This is Part 1 of "'I See Further Than Others': Reflections On Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West and The Hour of Decision", a serial essay by Steve Kogan.
In a late autobiographical sketch, Saul Bellow writes that when he was young "Smart Jewish schoolboys in Chicago were poring over Spengler at night." F. Scott Fitzgerald said The Decline was one of the formative books in his life, and Henry Miller read him in his cramped Brooklyn apartment and later wrote a glowing account of his experience. Begun just before and completed soon after World War I, The Decline of the West not only struck a nerve in readers from America to Russia but also generated a “Spengler controversy” among historians, philosophers, and theologians that enhanced its notoriety between the two world wars (1).
By the 1930s, however, its reputation took a darker turn; for, with the growing menace of Hitler Germany and the now suspicious echoes of National Socialism in Spengler’s ties to Nietzsche and conviction that a new "Caesarism" was inevitable, he became falsely associated with the Nazi movement, to the point where George Orwell, the best of a new and self-declared generation of leftwing writers, could say in "Looking Back on the Spanish War" (1942) that Spengler subscribed to "a programme which at any rate for a while could bring together" the likes of Hitler, Pétain, Hearst, Ezra Pound, Father Coughlin, and the Mufti of Jerusalem, men who "support or have supported Fascism" and "are all people with something to lose, or people who long for a hierarchical society and dread the prospect of a world of free and equal human beings."
In point of fact, no twentieth-century thinker could have been further from Orwell's ungodly crew than Oswald Spengler and nowhere more emphatically than in The Hour of Decision (1933), in which he described political discourse in his time as "superficial," "small-minded," and filled with "absurd catchwords" in place of judgment and long-range understanding. Although he thought that Mussolini had certain political gifts that might come to fruition, he noted that fascism "had its origin in the city mobs" and that Mussolini's international project for "the combating of Bolshevism . . . arose out of imitating the enemy and is therefore full of dangers." As for Hitlerism, Spengler had contempt for the Nazi belief in "race purity" and called the term "grotesque." His interview with Hitler at Bayreuth in 1933 disappointed him, and the newly installed Chancellor soon had no use for him either. After the publication of The Hour, public attacks against Spengler were followed by censorship of the work and the banning of his name from the German press. Refusing to participate in the Nazi debasement of German thought, Spengler broke with the Nietzsche Archive in 1935 and with its presiding figure, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who, to her "great grief," was "informed that you are taking an attitude of strong opposition to the Third Reich and its Führer, and that your departure from the Nietzsche Archive, which sincerely reveres the Führer, is connnected with this." She goes on to say that she has "experienced your speaking with great energy against our highly honoured new ideal," and, in his introduction to Arthur Helps' edition of Spengler's letters, A. M. Koktenek remarks that Spengler's "repugnance" to Hitler dates "from the days of the Munich Putsch in 1923," that "one is struck by the fate that befell so many of Spengler's correspondents," and that it is an open question "whether Spengler, if he had lived longer, would have escaped from Hitler's executioners. His connection with many proscribed men involved the death penalty."
The Hour of Decision alone held dangers for its author. As one ardent Nazi follower wrote to him, "Like almost all of us young Germans, I have rejoiced in this year of Hitler's leadership, and it surprises (not to say shocks) us that you do not mention this man at all in your book, and obviously seem to regard him as a quantité negligeable." Apparently, Gunther Gründel also resented being treated as a minimus by the renowned historian, since he ends his letter by noting that Spengler did not reply to "my polite congratulations on your fiftieth birthday or the dissertation I once sent you" and that he will regard himself "as having a free hand" if Spengler does not respond. In a note on this threat, Helps observes that "Spengler did not answer this letter" and that Gründel subsequently attacked him in print. Coupled with Gründel's vulgar display of self-importance and mock politesse was the unspoken accusation that Spengler was not only a traitor but an apostate as well. As Gründel remarked, Spengler had spoken in The Decline and again in The Hour of an "organic transition from the era of the masses to aristocratic Caesarism," yet The Hour nonplussed him, since Spengler did not proclaim National Socialism as the destiny that Gründel said his "logic demands."
Spengler's "logic" demanded no such thing. Although his predictions of a coming Caesar seemed to be in accord with Nazi rhetoric (and even more with Mussolini's), The Hour veered off in the opposite direction. Spengler had indeed spoken eloquently of the "Prussian" spirit both in this work and in Prussianism and Socialism (1920), but he drew a sharp line between its code of values and the nihilism of all modern mass movements, and in The Hour he warned the nation that in revolutionary times such as Germany was now facing, "Sound ideas are exaggerated into self-glorification by fanatics," and a leader who "thinks and feels as a product of the mass" will be treated by history "as a mere demagogue." Hitler's anonymous presence in the work underscores Spengler's view of his character and political origins, for, during the postwar crisis of the 1920s, all sides were thinking and feeling "as a product of the mass." As Spengler saw it, Germany was bent on finding a strong-man to satisfy its chaotic and unprincipled demands: "Everyone wrote to tell his future dictator what to do. Everyone demanded discipline from other people, because he was incapable of disciplining himself."
Taking a stand against this descent into license, Spengler was chiefly concerned with what a leader might be rather than what he would do, and what Spengler wanted above all for Germany was a man who had been shaped in the "Old-Prussian 'style'" of honor, loyalty, self-discipline, and statesmanship, qualities that might possibly provide a "foundation" for Germany to persevere and be "slowly trained for its difficult future." In his understanding, "Prussianism" was neither a slogan nor a program but "a very superior thing which sets itself against every sort of majority- and mob-rule; above all, against the dominance of the mass character." He was well aware that England and France held a very different view of the Prussian model; and even today, long after Simone Weil refuted the idea of an "unchanging Germany," the word "Prussian" can still evoke the idea of "absolute command and obedience" (2) and the old belief that a deep-rooted streak of ruthlessness runs through German history. What mattered to Spengler, however, was not the politics of the word but what he meant by it as "soul discipline," for which "a great educational effort is essential," particularly now, when "The battle for the planet has begun." Gründel and his "young Germans," their ears ringing with Hitler's fantasies, thought they were hearing an echo of their master's voice; yet they also doubted the reliability of a thinker who seemed to be speaking their language yet had nothing but scorn for "the levelling out of brains," the belief "that we carry within us a new order," and above all scorn for the mob's hatred of the individual, whereby all those "who think for themselves, are felt to be enemies." It did not take long after the publication of The Hour for those who "rejoiced in this year of Hitler's leadership" to conclude that Spengler was not one of them.
With the banning of his book and public ostracism, Spengler might well have felt the ring closing in on him and, more importantly in his eyes, another ring closing around Germany as the nation fell under the spell of a leader that he had recently warned against in The Hour of Decision, a creature of "the herd-feeling," with no sense at all that Germany must be "slowly trained for its difficult future." Indeed, the exact opposite was taking place, for Hitler was rapidly perverting the "Old-Prussian 'style'" into an instrument of demagoguery, terror, and national self-destruction.
Spengler's public life ended soon after the appearance of The Hour, which was also the moment of Hitler's triumph. He continued to maintain his scholarly contacts and pursuits, and more than one person must have remarked, as a Prince Pückler did in a letter to Spengler, that there was "now in public an incomprehensible, anxious, silence" about his works, "which are nevertheless to be found in every house that I know."
One can only guess at the strains under which Spengler was living. He had often been in poor health and died of a heart attack before he reached his fifty-sixth birthday in 1936. "It is noteworthy," writes Koktenek, "that letters which might have harmed Spengler in the Hitler period, certainly after June 30, 1934, were destroyed by him and, after his death by his heirs." In none of the letters in the Helps edition does Spengler indicate any fears for his own safety, although, in a letter to Josef Goebbels, in which he turns down Goebbels' request for a timely article before the national elections, he says that he is willing to consider writing "on important occasions of foreign policy" but only if Goebbels can use his influence to end "the unmeasured attacks to which I have been subjected recently in certain organs of the national Press," in particular "two articles . . . in the Kreuzzeitung, in which I was described, among other things, as a traitor to my country." Given the official silencing of Spengler that soon went into effect, one can assume that Goebbels concurred with the editor, if he was not, in fact, the gray eminence behind the articles himself. From the evidence that remains, it seems fairly certain that Goebbels and lesser propagandists sought to exploit Spengler's celebrity status so that he would become, as Gründel wrote, "the chief crown witness for National Socialism." Nevertheless, four years earlier Spengler had provided ample evidence for them to suspect that he would be of doubtful value to their project.
Spengler did indeed have something to dread, but it was not Orwell's utopian "prospect of a world of free and equal human beings." In a lecture delivered in Hamburg in 1929 titled "Germany in Danger," he warned of the nation's perilous position at home in a revolutionary time, and in The Hour he expanded his warnings to include internal and external threats to the west itself. His clarity and prescience are evident on the very first pages of the book, in which he makes a brief but comprehensive judgment about the destructive nature of Germany's National Socialists: their mania for propaganda and persecution and dangerous illusion "that they can afford to ignore the world or oppose it," thus bringing the nation to the point where "We stand, it may be, close before a second world war." Twelve years after the publication of the work, Germany lay in ruins.
As for the regime of the Soviet socialists, which he described in 1933 as the world's great instructor in "propaganda, murder, and insurrection," Spengler had predicted its fall as early as The Decline; and in The Hour he made another strikingly accurate prediction that neither its crimes nor disappearance would have any effect in later decades on masses of westerners, who would continue to denigrate their institutions, carry on campaigns for one fantasy of world reform or another, ally themselves with colonial demagogues, and remain wilfully blind to the storm of events that was heralded by the Great War, which "was but the first flash and crash from the fateful thundercloud which is passing over this century." As Spengler wrote in The Hour, "It would make no difference if the voice of Moscow ceased to dictate. It has done its work, and the work goes forward of itself."
Even more remarkable than their accuracy is the fact that Spengler made these forecasts in the earliest years of Soviet and Nazi rule. In effect, he was writing a history of the future, in whose predictive value he had complete confidence. By contrast, he had nothing but scorn for the "cowardly optimism" of western intellectuals, opinion-makers, and their followers, whose
wish-picture of the future is set in place of facts . . . This type of mind is obsessed by concepts - the new gods of the Age - and it exercises its wits on the world as it sees it. "It is no good," it says; "we could make it better; here goes, let us set up a program for a better world!" . . . Those who doubt it are narrow reactionaries, heretics, and, what is worse, people devoid of democratic virtue: away with them! In this wise the fear of reality was overcome by intellectual arrogance, the darkness that comes from ignorance of all things of life, spiritual poverty, lack of reverence, and, finally, world-alien stupidity - for their is nothing stupider than the rootless urban intelligence.
Spengler's character sketch of yesterday's "rootless urban intelligence" is a living portrait of the left today, which agitates unceasingly on behalf of its deranged, utopian schemes, even for the reform of the planet's atmosphere, and at the same time shuts its eyes to the murderous history of twentieth-century dictatorships and the terror campaign of a new and global Islamic jihad. In this latest grotesque spectacle of "world-alien stupidity," the left attacks every attempt to counter the threat, whose danger signs were already clear to Spengler in 1933 when he remarked on the "great success" of the Islamic drive to supplant "the Christian missionary" in Africa, "penetrating in these days as far as the Zambesi in Nyassaland. Where a Christian school stood yesterday, a mosque stands tomorrow . . . and the Christian priest is suspected above all because he represents a white ruling race, against which Mohammedan propaganda, political rather than dogmatic, directs itself with cool decision." A similar jihadist drive persists to this day, only this time directed "with cool decision" on a planetary scale. Like other passages in The Hour, this thumb-nail sketch of an alien and hostile intelligence has even greater force now than it did in its time, yet it also catches a mood of anxiety that was in the air at the turn of the century and eerily recalls the penultimate line in the opening paragraph of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds: "Yet across the gulf of space . . . intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us."
Spengler said as much in the sphere of actualities when he turned from the ambitions of Germany's political "fanatics" to the "ruling herd" further east "called the Communist Party" and the ascendancy of Japan, all of which he saw as portents of a "mighty destiny" that would be "far more terrible than the ages of Caesar and Napoleon."
Had Spengler been writing fiction, The Hour of Decision might have been regarded, like The War of the Worlds, as imaginative writing of the first order; but as he was bringing his earlier observations on "world-fear" into his discussions on modern mass psychology, drawing painful conclusions about "the universal dread of reality," and confronting readers with "the relentless course of things, senseless chance, and real history striding pitilessly through the centuries" (in a voice emanating from Nazi Germany, no less), the work was buried in obscurity, and Spengler became a kind of ghost in our midst, figuratively walking the battlements of the western world, like the armored ghost of Hamlet's father at Elsinore, each one a disturbing reminder of a recent war, a portent of yet another war, and a voice of outrage over recent shameful deeds: in Hamlet, the imminent second war between Norway and Denmark and the wedding triumph of the king's brother and assassin, "that incestuous, that adulterate beast"; and, in The Hour of Decision, the First World War, the League of Nations ("that swarm of parasitic holiday-makers on the Lake of Geneva") and "The Fascist formations of this decade," which "will pass into new, unforeseeable forms." In 1922, he had sensed "the quiet, firm step" of Caesarism on the move, and in The Hour he was convinced that "Caesar's legions are returning to consciousness."
Except for a few scattered readers, Spengler's final work has fallen into the world's collective memory hole, and The Decline has fared only slightly better, yet the force of his central idea is more pronounced than ever and can be felt in wide-ranging public discussions on threats to western institutions. His name, on the other hand, appears in print more frequently than one might suppose and remains with us as the emblem of "Spenglerian gloom." It is as though 1984 and The Trial had enjoyed a brief but dazzling success and then had died on the shelves, leaving behind a disturbing view of the modern world and the ominous terms "Orwellian" and "Kafkaesque."
The demise of his reputation would not have troubled him, however, for Spengler believed that his ideas would live even if his works went unread. Like his contemporaries Franz Kafka and Blaise Cendrars, who experienced life and literature in the same breath, Spengler saw himself as a philosopher with the spirit of the times pulsing in his veins. Kafka made a similar observation about August Strindberg when he learned that his fiancé Felice Bauer was attending "a regular course of lectures . . . And lectures on Strindberg at that! We are his contemporaries and his successors. One has only to close one's eyes and one's own blood delivers lectures on Strindberg." As Spengler remarked in "Pessimism?" (1921), his aim in The Decline "was to present an image of the world to be lived with, rather than to devise a system for professional philosophers to brood over," and in The Hour he wrote with characteristic certainty that "I offer no wish-picture of the future, still less a program for its realization . . . but a clear picture of the facts as they are and will be. I see further than others." This was not a boast but a practical assessment of his gifts, yet, in his preface of 1917, he also insisted that his world view belonged to his generation and shared a common characteristic with every epoch-making idea, which "is only in a limited sense the property" of its author.
Despite his ventures into public life, Spengler was a deeply private man who lived with his vision continually before his inner eye, and, although he challenged critics who labeled him a "pessimist," what held his attention above all was the decline itself, which he regarded as the expression of a crisis in the soul of western culture. Kafka had come to the same conclusion in 1921 when he wrote to Max Brod of "the frightful inner predicament of these generations." It was a predicament that he also found within himself, having absorbed, as he writes somewhere, all the negative tendencies of the age. Spengler's world view similarly bears the combined stamp of his generation and his personality. In his preface of 1922, he writes that a genuine philosopher recapitulates his times not only in his work but also in his life and that a thinker does not invent the truth of his age "but rather discovers it within himself. It is himself over again." In one of the best observations ever made about Spengler, Koktenek remarks that the German historian Leopold von Ranke
once said he would like to exclude his own personality. Not so Spengler. He himself is there in every line he writes. . . . Observe how many subjective feelings are expressed in his writings! One is conscious of the whole gamut, if one may so express it, of the emotional theme.
Unlike Kafka, however, who found release in imaginative literature, Spengler survived "the misery and disgust of these years" (3) by diving into the entire record of human experience - history, mathematics, politics, the sciences, religion, philosophy, economics, and the arts - all of which he wove into a work that is at once encyclopedic, soulful, and severe in its attempt to see a way through "the frightful inner predicament of these generations."
Steve Kogan was a Professor of English for over thirty years at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in the City University of New York. He holds a Ph.D. in English (Columbia, 1980).
(1) The Russian religious thinker Nikolai Berdyaev was a particularly astute reader of The Decline, which first appeared in Germany in 1918. Spengler completed a second volume in 1922 and a revised first volume one year later. The English translation, by Charles Francis Atkinson, was published by Alfred A. Knopf, the first book in 1926, the second in 1928. Spengler's last work, The Hour of Decision, appeared in Germany in 1933 and in an English translation one year later, also by Atkinson and also published by Knopf. In almost all instances, citations of a philosophical or cultural-historical nature are taken from The Decline and those that concern World War I and its aftermath from The Hour. Titles such as "Destiny and Causality" and "Symbolism and Space" refer to chapters in The Decline. Citations from Spengler's correspondence are taken from The Letters of Oswald Spengler: 1913-1936, trans. and ed. Arthur Helps, with an introduction by A. M. Koktanek, Knopf, 1966. The original version of my essay is fully documented. My bibliography is available on request.
(2) Simone Weil, "The Great Beast: Some Reflections on the Origins of Hitlerism" (1939-40), Selected Essays, trans. Richard Rees, Oxford University Press, 1962, pp. 95-96. Weil's critique of the resurging rhetoric about "eternal France" and "unchanging Germany" before World War II appears toward the beginning of the essay, pp. 91-101.
(3) Spengler's words from his preface of 1922 echo his letter to Hans Klöres on December 18, 1918, in which he speaks of his "disgust and shame over recent ignominious events." Helps lists them as "The military collapse, the abdication of William II, the proclamation of a Bavarian Free State, and the Armistice."