Introduction

 


We leave it to the reader to 'read between the lines' of this critical introduction which appeared with this edition of the Essays.

Little remains today of the great international Oswald Spengler vogue of the 1920ís and 1930ís. The title of his two-volume magnum opus, The Decline of the West, [1] crops up now and again in a variety of contexts, but one rarely meets people who have actually read the work or even portions of it. It could be argued, of course, that even in the heyday of the Spenglerian cult the readers of his "outline of a morphology of world history" were few, and those who grasped what it was really about, still fewer. The cult was borne, it seems fair to say, by a widespread hunch that the all too palpable ills of the modern world had been accurately diagnosed by this Teutonic doctor-prophet. Spengler, the man of the perpetual scowl, became a whole generationís symbol for the futility of human endeavor. While scholars were busy ferreting out the many errors of detail that The Decline of the West contains, news of the bookís somber message reached intellectual and pseudo-intellectual circles in all the Western countries and beyond. To participate in the futility rite it was quite unnecessary to have read the book; the mere mention of Spenglerís name sufficed to express a whole mood of resignation in the face of the impersonal cruelty of history.

(1. Volume I appeared in 1918, Volume II in 1922.)

The reasons for the eventual passing of the Spengler cult are, I think, readily apparent. It is not that the historical methodology demonstrated in The Decline of the West has been conclusively judged fallacious or outmoded; historians and philosophers of history still attend to the developmental and "morphological" problems that the book presents, and, while unqualified assent is rare among the professionals, Spengler continues to be a respectable subject for scholarly inquiry. Nor is it true that the intellectual mood in the Western world has changed so fundamentally from that of thirty and forty years ago as to preclude an audience for Spenglerís message. If anything, the pessimism, genuine or feigned, that put his name on thousands of lips in the twenties and thirties has increased rather than subsided since his death. The modern totalitarian state, World War II, the emergence of Soviet Russia as a major world power, the ever more rapid advance of technology -- all of which he (however vaguely) foresaw and predicted in his writings -- ought to have assured his continued relevance in the Nuclear Age.

Aside from the appearance of other writers of imaginative power who have replaced him as spokesmen for the predicament of modern man, a number of external events have obscured Spenglerís significance for the past thirty years. There is, first of all, the fact of his death in 1936, at a time when the regime in his own country had effectively muzzled him and when the remainder of the Western world had once again begun to suspect all things German. Spenglerís disagreement with the National Socialist dictatorship, documented in his booklet Years of Decision (published in the summer of 1933), evoked a government ban on the mention of his name in the German press, and caused Spengler, already a physically broken man, to join the rank of the "inner emigration." Abroad, the image of the brooding Geschichtsphilosoph became linked with the frightening display of political cynicism personified by Hitler, the "new Caesar." The irony of this mistaken image has never been fully realized, despite the efforts of scholars in Germany and elsewhere to recount and explain the last years of Spenglerís life to postwar readers.

In fact, little has ever been known outside of Germany of Spenglerís active concern with contemporary politics from the time of publication of The Decline of the West to his death almost twenty years later. Judging from the paucity of translations of his shorter writings, one is inclined to conclude that the world was content with the notion of Spengler as the hermit genius, the Great Mind who stood utterly aloof from his time and society in order to formulate inspired and profound theories of universal history. Perhaps the present selection of essays and speeches will help to alter this oversimplified portrait.

Once the overwhelming success of the first volume of The Decline of the West had become apparent, Spengler was frequently asked to write or speak on historical and political subjects. The prediction of future developments was, after all, part of the method propounded in The Decline of the West. Cultures, he had theorized there, had risen and fallen in the past; once it is established precisely where our own contemporary Western culture stands within the recurring pattern of birth, flowering, and decay, it will be possible to foretell, at least in general terms, the course of history in the time that remains at our disposal. Thus, when consulting him for pronouncements on future events and trends, the countless German and foreign clubs, newspapers, institutions, and individuals were in effect simply taking him at his word, and there is some evidence, in his correspondence as well as in the pronouncements themselves, that he was not entirely displeased by his role of popular oracle. And, like all famous oracles, he was most often deliberately vague and ambiguous when telling the future.

Readers may be surprised to discover in these shorter works that Spengler gave such attention to the political events of his day. In the opening paragraph of Prussianism and Socialism, written about a year after the first volume of The Decline of the West was published, we learn that the subject matter of this political tract comprises "at least in part, the germinal stage in the development of the entire thesis" of the larger work. And, indeed, the argument of Prussianism and Socialism reaches deep into past history in order to explain present-day affairs and to help predict the political configurations of tomorrow. The genuine worry and indignation that informed this pamphlet-length statement make it all the more plausible to seek the roots of his broader "morphological" view of world history in his own conservative, nationalistic political beliefs.

Spengler was not entirely comfortable, however, when speaking out on contemporary politics -- not because he lacked convictions on such matters as parliamentary democracy and laissez faire economics, but because the language of the political pamphlet was simply not his idiom, and because the hectic pace of topical discussion did not appeal to his scholarly disposition. "I have just finished my political piece [Prussianism and Socialism]," he wrote to a friend in November, 1919, "under extreme nervous pressure, for each page had to be delivered immediately to the printer. I am not a born journalist, and consequently I wrote out 500 pages of rough draft in four weeks, and then started paring in order to get 100 printed pages of readable German. I realize now how I ought to work, and shall never again accept any assignment that carries a deadline with it." Rather than eliminate the signs of haste that the essay does have, I have translated it in its entirety, for I believe that the reader is entitled to sense the urgency that produced this statement from Spengler during the early months of the Weimar Republic. Together with the later booklet, Years of Decision, it remains his most important and detailed political manifesto.

The essay "Pessimism?" written in 1921 as a corrective to the simplistic popular response to the first volume of The Decline of the West, attempts to clarify the meaning of that best-selling book by distinguishing its method and approach from those of the academic historians and philosophers. To the many war-weary Europeans who harkened to the term Untergang as a confirmation of their worst fears for Western culture, Spengler offered in this short essay a somewhat brighter, if no less doggedly fatalistic view of our cultureís prospects. The issue of pessimism touches on the paradox of all deterministic world views, including Spenglerís: If the course of future events is inevitable, what use is there of trying to change it? Spenglerís answer here makes, I think, more emotional than logical sense. "No, I am not a pessimist," he writes. "Pessimism means not to see any more tasks. I see so many unsolved tasks that I fear we shall have neither time nor men enough to go at them." The essay closes with what is perhaps Spenglerís most ominous prediction: "We Germans will never again produce a Goethe, but indeed a Caesar." A dozen years later, the prophet cringed at the fulfillment of his prophecy.

The speech on "Nietzsche and His Century" was delivered before invited guests at the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar on October, 1924. Throughout the 1920ís Spengler maintained cordial relations with Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, the sister of the deceased philosopher. It was not until 1935, when Frau Förster-Nietzsche had invited Hitler to the Archive and blatantly compromised her brotherís heritage by supporting the Nazisí ideological claim to Nietzsche as a "precursor," that Spengler, already benumbed by the official proscription of his Years of Decision, severed his connections with this irresponsible woman. The 1924 speech contains perceptive and even profound comment on Nietzscheís life and works, but also a great deal that is pertinent to the speaker himself. Nietzsche, he said in this Weimar lecture, "was the first to experience as a symphony the image of history that had been created by scholarly research out of data and numbers -- the rhythmic sequence of ages, customs, and attitudes." Anyone familiar with Nietzscheís writings will readily concede the truth of what Spengler said here, but he will also notice that the point is quite patently overstated. Clearly, Spengler was ascribing to one of his most important spiritual guides an achievement that was in fact his own.

The occasion for which Spengler composed his lecture entitled "The Two Faces of Russia and Germanyís Eastern Problems" was a convention of captains of industry in the heart of the Ruhr district in early 1922. Before audiences such as this one he naturally indulged his penchant for oracular predictions; his remarks about "the coming religion of Russia" might strike us as amusing now that we have witnessed Soviet developments from Stalin to Khrushchev and beyond. But there is enough depth and insight to this speech to make one suppose that Spengler may, allowing the Russian people enough time to come to itself, carry the day after all.

His observations "On the German National Character," written as an occasional piece for the first issue of the annual periodical Deutschland in 1927, are as accurate and illuminating as any writings I know on the same subject. Though his nationalist temperament shines through the discussion, he evidently saw more clearly than most of his contemporaries the inherent ambiguity of German habits and tendencies.

The final item is Spenglerís cabled response to a poll of famous personages conducted by the American magazine Hearstís International-Cosmopolitan, and appeared in the January, 1936 issue (in barely adequate translation). The question put to the participants in this timely symposium was the following: "Will it finally be brought home to us that it is human nature itself, with its racial antagonisms, economic rivalries, and territorial squabbles, that will keep plunging us forever into wars? Or is there reason to believe that some day the peoples of the earth may abolish wholesale killing and enjoy their lives in security and peace?" Replies were received from nineteen prominent personalities, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Mark Sullivan, Amelia Earhart, Dean Inge, General "Billy" Mitchell, Havelock Ellis, Mahatma Gandhi, and Lin Yu Tíang. Their opinions ranged from Gandhiís and Mrs. Rooseveltís guarded optimism to the stark and hopeless picture drawn by Spengler.

This brief statement on world peace was Oswald Spenglerís final public pronouncement. It is ironic that he should appear as the sole representative of Germany in the Cosmopolitan symposium; American readers will have interpreted his biologistic language and his remarks on the "colored peoples" as yet another manifestation of Nazi ideology. Unknown to the rest of the world was Spenglerís frustration and sorrow over what was happening in his country. The oracle spoke, and was forever silent.



Home