Oswald Spengler’s “On the German National Character”

Previously on The Fourth Estate, I had written a multi-part series of posts on Prussianism and Socialism, a long treatise that Oswald Spengler wrote in response to the poor performance of Germany’s “November Revolution.” For those who do not recall, Spengler was critical of the Marxist revolutionaries for failing to reinvigorate the German war effort and instead contributing to the not only Germany’s defeat but also the emergence of the Weimar Republic. Moreover, Spengler sought to argue that Pure Socialism predated Marxism as a political, socioeconomic model that has its origins in Prussia during the 17th and 18th centuries. Having done my own investigations to verify the veracity of such a bold claim, I came away with the impression that Spengler was arguing that Socialism’s predecessor was “Cameralism.” I even went as far as to argue that such a conclusion does make logical sense insofar as Capitalism’s precursor, “Mercantilism,” emerged in England within the same timeframe.

An important theme covered throughout most of Prussianism and Socialism is the longstanding argument that Capitalism and Socialism are both products of distinct “national characters.” These political-economic ideas arose naturally among the English and Prussians respectively, serving as reflections of their own national essences, which sprang from centuries of separate historical developments. The question left unanswered in my readings of that treatise is what causes a given people to create a distinct national character? Is this a product of nature (according to the natural sciences), a product of nurture (according to the social sciences) or something else? For the latter, would it be plausible to describe the national character as the result of a spiritual and historical phenomenon, a “Zeitgeist” to be more precise?

These questions were eventually elaborated by Spengler in a brief 1924 essay for Deutsches Adelsblatt, entitled “On the German National Character.” In it, Spengler outlined the conditions in which a national character emerges to define the national essence of an entire people, a “Totality” (to borrow the term from Prussianism and Socialism). The national essence is not shaped by “Space” and “Causality,” the material conditions which stem from genealogical or environmental factors. This goes against the then-emerging consensus in the early 20th century that entire groups of people are the products of their genes or their geographic surroundings. In other words, Evolution cannot and will not explain how a national character emerges. Spengler explained his rationale in the early paragraphs of this essay:  

“The character of a people is the product of its destinies. In the last analysis it is not soil, climate, sky, and sea that determine this character. Nor is it race or blood. These things are merely the raw metal that gets hammered into shape by historical reality. Least of all is a people’s character the result of its culture, that which it has acquired through speech, writing, and reading. Such things cannot even be regarded as outer trappings.

In history, character is wrought more by suffering than by success. Roman character was not a consequence of the victories won in the great era following the Battle of Sentium. Rather, the victories presupposed the existence of this character, which was formed in the previous long centuries of misery when the Roman people constantly lived on the verge of annihilation.”   

What Spengler was insinuating is that the national character of a Totality stems from their national essence’s “Destiny” and “Time,” the circumstances which gave rise to that Totality in the first place. The national essence is molded by an historical event which gave a Totality its social, cultural and even political identity, distinguishing them from their immediate and distant neighbors. All the trials and tribulations which confront any Totality throughout its history are opportunities in which a national character can be further molded by its national essence. Some good analogies would include, but not limited to:

  • The distinct lingual development of American English begun by the Federalist Party, from spelling (like “labor” as opposed to ‘labour’) to terminology (such as “truck” instead of ‘lorry’). Could one consider that as an example of American Exceptionalism, albeit it from Hamiltonian Federalism?
  • The socioeconomic and cultural rift that continues to separate West Germans and East Germans. Even differing historical perspectives are signs of distinct national characters: was East Germany ‘annexed’ by West Germany or was it ‘reunited’ with West Germany?   
  • Consider the political statuses of Taiwan and Mainland China. Does one consider Taiwan as culturally related to Mainland China or distinct from it? Is Taiwan a nation or a part of China?

There are plenty of examples where this phenomenon is capable of occurring. In every case, there is always a general theme, a political-economic idea that resonates more strongly to a given Totality than others. It is capable of manifesting itself in circumstances like the design philosophy behind their technologies, how they design their architecture, or how they express themselves through literature, poetry, television, music, movies, video games, and so forth. It can even extend into the organization of political structures, religious beliefs (like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy or Shia Islam and Sunni Islam), and social norms and customs. And while it is true that there will always be exceptions whereby certain segments of the population might adhere to other national characters, the vast majority will continue to be defined by its national essence.

The national character which Spengler was most interested in discerning, the German one, is a relatively recent development made possible by the Prussians during the late 19th century. The contemporary German-speaking world itself, meanwhile, predates the late 19th century to the unification of Germanic tribes under the Holy Roman Empire. Despite this unification, the German-speaking world was never defined by a single national character. Instead, there were multiple national characters derive from different national essences who all happened to have coalesced around that Reich and its Kaiser. When Prussia tried to unify the German-speaking world in the late 19th century, there was an opportunity to unite the German-speaking world around a Prussian half and an Austrian half. This trend more or less continues in contemporary Germany and Austria. It is noteworthy because the Austrians were considered by Spengler in Prussianism and Socialism as representing the Spanish tendencies of the German-speaking world, namely the tendency toward adherence to the political authority of the Catholic Church over the German Reich and Catholic cultural inclinations since Counterreformation of the broader Protestant Reformation.   

Thus, it is important to understand that Spengler’s description of the Germans is centered on the idea that the German-speaking world lacks a common national character. He focused his analysis squarely on the German people in particular, and it is reflected in his self-reflection about their strengths and weaknesses.  Below is a summarization of the characteristics described by Spengler:

  • An emphasis on formality and perfectionism, favors orderliness, and dislike of social forms. The latter itself can manifest in ways like developing a multiplicity of very unique political ideologies and theories to the fostering of personal creativity through curiosity-driven non-conformity, the desire to learn and impart knowledge. Spengler referred to this phenomenon as the Germans “having more mavericks than masterminds.”
  • Industrious work ethic, stubborn tenaciousness, strong abidance to the law and authority figures. This can be seen in Germany’s economic history since the 19th century, the German Electoral College being the antecedent for America’s own Electoral College, the distinct development of German Federalism with its Federal government and subordinate State governments (Prussia also upheld German Federalism, albeit between the House of Hohenzollern and German nobility).  
  • There is also the “boundless urge to follow and serve, to worship anyone or anything, believe blindly and with doglike loyalty, all advice to the contrary notwithstanding.” The Rattenfänger von Hameln, otherwise known as the “Pied Piper,” is what frequently comes to mind here. This can be the strong devotion to Protestantism or Catholicism that also became violent during the Protestant Reformation. Spengler considered it as a negative trait in the German national character because the adherence to anything can be taken to its logical extremes. A demagogic or even a populist politician could exploit that weakness to their advantage.   
  • Perhaps the most insightful trait is what Spengler referred to as an inherent “irresoluteness,” quoting what Friedrich Nietzsche had once written as being “capable of great things” but lacking the necessary resolve in order to fulfill them. There are plenty of contemporary examples such behavior has manifested itself. Examples like the unwillingness to militarily support the US Invasion of Iraq, the mishandling of the Eurozone and Migrant Crises, the persistent determination to be dependent on foreign petroleum, even if doing so reduces its ability to combat Climate Change.     
  • If there is anything that would compel the Germans to act for whatever motive, it would have to be someone from a position of authority. That does not necessarily have to be the Holy See at the Vatican, the House of Hohenzollern, or even a particular political party. It could be anyone or anything capable of appealing to the inclinations toward orderliness and formality, that inherent drive compelling the German people to do something now rather than later. Until an authority figure stresses the urgency of an emerging issue, the Germans will oftentimes be perceived as complacent or even indifferent.      

All of these traits which Spengler observed in the German national character are what enabled him to ask whether these behaviors are open to change or not. True to his Deterministic outlook of the world, he sought to ascertain whether the Germans are capable of overcoming their inherent weaknesses in any given time of crisis. This matter remains valid, nearly a century after he had written his essay. Granted, Spengler is certainly not the only one who was arriving at similar conclusions regarding the German people. Other authors have tried to understand the German people for their own purposes.     

Categories: Philosophy

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