The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars by Richard Overy
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.
There is an equally illuminating account of pacifism and of the anti-war organisations that together formed the largest mass-movement in Britain between the wars. The story is enlivened by the constant infighting between the various anti-war groups, most notably between the biggest of them, the League of Nations Union (which accepted the use of force as a last resort), and the absolute pacifists (who were forever denouncing the Union as warmongers).
Here as elsewhere in the book, intellectual history is reinforced by anecdote and gossipy detail. Overy homes in skilfully on individual case-histories, such as that of Walter Greenwood, author of the best-selling novel Love on the Dole, while much of the material he cites to illustrate his main points is refreshingly unfamiliar. There is an amusing glimpse of an improbable gala, the “Malthusian Ball” which was held at the Dorchester Hotel in 1934 to raise money for the birth control movement. The extent of public revulsion against the arms trade is rubbed in with quotations from a source which few would have predicted, a Leslie Charteris thriller in which the Saint pits his wits against a international arms racketeer called Kane Luker (Cain plus lucre, just in case you haven’t got it).
The world Overy portrays was intensely political. His sympathies are wide enough to remind us that it was also one in which people were constantly hankering to get away from politics. What was pacifism, after all, but a desire to transcend the nastier kinds of political conflict? But although this may have been an honourable impulse, it did not necessarily have honourable consequences. Follow it far enough, and you ended up with Dr Barnes, the Bishop of Birmingham, urging Britain-this was in 1934 – to disarm completely and rely on “a policy of international righteousness”.
Like it or not, politics were everywhere and Overy devotes the closing stages of the book to an assessment of “utopian politics” (by which he means communism and fascism) and a related chapter on the Spanish Civil War and the final swing towards full-scale European hostilities.
As he rightly points out, while both fascism and communism made a feeble showing in Britain during the 1930s in terms of numbers, “the public arena was swamped with a remarkable level of engagement with both ideologies”. There is a difference, however. Where Nazi Germany was overwhelmingly seen as a menace, the Soviet Union was widely thought of, even by those who didn’t buy into the utopia myth, as an impressive experiment and, at least in part, an inspiration.
Overy himself certainly doesn’t gloss over the nature of the Stalinist regime, but his account of its British apologists is less satisfactory. His key point is that much of what is conventionally considered fellow-travelling wasn’t really politically committed. Rather, it was “a means of projecting anxieties about the prospects for British society and political institutions on to civil and political conflicts abroad”. No doubt there is something in this. But the fact that many fellow-travellers were “innocent” doesn’t mean that they didn’t do harm. Another definition of them might be useful idiots.
Overy can also be too indulgent in his treatment of serious fellow-travellers, as opposed to the “innocent” ones. Not always: he leaves us in no doubt what he thinks of the Webbs’ whitewashing of Stalin in Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation. But writing about the Left Book Club, for instance, he gives a quite inadequate idea of how far that nominally independent enterprise was dedicated to doing the communists’ work for them.
His interpretation of the public response to Hitler is equally problematic. He talks of “the cultural construction of Hitler as the enemy of civilisation”, and of his being “demonised as the agent of destruction”. On this showing, Nazism was the occasion as much as the cause of Britain going to war in 1939. A fatalistic conviction that war was unavoidable, he argues, had taken root long before, and the country’s willingness to fight, though partly prompted by Hitler’s actions, was also a projection of domestic anxieties – a product of the Morbid Age.
That a generalised sense of crisis played its part in the build-up to war would be hard to deny. But in placing such heavy emphasis on it, Overy underestimates the public’s sense of reality. Most people accepted the need for war because they saw Hitler as an objective threat, and a threat that would only grow worse the longer he went unchecked. Overy’s exaggeration in this case makes you wonder whether there isn’t a vein of exaggeration running throughout The Morbid Age. Certainly “morbid” seems too highly coloured an adjective to sum up an entire epoch. And that in turn makes you suspect that the book may well have a buried message.
If it does, it can only be that we too, in our own time, would do well to take things more calmly. Overy closes the book with a warning that democracies today are no more immune than they were in the past from “the dangerous power of popular fear”. And at an earlier point he suggests that we are in an even more jittery state than our Morbid Age predecessors. “The inter-war years,” he writes, “differed from the current malaise in the sense that many of the issues confronted by the West were neither phantoms nor extrapolated fantasies but the fruit of real historical dramas.”
As to what specific phantoms and fantasies he has in mind, we can only guess. He doesn’t offer any further clues. The Morbid Age is a rewarding book (and a highly readable one), but there remains something unexplained at the heart of it.