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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshingly different
We're all well accustomed to history books about the Twenties and the Thirties, many of them in the field of social history, and while there are many splendid examples, perhaps we now have something of a surfeit of 'more of the same'. That's why it's so refreshing to find a book like 'The Morbid Age' with its original focus on the pessimistic outlook of much of society in...
Published on 3 Jan 2010 by GregB

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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A mixed bag
In general, this was a good social history of inter-war Britain, and the author has done a good job analysing such a complex period into less than 400 pages.

Before I outline my criticism, I have to say that parts of the book were genuinely interesting, with some of the weird and wonderful people/groups prevented it from being the boring run through that it...
Published on 26 April 2011 by Jon 'ET' A


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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshingly different, 3 Jan 2010
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This review is from: The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars (Hardcover)
We're all well accustomed to history books about the Twenties and the Thirties, many of them in the field of social history, and while there are many splendid examples, perhaps we now have something of a surfeit of 'more of the same'. That's why it's so refreshing to find a book like 'The Morbid Age' with its original focus on the pessimistic outlook of much of society in Britain (and elsewhere) between the wars. I think it's fascinating to get to the real nature of a society at a given time, behind and well beyond the simplistic labels, such as The Naughty Nineties, The Belle Epoque, The Roaring Twenties, The Swinging Sixties and the like which just skate superficially over the surface. This is the history of ideas at its best.

Mr. Overy is, in my view, a master historian of modern times, one of the finest of our day, and his detailed analysis of his subject matter here is excellent, painstakingly well conceived and expounded, certainly exhaustive but by no means exhausting, as some have implied. It is also very well written, very important for me when reading history. I found every page fascinating and I was constantly discovering new facts about those troubled times while having fresh light thrown on an era when many might have thought there was nothing more to say. I feel it is set to become a classic of its kind and would unhesitatingly recommend it to serious readers with a powerful curiosity about and interest in aspects of our recent history, especially outside of the more well-trodden paths.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Change and Decay, 14 Feb 2010
By 
Neutral "Phil" (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars (Hardcover)
The inter-war period is a fascinating period of history. It was a period of discontent, disillusion, dismay and delusion in which the politics and culture of Britain was wrapped up in an overcoat of mediocrity. The mediocrity was a measure of the failure of the political class to understand the nature of the changing world around them. "The western view of the world between the wars was essentially diagnostic: searching for the symptoms that indicated disease and fearful lest they should prove fatal." World War One had undermined belief in progress which blinded the intellectual elite to contemporary reality and future development. The widespread mantra that capitalism was in crisis created an unfounded belief that the future was socialist. For democrats that meant economic planning, for communists it meant the adoption of the Soviet model which was hailed as a new civilisation based on scientific principles.

The massive overviews of the rise and fall of civilisations which spawned the work of Spengler and Toynbee (neither of whom are read much these days) predicted a bleak future. The implicit belief in the superiority of Britain was undermined by a lack of any sense of spiritual satisfaction. Frank Buchman found a ready audience for the idea of Moral Rearmament. The optimism which had accompanied the expansion of the British Empire was replaced by a pessimism which questioned whether civilisation could survive. Freud sought to address this mood through psychoanalysis while others argued science would provide the answers to social problems.

The sharp division of politics into extremes of Right and Left was assisted by the absence of a meaningful intellectual critique. The misguided works of Sidney and Beatrice Webb were widely read. The pair managed to visit the Soviet Union without witnessing the dominance of the cult of personality and, as with other fellow travelers, ignored the fate of the Old Bolsheviks, kulaks and political dissenters. Others, such as Laski, Cole and Russell, who recognised the nature of the Soviet dictatorship for what it was, lacked sufficient political judgement to identify the importance of maintaining some semblance of democratic socialism through the Labour Party, despite the trauma of 1931.

Vague political movements attracted widespread support from the reservoir of pacifist opinion which arose from the debris of 1918. Although it tended to dissipate as war became inevitable the strength of inter-war pacifism should not be underestimated. The "No More War" Movement and the Peace Pledge Union sought to avoid war. The appeal of Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" was not confined to Germany. The political Right also suffered from willful prewar blindness. The Munich Agreement was "Peace With Honour" only because Chamberlain did not believe Hitler would act dishonorably. The myth that the political establishment was ready to come to terms with Germany in the early years of the war lacked substance and relatively few people were detained under Regulation 18B.

The decline of civilisation was equated with the decline of race an idea encouraged by pre-war race science which saw biology as a major factor in the rise and fall of nations. The idea that Anglo-American society was superior was explicit in the family planning work of Marie Stopes whose purpose was to to maintain the quality of white racial stock and preserve it from breeding with inferior types. Stopes disowned her own son when he decided to marry a girl who wore glasses!!! The Eugenics Society wanted to improve racial breeding by sterilising those they considered unfit for survival. These included idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded, moral defectives and numerous social misfits such as epileptics, consumptives, alcoholics, drug addicts, neurotics, eccentrics and the sexually promiscuous. The Labour Party saw the proposal as the embodiment of class prejudice and opposed it.

British biologists, such as Charles Blacker "blamed anti-Nazi sentiment in Britain for the failure to move rapidly .....towards more radical eugenic solutions." The idea of racial purity and superiority lived on after the war in the work of Cyril Burt, Hans Eynseck and Leonard Arthur, whose trial for the attempted murder of a Down's Syndrome child in 1981 led to a change in BMA guidelines to protect the mentally disadvantaged.

One of the major divisive political issues of the 1930's was the Spanish Civil War in which rebels led by Franco overthrew the elected Republican government. Propaganda often served as fact creating a martyr out of the headstrong upper class John Cornford. The equally headstrong Felicia Browne was not mythologised and even Overy overlooks her. On the other hand George Orwell was astute enough to recognise the Soviet Union was more interested in promoting communism than supporting the fragmented republican cause. The war also divided opinion in Britain raising fears that the bombing of cities would characterise any future conflict. Many pacifists lost their faith.

For serious historians Overy's book is a gem and an essential part of modern scholarship. This is achieved to some extent at the expense of fluidity of writing but as a description of the inter-war period this is a comprehensive survey of the society in which many of our parents matured and whose remnants filtered through to those of us born at the end of the conflict with Germany. An excellent bibliography, superb notes and good index. Five stars.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but flawed, 1 Jan 2010
By 
Claretta (London, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars (Hardcover)
I found this book heavy going at first but once I got beyond the opening chapters it was enthralling. Overy paints a vivid picture of the fears which obsessed intellectuals of the period and also demonstrates how these views were spread and debated through hundreds of local and national groups and organisations - the Peace Pledge Union, the Eugenics Society etc. What strikes the reader today is how some fears - like the conviction war was inevitable - came horribly true, while others - like the idea Britain's population would fall dramatically - proved way off-beam. (Which will our modern obsession with climate change turn out to be like?)
However, I felt Overy didn't give sufficient coverage to the official/government response to the ideas and movements he describes, and thus leaves the reader with the feeling that perhaps many of the characters who move through his pages were ultimately just ineffectual busybodies who left no real mark on history. International comparison is also beyond the book's scope so there is little discussion of how it came about that Britain avoided the fate of Germany, Spain or Italy in the same period.
Despite the reservations though I would certainly recommend the book for anyone interested in 20th century Britain.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars People have always worried, 30 Oct 2009
By 
A. M. Denman - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars (Hardcover)
We feel threatened by all manner of disasters from terrorism to global warming. Has it always been so? Richard Overy takes us back to the era between the two world wars of the 20th century to emphasise that fear of change and the future is nothing new. Then it was concern about biological sickness in 'inferior' individuals, families and groups, inescapable psychological sickness inherent in our pre-natal development, the evils of the capitalist system, dread of future, even more catastrophic wars and the resulting dilemma - was it better to fight fascism or remain a pacifist whatever the provocation? Some fears proved justified but others didn't, not least because information was increasingly avialable. Awareness of what people have achieved through knowledge and protest is much more comforting than recourse to alcohol or valium. This is a splendid, irresistible book by an academic who explains the issues clearly but in a scholarly fashion that treats readers as serious students, not dilettanti. The reader returning to each reading session re-enters a lecture theatre in the author's presence. Read it to feel less helpless.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Morbid Fascinations, 11 Jun 2012
By 
F Henwood "The bookworm that turned" (London) - See all my reviews
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British public figures and intellectuals in the years between the World Wars were a glum bunch. Given the background of war and depression, was it any wonder?

But it's not as simple as that. Times were hard in the 1920s and 30s Britain but they were harder elsewhere. Britain did not experience dictatorship. Domestic politics were decidedly placid compared to France, let alone Germany and Spain. The extremes of left and right never commanded much appeal. Even the worldwide Great Depression did not affect the country as badly as it did many countries on the continent.

The key to understanding British intellectuals' mood between the wars was their passionate engagement with the European intellectual and political scene: 'The view that British society and politics were isolated or detached from European realities in favour of the Empire has always been a distorted image' (p.369). Britain's intervention in the European war of 1914 and her efforts to construct and sustain the post-war order meant British thinkers were acutely aware of and interested in European affairs. British intellectual life was anything but parochial during this time. The innovations in publishing during these years, such as the development of cheap paperbacks, ensured that intellectual ideas enjoyed wide dissemination.

The shock of the First World War overturned complacent Victorian and Edwardian certainties of progress. This made the British receptive to works of continental thinkers such as Oswald Spengler. The seeming endless succession of economic crises seemed to herald the death of capitalism, providing further fodder for a general perception of decline. This perception was not shared everybody - the 1930s saw an economic revival and even a consumer boom but the persistence of endemic poverty in the midst of a supposed recovery served to confirm a picture of irreversible and terminal malaise.

A morbid preoccupation for decline was not just confined to economics - fears that the British race was doomed to extinction were widespread. Eugenics was taken seriously by many progressive figures such as Marie Stopes, who disowned her own son because he decided to marry a girl who wore spectacles! However the fashion for eugenics never resulted in the promulgation of legislation. Many of the predictions the 'experts' didn't come to pass and seem utterly fantastical now - one study predicted that by 1990 Britain's population would have halved to 23 million and by 2035 there would be a mere 4.4 million inhabitants - 57.7% of them over 60 (p131).

The fear of war of course was keenly felt, and justifiably so. But the widespread foreboding that the next war would entail the destruction of civilisation itself seems extraordinary, given that the atom bomb hadn't been dropped yet. The fear of war accounted for the interest in psychoanalysis and anthropology. Both disciplines attempted to explain the phenomena of war. What could be explained could be prevented. Psychoanalysis' deceptively simple trinity of ego, id and superego seemed a plausible if superficial explanation for violence and aggression: but its focus on the irrational seemed to offer an explanation for everything but a solution for nothing. Anthropologists, then as now, were bitterly divided as to the evidence for the origins of warfare: was it something that has always been with us is it an aberration? Neither discipline seemed to be able to offer any practical solution to the problem of war
.
Against this gloomy intellectual backdrop, the impact of political events on the continent was keenly felt. Foremost of these was Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Contrary to what the British policy of appeasement in the 1930s has led us to believe, British informed opinion was concerned with the implications of the rise to Nazism almost from the moment it ascended to power. The Times newspaper, previously indulgent, turned hostile. Goebbels banned its distribution in Germany in response. Even the likes of Wyndham Lewis had no kind words left to say for Hitler by 1939.

After the rise of Hitler, the Spanish civil war of 1936-1939 came similarly to define British attitudes to the emerging fascist threat. British opinion came down on the side of the Republic. Nineteen Thirty-Nine was the crunch year: General Franco's overthrow of the Spanish Republic and Hitler's seizure of Prague hardened hearts: war would be necessary to save civilisation from the fascist menace. Pacifism had a strong presence in the country up until 1939. But pacifists were already divided by this date, between those who adhered to it conditionally and countenanced a war to combat aggression, and those who eschewed all violence. The former accepted that war was a necessary evil to combat fascism. They were the majority.

I was struck by the fact that, in the last analysis, the enervating intellectual climate didn't mean that the British couldn't summon the wherewithal to fight Hitler. The morbid preoccupation of British thinkers with civilisation's decline paradoxically provided the spur to rise to fighting civilisation's greatest threat. The sense of responsibility for European civilisation that pitched Britain into the European war of 1914 did so again in 1939.

This book is not political history. It is mostly intellectual history, a survey of ideas espoused by the British intelligentsia and public figures in the 1920s and 1930s, and a very fine one at that. One is bound to reflect, when reading it, whether parallels can be drawn with the gloomy poise that many contemporary intellectuals strike. Of course, this book can't tell whether today's doomsayers are right or wrong. People in the 20s and 30s didn't worry about global warming or nuclear terrorism. But it does show how highly intelligent people are prone to underestimate civilisation's resilience to the challenges it faces.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Aptly titled history, 18 Nov 2010
By 
Mr. D. J. Linnell "francophile" (Northampton, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars (Hardcover)
This is a well researched history of the period between the two wars and gives a more than adequate history of the peace and disarmament movements which in some ways fed into Hitlers ambitions and German belligerence arising eventually to World War 2. Sometimes a depressing read but well worth it.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A mixed bag, 26 April 2011
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In general, this was a good social history of inter-war Britain, and the author has done a good job analysing such a complex period into less than 400 pages.

Before I outline my criticism, I have to say that parts of the book were genuinely interesting, with some of the weird and wonderful people/groups prevented it from being the boring run through that it could have been. In particular, reading about aspects such as the Eugenics Society, as well as the impact that well-known individuals (Freud, Darwin etc.) had on society made some chapters truly memorable and informative.

Having said that, many of the names of people and organisations mentioned got a bit overwhelming in some parts, and I sometimes questioned whether some of them were really as influential as the author described. Whilst I understand that more detail can be better, over-complication may deter some of the more general readers. In addition, I would like to have seen maybe a bit more political analysis, although to be fair this book was intended as more of a social study.

Indeed, as a social history it is a well written book, and the 'Chronological Introduction' included was a nice touch, providing a few pages that the reader can refer back to when necessary. However, I personally found a few too many dull passages which contained little of note (perhaps this is more a reflection of the subject than the author, though).
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5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best reads of the year, 3 Jan 2011
By 
Fran Bury (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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Fascinating insight into the ideas behind the events and culture of the interwar period. Full of surprises, one of the most satisfying histories I've read in a long time.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another view of the 20s nd 30s, 30 Jan 2013
By 
atticusfinch1048 - See all my reviews
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Ok I have to admit as a history graduate I have a lot of time for Richard Overy as he is always an illuminating read, always challenging and always teaching. For those who just thought that the years between 1918 and 1939 were the years when we Brits did the foxtrot, danced a lot and that upper class drunken bum, sorry Mr Churchill was a great leader are in for having their eyes open.

Overy mananges to show us younger Brits that there was much going on, that there was a great time for ideas and literature and the lucky few. He also shows the fear and the paranoia that was an undercurrent of British life and the feeling that this was a period akin to half time in sport before the next major war would come along.

This is a great book to read that offers the reader a great insight to the Britain of the inter war years and shows why Overy's scholarship is so highly regarded. This book shows how Britain saw itself looking down the barrel of a gun and the undercurrent of economic and political failure would lead to another bloody outcome.

Such a wonderful description of Britain and will educate those who think it was all sweetness and light for Great Britain that the reality was different. The only thing missing is that it misses out where Churchill voted in Parliament infavour of appeasement and the Conservative line with appeasement but that is me being picky about the drunkard. At least he was right about the victors write history because he certainly rewrote his prewar history.

I would advise anyone with an interest in European history and especially 20th Century British history this is an essential book.
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1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars News From The Zeitgeist, 26 July 2010
By 
Ian Millard - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars (Hardcover)
This book (misleadingly subtitled Britain Between The Wars) is well-named inasmuch as it concentrates on intellectual and psychological morbidity in interwar Britain. I was going to give it 3 stars but it does contain some interesting and little-examined facts, so bumped it up a notch. It starts better than it continues and then ends not uninterestingly, but more with a whimper than a bang, if I may misquote Neville Shute.

I found the bits of the book dealing with intellectual depression about society and civilization/culture interesting and I did like the way in which he pointed out that the word "culture" in German (i.e. "Kultur") has a meaning somewhat different to the similar word in English and closer to "civilization": see also Rudolf Steiner's work, where he talks of the "Egypto-Chaldean-Babylonian", "Graeco-Roman", 4th, 5th, 6th Post-Atlantean [etc] cultures.

This book introduced me a number of thinkers who, like the better-known (and once world-famous) Oswald Spengler, with whose work I was already familiar, saw "Western" (i.e. European) culture as being in terminal decline. This school of thought was very influential throughout the interwar years and, to a much lesser extent, in the post-1945 Cold War era that followed it, as one can see from books like the stupendous The Coming Caesars (by Amaury de Riencourt). The main current of such thought had, however, died off by 1945.

The author delved into aspects of interwar morbidity such as psycho-analysis (which many now think to have been one of the great Jewish frauds of all time) and for me that part of the book was far too long. I might add that the author, while saying that "European" thinkers had a great influence in 1920's annd 1930's Britain, fails too point out that many of the names he mentions (about half of the main ones) were not really European except by place of birth, but Jewish, among them Marx, Freud and Einstein (still thought of by some as benefactors of humanity...!).

As always, one notes that a lot of people believe what they wish to believe rather than what is actuallly available before their eyes, a good example being that of the Webbs, who saw in Soviet Russia only the good or the possible future good and who saw in the German Reich only evil. George Bernard Shaw was much the same and, one has to remember that, while today these figures are dated figures of fun, in, say, 1936, they were respected by and listened to by millions of British people.

I was interested to see the odd dichotomy which the author highlights, that in the UK peace or anti-war organizations had vast memberships (hundreds of thousands, at the least) in interwar Britain, yet by the end of the 1930's this huge movement to avoid war (i.e. with Germany) just dissipated under a fog of manic preparations for just that same war. The author cites various examples from 1939 and even 1938 of German visitors to the UK appalled and puzzled by these manic war preparations. At that stage, no-one in Germany wanted or prepared for war with Britain annd the leadership of the Reich, though certainly preparing for war, intended that war to be with the Soviet Union and with (over the terrritory of) Poland. There was some kind oof subterranean movement, consensus or conspiracy in the UK to foment or create a war (eventually they did, in 1939, because of the UK government making the Polish government a guarantee never worth the paper it was printed on).

Overall, I liked a lot of the book, but this is no floodlight on thhe events of 1919-1939, but more of an erratic spotlighting.
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The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars
The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars by Richard Overy (Hardcover - 7 May 2009)
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