Oswald Spengler

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Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler (Blankenburg am Harz May 29, 1880May 8, 1936, Munich) was a German historian and philosopher, although his studies ranged throughout mathematics, science, philosophy, history, and art. He is best known for his book The Decline of the West 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 the World War I and interwar period supported of German hegemony in Europe. Spengler voted for the National Socialists in 1932 and hung a swastika flag outside his Munich home, and the National Socialists held Spengler as an intellectual precursor. But Spengler's pessimism about Germany and Europe's future, his refusal to support Nazi ideas of racial superiority, and his anti-Nazi work the Hour of Decision won him ostracism after 1933.

Contents

Biography

Oswald Spengler was born in 1880 in the Blankenburg am Harz mountains, the eldest of four children, and the only boy. His family was typically conservative German small bourgeoisie. His father, originally a mining technician, and coming from a long line of mineworkers, was a post office bureaucrat. His childhood home’s emotional atmosphere was reserved, and the young Spengler turned to books and the great cultural personalities. He never enjoyed perfect 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 in high school, studying Greek, Latin, mathematics and natural sciences. Here too he developed his affinity for the arts – especially poetry, drama, and music. 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 a career in academia. In 1904, he received his Ph.D., and in 1905 suffered a nervous breakdown.

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Professor Spengler

Scholars remark that his life seemed rather eventless. 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 extra money.

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 WWI. During the war, his inheritance was largely invalidated because it was invested overseas, thus Spengler lived in genuine poverty for this period.

When Decline came out in 1917, it was a wild success because of the perceived national humiliation and economic depression 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 larger world-historical processes. But it was widely successful outside of Germany as well, and by 1919 was 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 (or understood) it. Historians took umbrage at the 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.” Spengler’s obscurity, intuitionalism, and mysticism were easy targets, especially for the Positivists and neo-Kantians who saw no meaning in history. Wittgenstein, however, shared Spengler’s cultural pessimism.

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 Europe. It was poorly received because of its anti-industrialism.

Despite voting for Hitler over Hindenburg in 1932, Spengler found the Führer vulgar. He met Hitler in 1933 and remained unimpressed after a lengthy discussion, saying that he didn’t want “heroic tenor but a real hero.” He publicly quarreled with Alfred Rosenberg, and along with his pessimism and remarks about the Führer, he earned himself isolation and public silence. He would further reject the offers from Goebbels to give public speeches. However, Spengler also became a member of the Academy of Germany in this year.

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Spengler in his later years

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 himself disagreed with their unscientific biological doctrines and anti-Semitism. He also viewed the Nazis as too narrowly German, and not European enough to lead the fight against other civilizations.

He spent his final years in Munich, listening to Beethoven, reading Molière and Shakespeare, buying several thousand books, and collecting primitive 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 will probably no longer exist.” He died of a heart attack on May 8, 1936, three weeks before his 56th birthday.

Influence

Spengler has, amongst others, influenced Georg Henrik von Wright in his writing about our 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."

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.

Spengler's works

Further reading

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  • Twilight of the Evening Lands: Oswald Spengler - A Half Century Later by John F. Fennelly (New York, Brookdale Press, 1972) ISBN 091265001X
  • Biographical Dictionary of the Extreme Right Since 1890 edited by Philip Rees, 1991, ISBN 0130893013
  • Prophet of Decline : Spengler on world history and politics by John Farrenkopf (Publisher: Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, 2001) ISBN 0807126535 ISBN 0807127272
  • 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

External links

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