2. Oswald Spengler’s “Der Untergang des Abendlandes”

The main interwar world historical synthesis in the German language was Der Untergang des Abendlandes (translated to English as The Decline of the West),[1] of which the two volumes were published in Germany in 1918 and 1922.[2] The work applied a cyclical approach, portraying world history as the account of the rise, boom, and decline of cultures. Its author was Oswald Spengler (1880-1936). Spengler was born in central Germany in an emotionally dysfunctional middle-class family.[3] From his childhood days on, Spengler suffered from anxieties and suicidal thoughts. His heavyhearted character may have been the early root of the pessimistic world-outlook that came to characterize Der Untergang des Abendlandes. In order to escape his cold family life, the young Spengler fled into a world of books. He read everything from literary works and philosophy, to science and history.

During his days as a student at the gymnasium in Halle, he particularly devoted himself to the works of Goethe, and the cultural pessimistic philosophers Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. After graduating from the gymnasium, he went to study natural sciences and mathematics at the University of Halle, where he also took courses in history, philosophy, politics, and economy. After having spent some time at the universities in Berlin and Munich, he returned to Halle to write a doctoral thesis on the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. But any academic ambitions received a hard blow when in 1903 Spengler failed to pass the oral exam that was required to get his PhD. In 1904, he passed the test on his second attempt. In the following years, Spengler worked at gymnasia in different cities across Germany, where he taught a very wide range of courses, from mathematics to history. Yet, Spengler felt that the position of teacher was beneath him. In 1911 he quite this profession and moved to Munich to pursue the literary ambitions that he had harboured since his youth.

In Munich, however, Spengler reached the conclusion that the age of great poetry and drama was over. Spengler felt that he lived in an age of transition.[4] The medium of the novel, he believed, was not able to express his vision of the demise of the old cultural Germany of the nineteenth century, as it was replaced by the new imperial Germany of the twentieth century. Practical affairs – related to international economic competition, technological advances, and global imperialism – had taken place of cultural expressions. He let go of his plans to write a literary work, and focused on a historical production instead.

Some years after the publication of Der Untergang des Abendlandes, Spengler recalled that his idea for writing his masterpiece dated back to the Agadir Crisis of 1911. In that year, the Germans had sent a gunboat to Moroccan Agadir, which stood under French political influence, in order to test the strength of the French-British Entente and to pressure France to hand over some of its African possessions. The German move greatly backfired. It resulted into growing British suspicion of German diplomatic policy, a strengthening of the British-French alliance, and a further diplomatic isolation of the German Empire. After Agadir, Spengler felt that war could no longer be prevented. Allegedly, this insight motivated him to write a work on the coming crisis of the German Empire, which soon expanded into a general historical philosophy of the rise and decline of civilizations. However, it has also been suggested that Spengler identified the Agadir Crisis in retrospect as the moment that he conceived the idea for Der Untergang des Abendlandes, but that it rather was his impression of the demise of Munich as a cultural city that inspired his philosophy of cultural decline.[5]

In Der Untergang des Abendlandes Spengler discusses world history from about 3500 BCE, when the first true civilizations – or ‘cultures’ – emerged, up till his own age. Spengler’s cyclical world history focuses on the rise and decline of eight separate cultures. These are the West European-American, Graeco-Roman, Arabian, Indian, Babylonian, Chinese, Egyptian, and the Mexican culture. Of these eight, Spengler spends most pages on merely three: the West European-American, Graeco-Roman, and the Arabian culture, which Spengler refers to as the Faustian, the Apollonian, and the Magian culture respectively. Spengler blames this unbalance on the narrow focus of historical scholarship, which had failed to produce sufficient studies to the other five great cultures of world history.

Spengler argues that each culture passed through the cycle of childhood, youth, manhood, and old age, before passing away and disappearing from history. Each culture was defined by its unique soul, and fulfilled its “destiny” (its Schicksal) by going through its lifecycle. The birth of cultures was a mystic affair that lay beyond historical explanation. Cultures were preceded by an a-historical period, a primitive natural state, in which humans could not exercise influence. After the demise of a culture, there once again dawned an a-historical age from which one day a new culture might spring.

The cyclical perception of history frequently occurred in earlier historical texts, which stemmed from a wide range of times and places, so in this respect there cannot be pointed out a clear predecessor to Spengler’s work. The roots of his intellectual inheritance are clearer when it comes to his concept of culture, which is modelled after the idea of “national spirit” of Herder and Hegel.[6] Spengler understood culture as Hegel defined the nation: as the “totality of spiritual expression”. This perception entails that all human thought, and the actions that come from them, can be reduced to the essence of its respective culture.

As a follower of Hegelian philosophy, Spengler rejected the Enlightenment philosophy that stressed the generality of humankind over the particularity of nations and cultures. Spengler also dismissed other common aspects of Enlightenment philosophy. He followed Nietzsche in his rejection of the idea of progress, which Spengler deemed Eurocentric. Further, he isolated Classical Antiquity from contemporary Western culture. According to Spengler, Antiquity had not shaped later Western societies as was claimed by the humanists and Enlightenment thinkers. Spengler identified the rise of a new dynamic ethos around 1000 CE that characterized the medieval and the modern West, but was completely foreign to the static and unhistorical spirit of the ancient world. Hence, Spengler divided Antiquity on the one hand, and the High Middle Ages and the modern West on the other, over the Apollonian and the Faustian culture respectively.

Typical for German philosophy in the spirit of Herder and Hegel, Spengler defined himself as an anti-positivist. He refuted the historical analysis of cause-and-effect because in that line of reasoning everything follows and nothing is original.[7] Such an understanding of history was in conflict with Spengler’s notion of cultures as autonomous historical phenomena. However, although he denied the existence of historical laws, his historical philosophy had a similar outcome of that of positivist historians: the ability to predict future events by extrapolating analysis of the past into the future. Rather than by causal analysis, Spengler strived to gain insight into the “logic of time” by the study of historical analogies. As past cultures had all developed along the same trajectory, it was possible to gain knowledge about the lifespan of future cultures.

Despite his distinction between causal analysis and analogy, there appears to be a paradox in Spengler’s combined recognition of the uniqueness of cultures on the one hand, and the grand structure of world history that allows foreseeing the grand lines of future developments on the other. This follows from the remarkable feature that Der Untergang des Abendlandes combines the particularistic Hegelian historicism with the universal scope of Enlightenment historiography.

Der Untergang des Abendlandes was a grand success.[8] The pessimistic message of the approaching demise of the ‘Faustian’ culture caught on in a German society that had just suffered defeat in a horrendous war, and in the early 1920s was confronted with unprecedented hyperinflation. In the early 1930s, Spengler was offered the prestigious Lamprecht Chair in Cultural and Universal History at the University of Leipzig, and also was approached by the University of Marburg, but he declined both opportunities for a belated academic career.

His decision to stay out of academic historical scholarship may have been motivated by Spengler’s self-identification as a (political) philosopher rather than a historian. His work also had a strong political purpose. Spengler hoped to serve German statesmen with providing a vision of the future, which may have helped the advance of the German nation. Spengler considered the writing of Der Untergang des Abendlandes as an alternative service to the fatherland, as he had been relieved from military service in the War due to his poor health. So despite the global scope of his work, Spengler still had nationalistic interests at heart.

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[1] Oswald Spengler, Der Untergang des Abendlandes: Umrisse Einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte. Erster Band, Gestalt und Wirklichkeit (1918; repr., München: Oskar Beck, 1923). Oswald Spengler, Der Untergang des Abendlandes: Umrisse Einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte. Zweiter Band, Welthistorische Perspektiven (München: Oskar Beck, 1922). Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, volume 1 and 2, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950).

[2] Spengler later stated that he had finished most of the manuscript in 1914, but that the outbreak of the war, which was of huge significance to his historical philosophy of cultural decline, required him to revise his writings, delaying the publication of the first volume with four years.

[3] The biographical information of Oswald Spengler is based on: Frits Boterman, Oswald Spengler en Der Untergang des Abendlandes. Cultuurpessimist en politiek activist [Oswald Spengler and Der Undertgang des Abendlandes. Cultural pessimist and political activist] (Assen, Maastricht: Van Gorcum, 1992), and: John Farrenkopf, Prophet of Decline. Spengler on World History and Politics (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001).

[4] Farrenkopf, Prophet of Decline, 12.

[5] Boterman, Oswald Spengler, 14-22. Boterman suggests that Spengler sought credibility for his claim that his cyclical analysis of history made it possible to predict future events by claiming that he had foreseen the outbreak of the war in 1911.

[6] Farrenkopf, Prophet of Decline, 29-31.

[7] Ibid., 41.

[8] Ibid., 13.