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History as Destiny: Gobineau, H. S. Chamberlain and Spengler

  • Michael Biddiss


THE novel which won the 1987 Booker Prize was Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger. Its central character is an historian whom, on the opening page, we find already near to death. Even so, she is meditating about the completion of a new work: ‘A history of the world. To round things off. I may as well—no more nit-picking stuff about Napoleon, Tito, the battle of Edgehill, Hernando Cortez … The works, this time. The whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute—from the mud to the stars, universal and particular, your story and mine.’ And she adds: ‘I'm equipped, I consider; eclecticism has always been my hallmark.’



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1 lively, P., Moon Tiger (Harmondsworth, 1988), 1.

2 de Gobineau, A., Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines (4 vols., Paris, 18531855). Subsequent references are to the best modern edition: de Gobineau, A., Œuvres, ed. Gaulmier, J., vol. I (Paris, 1983), 1331174(text) and 1216–471 (notes). For overall analysis, see Biddiss, M., Father of Racist Ideology: The Social and Political Thought of Count Gobineau (1970), especially Part Two.

3 See de Tocqueville, A., Œuvres completes, IX: Correspondance d'Alexis de Tocqueville et d'Arthur de Gobineau, ed. Degros, M. (Paris, 1959); and Biddiss, M., ‘Prophecy and Pragmatism: Gobineau's Confrontation with Tocqueville’, Historical Journal, 13 (1970), 611–33. Much of the Essai was composed during a diplomatic posting to Berne, where Gobineau found himself exposed to what he interpreted as the excesses of Swiss democracy.

4 Gobineau, , Œuvres, I, 138–9.

5 The matter is most succinctly summarised ibid.., 339–48.

6 See Poliakov, L., The Aryan Myth: A History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe (1974), 188–92.

7 Gobineau, , Œuvres, I, 1142.

8 Gaulmier, J., Spectre de Gobineau (Paris, 1965), proved to be particularly seminal in this development.

9 Rey, P.-L., L'unwers romanesque de Gobineau (Paris, 1981), 22.

10 Letter of 7 October 1872, in Correspondame entre le comie de Gobineau et le comte de ProkeschOsten, ed. de Gobineau, C. Serpeille (Paris, 1933), 361.

11 Gobineau, , Œuvres, vol. III (Paris, 1987), 657.

12 See ibid., 14–20. Baudelaire's remark ‘From freedom cherished impiously is born a new tyranny, the tyranny of beasts – zoocracy’ is quoted in Carter, A. E., The Idea of Decadence in French Literature, 1830–1900 (Toronto, 1958), 9.

13 See Barrows, S., Distorting Mirrors: Visions of the Crowd in Late Kinetemth-Century France (New Haven, 1981), especially ch. 2; and McClelland, J. S., The Crowd and the Mob: From Plato to Canetti (1989), especially chs. 4–7.

14 This appeared in the posthumous two-volume reissue of 1884: see Gobineau, , Œuores, I, 1167–74(text) and 1457–71 (notes).

15 See ‘Ein Urtheil über die jetzige Weltlage’, Bayreuther Blatter, 4 (May 1881), 121–40. The original French text entitled Ce qui se fait en Asie’ was later published in the Revue du Monde Latin, 6 (1885), 397418.

16 See Passmore, J., The Perfectibility of Man (1970), especially ch. 13.

17 Letter of 30 July 1856, Correspondance Tocqueville/Gobineau, 267.

18 See Schüler, W., Der Bayreuther Kreis von seiner Entstehung bis zum Ausgang der Wilhelmmischen Ära: Wagnerkult und Kulturreform im Geiste völkischer Weltanschauung (Münster, 1971), 235–52. Much revealing information about the importance of Gobineau's friendship and of his influence at Bayreuth can be found in Cosima Wagner's Diaries: Volume Two, 1878–1883, ed. Gregor-Dellin, M. and Mack, D. (1980).

19 See particularlySchemann, L., Gobineaus Rassenwerk (Stuttgart, 1910), and his Gobineau: Eine Biographic (2 vols., Strassburg, 19131916); also, Schüler, , Der Bayreuther Kreis, 101–6.

20 See generally Cosima Wagner und Houston Stewart Chamberlain in Briefwechsel, 1888–1908, ed. Pretzsch, P. (Leipzig, 1934); also, Schüler, , Der Bayreuther Kreis, 112–27 & 252–67. Chamberlain's, own Lebenswege manes Denkens (Munich, 1919)provides the most important autobiographical text concerning his overall intellectual development.

21 Chamberlain, H. S., Das Drama Richard Wagners (Leipzig, 1892); Richard Wagner: Echte Briefe an Ferdinand Praeger (Leipzig, 1894); andRichard Wagner (Munich, 1896), the last of these being a major biographical account.

22 Field, G., Evangelist of Race: The Germanic Vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain (New York, 1981), 214.

23 Gooch, G. P., Germany (New York, 1925), 118.

24 In the growing corpus of relevant literature the most outstanding study is Schorske, C., Fin de Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980).

25 Chamberlain, H.S., The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (2 vols., 1910[‘1911’ on title-page] ), I, lxii. Here all citations of the Grundlagen are made with reference to this first and only English-language version, taken from the 5th edition of the German text. For further information about the preparation of this translation, see n. 38 below.

26 Chamberlain, Foundations, I, xciii–xciv.

27 See, for example, ibid., I, 263, 280n, 315; II, 206.

28 Ibid., I, 296.

29 See ibid., I, 201–12. Note also C. Wagner / H. S. Chamberlain in Briefwechsel, 564–8, for Cosima's letter of 7 May 1899 and his reply of 22 May, each dealing with the author's reluctance to be equally explicit about some matching assertion that Christ must have been an Aryan. The hesitation turns out to be based on the merely tactical consideration that too much frankness on this point might well alienate those whose anti-Semitism was as yet insufficiently developed!

30 See Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. McLellan, D. (Oxford, 1977), 222.

31 See Chamberlain, , Foundations, I, 272–3.

32 Ibid., I, 330.

33 Ibid., I, 541.

34 See ibid., I, 538–42.

35 These problems are also particularly well exemplified in Chamberlain's unfinished and posthumously published work on Natur wnd Leben, ed. von Uexküll, J. (Munich, 1928). On the general theme of such philosophical distortion, see Stackelberg, R., Idealism Debased: From Volkisch Ideology to National Socialism (Kent, OH, 1981). Similar issues have recently been pursued, within the context of response to the ‘Entzauberung’ (‘disenchantment’) analysed by Max Weber, in Harrington's, Anne admirable study of Reenchankd Science: Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler (Princeton, 1996), and especially in ch. 4 with regard to Chamberlain himself.

36 Field, Evangelist of Race, 2; and see generally Chickering, R., We Men Who Feel Most German: A Cultural Study of the Pan-German League, 1886–1914 (1984). For the influence of Chamberlain, and Gobineau, on Heinrich Class (the League's president), see Stern, F., The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (New York, 1965), 124–5n.

37 Letter of 31 December 1901, in Chamberlain, H.S., Briefe 1882–1924 und Briefwechsel mit Kaiser Wilhelm II, ed. Pretzsch, P. (2 vols., Munich, 1928), II, 142.

38 The enthusiasm of Shaw, George Bernard in Fabian News, 22 (06 1911), 53–4, is perhaps worthy of particular note. In more general terms, the far from easy route by which the Grundlagen became converted into the Foundations (see also n. 25 above) is discussed in Holmes, C., ‘Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Great Britain’, Wiener Library Bulletin, 24, 2 (1970), 313, and in Field, Evangelist of Race, 459–61. Letters relevant to the preparation of the English edition were kept by the first Baron Redesdale—grandfather of ‘the Mitford girls’ (including Diana who married Sir Oswald Mosley, and Unity who had similar but unfulfilled designs on Hitler)—and these items can now be consulted at the Gloucestershire Record Office: Mitford Papers, D2002[C48], Among the most interesting holdings is the long autobiographical letter of 25 November 1908 in which Chamberlain comments to Redesdale along lines that are somewhat defensive about the Kaiser's enthusiasm for the Grundlagen: ‘given the state of feeling in Germany any interest he shows is likely to do quite as much harm as good. I myself am very fond of the Emperor and am grateful for all the kindness he has shown me, but I should not value very highly his opinion on a book.’

39 Spotts, F., Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival (New Haven, 1994), 113. It was in 1914 that Winifred Williams (shortly to become the wife of the Wagners' son, Siegfried) began to move into the inner circle around Cosima as yet another Briton keen to be even more German than the Germans: see ibid., 137—8.

40 See The Ravings of a Renegade, Being the War Essays of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, intro. by Melville, Lewis [pseudonym for Lewis S. Benjamin] (1915). I have recendy presented a more detailed discussion of this episode in a paper on ‘The Englishman as German: Text and Counter-Text in Houston Stewart Chamberlain’. This was delivered in September 1996 to a Joint Symposium of the Universities of Dusseldorf and Reading, dealing with the general theme of ‘Interkulturelles Verstehen’, and it is due to appear in the forthcoming publication of these conference proceedings as edited by Therese Seidel and Cedric Brown for the series ‘Kultur und Erkenntnis’, issued by Narr of Tubingen. Among Chamberlain's other writings from this period, his pamphlet of 1915 entitled Who is to Blame for the War? was also issued in an English (as well as an original German) version. The place of publication for the translated text is unclear: ‘Bruckmann’ (implying Munich) is pencilled on to the British Library copy, but the source is given as Sweden in Robertson, J. M., ‘Herr Chamberlain and the War’, Contemporary Review, 108 (1915), 299. The preface to the English rendering of the pamphlet states that it is being issued for the benefit of ‘readers in neutral countries’ (p. 3). However, at that stage in the war, it may well have served to alienate some of the most influential of these same readers through its attack on ‘the vilest despotism that has ever existed — the despotism of the American Dollar’ (p. 6)! On Chamberlain's war pamphlets in general, see Stackelberg, Idealism Debased, ch. 13.

41 Stackelberg, , Idealism Debased, 146.

42 Letter of 7 October 1923, in Chamberlain, , Briefe 1882–1924, II, 126.

43 Field, , Evangelist of Race, 438.

44 See Rosenberg, A., Chamberlain als Verkünder und Begründer einer deubchen zukunft (Munich, 1927). Note also Alfred Rosenberg: Selected Writings, ed. Pois, R. (1970), 21–3; and Cecil, R., The Myth of the Master Race: Alfred Rosenberg and Nazi Ideology (1972), 1214.

45 Spengler, O., Der Untergang des Abendlandes (2 vols., 19181922): the first printing of volume I was originally issued by Braumüller from Vienna, but all subsequent German publication both of this and of volume II was handled by C. H. Beck Verlag of Munich. Here all citations are geared to the standard English ‘authorised translation’ of Atkinson, C. H., presented as The Decline of the West (2 vols., 19261928).

46 Letter of 12 July 1916 to Klöres, Hans, in Spengler, O., Briefe, 1913–1936, ed. Schröter, M. and Koktanek, A. (Munich, 1963), 54.

47 Quoted from an article in the Deutsche Rundschau as cited by Beck Verlag within a promotional pamphlet of c. 1925–6: see the Allen and Unwin files relevant to the preparation of the English edition, which are held in the British Publishing Archives at the University of Reading Library. For more concerning Moeller on Spengler, see Stern, , Politics of Cultural Despair, 293–5.

48 See particularly Spengler, Decline, I, 49n.

49 Letter of 5 January 1919 to Georg Misch, in Spengler, , Briefe, 1913–1936, 116.

50 Spengler, , Decline, II, 130.

51 Ibid., I, 31.

52 A measure of similarity between Spengler and the character of Naphta in Mann's Der Zauberberg (2 vols., Berlin, 1924) was one of the points noted by Stern, J. P. in ‘The Rise and Fall of Random Persons’, an especially valuable article from 1985 reprinted in his collection The Heart of Europe: Essays on Literature and Ideology (Oxford, 1992), 123–39. In his Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (Berlin, 1918) Mann had already provided one of the most memorable expositions of alleged tension between ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’. For the role of this polarization within the longer tradition of German philosophical idealism, see also the comments by Stern, Fritz in Politics of Cultural Despair, 246 n.

53 Spengler, , Decline, I, 81.

55 Ibid., I, 356.

56 Hughes, H. S., Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate (New York, 1952), 86.

57 Spengler, O., ‘Pessimism?’, inSelected Essays, ed. White, D. O. (Chicago, 1967), 137. This piece was originally publishedin pamphlet form as Pessimismus? (Berlin, 1921).

58 Spengler, , Decline, I, 32; II, 507.

59 Ibid., II, 354.

60 Ibid., I, 32.

61 Ibid., 11, 98.

62 Ibid., I, 31–2. Hughes, , Spengler, 43, aptly quotes Henry Adams's observation of 1894 that, ‘If a science of history were established today … I greatly fear that it would take its tone from the pessimism of Paris, Berlin, London, and St Petersburg.’ It is also relevant that in 1922, when the second volume of the Untergang appeared, T. S. Eliot's notes on lines 366–76 of The Waste Land (‘Who are these hooded hordes swarming / Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth / … Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London / Unreal’) included a telling ‘Spenglerian’ quotation from the small collection of essays recently produced by Hermann Hesse under the title Blick ins Chaos (Berne, 1920).

63 Spengler, , Decline, II, 105.

64 Ibid., II, 107.

65 Ibid., II, 102.

66 Ibid., II, 103.

67 See Brantlinger, P., Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay (Ithaca, NY, 1983), especially 17, and 24.

68 Spengler, , Decline, I, 33.

69 Ibid., II, 358.

70 I have endeavoured to pursue this theme more generally in The Age of the Masses: Ideas and Society in Europe since 1870 (Harmondsworth, 1977). See also the titles cited in n. 13 above.

71 Spengler, , Decline, II, 427 n.

72 Ibid., II, 416.

73 See Chamberlain, H. S., Drei Vorworte (Munich, 1923), 19.

74 See Spengler, , Selected Essays, 133–54.

75 Letter of 18 December 1918 to Klöres, in Spengler, , Briefe, 1913–1936, 113.

76 It is noteworthy that, when choosing the title of his major work, Spengler had considered using the term ‘Vollendung’ (conveying the sense of fulfilment as well as termination) rather than ‘Untergang’: see ‘Pessimism?’, in Selected Essays, 134.

77 Heller, E., The Disinherited Mind (Harmondsworth, 1961), 159.

78 On the limits to the pose of Olympian detachment, see especially Struve's, W. essay, ‘Oswald Spengler: Caesar and Croesus’, in his Elites Against Democracy: Leadership Ideals in Bouigeois Political Thought in Germany, 1890–1933 (Princeton, NJ, 1973), 232–73.

79 Spengler, , Selected Essays, 130–1.

80 Spengler, O., Der Mensch und die Technik Beitrag zu einer Philosophic des Lebens (Munich, 1931); translated as Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life (New York, 1932).

81 Spengler, O., Jahre der Entscheidung: Deutschland und die weltgeschichtlkhe Entwickhing (Munich, 1933); translated as The Hour of Decision: Germany and World-Historical Evolution (New York, 1934).

82 Struve, , Elites Against Democracy, 272.

83 Hughes, , Spengler, 132.

84 I sought to examine these works, together with such kindred ones as Wells's, H. G. immensely popular The Outline of History (2 vols., 1920), in my 1993 Presidential Address on ‘World History and World Heritage’ given to the Historical Association Annual Conference held at the University of Durham. An enlarged version of this text has now been published as ‘Global Interdependence and the Study of Modern World History’, in Politics in an Interdependent World: Essays Presented to Ghita lonescu, ed. Parry, G. (Aldershot, 1994), 6684.

85 Popper, K. R., The Open Society and its Enemies (4th edn., 2 vols., 1962), I, 285–6.

86 Spengler, , Decline, I, 96–7.

87 Richter, M., ‘The Study of Man—a Debate on Race: The Tocqueville-Gobineau Correspondence’, Commentary, 25 (1958), 154; Cassirer, E., The Myth of the State (New Haven, 1961), 231.

88 Stern, J. P., ‘The Weltangst of Oswald Spengler’, Times Literary Supplement (10 10 1980), 1152.

89 Quoted from an article in the Köhische zeitung by the pamphlet cited in n. 46 above.

90 See Herf, J., Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge, 1985).

91 I have particularly in mind McNeill, W. H., The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963), and Roberts, J. M., The Triumph of the West (1985). The latter has of course also published The Hutchinson History of the World (1976). As for McNeill, other relevant writings include his Prothero Lecture, A Defence of World History’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, 32 (1982), 7589; his major biographical study, Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life (1989); and his self-revisionist piece on ‘The Rise of the West after Twenty-Five Years’,Journal of World History, 1 (1990), 121.

92 Fischer, K. P., History and Prophecy: Oswald Spengler and the Decline of the West (New York, 1989), 242.

93 Stern, , ‘Weltangst of Oswald Spengler’, 1152.

94 Cassirer, , Myth of the State, 291.

95 Berlin, L., ‘Historical Inevitability’, in Four Essays on Liberty (1969), 106. To take the case of a more recent publishing success (which temporarily rode the wave of triumphalist Reaganism-Thatcherism), it is arguable that die neo-Hegelian ‘Fukuyama thesis’ also fell into the kind of error highlighted by Berlin. See Biddiss, ‘Global Interdependence’, 79–82, for a critique of Fukuyama, F., ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, 16 (1989), 318, and of the same author's The End of History and the Last Man (1992).

96 This is one of the judgements made specifically about Chamberlain in Field, Evangelist of Race, 173.

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