Oswald Spengler was born in 1880 in Blankenburg (then in the Duchy of Brunswick, German Empire) at the foot of the Harz mountains, the eldest of four children, and the only boy. His family was conservative German of the petite bourgeoisie. His father, originally a mining technician, who came from a long line of mineworkers, was a post office bureaucrat. His childhood home was emotionally reserved, and the young Spengler turned to books and the great cultural personalities for succor. He had imperfect health, and suffered throughout his life from migraine headaches and from an anxiety complex.
At the age of ten, his family moved to the university city of Halle. Here Spengler received a classical education at the local Gymnasium (academically oriented secondary school), studying Greek, Latin, mathematics and natural sciences. Here, too, he developed his affinity for the arts—especially poetry, drama, and music—and came under the influence of the ideas of Goethe and Nietzsche. He even experimented with a few artistic creations, some of which still survive.
After his father's death in 1901 Spengler attended several universities (Munich, Berlin, and Halle) as a private scholar, taking courses in a wide range of subjects: history, philosophy, mathematics, natural science, literature, the classics, music, and fine arts. His private studies were undirected. In 1903, he failed his doctoral thesis on Heraclitus because of insufficient references, which effectively ended his chances of an academic career. In 1904 he received his Ph.D., and in 1905 suffered a nervous breakdown.
Scholars remark that his life seemed rather uneventful. He briefly served as a teacher in Saarbrücken and then in Düsseldorf. From 1908 to 1911 he worked at a grammar school (Realgymnasium) in Hamburg, where he taught science, German history, and mathematics.
In 1911, following his mother's death, he moved to Munich, where he would live until his death in 1936. He lived as a cloistered scholar, supported by his modest inheritance. Spengler survived on very limited means and was marked by loneliness. He owned no books, and took jobs as a tutor or wrote for magazines to earn additional income.
He began work on the first volume of Decline of the West intending at first to focus on Germany within Europe, but the Agadir Crisis affected him deeply, and he widened the scope of his study. Spengler was inspired by Otto Seeck's work The Decline of Antiquity in naming his own effort. The book was completed in 1914, but publishing was delayed by World War I. Due to a congenital heart problem, he was not called up for military service. During the war, however, his inheritance was largely useless because it was invested overseas; thus Spengler lived in genuine poverty for this period.
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