August 24, 2009


The end was nigh: Richard Overy’s comprehensive account of the fear of ‘civilisational decline’ that gripped Britain between the world wars, writes Matthew Price, poses more than a few challenges for the doomsayers of today.: a review of The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars by Richard Overy (Matthew Price, The National)

In his suggestive new book The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars, the distinguished historian Richard Overy looks back to the time of Spengler to explore how the paradox of progress and peril consumed almost every aspect of British society in the two decades between the First and Second World Wars. His subject matter, Overy writes, “is in no sense an insular history”. As America does today, Britain then considered itself the hub of western civilisation – and its putative crisis was cast by intellectuals, writers, artists, politicians and scientists as a “crisis of civilisation”, tout court. Fear and doubt, then as now, were pervasive – over the resilience of capitalism, the health of the population, the direction of society and, above all, about whether Europe would soon destroy itself in another violent conflagration. The discourse Overy surveys was widespread: “There were few areas of intellectual endeavour, artistic, literary, scientific, philosophical, that were not affected in some form or other by the prevailing paradigms of impending decline and collapse,” he writes. “The sense of crisis was not specific to any one generation... nor was it confined to one political or social outlook.”

Overy has gathered a rich harvest of material – pamphlets, broadsides, books, lectures, newsreels and radio broadcasts – from a diverse assortment of English writers and thinkers, among them EM Forster, the brothers Aldous and Julian Huxley, HG Wells, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Stephen Spender, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw and the historian Arnold Toynbee. If the world was indeed ending, there was as much eloquence from these figures as there was gloom about their predicament. (After a health crisis in 1936, Forster mused that he was being nursed “with so much kindness and sense,” despite living in a “civilisation which has neither kindness or sense.”)

Few did more to establish the tenor of the era than Arnold Toynbee, Britain’s own Spengler. In Toynbee’s view, all civilisations hewed to the same pattern, which Overy describes as “creative expansion, mechanistic consolidation, internal decay prompted by cultural stagnation, social division, and a final universal Caesarism”. Just as past civilisations – Mayan, Roman, Greek – had seen glory and then disappeared from the face of the earth, the West would meet a similar fate. His ideas found a receptive audience in the inter-war years. Lecture halls featured talks on topics like “The Decay of Moral Culture” and the poetic if overwrought “The Smoke of Our Burning”. Death was on everyone’s minds – in 1924, one lecturer asked “Why not Commit Suicide?” (Overy does not say how the question was answered). In the mid-1930s, John Boulting (of the famed filmmaking duo the Boulting Brothers), recoiled after a trip to London, where he found only “dirt, disorder and a terrifying din”, another sign of a society plunging “headlong, blindly and almost eagerly towards a gigantic carnival of self-extermination”.

Today, this erudite hysteria may seem unintentionally funny, the hyper-articulate ravings of terrified intellectuals. But Overy notes that these views were hardly outside the mainstream: Britain had been overcome by a tidal wave of despair, and as the 1920s gave way to the years of the Slump, the agitation only increased. Writers fed the public’s appetite for the literature of crisis – The Intelligent Man’s Guide Through the World Chaos, by the socialist writer GDH Cole, sold some 50,000 copies in 1932. (Whatever the state of British civilisation, these years proved a boon to the publishers like Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, and Victor Gollancz, the proprietor of the Left Book Club.)

Overy contends that this was not merely a time of escalating and overheated rhetoric: the prophets of decline were deadly sincere, looking to science, economics, medicine and history to construct elaborate proofs of the nearing of the end. If, as has been suggested, this was primarily the discourse of an educated elite, whose views “reflected the prejudices and the expectations of the educated classes”, the theories of decline found a wide and eager audience – they flourished, Overy writes, “in the first real age of mass communication”.

The Morbid Age is a showcase for the brightest minds of the era, yet the fruits of all this fevered fretting were often less than palatable. The discourse of crisis was extreme in tone; the terms used to describe the state of Britain were invariably apocalyptic and millennial. Moderate voices were drowned by a series of emotive keywords that recur again and again in the literature Overy surveys: decay, menace, disease, barbarism, chaos, descent, sick. Even among some of the most progressive thinkers of the age, as Overy shows, the diagnosis that British civilisation was approaching collapse bore a deeply reactionary tint.

Perhaps the most sinister manifestation of this current was the intellectual vogue for eugenics. The rise and fall of civilisations could, in part, be explained by theories of racial purity. In Britain, many concluded that the wrong people – the poor and the mentally handicapped – were giving birth at a rate that threatened to engulf society in a wave of mediocrity. “We are getting larger and larger dregs at the bottom of our national vats,” concluded one biologist. To counter the trend, the British Eugenics Society, whose members included Julian Huxley and Keynes, promoted a campaign of sterilisation that looked very much like a similar programme implemented in Nazi Germany.

This ugly esteem for eugenics was but one manifestation of the great faith laid at the feet of science, whose advances were widely believed to represent the only possible hope for salvation. “Confidence in the power of science to deliver what was appropriate for modern society was widespread” writes Overy.

By their dimness shall you know the Bright.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 24, 2009 12:19 PM
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