Oswald Spengler

Oswald Spengler
Born Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler
(1880-05-29)29 May 1880
Blankenburg, Duchy of Brunswick, German Empire
Died 8 May 1936(1936-05-08) (aged 55)
Munich, Bavaria, German Reich
Alma mater University of Munich
University of Berlin
University of Halle
Era 20th century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
Main interests
Philosophy of history

Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler (29 May 1880 – 8 May 1936) was a German historian and philosopher of history whose interests included mathematics, science, and art. He is best known for his book The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), published in 1918 and 1922, covering all of world history. Spengler's civilization model postulates that any civilization is a superorganism with a limited and predictable lifespan.

He wrote extensively throughout World War I and the interwar period, and supported German hegemony in Europe. His other writings made little impact outside Germany. In 1920 Spengler produced Prussiandom and Socialism (Preußentum und Sozialismus), which argued for an organic, nationalist brand of non-Marxist socialism and authoritarianism. Some Nazis, including Joseph Goebbels, saw Spengler as an intellectual precursor, but he was ultimately ostracized by the Nazis in 1933 for his pessimism about the future of Germany and Europe, 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 (the Duchy of Brunswick, the German Reich) as the second child of Bernhard (1844–1901) and Pauline (1840–1910) Spengler.[1] Oswald's elder brother was born prematurely (eight months) in 1879, when his mother tried to move a heavy laundry basket, and died three weeks after birth. Oswald was born ten months after his brother's death.[2] His younger sisters were Adele (1881–1917), Gertrud (1882–1957), and Hildegard (1885–1942).

Oswald's paternal grandfather, Theodor Spengler (1806–76), was a metallurgical inspector (Hütteninspektor) in Altenbrak.[3] Oswald's father, Bernhard Spengler, held the position of a postal secretary (Postsekretär) and was a hard-working man with a marked dislike of intellectualism, who tried to instil the same values and attitudes in his son.

On 26 May 1799, Friedrich Wilhelm Grantzow, a tailor's apprentice in Berlin, married a Jewish woman named Bräunchen Moses (whose parents, Abraham and Reile Moses, were both deceased by that time). Shortly before the wedding, Bräunchen Moses (ca. 1769–1849) was baptized as Johanna Elisabeth Anspachin (the surname was chosen after her birthplace—Anspach).[4] The couple gave birth to eight children (three before and five after the wedding),[5] one of whom was Gustav Adolf Grantzow (1811–83)—a solo dancer and ballet master in Berlin, who in 1837 married Katharina Kirchner (1813–73), a nervously beautiful solo dancer from a Munich Catholic family;[6] the second of their four daughters was Oswald Spengler's mother Pauline Grantzow.[7] Like the Grantzows in general, Pauline was of a Bohemian disposition, and, before marrying Bernhard Spengler, accompanied her dancer sister on tours. She was the least talented member of the Grantzow family. In appearance, she was plump and a bit unseemly. Her temperament, which Oswald inherited, complemented her appearance and frail physique: she was moody, irritable, and morose.[8]

When Oswald was ten years of age, his family moved to the university city of Halle. Here he received a classical education at the local Gymnasium (academically oriented secondary school), studying Greek, Latin, mathematics and sciences. Here, too, he developed his propensity for the artsespecially poetry, drama, and musicand 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. His private studies were undirected. In 1903, he failed his doctoral thesis on Heraclitus (titled Der metaphysische Grundgedanke der Heraklitischen Philosophie, The Metaphysical Fundamental Thought in Heraclitean Philosophy, and conducted under the direction of Alois Riehl) because of insufficient references, which effectively ended his chances of an academic career. He eventually received his Ph.D. from Halle on 6 April 1904. In December 1904, he set to write the secondary dissertation (Staatsexamensarbeit) necessary to qualify as a high school teacher. This became The Development of the Organ of Sight in the Higher Realms of the Animal Kingdom[9] (Die Entwicklung des Sehorgans bei den Hauptstufen des Tierreiches). It was approved and he received his teaching certificate. In 1905 Spengler suffered a nervous breakdown.

Biographers report his life as a teacher was uneventful. He briefly served as a teacher in Saarbrücken and then in Düsseldorf. From 1908 to 1911 he worked at a grammar school (Realgymnasium) in Hamburg, where 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 survived on very limited means and was marked by loneliness. He owned no books, and took jobs as a tutor or wrote for magazines to earn additional income.

He began work on the first volume of Decline of the West intending at first to focus on Germany within Europe, but the Agadir Crisis of 1911 affected him deeply, and he widened the scope of his study:

At that time the World-War appeared to me both as imminent and also as the inevitable outward manifestation of the historical crisis, and my endeavor was to comprehend it from an examination of the spirit of the preceding centuries—not years. ... Thereafter I saw the present—the approaching World-War—in a quite other light. It was no longer a momentary constellation of casual facts due to national sentiments, personal influences, or economic tendencies endowed with an appearance of unity and necessity by some historian's scheme of political or social cause-and-effect, but the type of a historical change of phase occurring within a great historical organism of definable compass at the point preordained for it hundreds of years ago.[10]

The book was completed in 1914, but publishing was delayed by World War I. Due to a congenital heart problem, Spengler was not called up for military service. During the war, however, his inheritance was largely useless because it was invested overseas; thus he lived in genuine poverty for this period.

The Decline of the West (1918)

When The Decline of the West was published in the summer of 1918, it was a wild success.[lower-alpha 1] The perceived national humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and later the economic depression around 1923 fueled by hyperinflation seemed to prove Spengler right. It comforted Germans because it seemingly rationalized their downfall as part of larger world-historical processes. The book met with wide success outside of Germany as well, and by 1919 had been translated into several other languages. Spengler rejected a subsequent offer to become Professor of Philosophy at the University of Göttingen, 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 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 called the thesis "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 rejected the possibility that there was meaning in world history. The critic and aesthete Count Harry Kessler thought him unoriginal and rather inane, especially in regard to his opinion on Nietzsche. Ludwig Wittgenstein, however, shared Spengler's cultural pessimism. Spengler's work became an important foundation for the social cycle theory.


His book was a major success among intellectuals worldwide as it predicted the disintegration of European civilization after a violent "age of Caesarism", arguing by detailed analogies with other civilizations. It deepened the post-World War I pessimism in Europe.[11] German Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer explained that at the end of World War I, Spengler's very title was enough to inflame imaginations: "At this time many, if not most of us, had realized that something was rotten in the state of our highly prized Western civilization. Spengler's book expressed in a sharp and trenchant way this general uneasiness".[12] Northrop Frye argued that while every element of Spengler's thesis has been refuted a dozen times, it is "one of the world's great Romantic poems" and its leading ideas are "as much part of our mental outlook today as the electron or the dinosaur, and in that sense we are all Spenglerians".[13]

Spengler's pessimistic predictions about the inevitable decline of the West inspired Third World intellectuals, ranging from China and Korea to Chile, eager to identify the fall of western imperialism.[14][15] In Britain and America, however, Spengler's pessimism was later countered by the optimism of Arnold J. Toynbee in London,[16] who wrote world history in the 1940s with a greater stress on religion.[17]


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".[18]

In the second volume, published in 1922, Spengler argued that German socialism differed 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. The attempt 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" which would then use the weapons against the West.[19] 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 did not need a "heroic tenor [Heldentenor: one of several conventional tenor classifications] but a real hero [Held]". He quarreled publicly with Alfred Rosenberg, and his pessimism and remarks about the Führer resulted in isolation and public silence. He further rejected offers from Joseph Goebbels to give public speeches. However, Spengler did become a member of the German Academy in the course of the year.

The Hour of Decision, published in 1934, was a bestseller, but the Nazis later banned it for its critiques of National Socialism. Spengler's criticisms of liberalism[20] 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 pseudo-scientific 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 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.[21]

In his private papers, Spengler denounced Nazi anti-Semitism in even stronger terms, writing "and how much envy of the capability of other people in view of one's lack of it lies hidden in anti-Semitism!" and that "when one would rather destroy business and scholarship than see Jews in them, one is an ideologue, i.e., a danger for the nation. Idiotic."[22]

Final years

Spengler 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. In the spring of 1936 (shortly before his death), he prophetically remarked in a letter to Reichsleiter Hans Frank that "in ten years, the German Reich will probably no longer exist" ("da ja wohl in zehn Jahren ein Deutsches Reich nicht mehr existieren wird!").[23] He died of a heart attack on 8 May 1936, in Munich, three weeks before his 56th birthday and exactly nine years before the fall of the Third Reich.


When Malcolm Cowley in 1938 polled leading American intellectuals on the nonfiction book that had given them the greatest "jolt", Spengler came in fifth behind Thorstein Veblen, Charles A. Beard, John Dewey, and Sigmund Freud. He was tied with Alfred North Whitehead and ahead of Lenin and I. A. Richards.[24]

There are indications that interest in Spengler is being rekindled.[50][51][52]

Spengler's pessimism did not go unchallenged. In the 10 July 1920 issue of The Illustrated London News, G. K. Chesterton took issue with pessimists (without mentioning Spengler by name) 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."[53]

Answering Spengler's pessimism helped animate Arnold J. Toynbee's similarly themed work A Study of History. He was optimistic where Spengler was pessimistic. He expanded Spengler's theory into a fully cyclical one and replaced Spengler's "cultures" with nations or societies.[54]


See also


  1. The original Preface is dated December 1917 and ends with Spengler expressing hope that "his book would not be unworthy of the German military achievements".


  1. Preussische Jahrbücher v. 192, issue 93, Georg Stilke, 1923, p. 130
  2. Koktanek, Anton Mirko, Oswald Spengler in seiner Zeit, Beck, 1968, p. 10
  3. Koktanek, Anton Mirko, Oswald Spengler in seiner Zeit, Beck, 1968, pp. 3, 517
  4. Koktanek, Anton Mirko, Oswald Spengler in seiner Zeit, Beck, 1968, p. 5
  5. Awerbuch, Marianne; Jersch-Wenzel, Stefi (1992). Bild und Selbstbild der Juden Berlins zwischen Aufklärung und Romantik [Image and self-image of the Jews of Berlin between the Enlightenment and Romanticism] (in German). Berlin: Colloquium. p. 91.
  6. Koktanek, Anton Mirko, Oswald Spengler in seiner Zeit, Beck, 1968, p. 5
  7. Spengler, Oswald (2007). Ich beneide jeden, der lebt [I envy anyone who lives] (in German). Lilienfeld. p. 126.
  8. Fischer, Klaus P., History and Prophecy: Oswald Spengler and The Decline of the West, P. Lang, 1989, p. 27
  9. K. Stimely, "Oswald Spengler: An Introduction to his Life and Ideas", The Journal of Historical Review, Vol. 17, Institute for Historical Review, 1998.
  10. The Decline of the West v. 1, 1926, Alfred A. Knopf, pp. 46–47
  11. D. G. Bridson (2014). The Filibuster: A Study of the Political Ideas of Wyndham Lewis. A&C Black. p. 78.
  12. Ernst Cassirer; Anne Applebaum (1974) [1946]. The Myth of the State. Chelsea, Michigan. p. 289.
  13. Northrop Frye (2003). Northrop Frye on Modern Culture. University of Toronto Press. p. 305.
  14. Prasenjit Duara (2001). "The Discourse of Civilization and Pan-Asianism.". Journal of World History. 12 (1): 99–130.
  15. Neil McInnes (1997). "The Great Doomsayer: Oswald Spengler Reconsidered". The National Interest (48): 65–76.
  16. James Joll (1985). "Two Prophets of the Twentieth Century: Spengler and Toynbee". Review of International Studies. 11 (2).
  17. Levi, Albert William (1959). "History and Destiny: Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee." In Philosophy and the Modern World, Part II, Chap. IV, Indiana University Press
  18. "Patterns in Chaos". Time Magazine. 10 December 1928. Retrieved 9 August 2008.
  19. Hughes, H. Stuart (1 January 1991). Oswald Spengler. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 9781412830348.
  20. Tate, Allen (1934). "Spengler's Tract Against Liberalism," The American Review April 1934.
  21. "Spengler Speaks". Time Magazine. 12 February 1934. Retrieved 9 August 2008.
  22. Farrenkopf 2001, pp. 237–38.
  23. Bronder, Dietrich (1964). Bevor Hitler kam: eine historische Studie [Before Hitler came: a historical study] (in German). Pfeiffer. p. 25.
  24. John P. Diggins (1978). Thorstein Veblen: Theorist of the Leisure Class. Princeton University Press. p. 213.
  25. Tom Rockmore (1997). On Heidegger's Nazism and Philosophy. University of California Press. p. 219.
  26. Klagge, James Carl (2011). Wittgenstein in Exile. MIT Press. p. 166.
  27. Cather Studies. University of Nebraska Press. 1993. pp. 92–117.
  28. Manniste, Indrek (2013). Henry Miller: The Inhuman Artist: A Philosophical Inquiry. A&C Black. p. 10.
  29. Matthew J. Bruccoli; Judith Baughman (2004). Conversations with F. Scott Fitzgerald. University Press of Mississippi. p. 83.
  30. Scheick, William J (1975), "The Womb of Time: Spengler's Influence on Wells's Apropos of Dolores", English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920, 18 (4): 217–28
  31. Cormack, Alistair (2008). Yeats and Joyce: Cyclical History and the Reprobate Tradition. Ashgate. pp. 133–34.
  32. Ricardo Roque-Baldovinos, "The 'Epic Novel': Charismatic Nationalism and the Avant-garde in Latin America," Cultural Critique (2001) 49#1 58–83 esp p. 63
  33. Elkholy, Sharin N (2012). The Philosophy of the Beats. University Press of Kentucky. p. 208.
  34. Etulain, Richard W; Szasz, Ferenc Morton (2003). The American West in 2000: Essays in Honor of Gerald D. Nash. UNM Press. p. 165.
  35. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (2003). Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity. New York UP. p. 75.
  36. Frye, Northrop (2003). Gorak, Jan, ed. Northrop Frye on Modern Culture. U. of Toronto Press. p. 34.
  37. Frye, Northrop (1984). "New Directions From Old". Fables of identity: studies in poetic mythology. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. p. 54. ISBN 0-15-629730-2.
  38. Moss, John (1983). The Canadian Novel: A Critical Anthology. Dundurn Press. p. 77.
  39. Bhutto, Benazir (2008). Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West. HarperCollins. p. 234.
  40. James Blish (2005). Cities in Flight. Penguin. p. 313.
  41. Samuel T. Francis (Feb 2005) [September 1994], "Why Race Matters", American Renaissance
  42. Francis, Samuel (March 1995), "Prospects for Racial and Cultural Survival", American Renaissance
  43. Malcolm X (1992). By any means necessary (2 ed.). Pathfinder. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-87348-759-7. And one further comment is this: as I said, I don't know too much about Karl Marx, but there was this man who wrote The Decline of the West, Spengler— he had another book that's a little lesser known, called The Hour of Decision
  44. Franklin, Robert Michael (1990). Liberating visions: human fulfillment and social justice in African-American thought. Fortress Press. p. 99. ISBN 978-0-8006-2392-0.
  45. Young, William H. (2010). Ordering America. Xlibris. p. 407. ISBN 978-1-4535-1663-8. In The Hour of Decision (1934), Spengler predicted that class conflict would eventually be surpassed by racial conflict, a view adopted much later by Malcolm X
  46. Hardy, Stephan (2001), "Oswald Spengler et Gabrielle Roy: quelques pistes de lecture" [Oswald Spengler and Gabrielle Roy: some reading cues], Cahiers franco-canadiens de l'Ouest (in French), CA, 13 (2): 143–56
  47. (1/3) John Zerzan Interview for Yu Koyo Peya on YouTube
  48. Joseph Campbell (2011). Myths to Live By. Joseph Campbell Foundation. p. 48.
  49. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
  50. Borthwick, SM (2011). "Decline of Civilization: WB Yeats' and Oswald Spengler's New Historiography of Civilization". Comparative Civilizations Review. =MI, USA: ISCSC. 64: 22–37.
  51. McNaughton, DL (2012). "Spengler's Philosophy, and its implication that Europe has 'lost its way'". Comparative Civilizations Review. MI, USA: ISCSC. 67: 7–15.
  52. Farrenkopf, John (2001), Prophet of Decline: Spengler on world history and politics, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, pp. 1–290, ISBN 0-8071-2653-5
  53. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1989) [1920]. The Collected Works. Ignatius Press. p. 55.
  54. Hughes, H Stuart (1991). Oswald Spengler. Transaction Publishers. p. 140.
  55. Falke, Konrad. "A Historian's Forecast," The Living Age, Vol. 314, September 1922.
  56. Stewart, W. K. (1924). "The Decline of Western Culture," The Century Magazine, Vol. CVIII, No. 5.
  57. Mumford, Lewis (1932). "The Decline of Spengler," The New Republic, 9 March.
  58. Dewey, John (1932). "Instrument or Frankenstein?," The Saturday Review, 12 March.
  59. Vasilkovsky, G. "Oswald Spengler's 'Philosophy of Life'," The Communist, April 1932.
  60. Reis, Lincoln (1934). "Spengler Declines the West," The Nation, 28 February.

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