History and Crisis: The Legacy of Oswald Spengler

The Intellectual Legacy of Spengler’s Decline of the West

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     When the German historian Oswald Spengler published The Decline of the West between 1918 and 1922, the international community received his ideas with awe.  Spengler’s thesis that Western Civilization was undergoing its cultural death-stage sparked lively debate across Europe and the United States.  Many historians reject this thesis, and subsequently often overlook the intellectual impact of the work.  Because of this omission, there has been no extensive study of how Spengler’s views have been transmitted throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.  But the concerns he raises about the course of western civilization—especially urbanization, the growing difficulty of international relations, the rising influence of finance, and a fleeting sense of cultural identity—remain relevant in modern discussions.  To this end, I will argue that The Decline of the West and related literature by Spengler have had a lingering effect on European political and intellectual trends, especially among extreme anti-modernist circles.

     My research will examine how different reactionary intellectuals used Spengler’s works to advance their own beliefs, chiefly during the first twenty-year period after World War II.  I will begin by focusing on Spengler’s ideas about the “crisis” afflicting the western world, and putting his beliefs in the context of Later Imperial German society.  This process would investigate how Spengler defined “the West,” the nature of the crisis afflicting the western world according to him, and his proposed solutions for the crisis.  To improve my understanding of how Spengler’s thought has influenced twentieth century intellectual history, I will also read a copious amount of intellectual literature about his beliefs.

     Then, I will study the ways in which later intellectuals, who inspired the contemporary “New Right” in Europe and the United States, appropriated Spengler’s thought to advance their political and philosophical goals.  To do so, I will analyze the major works of Julius Evola, Francis Parker Yockey, and Georg Henrik von Wright.  These figures are cornerstones of modern reactionary movements throughout the West.  In at least the short-run, this recent wave of extremism will stay active throughout Europe and the United States.  It is crucial that we try to comprehend the historical development of this movement and study its intellectual roots.  By not building a solid awareness of the reach and nature of modern crisis ideology, we risk being powerless when it threatens our social unity once again.

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Fig. 1 (Top) – “The Last Day of Pompeii,” by Karl Bryullov (1830-1833)
Fig. 2 (Bottom) – Photograph of Oswald Spengler (n.d.)