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4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars

Think you know the interwar doldrums backwards? Think on! This work of startling originality, composed almost exclusively from primary sources, proved a welcome salve for someone suffering acute withdrawal symptoms after Robert Tombs' majestic trawl through The English and Their History. Its gallery of bien pensants, prophets and hucksters (gratifyingly illustrated dans le texte) sits nicely within the broader canvas of AN Wilson's After the Victorians, with which there is some overlap - Dean Inge, 'Cyril' Joad (properly CEM Joad): Wilson too is drawn to an oddball.

I seem to have ended up with two copies of the US edition - there wretchedly renamed The Twilight Years, thus aligning it with countless other works - which I reviewed negatively in 2012, an opinion I now disavow, retract and rescind. The American jacket ain't so hot either, but am I morbid? Only a tad
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on 3 January 2010
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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on 26 April 2011
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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on 30 October 2009
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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VINE VOICEon 14 February 2010
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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VINE VOICEon 1 January 2010
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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on 18 November 2010
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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 30 January 2013
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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on 17 July 2015
good read
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on 3 January 2011
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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