Every age has its prophets of doom and in an uncertain world anxiety and foreboding are never very far away. But Richard Overy's contention in The Morbid Age is that in Britain between the two world wars such feelings were particularly strong - so strong that they formed a central part of the zeitgeist.
Overy is too good an historian not to know that he is presenting a selective picture. The interwar years were also a time of scientific and technological progress, higher living standards (if you had a job), promising social developments, new diversions and exciting artistic and intellectual ferment.
At the same time, there were grounds for dismay which were too large for anyone to ignore. One was the continuing trauma of the First World War, another the world economic crisis which began in 1929. And the rise of the dictators was not only a grim phenomenon in itself: it also made the prospect of an even deadlier world war start seeming inevitable.
Overy doesn't confine himself to the immediate consequences of great events, however. His concern is with ideas and attitudes and he begins by surveying the belief in impending cultural collapse that prevailed in many different quarters in the early 1920s. Arnold Toynbee gets the most extended treatment here, though there are also lively accounts of such other dealers in doom as Oswald Spengler (of The Decline of the West) and the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie.
From narratives of general decline, Overy moves on to explanations that focused on particular aspects. He has a riveting chapter on the eugenics movement which, set out to deal with the supposed "biological crisis" (too many of the wrong kind of children being born) and which numbered such luminaries as John Maynard Keynes and Julian Huxley among its members. The movement's attitudes were often chilling. Some of its supporters were perfectly willing to consign unsatisfactory specimens of humanity to the lethal chamber.