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DER UNTERGANG DES ABENDLANDES: UMRISSE EINER MORPHOLOGIE DER WELTGESCHICHTE. BY OSWALD SPENGLER. Munich: Beck, v. I, "Gestalt und Wirklichkeit," 1918; v. II, "Welthistorische Perspektiven," 1922.
OSWALD SPENGLER, the greatest of the modern prophets of doom, completed "The Decline of the West" in the spring of 1917. In the preface to the first edition he did not conceal his feeling that he was giving the world one of its most challenging and monumental books. He believed that he had written not just a philosophy of our time, but "the philosophy of our time." The First World War was in its third year when this unknown mathematics teacher in Munich wearily laid down his pen. He had a right to be weary. He had written more than 500,000 words. All that he wrote later was evidently the product of a man who already had poured his immense energies into his one main work.
1917 and 1942. No two other years in the history of the world so justify comparison. Today once more, as then, the world's destiny is in the balance; once again the march of German legions is shaking the earth to its foundations. But we look at Spengler today not alone because the times have reawakened our curiosity in the audacious predictions he then made. In 1942, "The Decline of the West" is more than an antiquated best seller. The similarity of atmosphere between this destiny-laden year and the year in which he wrote has brought about a current renaissance of Spenglerism among writers on politics and philosophy and, what is even more important, among the youth.
Once again the young people in our colleges and universities are turning to Spengler in search of light on the questions which everyone asks but no one seems able to answer. Spengler's book, when it was first published, made a deep impression on German youth. Its main conceptions and prophecies spread like wildfire, burning their way into the souls of that war-torn generation. Now once again academic youth, this time in America, is drawn to the flame. Students buy and read "The Decline of the West" without being instructed to do so. Reports from a number of colleges and universities confirm the belief that this is a general trend. Since Spenglerism is a flame which burns and can cripple souls we are justified in reëxamining it twenty-five years after. Indeed, we have a duty to do so.
When Spenglerism originally invaded America in 1926 it was greeted with both enthusiasm and horror. One reaction or the other seems inevitable at a first encounter with Spengler's work. He believed that " to write history is to write poetry." The usual first impression of his book is, therefore, that of a work of art, something causing an emotional reaction. It was as such rather than as a scientific treatise which must be based upon indisputable facts that "The Decline of the West" was received by the American public.[i] In succeeding years, moreover, American scholarship has dealt with Spengler only superficially. As a result, Spenglerism was often adopted without a critical understanding of its fundamentals. This, in turn, produced a whole army of gloomy prophets, many of whom know little more about Spengler than what the title, "The Decline of the West," seems to indicate.[ii]
The superficial, uncritical, purely emotional reaction to Spengler's work has produced a diluted form of Spenglerism which critics have gone so far as to call " a mortal danger facing western culture." This mortal danger, Professor P. A. Sorokin of Harvard University writes, "is noisily proclaimed every day by college presidents and professors, by ministers and journalists, by statesmen and politicians, by members of men's and women's clubs. In this diluted form it has become a stock feature of our leading dailies." It is indeed true that many more or less professional prophets have found in the slogan, "The Decline of the West," a snugly fitting garment for their fears, emotions and nebulous philosophies. But Spengler is too great for this kind of disciple; like Revolution, he devours his own children.
German science before the advent of Hitler fully recognized the danger of "The Decline of the West" to a disillusioned generation. Scholars in a number of fields studied Spengler critically and, by refuting many of his statements of fact, prevented his doctrine from becoming, in Germany at least, a convenient text for foggy prophets. Their efforts were facilitated by the appearance on the scene of Hitler and Rosenberg, who out-Spenglered Spengler in offering seductive prophecies for those who wanted to have foretold for them the waves of the future.
The grave errors which German scholarship revealed in Spengler's work affect its value as a tool for the historian; they do not necessarily discredit it as a philosophical treatise. A critical analysis of the basic facts that underlie Spengler's conclusions leads, however, to a rejection of one of his most important and fundamental conceptions, the conception of the "West." When one weighs carefully the factual statements upon which Spengler constructs his concept, one finds that they refer only to a limited cultural area. This realm which he calls the West is not the West as we understand it. It is limited distinctly to Germany, and not even the whole of Germany, but only those parts of it which can be labeled (spiritually rather than geographically) as the Germanic North. England and America, even France and Italy, are not within the boundaries of the West which he covers in his factual material and comparisons. They apply only to his Nordic German world, and all his attempts to make them valid for the entire West are speculation and poetry. If we would read Spengler with more attention to the facts on which his theses are founded, we would see how right he was in calling his work a "German philosophy."
However, the circumstance that Spengler bases his conclusions on facts which are true only of the Faustian-Nordic-Germanic sphere does not necessarily mean that he was wrong in expanding his speculations beyond the boundaries of a German philosophy. Was he right or wrong? It is indeed a vital question.
Let us enter this gloomy realm of Spengler's Abendland, where prevails an insatiable Faustian longing for the immense and the infinite. In this West there is no historical division among ancient times, middle ages and modern times. Culturally it is a unified world, independent of the past and uninfluenced by other worlds which have disappeared in the past.
In Spengler's poetical conception this culture is an organism like a plant. He sees all cultures as plants, deeply rooted in the mother soil, from which they grow and blossom and in which they fade and die. They die, and others, in this eternal cycle of birth and death, rise in sublime aimlessness, to grow and die in their turn. It is when a culture has passed its zenith that the era of civilization begins. Civilization is the fate, the end and débris of cultural history. Specifically, the West entered into this last gray, darkening phase only after the French Revolution. Now mankind, deadly tired, prepares for the end, for winter and death.
Spengler consciously eliminated free man as a creative factor from his philosophy of history as plant morphology. He sees man's destiny as predetermined. The eternal laws of necessity make him an object of fate like all other earth-bound life. Spengler's disciples considered that the promulgation of the freedom of man as an historical conception was a capital crime.
Today, twenty-five years later, we are prepared to judge this better than the reader of "The Decline of the West" was when it first appeared. For in these twenty-five years we have seen the rise of the earth-bound religions which degrade man: the religion of Hitlerism with its deification of blood and soil, and its sister religion of "living space." Both of them breed war and transform men into machines of war.
Spengler's philosophy of history was like the religion of Hitlerism and its possible heir, the geopolitical weltanschauung of militarism, in that all sprang from German soil. So deeply rooted are they in this soil that they have utterly neglected the creative mind of free man. But in spite of the close relationship between Spenglerism and Hitlerism, Spengler did not greet Hitler with enthusiasm. He saw in him "the drummer," and he regarded Hitler's first disciples as chattering fools who would be unable to win the only victories that counted, victories in war. Their outbursts reminded him of men singing to keep up their courage in the darkness of the forest. When Spengler died on May 8, 1936, his contemptuous appraisal of the Nazi revolution had not yet been refuted by history.
Even if Spengler was right in calling his work a "German philosophy," was he right in calling it "the philosophy of our time?"
The present writer believes that the human area which Spengler calls the Faustian-Nordic-German sphere, and whence he drew the factual foundations of his doctrine, is the only one where the Spenglerian conception of a human type fits -- the type, that is, which gave up its freedom to become an earth-bound slave of Hitlerism. Perhaps it is too daring to draw a distinct line between a German world, to which this philosophy of historical predestination applies, and the rest of the human world of the West, in which the liberty of man is more than a political phrase. Such a conception means that there is, in fact, no absolute theory of history (which is true Spenglerism), instead that history's aspect is conditioned by the cultural sphere in which it develops. It means that "The Decline of the West" is a typical child of the German spirit of the twentieth century. But it is not the philosophy of our world as a whole so long as the spiritual forces outside of Germany are living forces.
Are they or are they not strong enough to remain living forces? That is the question which is to be decided in our time. The final judgment, therefore, has not yet been passed as to whether Spengler was right in speaking of the downfall of the West rather than of the downfall of his own Northern World. And the decision will not be made by abstract "destiny." It depends on the choice of free men in the lands where free men still exist and guide the fate of their respective nations. If our youth should succumb to the seductions of Spenglerism and view the vital crisis of our time as the death agony of the West, then indeed Spengler would have been right in seeing his philosophy as more than a German philosophy. Our duty is to read him as Goethe wanted "The Sufferings of Werther" to be read when he found that the decadent weakness of its hero so infected and disturbed the minds of youth: "Be a man and do not follow him."
In evaluating Spengler's work we must take into account that his prophecies are visions in terms of centuries; twenty-five years are not enough to permit a final appraisal. Another difficulty in attempting a critical analysis of them arises from the fact that many of them were not made in his monumental work but appear only in his political pamphlets. Here it is not the same man who speaks, but often only the voice of the politician urging German youth to surrender themselves to military power.
Spengler's conception of Caesarism foreshadowed the growth of the totalitarian religions of our time. He translated Plato's ideas on the relationship of tyranny and democracy into the language of the twentieth century. The dictatorship of money had used democracy as its political weapon. At the end of the First World War Spengler saw the doom of this money-power age. New forces, the forces of Caesarism, of which the multitude becomes willingly the passive object, were arising from the soil of democracy. The scene was set for the final battle between the forces of financial plutocracy and the purely political will-toorder of the Caesars.
The rise of the Caesars would be facilitated by political chaos within the states. A few energetic men would fight their way to power and would come to embody the destinies of entire peoples and cultures. The political party would disappear as a form; party programs would wither away and the masses would look to the master alone for guidance. The politics of mind and money would be swept away, leaving the powers of blood and "race" to resume their lordship.
These Caesars who would rule the world when all the creative forces of culture had disappeared would be war-keen men. The appearance of one, Spengler wrote in 1917, would suddenly raise a powerless nation to the very peak, and his death would plunge a mighty nation into chaos. "They are for war, and they want war," he added. "Within two generations it will be they whose will prevails . . . ."
This age, in the Spengler thesis, would be one of gigantic conflicts, a period of contending states. "In these wars of theirs for the heritage of the whole world," he wrote, "continents will be staked, India, China, South Africa, Russia, Islam called out, new technics and tactics played and counterplayed. The great cosmopolitan foci of power will dispose at their pleasure of smaller states -- their territory, their economy and their men alike -- all that is now merely province, passive object, means to end, and its destinies are without importance to the great march of things."
Between these catastrophes of blood and terror the cry would rise up for the reconciliation of peoples and for world peace. But this longing only makes those who accept it a ready prey to others who do not.
Spengler saw with exciting insight how the wars of the future would be conducted. As early as 1924, for instance, he pointed out that a new era was dawning in which great "strategical highways" would decide wars. The whole system of sea power would be shaken by these new power lines which would connect gigantic land masses and would make possible an entirely new kind of continental blockade. And in 1933 he wrote that the development of air power raised the question whether the day of the dreadnaught had not altogether passed, and he predicted that aircraft and tanks would outweigh armies of infantry.
This prescience enabled Spengler to see Germany in a new rôle. He visualized a Germany of "Prussian Socialism," in which citizens gave uncompromising service to the state. This Germany might play a decisive part in history because of her geographical location on the borders of Asia ("the world's most important continent") and also because the German people might be young enough to make decisions and to formulate and solve the problems of world history, while other peoples, old and rigid, remained on the defensive. "Attack holds the greater promise of victory."
But he did not dare actually to predict such a victory for the German Caesars. Time and again he asked sorrowfully whether Germany, where political changes so often have been made in a state of "emotional drunkenness," would see the vital fact that she was not a self-sufficient and isolated island. Fate would mercilessly submerge her if she failed to perceive her true relationship to the world.
It is still too early for a final appraisal of this vision. Spengler's failure to appraise fully the immediate weight of the Nazi revolution may have enabled him to see with greater clarity the more permanent evolution which was taking place behind the scenes in the great drama of German Caesarism: the fall of the tyrant and the rise of army rule. Even though Hitler may have won the first rounds against the war lords of the army, history may once again follow the course of Spengler's predictions.
The prophets of a "managerial revolution" suggest, if they do not explicitly state, that Spengler's gloomy picture of the downfall of the West applies to a wider area of Euro-American culture and civilization, that the self-destruction displayed in Hitler's world is but a forerunner of our own destinies. The same suggestions appear in the writings of those sociologists who believe firmly in a common destiny for the whole of Europe and America (not to speak of the professional prophets of doom who pretend to ride the waves of the future). There is not space here to deal with them. Instead we shall review some of the Spenglerian prophecies which dealt with the West beyond the Faustian Nordic-German sphere. We shall see that it was here that the shortsightedness of the prophet began.
Spengler's view of the Anglo-Saxon powers was clouded by prejudices and biases which he shared with most Germans of his time. He attacked the widespread belief in the existence of certain politically gifted peoples; apparent political talent in the masses is nothing but their confidence in their leadership. The English as a people seemed to him as narrow and injudicious in political matters as any other nation. What they did possess was a tradition of confidence in their rulers. He was fascinated by his conception of the English ruling class. This class had developed its aims and methods, he believed, independently of the people. For centuries it had seen the world as its prey. But its power, he thought, was declining. Its character was revealed in the resolution passed in 1933 by the Oxford Union, "the largest student club of the most aristocratic university in England," that "this House will under no circumstances fight for King and Country."
With such a ruling class, asked Spengler, how could England hope to maintain her power? The English nation, he said, was no longer spiritually and racially young enough and strong enough to fight with confidence. The Mistress of the Seas would sink into oblivion along with the dreadnaught. England's youth had become tainted with Bolshevism and had gone in for eroticism as a sport. The Commonwealth could no longer be held together by such a decadent "mother country." What would prevent Canada and Australia from throwing sentimentality to the winds and turning to the United States for better protection against Japan? The English could not survive in the new world because they had been organized around the contrast between wealth and poverty. In distinction, the rising force of Prussianism was built upon the principles of command and obedience.
Looking across the sea, Spengler saw an even darker shadow of decadence over the United States. "Rather a region than a state," he termed it in 1917.[iii] The parallelism of President and Congress, he predicted, would become unworkable in time of real danger and would give way to such "formless powers" as had long been familiar in Mexico and South America. American politics would become the tool of the great domestic economic powers, the manufacturers' associations and the workers' unions -- "unless indeed they find a real political politician as leader."
As the years passed, Spengler's opinion of the United States became even more gloomy. He saw an increasing trend towards "the progressive Bolshevization of the masses in the United States," and detected "a Russian style in their thinking, hopes and wishes." In 1933 he asked: "Will Chicago become the Moscow of the New World?" He saw no center of resistance to these trends in a country "which has no yesterday, and perhaps no tomorrow." The resemblance to Bolshevist Russia seemed to him far greater than was generally realized. There was the same extent of space which excluded any possibility of successful attack from without. This made the "state" dispensable and prevented the development of true political thinking. Life would therefore be organized exclusively on an economic basis and so would lack depth; it would not contain the elements of the historical tragedy which had formed and educated the souls of western peoples through the centuries. Religion in America, he felt, had become a sort of entertainment, and war was treated as a new sport. A standardized type of American had been developed and anyone who departed from it or criticized it would be ostracized.
But Spengler also saw another side of this undisciplined and stateless community, formed of sprawling, unscrupulous and dissolute population, drifting from city to city in pursuit of the dollar. He saw rising a sea power which might become stronger than England's and could control the two oceans. The United States had become a leading factor in international politics. It would be forced to think and act in accordance with truly national policies or it would disappear. But he seemed to be skeptical as to the ability of Americans to develop this conception of their nation. He looked at the millions who did not belong to the "ruling Anglo-Saxon type," the "foreign-thinking proletariat" with its "home in Chicago." He had read of the mighty underworld, of secret societies, of the state-like power of trusts, of revolting farmers in Iowa and the masses of the unemployed, "of which the majority are not 100 percent American," and he wondered which way this land would go. Spengler felt that he was not close enough to America to speak of its future, but obviously he saw darkness rather than light. He even asked whether it might not disintegrate into separate states, such as the industrial Northeast, the farm region of the Middle West, the Negro states of the South, and the area beyond the Rockies.
These thoughts indicate the bewilderment and uncertainty with which Spengler viewed the Anglo-Saxon world. He did not see, because he could not understand, the living forces in England and America. He did not realize the possibilities which they contained of growth and development. More than all, he did not guess that in the hour of danger and destiny all the dormant positive qualities of these countries would awaken and create the factors of nation and state which he truly said would be necessary for their survival. When they became aware of their danger, the English-speaking nations raised forces of resistance against the poison which had threatened to make them helpless before Hitler's attack. Spengler was blinded by what he believed to be the decadence of the Anglo-American world. His basic mistake was to fail to realize that the infected bodies of nations may develop antitoxins strong enough to save their lives.
The most powerful parts of Spengler's vision are his forebodings about the future of Russia. He did not dare actually to predict that future.[iv] When the first part of "The Decline of the West" was published in 1918, the last page contained the contents of the second volume, which was to appear later. The concluding chapter was to be entitled "Russia and the Future." But when the second volume was published, this chapter had not been written. Of all Spengler's predictions, the one he was unwilling to make might have been the most significant.
In the second volume of "The Decline of the West" he speaks of the burning of Moscow, "that mighty symbolic act of a primitive people." Then came the Holy Alliance and Russia's participation in the Concert of Europe. The Russian people, whose destiny it should have been to live for generations still to come without history, were thus forced into an artificial and false history whose spirit their primitive souls could not comprehend. In this townless land with its primitive peasantry, false and unnatural cities grew like ulcers. One day they might vanish with the morning mists. Jesus had seen such cities in Galilee; St. Peter must have felt this way when he set eyes on Imperial Rome. This falseness was felt by the true Russians. They developed a deep-rooted hatred against Europe -- and to them "Europe" was all that was not Russia. Spengler saw depths of religious feeling under the surface of this Russian world. He saw the young Russians of 1914, dirty, pale, excited and always absorbed in metaphysics, like the Jews and early Christians of the Hellenistic cities whom the Romans regarded with irony, disgust and secret fear. The Bolshevists, he said, did not see the power of this Russian Christianity; Christ was to them only a social revolutionary like themselves. The real Russian was a disciple of Dostoyevski, although he may not have read him. In Spengler's vision the next thousand years of Russia would belong to Dostoyevski's Christianity.
Russia was to him the promise of a culture which was dawning as the evening shadows grew longer and longer over the West. The schism between the spirit of Russia and the spirit of the West could not be sharply enough delineated. However deep the spiritual, political and economic contrasts among the British, Germans, Americans and French, they were all alike when compared with Russia. The depth of the Russian soul was beyond our understanding: we could not grasp Russia's formidable hatred of the West. Western civilization had become a city civilization. The true Russian was a peasant, and he remained a peasant even when he became a scholar or an official. The man of the West carried the city with him into the country: the Russian took the village into his city. The Russian worker would never become a part of the masses like the worker in Manchester, Essen or Pittsburgh; he would remain the runaway reaper or ploughman. That explained his hatred of the new society which tried to be American in technique but Russian in soul. It had created a nihilism which was directed against all forms of Western culture.
In "The Hour of Decision" (1933) Spengler used his basic conception of Russianism to draw conclusions as to the part Russia would play in world politics in the future. Now he pictured clearly the Asiatic face of Russia: Russia had been reclaimed by Asia, and Germany had taken up her old position as the barrier against Asia. The Vistula River and the Carpathian Mountains had become the frontiers of Asia. Again he stressed the similarity between America and Russia. Would the two come to an understanding which would determine the destinies of the world? This he felt was not beyond the bounds of possibility. Russia was unconquerable from the outside; distance was a political and military force which had not yet been overcome. An offensive from the west had become senseless, Spengler wrote in 1933; it would be a thrust into empty space. And to make his conception of the future Russia even more mysterious and fearful, he included that country in a "colored" world, the yellow-brown-black-red masses of which would threaten the very life of the white Powers. He foresaw a world revolution by the colored races, among which he included Africans, Indians, the mixed breeds of the Americas, the Islamic nations, the Chinese, the people of India, the Japanese and the Russians. Such a revolution might shake the foundations of a world upon which the curtain had risen for the final act of the tragedy of the West.
We have followed Spengler's course to the nebulous heights to which it arose as well as to the murky depths into which it descended. We have tried to evaluate his conception of the downfall of the West by calling attention to the limitations in his thinking which enabled him to write the German philosophy of the twentieth century but not the philosophy of our time. We have discussed his daring but shortsighted view of the Anglo-American world, and we have reported, without any attempt at criticism, what he saw developing on the vast steppes of Russia.
Spengler's mere outline of the future of Russia makes us aware of the immensity of the problem it presents even though he does not solve it for us. Today the legions of Hitler and Stalin are shedding their life blood for possession of the "Heartland" of the world. Let us hope that when our statesmen sit down after victory to consider the reconstruction of the world they will have learned from the German prophet of doom that it is Russia which will present the greatest difficulties. Then they will avoid the mistake of regarding the East European scene as a sideshow; they will realize that the rulers of the Heartland may rule the world.
We cannot know yet who those rulers will be. But let us take heart from the fact that in our time men are fighting belatedly but stubbornly for freedom. The prophet of Caesarism neglected one vital truth, the truth that "Men, at some times, are masters of their fate." Sometimes. In our times?
[i] The first volume, "Form and Actuality," was published in New York by Knopf in 1926, and the second volume, "Perspectives of World-history," in 1928. The same publisher brought out a revised two-volume edition in 1931, and a one-volume edition in 1939. Quotations in the present article are from the last-named.
[ii] Incidentally, "Der Untergang des Abendlandes" should have been translated as "The Downfall of the West." The editor of the American edition defends the inaccurate translation rather unconvincingly.
[iii] Hitler used almost the same words when he told Rauschning (cf. "The Voice of Destruction," p. 70) that " the American people is not yet a nation in the ethnographical sense; it is a conglomerate of disparate elements."
[iv] It is particularly necessary here to differentiate between Spengler's main work and the political pamphlets in which he did include more concrete prophecies on Russia.