The Twilight Years: The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars

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"Thought-provoking and illuminating...Overy's study of British culture between the wars is absorbing and unexpectedly moving."
-The New York Times Book Review

Original, entertaining, and ever-surprising, The Twilight Years tells the story of how an abiding fear of war influenced English life in the aftermath of World War I. Britain had become a laboratory for modern thought and experimentations, from eugenics to Freud's unconscious. And drawing upon these innovative ideas and concepts, intellectuals, politicians, scientists, and artists-among them Arnold Toynbee, Aldous Huxley, and H.G. Wells-grappled with a creeping fear that the West was staring down the end of civilization. The Twilight Years speaks to the frightening power of ideas in a rapidly changing world.

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Editorial Reviews

Alex von Tunzelmann
In The Twilight Years, his thought-provoking and illuminating new study of the interwar period, Richard Overy contends that before 1914 the British believed they had conquered the world and would rule it forever. After World War I, a wrecked generation had to pick up the pieces of that world and ask what went wrong. It is this process that occupies the book, which successfully adopts a broad-brush approach to cultural life without obscuring gemlike details…Overy's study of British culture between the wars is absorbing and unexpectedly moving. Some of its stories may haunt the reader long after the book has been closed, and not just the morbid ones.
—The New York Times
Library Journal
Overy (Why the Allies Won) describes the irrational pessimism that hung like a curtain over British intellectual life between the world wars and formed the basis for the overwhelming paradox that paralyzed England until the outbreak of war in 1939. This pessimism was paradoxical because things were not as dire in Great Britain as the English thought. On the one hand, the English believed civilization was doomed, yet they also believed it was their responsibility to save it. They thought absolute pacifism was necessary, but war was inevitable. Overy clearly describes how this paradox affected areas as diverse as the eugenics movement, psychoanalysis, political cooperation, and economics. VERDICT Well researched and lucidly written, this book will appeal to those interested in understanding how the intellectual elite of Europe failed to resolve and in fact contributed to the very "crisis" they were trying to prevent.—Michael Farrell, Reformed Theological Seminary Lib., Oviedo, FL
Kirkus Reviews
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 epoque," 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. Agent: Gill Coleridge/Rogers, Coleridge & White
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143118114
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/30/2010
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 803,875
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Overy is Professor of Modern History at King's College, London. He has written extensively on modern German and European history, and is the author of Russia's War and The Penguin Atlas of the Third Reich.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface and Acknowledgements xiii

Note on Currency xv

Britain 1919-1939: A Chronological Introduction xvii

Introduction: Cassandras and Jeremiahs 1

1 Decline and Fall 9

2 The Death of Capitalism 50

3 A Sickness in the Racial Body 93

4 Medicine and Poison: Psychoanalysis and Social Dismay 136

5 Why War? 175

6 Challenge to Death 219

7 Utopian Politics: Cure or Disease? 265

8 'The Voyage of the Death Ship': War and the Fate of the World 314

9 A Morbid Age 363

Notes 385

Bibliography and sources 474

Index 501

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