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.