October 5, 2006


Our Own Worst Enemy: a review of The War of the World by Niall Ferguson (DANIEL JOHNSON, September 27, 2006, NY Sun)

Mr. Ferguson explains that he wanted to write a history of World War II, as a sequel to his account of World War I, but after investigating found himself confronted by the phenomenon of a "global hundred years' war." In the end, he elected to concentrate on the period from 1904 (the start of the Russo-Japanese War) to 1953 (the end of the Korean War). These dates seem to me pretty arbitrary, and Mr. Ferguson — rightly — does not stick rigidly to them. The source of Mr. Ferguson's inspiration only emerges in the last pages of this huge book: the German "universal historian" Oswald Spengler, whose "The Decline of the West" was written during (not, as Mr. Ferguson states, soon after) World War I. Spengler's magnum opus (more accurately translated as "The Descent of the West") even supplies the present work's subtitle.

Rightly, Mr. Ferguson attaches a health warning to the German prophet of doom. In a footnote, he concedes that Spengler "is now seldom read; his prose is too turgid, his debt to Nietzsche and Wagner too large, his influence on the National Socialists too obvious. "Things did not work out quite as predicted by Spengler, who foresaw that new "Caesars" would reassert "blood and instinct" against "money and intellect." So they did, but in the contest with the democracies the Caesars ultimately lost. Even so, Mr. Ferguson writes, the dictators "accelerated the material, but perhaps more importantly the moral descent of the West."

I am not sure that this Spenglerian analysis of our present predicament quite adds up. The great challenge facing the West is not one that Spengler foresaw, partly because his "morphological" theory did not allow for decadent cultures to revive. Islam, which was a formidable threat to Judaeo-Christian civilization from the seventh to the 17th century, seemed moribund in the early 20th century. It certainly did not loom as large for Spengler as nascent communism, fascism, or "the yellow peril" (by which he meant Japan rather than China). Yet it is Islam which, having absorbed elements from Nazi and Marxist ideology, now poses the main challenge to the West.

Oops, he lost his own train of thought there. Only the adoption of some of the rationalist elements of Nazism and Communism by marginal groups has made a generally moribund Islam any threat at all and we've already seen how feeble the sources were. The battle with Islamicism is just a coda to the Long War.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 5, 2006 2:12 PM

Nein! Dummkoepfe!

The title of the Spengler book was "Der Untergang des Abendlands"--the going-under of the evening-land. "Decline" was never an adequate translation for "Untergang." "Descent" is still much too weak. Some English equivalents would be: extinction, perdition, downfall, wreck, collapse, decay, ruin, doom.

You could look up stuff like this. http://www.dict.cc/deutsch-englisch/u162.php

Spengler thought the West was doomed to extinction because he didn't know the United States.

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 5, 2006 7:26 PM