The End Was Coming

The Twilight Years
The Paradox of Britain between the Wars
Richard Overy
Viking, $35, 522 pp.

This history of Great Britain between the World Wars chronicles the British response—social, intellectual, and cultural—to the crisis touched off by the catastrophic events of 1914–18. The Great War had shattered belief in progress, creating a morbid sense, especially pronounced among educated and politically engaged Britons, that the world was entering a new Dark Age. The mood of the day was one of gloom and doom. Civilization seemed hell-bent on doing itself in.

Richard Overy, a prolific historian who teaches at the University of Exeter, is having none of that. The Cassandras and Jeremiahs who flourished in the 1920s and 1930s turned out to be all wet. By treating them with more seriousness than they deserved, the British people talked themselves into an irrational and ill-advised funk.

Appearing at a moment rife with renewed predictions of decline and fall, The Twilight Years carries this subtext: wrong before, the naysayers are wrong again today. The “Western world has never been richer, more secure, or more heavily armed in its history,” writes Overy. So relax. To make his case, Overy dissects—and finds wanting—various ideas, movements, and fads that found favor in interwar Britain. To judge from the prevailing intellectual climate, he writes, all was “anxiety, disillusionment, sterility, nihilism, and danger.” Prominent and widely read historians like Arnold Toynbee forecast the inevitable collapse of Western civilization. Best-selling tracts...

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About the Author

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations emeritus at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.