Overy (Modern History/Univ. of Exeter; The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, 2004, etc.) chronicles the various forces of anxiety that gripped British society in the interwar period.
The author calls this era the “morbid age,” when the Great War had shattered the hopeful progression for civilization during the previous “rosy belle époque,” ushering in fears about impending catastrophe. Overy considers these gloomy forces in turn, from the physical evidence of human breakdown in the form of the war’s survivors—millions of men shell-shocked and psychologically damaged—to frightening predictions by social scientists and the growing appeal of eugenics, psychoanalysis and pacifism. Writers like Leonard Woolf rued the passing of the “ordered way of life” to be replaced by surges of “hatred, fear and self-preservation” after the war, and seminal jeremiads by H.G. Wells, Gilbert Murray, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee announced a crisis of Western civilization. The capitalist system was doomed to decay, asserted intellectuals Beatrice and Sidney Webb, while Walter Greenwood’s sadly realistic working-class novel Love on the Dole (1933) captured the popular despair during hard economic times. Overy’s chapter “A Sickness in the Body” examines the work of early birth-control crusaders like Marie Stopes, whose aim was actually “race improvement” and discouragement of “reckless breeding” by the “unfit”—though Overy skirts the issue of anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, the fashionable new field of psychoanalysis was going to cure the ills of civilization, even though Freud’s prognosis was essentially pessimistic. As the fear of a new world crisis loomed, people wondered about the causes of war, peace activists tried to be heard and public sentiment fractured into “creed wars” represented by extreme factions such as Soviet communism and German National Socialism. Overy proves to be a fastidious researcher, and he creates an intriguing, albeit scholarly, narrative.
A bracing study that demonstrates how the drumbeat of doom became self-perpetuating.