Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, published in two volumes in 1918 and 1923, was one of those books of ideas which seem to have been read by almost everyone in postwar Europe. Warning of the decline of Europe and of his native Germany, unless that country abandoned democracy for what Spengler termed “Caesarism”, a movement which he in the book’s second edition associated with Mussolini’s dictatorship in Italy, Spengler’s fans included unsurprisingly any number of fellow post-democrats from Heidegger to Mosley.
But the 100,000 or so sale of his book also took into to the hands of admiring philosophers (Wittgenstein) and mythologists (Joseph Campbell). Arriving from Trinidad in England in 1932, the novelist, political activist, and future historian of slave revolt and Caribbean cricket, CLR James immersed himself in two big books, Spengler’s The Decline, and Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution: “What Spengler did for me was to illustrate pattern and development in different types of society. it took me away from the individual and the battles with the kind of things that I have learned in conventional history.”
Of the 1932-3 (“Bodyline”) Ashes series, during which English bowlers sought to intimidate Australian bowlers into giving up their wickets through fast deliveries aimed at their bodies, James wrote that it was the ideas of Spengler taking a form on the sporting field: “it was the violence and ferocity of our age expressing itself in cricket”.
Style matters. Spengler’s history was rich in ideas. He believed that the story of humanity could be told through eight major civilisations, each lasting for a thousand years: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Mesoamerican, Classical, Arabian and European. Each had been characterised by cycles of emergence, youth, ageing and collapse. For each, decline took the form of the dominance of the cities over the countryside, and the accumulation of wealth, and popular calls for democracy. The last was, for Spengler, a particular insult. Why should the ordinary people, who were so obviously inferior, be permitted to rule?
Ben Lewis, a researcher at the University of Leeds, has written an intellectual biography of Spengler based on a close reading of The Decline, alongside Spengler’s other works from 1918-33, during which that former schoolteacher and wartime invalid became an intellectual luminary, was invited to speak throughout Europe, and sought to influence activists and political leaders at all points on Germany’s heterogeneous far-right.
A number of themes emerge from Lewis’s book. The first is that Germany was, like Europe and America today, a society in which tens of thousands of conservatives had abandoned democracy without necessarily having a clear alternative future in mind. People today know the end-point: fascism and Hitler. But the way to that destination was paved by countless others who were either not fascists or despised the Nazis.
Spengler advocated for what he called “Prussian socialism”, by which he appears to have meant that a Prussian King would rule Germany, a Prussian aristocracy dominate her army and her economy, and that everyone else would live in a situation of poverty, but equal poverty in relation to these rulers glorified by their traditions, and their embodiment of the past. Those politics brought him into conflict with Hitler’s forward-looking reactionaries.
So, in relation to the question which dominates the English-language discussion of Spengler (“Was her a fascist?”) the short and unrevealing answer is surely that No, he was not a fascist, rather the harbinger of the Nazis. He was a different kind of non-democrat.
Ben Lewis, whose previous studies have dealt with figures from the German-speaking left (Kautsky, Zetkin, the attempts by Bolsheviks and Mensheviks to address German Communists), is intrigued by Spengler’s serious attempts to win allies with the German SPD, especially in his first volume which was published in 1918, when it seemed that all of German society was turning to the left. Spengler read the socialist press and sought to win allies by playing up the constructive, patriotic role played by the socialists’ 1914 vote for war credits.
Like any number of writers down the ages, Spengler had the fantasy of converting his literary success into influence. He wanted a relationship with party leaders in which they would provide the numbers and he would sketch out the strategy. In 1923, that meant the reactionary right. After 1930, he had no choice but to relate to the Nazis.
Spengler’s best links were to two groups of people immediately besides the Nazi inner core. The first were Prussian generals, the likes of Kurt von Schleicher, the last Chancellor before Hitler. The second were Nazi dissidents, such as Gregor Strasser the recently dismissed former leader of the NSDAP party organisation in North Germany.
After 1933, Spengler met with Hitler. The meeting was a success, and Hitler promised the writer a second meeting. In print, Spengler argued that the party needed a second revolution to crush the organisation’s unruly plebeian mass base and restore its politics to what it should be, a party of militant conservatives. In the 1934 Night of the Long Knives, Hitler did indeed destroy the institutional basis for the party’s working-class members (the SA). However he also killed Schleicher and Strasser, Spengler’s closest remaining allies. For the remaining two years of his life, Spengler neither published any further books, nor made any further attempt to influence from behind the scenes. The second meeting with Hitler never took place.
Britain in 2022 is in something like our own Weimar moment, with many conservatives rapidly giving up on democracy, preferring the fantasy that somehow an all-wise autocratic ruler would be better placed to rule in the chaotic circumstances of our time, characterised as they are by war, disease, and the inability of the economic to deliver increased living standards in an age of climate breakdown. Before Niall Ferguson, Peter Hitchens, or Douglas Murray – and more successful than any of them – was Spengler. Our legal system is being retrofitted around the gamble that, this time around, you can make a transition away from democracy without causing mass suffering.
However the Spengler that emerges from Lewis’s closely-argued and persuasive book is in equal parts a mystic, a self-publicist, a keen-eyed critic of liberal humbug, a romantic and a fool, who in helping to persuade millions of people to choose the paths of blood and iron, protected nothing of the past he was trying to save.