Oswald Spengler was born in Blankenburg (Harz) in central Germany in 1880, the eldest of four children. As a young man, his family moved to the university city of Halle, where he studied Greek and Latin, mathematics, and the natural sciences. It was during this time, he also began to study the writings of Goethe and Nietzsche.
After graduation, he taught mathematics, physical sciences, history, and German literature. However, his heart was not truly in it, and upon receiving a large inheritance in 1911, he left the profession for good.
It was about this time that Spengler began to interpret contemporary events as parts of a more “global” trend. He saw the encirclement of Germany by the Entente powers, the increasing polarity of those nations, and a string of international crises as signs that Europe was headed off the cliff. His theory was only confirmed as the Great War of 1914-1918 saw unprecedented bloodshed and destruction throughout Europe. Spengler’s major work, The Decline of the West, has as its main point that historical civilizations (including our own) share a common life cycle and that there are readily identifiable patterns within each.
The book was an immediate success, first in Germany and then throughout Europe. Although professional historians dismissed the work as unscientific and amateurish, the man in the street found the themes easy to understand. Furthermore, as Germany struggled economically in the aftermath of the War, the decline of the West seemed to be at hand.
The Decline of the West has as its basic premise that world history is not linear but cyclical. Spengler used examples drawn from the ancient Egyptians, the Chinese, the Mayans in Mexico, the Greeks, and Western civilization. He saw human history as the perpetual record of the rise and fall of unrelated High Cultures and believed that he and his contemporaries were witnessing the twilight of European or Western civilization.
Spengler believed in the superiority of the “white” man. His 1931 book Man and Technics is an account of how throughout history the West has been unique in creating advanced technology. In it he warns of a future where the outer “colored” races eventually use that very technology against the West to destroy Western civilization. He was pleased with the National Socialist takeover in Germany in 1933 and had even voted for Hitler in the 1932 election. This is not to say that he was in total agreement with Nazi racial doctrine. He criticized their failure to reach out to all Europeans in the coming battle (as he forecast it) against the foes of white men. He met Hitler in the summer of 1933, after which Spengler declared himself “unimpressed” with the Fuhrer’s capabilities. In fact, his later work, Die Jahre der Entscheidung, chided the Nazis for “going it alone” against the world in the soon-to-come battle against the West’s enemies.
Spengler did not survive to see the Second World War that he had predicted. He died on May 8,1936 of a heart attack in Munich. His views regarding the rise and fall of civilizations live on, however, as his major works have been both referenced and criticized by other historians and philosophers since 1922. Spengler’s ideas have forced us to take another look at all cultures, including our own, with an eye toward how we can perhaps prevent the failure of our own civilization.
- Hughes, H. S. (1952). Oswald Spengler, A critical estimate. New York: Scribner.
- Spengler, O. (1918). The decline of the west. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Spengler, O. (1934). The hour of decision. New York: Alfred A Knopf.