against the dangers of technology and industrialism to culture. He especially pointed to the tendency of Western technology to spread to hostile "Colored races" that would then use the weapons against the West. It was poorly received because of its anti-industrialism. This book contains the well-known Spengler quote, "Optimism is cowardice."

Despite voting for Hitler over Hindenburg in 1932, Spengler found the Führer vulgar. He met Hitler in 1933 and after a lengthy discussion remained unimpressed, saying that Germany didn't need a "heroic tenor (Heldentenor: one of several conventional tenor classifications) but a real hero ("Held")." He publicly quarreled with Alfred Rosenberg, and his pessimism and remarks about the Führer earned himself isolation and public silence. He further rejected offers from Joseph Goebbels to give public speeches. However, Spengler did become a member of the Academy of Germany in the course of the year.

The Hour of Decision, published in 1934, was a bestseller, but was later banned by the Nazis for its critiques of National Socialism. Spengler's criticisms of liberalism were welcomed by the Nazis, but Spengler disagreed with their biological ideology and anti-Semitism. While racial mysticism played a key role in his own worldview, Spengler had always been an outspoken critic of the pseudoscientific racial theories professed by the Nazis and many others in his time, and was not inclined to change his views upon Hitler's rise to power. Although himself a German nationalist, Spengler also viewed the Nazis as too narrowly German, and not occidental enough to lead the fight against other peoples. The book also warned of a coming world war in which Western Civilization risked being destroyed, and was widely distributed abroad before eventually being banned in Germany. A Time review of The Hour of Decision noted his international popularity as a polemicist, observing that "When Oswald Spengler speaks, many a Western Worldling stops to listen." The review recommended the book for "readers who enjoy vigorous writing," who "will be glad to be rubbed the wrong way by Spengler's harsh aphorisms" and his pessimistic predictions.

He spent his final years in Munich, listening to Beethoven, reading Molière and Shakespeare, buying several thousand books, and collecting ancient Turkish, Persian and Hindu weapons. He made occasional trips to the Harz mountains, and to Italy. Shortly before his death, in a letter to a friend, he remarked that "the German Reich in ten years will probably no longer exist". He died of a heart attack on May 8, 1936, three weeks before his 56th birthday and exactly nine years before the fall of the Third Reich.

Although he was highly influential and internationally popular during the interwar period, Oswald Spengler's work fell into intellectual disrepute and obscurity following World War II. One of the main reasons he was widely disliked or ignored is that he had been a leading opponent of the Weimar Republic. Only recently has interest in Spengler been rekindled. His concepts, opinions, theories, and predictions remain controversial among admirers and detractors alike.


  • In the July 10, 1920 issue of The Illustrated London News, G. K. Chesterton took issue with both pessimists (such as Spengler) and their optimistic critics, arguing that neither took into consideration human choice: "The pessimists believe that the cosmos is a clock that is running down; the progressives believe it is a clock that they themselves are winding up. But I happen to believe that the world is what we choose to make it, and that we are what we choose to make ourselves; and that our renascence or our ruin will alike, ultimately and equally, testify with a trumpet to our liberty."
  • The Decline of the West was an important influence on historian Arnold J. Toynbee's similarly-themed work A Study of History.
  • Spengler's concept of the 'Faustian' outlook was an important part of Herman Kahn's book The Year 2000. Kahn used the Spenglerian term to describe cultures that value continual, restless striving. He did not use it to refer to Faust's bargain or pact.
  • Communal readings of The Decline of the West held great influence over the founding members of the Beat Generation. Spengler's vision of the cyclical nature of civilization and the contemporaneity of the end of the Western European cycle led William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to look for the seeds of the next cycle in the communities of which they were a part.
  • Spengler has, among others, influenced Georg Henrik von Wright in his writing about society.
  • Spengler was a pivotal influence on Francis Parker Yockey, who wrote Imperium as a sequel to The Decline of the West. Yockey called Spengler "The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century."
  • Literary critic Northrop Frye said he "practically slept" with The Decline of the West "under my pillow for several years" while a student. Spengler's book inspired Frye to have his own "vision of coherence", resulting in Anatomy of Criticism.
  • Some also argue that he was a major influence on Samuel P. Huntington's controversial Clash of civilizations theory.
  • In Germany the direction of his works is doubted today since it was also popular with supporters of National Socialism.
  • James Blish's Cities in Flight tetralogy explicitly lists Spengler's theories as an influence on the future history of the Cities.
  • It was sometimes believed Spengler was an intellectual influence on Charles Lindbergh's thinking as the controversial leader of the movement to keep America out of World War II, particularly on Lindbergh's view that Western nations should put aside their political differences and form an alliance against "foreign races" instead of fighting amongst themselves. Lindbergh also echoed Spengler's concern about the effects of industrialization and materialism on Western Civilization, and as well as Spengler's pessimism about the future.
  • The late paleoconservative political theorist Samuel Francis cited Spengler's views on race as influential on his own.
  • American authors influenced by Spengler include Henry Miller, John dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once referred to himself as an "American Spenglerian." British novelist Malcolm Lowry, painter Oskar Kokoschka, orchestra director Wilhelm Furtwangler, and filmmaker Fritz Lang were also fans of Spengler's work.
  • The Hour of Decision influenced Malcolm X's views on economics and his critiques of capitalism. Malcolm X agreed with Spengler's prediction that class conflict would eventually be surpassed by racial conflict. When asked about Karl Marx, Malcolm X (who had never read Marx) stated that he agreed with Spengler's view of social class and economic systems as secondary to racial identity.
  • Others influenced by Spengler include George F. Kennan, Raymond Aron, and Henry Kissinger.
  • In the DVD commentary to Ghostbusters, actor and screenwriter Harold Ramis says that his character Egon Spengler's last name was in honor of Oswald Spengler, while the first name "Egon" came from a Czech childhood friend of Ramis's.
  • Spengler was also an influence upon the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell and his circle, including the cultural historian John David Ebert and the author John Lobell.
  • Dr. Michael D. Wady, a notable archaeologist, is a strong critic of Spengler's The Decline of the West. Pointing out large fallacies of reason that directly disprove Spengler's argument, such as: Spengler stating there will be no more advancements in science (in 1918) and, Jewish people (termed "Magian") cannot contribute anything to society because they are fulfilled, burned-out, or "faced with dissolution." Yet, as Dr. Wady points out, the world has benefited from great Jewish scientists, such as Albert Einstein.
  • An internet columnist published in Asia Times Online since January 2000, who views the West as being in decline, has written under the pseudonym. This obscuring of real name has stifled debate due to inability to reach him outside of the Asian times website: Spengler- Asia Times Columnist.

Spengler's works

Der Untergang des Abendlandes in German. Original 1919.

  • ''Prussianism and Socialism. 1920
  • Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life, ISBN 0-89875-983-8.
  • The Hour of Decision: Germany & World-Historical Evolution, ISBN 1-4102-0266-6

(Jahre der Entscheidung).

  • Aphorisms.
  • Selected Essays.

Further reading

  • Adorno, Theodor. "Prisms." The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. 1967.
  • Twilight of the Evening Lands: Oswald Spengler — A Half Century Later by John F. Fennelly (New York, Brookdale Press, 1972) ISBN 0-912650-01-X.
  • Biographical Dictionary of the Extreme Right Since 1890 edited by Philip Rees, 1991, ISBN 0-13-089301-3.
  • Prophet of Decline: Spengler on world history and politics by John Farrenkopf (Publisher: Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, 2001) ISBN 0-8071-2653-5 ISBN 0-8071-2727-2.
  • Hughes, H. Stuart. "Preface to the Present Edition." Preface. The Decline of the West: An Abridged Edition. By Oswald Spengler. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-19-506751-7.

See also


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