An 'End-of-civilization' Ambience

Historian Richard Overy's new book presumes to deal only with the mood in Britain between the two world wars, but one can also draw conclusions from it about the way democracies behave in times of crisis.

"The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars," by Richard Overy, Allen Lane-Penguin Books, 522 pages, $25

At the beginning of his book, Richard Overy recounts that when he informed his colleague, historian and communist Eric Hobsbawm, of his intention to write about Great Britain in the 1920s and '30s, Hobsbawm volunteered to give Overy his first testimony on the subject. Back when he was at Cambridge in 1939, Hobsbawm recounted, he and all of his classmates, from across the political spectrum, were certain that they were nearing the end of their lives - that total annihilation was about to consume them and there was no escaping it.

The fact that this "end-of-civilization" feeling overcame even a communist like Eric Hobsbawm - ostensibly an optimist and a great believer in the coming victory of the world revolution - surprised Overy greatly, who was reminded of his own Cambridge days, in the 1960s: He told his colleague that his fellow students were also very troubled by what they saw as the rising dangers of nuclear weapons and discussed this subject incessantly. But as far as Overy could recall, preoccupation with impending horrors did not drive any of his friends to suicidal thoughts or to feel they were on the brink of a catastrophe. All he remembered was the special ambience in the student dorms, with Leonard Cohen songs playing in the background, a thick haze of smoke over everything, and cheap wine to lift the spirits.

Once he embarked on his research and collected an abundance of testimony, Overy concluded that Hobsbawm had done an excellent job of describing the atmosphere in Britain in the '20s and '30s. What was surprising, he writes, in "The Morbid Age," is the fact that, contrary to common belief, Britain was not disconnected from what was happening on the Continent at the time: The gloom that prevailed in Europe indeed spread across the English Channel and took hold of the citizens of the great empire. Overy was even more surprised because the British essentially had no reason to be swept up by the winds of desperation blowing from Europe, as the political, economic, social and cultural situation in the United Kingdom was not in fact so dire.

One traditional view is that the depressed atmosphere in Britain was rooted in the disappointment of those returning from the battlefields of World War I. The leaders who sent them to the trenches had promised them a better world, befitting the degree of sacrifice and bravery that was demanded of them. But instead they came home to what they saw as a shattered, unstable world.

Nevertheless, Overy points out, as opposed to many of its European neighbors, Great Britain was actually not a damaged, dispirited country. No violent protests or civil strife erupted there, and even the unemployment situation - although it affected millions of households headed by jobless men - did not significantly undermine the functioning of the post-war economy. Many who were not on the dole, and actually had jobs, lived it up during these years of general hardship. Their standard of living improved greatly, they enjoyed better services and lived in a more integrated, heterogeneous society. In short, the author concludes, contrary to what was happening on the Continent, capitalism in Britain was not "going bankrupt": It was seen as an effective means of managing the needs and demands of a progressive modern society. It was flawed, it creaked and faltered in crises, but there was no reason for people to toss it into the dustbin of economic theory.

Any strong objections to the capitalist system in Britain at the time were therefore not aimed at its economic tenets per se. Indeed, there was a growing interest in sound, capitalist-based economic planning as a cure for the ills of a modern economy, and as a means for containing crises that arose. The information being disseminated by the Soviet Union about its ostensible economic successes bolstered the belief in the necessity of such planning.

Many complaints about capitalism during these decades stemmed from what people saw as its moral blindness: Capitalism was bad not because it could not serve the needs of a progressive, developing society, but rather because it was aggressive and left thousands by the wayside, beaten, bruised and desperate. If a means could be found to help it "mend its ways," there would be no need to get rid of capitalism.

Fascinating paradoxes

Overy presents a number of explanations for what he saw as the British gloominess during the '20s and '30s, some of which illustrate fascinating paradoxes. The feeling among Britons that their country had blundered or had failed during a crisis to summon its strength, or to provide refuge and salvation to a collapsing world, did not necessarily derive from the view that the kingdom was weak. Many who lamented the state of the world, and its insane, unstoppable rush toward another destructive war, expected Britain to stand in the breach and offer succor. Italy might be mad, France could be unreliable, people said, but theirs was an empire with an obligation to display leadership and responsibility to the entire world, many Britons reasoned.

In general, Overy writes, there is no basis to the commonly held notion that the British were living on an isolated island, disengaged from the rest of the world. Their decision makers, press and academics were all well aware of events on the Continent, as were many inhabitants.

As usual in his work, Overy grounds his conclusions here in solid facts and details. He will cite an important literary work - and immediately set about ascertaining how many editions and print runs it had, who read it and what the reactions were to it. Erich Maria Remarque's 1930 novel "All Quiet on the Western Front," which depicts the trench-warfare experiences of a soldier in the army of the German emperor, was a big best-seller when it was translated into English, the following year: More than 300,000 copies were sold in the first six months. Overy concludes from this and other information that the British public was very interested in what was happening on the Continent.

The author is astonished by the number of voluntary bodies that distributed and marketed information on various topics during the period under discussion: Every evening, in every city in Britain, whether big or small, there were lectures open to the public that offered discussions, in an easy and clear language, on every topic or interest, from disarmament and the arms race to improving one's sex life and ensuring a happy family life. And the English took full advantage of what they heard, listened carefully and formulated their opinions, Overy writes.

What people often heard in these forums, however, were despairing and angry prophecies, and the willingness to accept such visions of doom and gloom lay in the "scientific" basis of the arguments being sounded. Overy writes that after Britain's citizens lost their faith in politics and politicians who betrayed them and broke all of the promises they had made, science remained their last hope. Science would resolve all the problems of existence, lengthen and enrich life, and be used ultimately to contend with all those factors that threatened humanity.

In those years, people still believed that science could only bring humanity forward - toward progress and happiness. Science burst past boundaries and exposed all the laws of nature, but also breached the depths of the human psyche and the laws of social conduct. And when "scientists" sounded bleak predictions at every juncture about the discoveries they had made, despair was inevitable.

For example, says Overy, psychoanalysts promised in the '20s and '30s to reveal many of the hidden, mysterious secrets of the human psyche, while plumbing the depths of the unconscious. What they found there was pure evil - destructive and suicidal impulses, and dark urges. Biologists and other researchers of the human body claimed that the mixing of the races was inescapable; the view was that the older generation was steadily shrinking, and the modern world, by breaching boundaries and precipitating interrelationships between different peoples, was only hastening such a dire scenario. For their part, economists stressed that planning was vital because the capitalist market, with its predictable cycles of growth and collapse, if left to its own devices, would eventually wreak havoc on these cycles. And, again, such warnings were "scientific" and proven.

The result was obvious, writes Overy: Britons felt despair and anxiety, because science "proved" that their end was near and unavoidable. Furthermore, the country's academics and press were blessed with a marvelous ability to simplify complicated matters into orderly and easily understandable doctrines. Yet ultimately, those entrusted with the task of putting these wondrous ideas and reforms into practice were the politicians. And they, the author concludes, offered solutions to the problems raised by science that ranged as far, for example, as voluntary sterilization. Democratic societies that were not prepared to adopt such drastic measures were left with the unequivocal realization that they were doomed to "racial degeneration," from which there was no escape.

The author ascribes great importance to the spread of these perceptions, because he says they characterized broad swathes of the public. The despair and gloom were not only characteristic of elitist student groups at Cambridge and Oxford: This was not a feeling limited to self-indulgent individuals who controlled their destiny and whose future success was virtually assured, but rather a widespread one that penetrated all layers of society.

In the '20s and '30s, the author explains, reliable means already existed for examining and assessing general perceptions and types of behavior: Opinion polls, letters, diaries and a survey of the press all attested to the prevalence of certain views. But the primary and most powerful engine for their dissemination in this case was BBC Radio broadcasts, and Overy offers some riveting findings in this vein.

The BBC became the public authority that we know today only in 1927, when it had about two million listeners; on the eve of World War II, in 1939, that figure rose to more than nine million. Some 98 percent of the population were able to tune in to its broadcasts and the information-thirsty British took advantage of this. They listened to the "wireless," as they called it, at home, at work, but also at the local pub. Besides hearing Churchill's enthralling speeches, they were exposed to countless talk shows, radio skits, and discussions by various "councils of sages" who, as noted above, had a lot to say.

New territory

Until now, Richard Overy was known as a historian who excelled at analyzing and describing a host of topics related to World War II, and as a first-rate military commentator. His new book therefore constitutes a foray into new territory for him, and he has brought great clarity to the task. The attempt to characterize a national mood during a given era is by definition problematic and entails an understanding of very complicated issues. The author evidently did a good job of sifting through the testimony he used, and wisely defined the extent to which the sources at his disposal were genuinely representative of that mood.

To what degree is it possible to draw conclusions from editorials in the daily press? To what extent does such writing reflect the opinion of its consumers? What can we conclude from the widespread phenomenon of "popular science for all"? What can we learn from the printing of works of this genre by major publishing houses, and from their sales? When the author adds to his evidence the contents of private diaries and correspondence which were not meant for publication and distribution - the conclusions he draws seem to be even more reliable.

The book in question presumes to deal only with Britain during a very specific period in its history, but as Overy points out over and over, one can also make conclusions based on it about the way democracies behave in times of crisis. The openness of the society, the lack of violent censorship, the public's healthy appetite for learning and for knowledge - all contribute to spreading a particular mood like brushfire through a society.

Anyone who studies the phenomenon years later might deduce that a society that has gone through such a process may find itself on the verge of destruction. But Richard Overy is not surprised by the speed and determination with which Britons emerged from the era of gloom in which they had wallowed between the two world wars. When the latter war broke out, he writes, the citizens of Britain had no trouble telling apart the "Sons of Light" from the "Sons of Darkness." From their standpoint, the attempt to defeat Hitler and his allies was a last-ditch effort to save the fine Old World - whose potential decline and disappearance they had read and heard so much about during the 20 years since returning from the trenches of World War I, full of hope that they would establish a world worthy of their courage and sacrifice.