In the summer of 1920 Arnold Toynbee's old friend and contemporary at Balliol, L. B. Namier, a historian of a very different school, brought him a book which had been published 18 months earlier, the first volume of Oswald Spengler's Der Untergang des Abendlandes, The Decline of the West. ‘As read these pages teeming with firefly flashes of historical insight,’ Toynbee recalled some years later, ‘I wondered at first whether my whole enquiry had been disposed of by Spengler before even the questions, not to speak of the answers, had fully taken shape in my own mind.’ He decided nevertheless to go on with his own equally ambitious account of the rise and fall of civilizations. From the start, therefore, Toynbee's vast life-work, the 12 volumes, over three million words, of A Study of History, has been coupled with and compared to the two volumes, a mere 400 thousand words, of Spengler's Decline of the West. Both were best-sellers: the original German edition of The Decline of the West sold 100,000 copies in its first eight years; the abridged edition of A Study of History sold over 300,000 and even the ten volume edition (the two subsequent volumes were an atlas and a volume of second thoughts entitled Reconsiderations) sold 7,000 complete sets within a year of the publication of the final volume. Both are, if not forgotten (Spengler at least turns up in unlikely places, such as President Nixon's desk, placed there by Dr Kissinger) certainly largely unread. Yet each is interesting because of the great gifts of their very different authors and because of what they tell us not just about the past but about the twentieth century and the sense of crisis with which we have lived for the last 70 years.
(Online publication April 1985)
James Joll is emeritus professor of international history, London University, and honorary professor of history at Warwick University. He was formerly fellow and sub-warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford, and has been a visiting professor at the universities of Tokyo, Sydney and Iowa, His most recent book is The Origins of the First World War.
* This is the text of the tenth Martin Wight memorial lecture recently delivered at Sussex University.