The German historian Oswald Spengler published the first volume of his civilizational epic The Decline of the West in 1918. A literal translation of the German title, The Undergoing of the Eveninglands, is even more evocative. For Spengler, the West wasn’t just in decline; it was being dragged under.
Ironically, in 1918 it was the Russian Empire (in the East) that had just fallen, and Prussia-dominated Germany that was soon to follow. But Spengler’s book was not about World War One. In fact, it hardly mentioned the war. And Spengler considered Germany (or at least its most urbanized areas) to be part of the West, too.
Spengler’s basic thesis was that cultures are born, blossom, bear fruit, and wither. That final, withering phase he called “civilization.” He associated civilization with satiation, with enervation, with the loss of any connection to the soil, and ultimately with degeneration. He saw all of these in the West.
But where is the West? Though Spengler didn’t give his West geographical boundaries, he located its birth in the Medieval marriage between a conquering Germanic nobility and the remains of the Western Roman Empire. Spengler’s Western culture blossomed in the springtime of the Italian Renaissance, grew to Baroque maturity, and bore its greatest fruit in the 19th century.
At the outbreak of World War One it was, he argued, in the early stages of degeneration, the era of civilization, of the dominance of the cosmopolitan city over the conservative countryside. Spengler foresaw the coming of financialization, the death of grand narratives, and the rise of “Caesarism” in Western Europe. And he was right.
By 1940, nearly all of the West had fallen under the rule of Caesars of one kind or another. Retrospective analysts are prone to identify “the West” with England and America, but any definition of the West that excludes Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France is no West at all. Italy, the home of the Renaissance, Iberia, the base of the Catholic conquerors of the New World, and France, the cradle of Gothic Middle Ages, are the West par excellence. And all of these areas, including France, fell to Caesarism of one kind or another.
Western Caesarism was for Spengler, and in its historical realization, the result of civilizational exhaustion. Anyone who doubts the “exhaustion” of Western civilization after World War One must reckon with the collapse of France and the capitulation of Belgium in 1940. The Netherlands held out against Germany for five days. Compare the records of these rich, well-armed Western countries with backward Poland’s five-week resistance against the combined forces of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and the point becomes clear.
At a time when Winston Churchill was vowing that Britain would “never surrender, and even if … this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas … would carry on the struggle,” the leaders of France came to terms with the Nazis and took the opportunity to set up a German client state at Vichy. Individual French soldiers and civilians exhibited great heroism in resisting Nazi aggression, but France as such did not.
If the Vichy Caesarism of Philippe Pétain is not enough evidence of France’s civilizational similarity to Italy, Spain, and Portugal, just look to the Free French hero Charles de Gaulle. He led what was virtually a military putsch to end the Fourth Republic in 1958. He then personally wrote the constitution for the Fifth Republic and installed himself as its first president, on the logic that he personified “the spirit of the nation.”
And then there’s the Rest of the West: Latin America. Caesarism reined rampant throughout Latin America for most of the twentieth century. If it might be said that English liberal ideals reached their full expression in the United States, might it not also be said that Western European ideals reached their full expression in Latin America? For what was Latin America in the twentieth century but a more advanced version of Spain or Portugal?
America and the West
If “the West” was historically centered on Western Europe, the commonplace notion that human rights, democracy, and rule of law are Western ideals is thoroughly ahistorical. At the time of the foundation of the United States (and for nearly a century afterward), most European countries had official censors, state churches, and strict laws against public assembly. Democracy was feared as mob rule. And the rule of law was meaningless in a country like France, which experienced bloody revolutions (and counter-revolutions) in 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871.
Of course, many Western Europe intellectuals have always pined for liberal democracy. But just as many (if not more) advocated repression and absolutism. Only in England, on the very edge of Europe, did liberal ideals consistently hold sway throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and only in America were those ideals fully realized in a stable constitutional system of government. If America had an original sin, it was racism, not fascism.
Spengler had very little to say about the United States. Like many German intellectuals of his time, Spengler thought that the rejuvenation of Europe would come from the East, from Russia. But what passes for European civilization today is really (Anglo-) American civilization, imposed on an exhausted Western Europe after World War Two, and then enthusiastically embraced in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Western Europe’s repressive civilization created many beautiful things, but the individual liberties so many Westerners take for granted today were not among them. American civilization emerged three hundred years ago as something wholly new, rooted in Western Europe in the same way that Western civilization was rooted in ancient Rome, but nourished on very different ideas and ideals.
Few traces remain of the civilization of the temporal Papacy, absolute monarchy, official religion, militarism, imperialism, and colonialism. Intellectual Eurocentrism still obscures the fact that the United States arose from but is not of the West — a fact that nineteenth century American intellectuals took for granted. Call American civilization brutish, materialist, or racist (it has been called all of those things), but don’t call it Western. Western civilization declined and fell a century ago, and it’s not coming back.