Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), which was published a century ago, in the summer of 1918 became an instant literary sensation. It spoke to the sense of disenchantment that prevailed throughout Europe. It also expressed the widely held conviction that the centuries old ideals that had inspired Europe could not survive World War One, unscathed. Today, as we mark the centenary of the publication of this text it is important to note that despite massive changes that the world has undergone between 1918 and 2018, the powerful mood of cultural pessimism that Spengler evoked in his book continues to haunt western societies.
Published a few months before the signing of the Armistice, which led to the termination of World War One, The Decline of the West gave voice to the powerful mood of demoralisation, disorientation and loss of confidence of Europe’s elites. At the time, numerous commentators realised that World War One had fatally and irrevocably undermined Europe’s dominant position over global affairs. The realisation that after all the loss and suffering experienced during the War, Europe could not recover its hegemonic influence over the world order was shared by observers on all sides of the political divide. The Russian writer Maxim Gorki commented in 1917 that Europe had committed suicide.
The main reason why Spengler’s lament on the decline of the West became such a fashionable talking point in European salons was the forceful manner with which it expressed the widespread sense of terminus, which afflicted Europe’s elites. The intellectual climate that prevailed in the post-1918 interwar era was one that regarded doom-laden accounts of European decline as self-evident common sense. This intellectual climate was well summed up later, in 1936 by the sociologist Louis Wirth, who pointed to the ‘extensive literature which spoke of the “end”, the “decline”, the “crisis”, the “decay” or the “death” of Western civilisation. Spengler echoed this sense of terminus through a theory of historiography, which represented history as a series of cycles, in which every culture reaches its limits and decays.
The loss of self-belief of Europe’s elites
At the time, Spengler, like many of his pessimistic co-thinkers associated the decline of the West with the rise of the masses. Spengler possessed a strong sense of animus, bordering on paranoia towards the masses. He wrote that the masses hate ‘every sort of form, every distinction of rank, the orderliness of property, the orderliness of knowledge’. He concluded that the masses constituted the embodiment of the end and stated that the ‘mass is the end, the radical nullity’.
Their focus on the masses served as a form of psychological displacement; of having to come to terms with their own inability to affirm and defend the ideals and legacy of their own civilisation
Looking back at the writings of Spengler and other inter-war cultural pessimists, it becomes evident that their one-dimensional hostility towards the masses was a sublimated expression of a far more fundamental problem; their own inability to face up to their own loss of faith in western civilisation. Their focus on the masses served as a form of psychological displacement; of having to come to terms with their own inability to affirm and defend the ideals and legacy of their own civilisation. This sentiment was particularly widespread amongs the upper classes. As the historian William McNeill pointed out; ‘especially from the point of view of the educated upper classes, it often seemed that instead of progress of civilisation, its decline was taking place around them- what with the “revolt of the masses” at home and the natives’ growing restlessness in empires overseas’.
In effect the ruling classes had lost confidence in their own way of life and instead of assuming control over the state of affairs, simply went through the motion of ruling. The point was recognised by Ortega y Gasset, who in his The Revolt of the Masses(1929) warned that ‘if the European grows accustomed not to rule, a generation and a half will be sufficient to bring the old continent, and the whole world along with it, into mortal inertia, intellectual sterility, universal barbarism’.
The problems that Spengler and – far more eloquently – Ortega y Gasset alluded to, can be understood as form of moral collapse. To many members of the ruling classes the First World War did not simply represent a physical setback or a military catastrophe but the annihilation of a way of life. That is why none of the European powers could genuinely feel that they were the victors in this War. The War had exhausted and enfeebled the military victors no less than the defeated nations.
Despite regaining Alsace-Lorraine, France lapsed into state of political paralysis. ‘The 1930s have conventionally been depicted as an era of almost unparalleled squalor in modern French history, wrote the American historian, Stuart Hughes. He added that the unsavoury features of this era are usually ‘grouped under the heading of “moral decay”’.
Even Britain understood that despite their paper victory, the War represented the end of Pax Britannia. By the late 1920s, Britain’s consciousness of itself as a highly moral imperial power suffered a major setback. Britain lost its commitment to what it previously regarded as its imperial missions and its authority as the head of a benevolent Empire stood discredited. It became increasingly fashionable for members of this elite and particularly the intelligentsia to boast about the irrelevance of the legacy of Britain’s past. This loss of belief in the British way of life was strikingly expressed by Lord Eustace Perry, when he observed in 1934 that there was ‘no natural idea in which we any longer believe’ He added that ‘we have lost the easy self-confidence which distinguished our Victorian grandfathers, and still distinguishes our American contemporaries’
With the advantage of hindsight, it becomes evident that the Great War served as a catalyst for the unravelling of the l’espirit de corps of the European elites. All of them intuited that something important had been lost. The German sociologist Max Weber, in his prophetic 1918 lecture, ‘Politics as Vocation’ drew attention to a new era, where authoritative leadership had become conspicuous by its absence. ‘Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness’, lamented Weber. Weber’s vision of a future bereft of inspiration and hope voiced the mood of existential insecurity and inner anxieties of Europe’s elites.
Estrangement fro Europe’s values
Just over a decade after the publication of The Decline of the West, Winston Spencer Churchill – arguably the greatest statesman of the 20th century – reflected on a world that he struggled to recognise. In his memoir, My Early Life (1930), Churchill drew attention to the estrangement of his society from the legacy and the values of the past. He observed:
‘I wonder often whether any other generation has seen such astounding revolutions of data and values as those through which we have lived. Scarcely anything, material or established, which I was brought up to believe was permanent and vital, has lasted. Everything I was sure or was taught to be sure, was impossible has happened’
Yet unlike Churchill or Arendt who were deeply committed to the reaffirmation of the values of European civilisation, the EU Establishment simply wants to forget about them
To his credit, Churchill recognised the importance of not giving up on the values that underpinned European civilisation without a fight. Unlike the fatalistic theorists of civilizational decline, he recognised that the defence of these values was not a lost cause.
In her 1965 lecture, ‘Some Questions of Moral Philosophy’, Hannah Arendt alluded to Churchill’s reflection on the disappearance of values that once seemed permanent. She noted that ‘without much notice’ the moral values that helped people ‘tell right from wrong’ had ‘collapsed almost overnight’.
The apparent loss of the moral imagination that inspired western civilisation, which haunted Arendt, continues to be an issue to this day. Arguably the institutions created by the European Union represent an attempt to accommodate to the moral climate and sense of decline, which was so tragically evoked by Spengler. And at least in one sense, the leaders of the European Union perceive the threat to their way of life in terms that are not dissimilar to that of Spengler. Spengler attributed what he considered to be the inexorable decline of the West to the rise of the uncultured masses. The leaders of the EU are far too refined to use a language that explicitly denounces the masses. Instead they point the finger of blame at the untutored and morally inferior citizens who support populist parties and causes.
Yet unlike Churchill or Arendt who were deeply committed to the reaffirmation of the values of European civilisation, the EU Establishment simply wants to forget about them. One reason why they direct so much bile towards populism is because –consciously or unconsciously – these movements often seek to reconnect with the legacy of the European past. That a century after the publication of The Decline of the West, there are so many people who still believe that there is something important about Europe’s historical legacy, indicates that it is far from a lost cause.
Header photography: The delegations signing the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors
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