To read this, you would think that to live in England during the years between the two World Wars, you needed two Venlafaxine a day. Of course the First World War caused tremendous amounts of grief and worry, and threw the national and imperial economies of Europe into a tailspin. But Richard Overy paints a picture of a people who thought that they were the only bastion of civilization. They barely survived one total war. They lived for an entire generation thinking that another one would bring total ruination to everything holy, pure, and good. "The Twilight Years" looks at a wide range of topics, but this looming nihilism about chances for the future and its sure doom if another war was to rear its ugly head, are constant themes which fully inform all aspects of the book.
Several topics are traced here, starting with the dominant historiography of Western Europe during this time, namely the writings of Spengler and Toynbee, both of whose thoughts about history were colored by cyclical periods of cultural growth and renewal followed by eventual decadence and decline. Others thought that World War I was the symbolic end for capitalism, illustrating how it was now an unsustainable economic system and needed to be replaced with either Communism or something else; these ideas were prevalent on both the sides of the political spectrum.
What was one to do, then, in order to save culture from the barbarians trying to throw us headlong into another war? An ethos of cautious preservation and social utopia - the titular paradox - coexisted simultaneously. Eugenics was very much in vogue, especially by those who considered themselves members of the progressive Left, and felt that "weeding out" members of society who were not as physically or mentally fit was the obligation of the government if society was to continue on. Furthermore, everyone was in favor of both positive and negative eugenics. (Positive eugenics is aimed at encouraging reproduction among the genetically advantaged, while negative eugenics is aimed at lowering fertility among the genetically disadvantaged, including abortions and forced sterilizations.) One woman Overy mentions, a highly enthusiastic supporter of eugenics of all kinds by the name of Marie Stopes, disinherited her own son upon his announcement that he had married a woman who wore eyeglasses, thinking that she might pass her myopia onto their own children.
This was also the time when Freudian psychoanalysis was just beginning to both splinter off into its sub-schools (Adlerian, Jungian, et cetera), and when Freud started to become a household name. It was seen as just as big a panacea as eugenics, another eight ball to tell whether human nature was inherently good or evil. The answer was sure to predict whether or not another war would be inevitable. Not surprisingly, the "scientific" research into these questions yielded only inconclusive results. Political partisans would use it for their own advantage, hawks thinking that war was a part of the human condition, and pacifists thinking that it wasn't. Pacifism and all of its various incarnations all over England take up a sizeable part of the book, only fading well into the 1930s when percipient observers knew that it would take nothing short of war to stop Hitler and fascism. It was fascinating to see who hung on, though, and for how long. Aldous Huxley, for example, remained an ardent pacifist even as Hitler was invading Poland.
As others have noted, this isn't so much a social or intellectual history as it is a "history of mentalities," mostly informed by the thought of the dominant, educated classes of the time. For all of the possibly divisive material, I didn't detect any noticeable biases on Overy's part. It's clear and accessible for anyone with even a minimal background in the subject, and doesn't assume too much of the reader in the way of the minutiae of English politics. For those interested in these smaller details, he provides a useful introduction called "Britain 1919-1939: A Chronological Introduction," which gives foreign policy details, a list of prime ministers, and a note on the economy. All in all, this is a superb book for anyone interested in the very historically specific worries, anxieties, and preoccupations of England during the twenties and thirties.