The End Was Coming

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 on economics proclaimed the impending demise of capitalism. A fatally flawed system, it served mostly to create the pretext for more war, thereby generating profits for merchants of death. Proponents of eugenics predicted that absent draconian efforts to keep the unworthy from giving birth, society would soon be overrun with the physically weak, the mentally incompetent, and the morally defective. Pacifists campaigned earnestly to banish war once and for all, but finding themselves unable “to exert any kind of practical or spiritual influence,” they gave in to despondency and despair. Their cause hopeless, Armageddon beckoned. Political utopianism—even Hitler attracted British admirers early on, although never nearly as many as Stalin did—also proved a dead end. It served mostly to demonstrate the incorrigibility of the British system: Real change seemed impossible. The popular media of the day—Overy emphasizes the growing reach and influence of BBC radio—constantly reiterated and reinforced these messages. If people heard something often enough—especially pronouncements issued from on-high and expressed in an authoritative voice—they eventually accepted it as true.

Yet almost everything that Britons thereby talked themselves into believing proved bogus. The handwringing of the 1920s and ’30s, Overy demonstrates to his own satisfaction at least, turned out to be quite unnecessary. The apocalypse did not arrive (although depending on where it happened to find you, the war of 1939–45 served as a pretty good substitute). History, capitalism, democracy, pretentious intellectuals, naive do-gooders, and the United Kingdom itself all managed to survive without having sustained permanent damage. That his countrymen had allowed themselves to get so exercised over so little seems for Overy to be a cause of chagrin or embarrassment. Looking back, what was all the fuss about?

Overy offers this by way of a conclusion: Democracies are no less susceptible than nondemocracies to misperceiving reality. By extension, they are susceptible as well to the fears to which such distortions can give rise. No doubt this is true. Yet it hardly qualifies as a revelation and certainly does not require a thick and at times tedious four-hundred-page narrative.

Less explicitly, but perhaps more usefully, The Twilight Years serves as a handy reminder of the need to treat prevailing intellectual fashions with more than a grain of salt. Considered in retrospect, interwar expectations of history conforming to some predetermined pattern appear silly, the critique of capitalism shallow, and the fascination with eugenics repugnant. One might wonder whether what passes today for advanced thinking on economics (globalization), governance (statism), and the response to the crisis of Islam (perpetual war) will stand up all that well when considered in hindsight fifty or one hundred years hence.

Yet there remains this nagging thought: Even if the specific analyses and prescriptions of the interwar intelligentsia turned out to be defective, was the widespread pessimism of the time so entirely misplaced? In the wake of World War I, ordinary people sensed that events had rendered old verities obsolete, that things were somehow slipping out of control. A crisis of faith, beginning in religion but extending much further afield, had left them adrift. Were they so wrong in their perception?

Published in the 2010-04-23 issue: 

Andrew Bacevichs how-we-got-Trump book is due out in the fall.

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