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The Twilight Years: The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars [Paperback]

Richard J. Overy
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 521 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (30 Nov 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143118110
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143118114
  • Product Dimensions: 14.2 x 3 x 21.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,568,881 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Speculation on speculation 11 Oct 2012
After two yawn.. history books, one an exercise in belles lettres, the other all trees and no wood, I fell with relief on this fascinating trawl through the pessimistic minutiae of the entre deux guerres, an intriguing theme illustrating a closely argued thesis. Isn't this how history should be? Though to be fair to Tim Blanning, as we are here dealing with intellectual history we are more concerned with 'mere words', if not aery fancies, with the perceived, proposed or predicted, than with the murky, mucky terrain of the actuel. But how come no reviews? 4.5
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding Inter-War Britain 9 Jan 2011
By Thomas M. Sullivan - Published on
Verified Purchase
After having read what I considered to be a fairly extensive and diverse selection of books relating to the British public's mindset just before, during, and after World War I, and also in the period between World Wars I and II, I had come to the conclusion that it is impossible for at least we Americans to fully understand the level of disillusionment and pathos generated in the Isles by those great catastrophes. For despite sharing a common heritage, the peoples' respective histories, sociological and economic structures, and forms of government are simply too different for us to fully relate. This is not to say that one can't secure valuable insights from immensely well-written and rewarding books such as Juliet Nicolson's "The Perfect Summer" and "The Great Silence," Maureen Waller's "London 1945," and, on the post-World War II years, from David Kynaston's remarkable "Austerity Britain" and "Family Britain." Thus, I was anticipating only more ultimate frustration when I undertook Professor Overy's "The Twilight Years." I was happily mistaken.

One of the British attributes we Anglophiles hold most dear is that no matter how extreme, far-out, indeed, nutty, a Brit's outlook on life or special prejudice(s), he can invariably find a club, society, and frequently, a political party, that not only shares his views, but is well along in embellishing and perfecting them. And it was during the inter-war years that these vividly imagined and vigorously pressed views butted intellectual horns like desperately rutting bighorn sheep. Every notion of civilized life and economic, political, and social theory was up for grabs. Indeed, the very survival of civilization was mooted and the horrors of WW I, recalled when every disfigured veteran came into sight and every memorial dedicated, somehow gestated into the widely held belief that yet another war was not only necessary, but essential, to the re-vivification of civilization...or as a means of hastening its (to some, inescapable) demise.

Perhaps most interesting to the American reader is Overy's description of how the country where capitalism was conceived and first flourished came to regard it as the root of not only all economic evils, but most social ills as well. The redistribution of wealth, a concept ironically nurtured, if not born, in the same economic maternity ward which sheltered the incredible expansion of the middle class during the Victorian period, now became the mantra of the masses and the predicate for what latterly appeared as the inevitable birth of the `welfare state' at the end of WW II.

Fact is that no summary of mine can adequately describe the length and breadth of Overy's consideration of these topics and the masterly manner in which he dissects them and puts them into perspective. His narrative style may be a bit dry, and perhaps you'll learn more about a few obscure players in the drama than you care to know. But if you, as I, wish to better understand (indeed, understand for the first time) Britain during the inter-war years, I know of no better book for the purpose.
47 of 58 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not much light on the Twilight years 17 Dec 2009
By wogan - Published on
Richard Overy is a British historian who has written `The Twilight Years The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars'. There is an extremely good beginning explaining the currency differences and between income then and now; and introductions to the politics of the period.
The chapters and subjects are aimed more to the intellectual thinking and intellectual/political personas in these years rather than the social history that the cover with a picture of men walking along the street led me to believe the book was about . Unless you are a dedicated political/theoretical historian this book is probably not for you and definitely not for light historical reading
The subject matter is very specific, such as; intellectual Malthusian theory, the improvement of the race. There is much psychoanalysis - despite the `war to end all wars' - the fear of impending doom and another war; but again it is not the common man that is investigated in this writing. It is instead political theory and beliefs. If that is what you are interested in finding then this is exactly the work for you.
As an avid Anglophile I had great hopes of reading of the state of mind and life in the British Isles in between the wars, but instead this is theoretical thinking of an educated elite, not the general British population.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Perspective on Britain between the Wars 29 Jan 2010
By Ronald H. Clark - Published on
There are many books out there which discuss the status of Britain between the first and second wars. This one is somewhat unique in that the author focuses on ideas ("social, cultural and intellectual world"), rather than events, as the centerpoints of his analysis. The author concisely summarizes his approach and concerns in a "chronological introduction" to Britain 1919-1939. Next he briefly discusses the emotional tone present during the period--fear of war, the end of civilization, and a general feeling of dread. The first full chapter is probably the most interesting since it deals with the impact of the first war on the British psyche. Given the intense fear a new war, and its potential as a death blow, ideas such as civilization facing a crisis, impending decline and collapse, a new dark age with barbarians at the gates were prevalent. The old Victorian confidence in inevitable progress is clearly challenged. A very good second chapter discusses the perception that abusive capitalism had caused the British decline, and the author effectively discusses the ideas of the Webbs, J.A. Hobson, J.M. Keynes, G.D.H. Cole, Cyril Joad and others. Much discussion of social injustices caused by capitalism occurred during this period, and some advocated economic planning as a solution, which in fact occurred with Labour's victory in 1945.

The next several chapters discuss some key ideas, but they seemed at times overly detailed to me. The first talks about the interest during the period in eugenics, sterilization and birth control to preserve "the race." Ironically, the same kind of discussion was going on in this country as well. The impact of Freud's ideas is the subject of an interesting chapter. All this talk about the unconscious and the arrival of psychoanalysis presented such a challenge to rationality as a controlling influence, that it scared the devil out of many Britons. On top of this, further chapters discuss the fear of war, pacifist groups, the incredible fixation of the population on Hitler and what he would do next, and the Spanish Civil War which many saw as the last chance to stop Fascism short of Britain going to war itself. When war did finally come, the contrast between the high spirits on entering the first war and the mood of dark despair surrounding the second is palpable. Given all the traumas and boogiemen that had tortured the British psyche during the interwar period, this "end of civilization" mentality is quite understandable.

The book is supported by 88 pages of endnotes and a bibliograph/list of sources of 26 pages, well as abundant illustrations. This is a complex period, and although we have long known what happened, this book helps us understand why events occurred. A bit wordy though it may be, it makes a distinct contribution to our historical understanding of these vital 20 years.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An England Under Existential Threat 9 Aug 2012
By A Certain Bibliophile - Published on
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Twilight Years is a scholary survey of British intellectual life and trends from 1918 to 1939 5 Oct 2011
By C. M Mills - Published on
The Twilight Years by Dr. Richard Overy of the University of Essex is a scholarly written text dealing with the interwar years in Great Britain from 1918-39. The book focuses on the intellectual trends manifest in this dangerous time as the world dealt with the horrors of over ten million dead in the trenches of World War I. These years were prelude to the greater horrors of World War II in which overe fifty million civilian and military persons lost their lives.
The book focuses on several issues which were important in this time period. Among them:
a. A distrust of capitalism and the rise of Marxism and Communisism among the British elite. Such luminaries as the Potters and Bernard Shaw were smitten with Stalin's Soviet Union.
b. Britain suffered through the Great Depression as did other Western democracies.
c. Support for eugenics grew in popularity as racial theories came into prominence. The treatment of the mentally ill was much debated in this era.
d. Overy's finest pages deal with the pacificist efforts to eradicate war led by both Christian believers and secular advocates of disarmament.
e.. Psychoanalysis as practiced by Freud was applauded by such British doctors as Ernest Jones. It was also denounced. Sexual
freedoms became more widespread.
f. Utopianaism and dystopian visions were prominent. Most notable in dystopian literature was "Brave New World" by English author Aldous Huxley.
g. Mass media through radio and the movies were growing increasingly important in the 1930s.
Dr. Overy focuses on major issues and players among the intellectual elite of Great Britain. It was an age of pessimism and morbidity as the world grew closer to the brink of another unspeakably horrible world war.
h. European dictators Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy came into power. Antisemitism was on the rise in this dictator ruled nations.
The book is well edited, footnoted and illustrated with period photographs. In this book we learn about the activities of such literary figures as Virginia and Leonard Woolf,George Orwell, Storm Jameson, HG Wells, economist such as John Maynard Keyes and politicians from Stanley Baldwin to Neville Chamberlain to Winston Churchill. The Twilight Years reads like a textbook with few human interest anecdotes Overy's work is a useful tool for understanding the European climate in a time of fear;, economic depression and the black shadow of war.
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