C (for Crisis)

Eric Hobsbawm

  • The Morbid Age: Britain between the Wars by Richard Overy
    Allen Lane, 522 pp, £25.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 7139 9563 3

There is a major difference between the traditional scholar’s questions about the past – ‘What happened in history, when and why?’ – and the question that has, in the last 40 years or so, come to inspire a growing body of historical research: namely, ‘How do or did people feel about it?’ The first oral history societies were founded in the late 1960s. Since then the number of institutions and works devoted to ‘heritage’ and historical memory – notably about the great 20th-century wars – has grown explosively. Studies of historical memory are essentially not about the past, but about the retrospect to it of some subsequent present. Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age demonstrates another, and less indirect, approach to the emotional texture of the past: the difficult excavation of contemporary popular reactions to what was happening in and around people’s lives – one might call it the mood music of history.

Though this type of research is fascinating, especially when done with Overy’s inquisitiveness and surprised erudition, it presents the historian with considerable problems. What does it mean to describe an emotion as characteristic of a country or era; what is the significance of a socially widespread emotion, even one plainly related to dramatic historical events? How and how far do we measure its prevalence? Polling, the current mechanism for such measurement, was not available before c.1938. In any case, such emotions – the extremely widespread dislike of Jews in the West, for instance – were obviously not felt or acted on in the same way by, say, Adolf Hitler and Virginia Woolf. Emotions in history are neither chronologically stable nor socially homogeneous, even in the moments when they are universally felt, as in London under the German air-raids, and their intellectual representations even less so. How can they be compared or contrasted? In short, what are historians to make of the new field?

The specific mood Overy looks into is the sense of crisis and fear, ‘a presentiment of impending disaster’, the prospect of the end of civilisation, that, in his view, characterised Britain between the wars. There is nothing specifically British or 20th-century about such a mood. Indeed, in the last millennium it would be hard to point to a time, at least in the Christian world, when it found no significant expression, often in the apocalyptic idiom constructed for the purpose and explored in Norman Cohn’s works. (Aldous Huxley, in Overy’s quotation, sees ‘Belial’s guiding hand’ in modern history.) There are good reasons in European history why the sense that ‘we’ – however defined – feel under threat from outside enemies or inner demons is not exceptional.

The pioneer work in this genre, Jean Delumeau’s history of fear in Western Europe from the 14th to the early 18th century, La Peur en Occident (1978), describes and analyses a civilisation ‘ill at ease’ within ‘a landscape of fear’ peopled by ‘morbid fantasies’, dangers and eschatological fears. Overy’s problem is that, unlike Delumeau, he does not see these fears as reactions to real experiences and real dangers, at least in Great Britain, where, by general consent, neither politics nor society had collapsed and civilisation was not in crisis between the wars. Why, therefore, is it ‘a period famous for its population of Cassandras and Jeremiahs who helped to construct the popular image of the interwar years as an age of anxiety, doubt or fear’?

With learning, lucidity and wit, notably in its brilliant selection of quotes, The Morbid Age disentangles the various strands of catastrophic expectation – the death of capitalism, the fears of demographic decline and corruption, ‘psychoanalysis and social dismay’, the fear of war – mainly through the writings, public and private, of those whom Delumeau, who did the same for his period, called people ‘who had the word and the power’: in his day Catholic clerics, in Overy’s a selection of bourgeois intellectuals and reflective members of the political class. The attempts to escape from the anticipated disasters by pacifism and what the author calls ‘utopian politics’ are seen largely as yet another set of symptoms of the pessimist epidemic.

Let us grant, for the moment, that he is correct about the gloominess of those ‘who had the word and the power’, in spite of some obvious exceptions: the researchers who knew, with Ernest Rutherford, that they were living in the glory days of the natural sciences; the engineers who saw no limits to the future progress of old and new technologies; the officials and businessmen of an empire that reached its maximum extent between the wars and still seemed well under control (except for the Irish Free State); the writers and readers of that quintessential interwar genre, the detective novel, which celebrated a world of moral and social certainty, of stability restored after temporary interruption. The obvious question is how far did the views of Overy’s articulate minority represent or influence the 30 or so million electors who constituted the king’s subjects in 1931?

In Delumeau’s late medieval and early modern Europe, the question may be answered with some confidence. In the Christian West of his period there were organic links between what priests and preachers thought and what the faithful practised, though we cannot regard them as congruent. The Roman Catholic clergy had both intellectual and practical authority. But what influence or practical effects between the wars had the words – to list only those writers who rate more than two lines in Overy’s index – of the Eugenics Society’s Charles Blacker, of Vera Brittain, Cyril Burt, G.D.H Cole, Leonard Darwin, G. Lowes Dickinson, E.M. Forster, Edward Glover, J.A. Hobson, Aldous and Julian Huxley, Storm Jameson, Ernest Jones, Sir Arthur Keith, Maynard Keynes, Archbishop Cosmo Lang, Basil Liddell Hart, Bronislaw Malinowski, Gilbert Murray, Philip Noel-Baker, George Orwell, Lord Arthur Ponsonby, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Arnold Toynbee, the Webbs, H.G. Wells or Leonard and Virginia Woolf?

Unless clearly backed by an important publishing house or journal, as with Victor Gollancz or Kingsley Martin’s New Statesman, or an actual mass organisation like Lord Robert Cecil’s League of Nations Union or Canon Sheppard’s pacifist Peace Pledge Union, they had the word, but little else. As in the 19th century they had a good chance of being talked about and influencing politics and administration within the enclosure of the established elite, if they belonged to it by origin or had been recognised by it, especially if they belonged to the networks of Noel Annan’s ‘intellectual aristocracy’, as several of the announcers of doom did. But how far did their ideas shape the ‘public opinion’ which lay outside the range of the writers and readers of letters to the Times and the New Statesman?

There is little evidence in the culture and way of life of the interwar working and lower middle classes, which this book does not investigate, that it did. Gracie Fields, George Formby and Bud Flanagan did not live in the expectation of social collapse, nor did the West End theatre. Far from displaying morbidity, the working class of Richard Hoggart’s (and my) youth consisted largely of people who ‘feel that they cannot do much about the main elements in their situation, feel it not necessarily with despair or disappointment or resentment but simply as a fact of life’. True, as Overy shows, the dramatic rise of the mass media allowed the ‘core ideas’ of his morbid thinkers to be widely disseminated. However, spreading intellectual gloom was not the object of the omnipresent movies or even the mass newspapers, which reached circulations of two million and more in the early 1930s, though BBC radio, almost universally available by the mid-1930s, gave the spokesmen of doom a tiny fraction – one would have wished Overy to make an estimate – of its vast output. It is not irrelevant that the Listener, which reprinted radio talks and debates, had a circulation of 52,000 in 1935, as against the 2.4 million of the Radio Times.

The book, revolutionised in the 1930s by Penguin and Gollancz, was almost certainly the most effective form of intellectual diffusion: not to the mass of the manual working class for whom the word ‘book’ still meant ‘magazine’, but to the old educated class and the rapidly growing body of the aspiring and politically conscious self-educated. Even among these, Overy’s footnotes show, circulations of more than 50,000 – the order of magnitude of the Left Book Club and above the contemporary level of a bestseller – were unusual, except in the tense prewar months of 1938-39. Overy’s admirable inquiries into publishers’ records show that Walter Greenwood’s Depression novel Love on the Dole (‘few other cultural products of the Slump reached so wide an audience’) sold 46,290 copies between 1933 and 1940. The potential book readership in 1931 (adding together the census categories of ‘professional and semi-professionals’ and ‘clerical and kindred workers’) was about two and a half million, out of the almost 30 million of the British electorate.

Admittedly, ‘the theses of some defunct (or living) thinker’ (to adapt Keynes’s phrase) do not spread by such conventional means, but by a sort of osmosis whereby a few radically reduced and simplified concepts – ‘the survival of the fittest’, ‘capitalism’, ‘inferiority complex’, ‘the unconscious’ – somehow enter the public or private discourse as recognised brand names. Even by such relaxed criteria, several of Overy’s doom-laden forecasts hardly reached outside the corral of the intellectuals, activists and national decision-makers, notably the demographers’ fear of population collapse (which proved mistaken) and what we now see as the sinister plans of the eugenists for eliminating those defined as genetically inferior. Marie Stopes made her impact on Britain not as an advocate of sterilising the subnormal, but as the pioneer of birth control, which in this period came to be recognised among the British masses as a useful addition to the traditional practice of coitus interruptus.

Only where public opinion spontaneously shared the fears and reactions of elite intellectuals can their writings serve as expressions of a general British mood. Almost certainly they coincided on the central problem of the age, the fear of war; probably also in some ways on the crisis of the (British) economy. In these respects the British did not, as Overy suggests, experience the European predicament between the wars at second hand. Like the French, they lived with the dark memory of the mass killings of the Great War and (perhaps even more effective) the living evidence on the streets of its crippled and disfigured survivors. Britons were realistic in their fears of another war. Especially from 1933 on, war loomed over all lives, those of women (about whose take on interwar Britain this book is silent) perhaps more even than men.

In the impressive second half of his book, Overy, who made his deserved reputation as a historian of the Second World War, brilliantly describes the sense of an inevitably approaching catastrophe in the 1930s, which was to overpower the appeal of pacifism. But it did so precisely because it was not a mood of hopelessness, comparable to that expressed in the spectacular understatement of the secret government report on nuclear war of 1955 quoted by Peter Hennessy (‘whether this country could withstand an all-out attack and still be in a state to carry on hostilities must be very doubtful’). To expect to die in the next war, as my contemporaries not unreasonably did in 1939 – Overy quotes my own memories to this effect – did not stop us from thinking that war would have to be fought, would be won and could lead to a better society.

British reactions to the crisis of the interwar British economy were more complex, but the argument here that British capitalism had less cause for alarm is surely wrong. In the 1920s Britons seemed to have more obvious cause to worry about the future of their economy than the rest. Almost alone in the world, Britain’s manufacturing production, even at the peak of the 1920s, when world output was more than 50 per cent above what it had been before the war, stayed below the 1913 level, and its rate of unemployment, very much higher than Germany’s and the US’s, never fell below 10 per cent. Not surprisingly, the Great Slump hit other countries much harder than the already faltering Britain, but it is worth remembering that the impact of 1929 was so dramatic as to make Britain abandon the two theological foundations of its 19th-century economic identity, free trade and the Gold Standard, in 1931. Most of Overy’s quotes of economic doom come from before 1934.

Certainly, the crisis produced agreement among the articulate classes that the system couldn’t go on as before, either because of the basic flaws of capitalism or because of ‘The End of Laissez-Faire’ announced by Keynes in 1926, but discussions on the future shape of the economy, whether socialist or governed by a reformed, more interventionist and ‘planned’ capitalism, were strictly confined to minorities: the first of up to half a million in and around the labour movement, the second probably of a few hundred of what Gramsci would have called the ‘organic intellectuals’ of the British ruling class. However, memory suggests that Overy is right in thinking that the most widespread reaction to the troubles of the economy among the king’s non-writing subjects, outside the new wastelands of the old industrial regions, was not so much the feeling ‘that capitalism did not work, but that it should not work the way it did’. And insofar as ‘socialism’ reached beyond the activists into the 29 per cent of the British electorate which voted for the Labour Party at the peak of its interwar success, it was the result of a moral rejection of capitalism rather than a specific image of the future society.

Yet neither the belief in socialism nor in a planned capitalism implied morbidity, despair or a sense of apocalypse. Both, in different ways, assumed that the crisis could and should be overcome, encouraged by what seemed to be the extraordinary immunity to the Great Slump of the Soviet Five-Year Plans, which in the 1930s, as Overy rightly notes, made the words ‘plan’ and ‘planning’ into a political ‘open sesame’ even for thinking non-socialists. No doubt the bulk of socialists were more utopian in their faith than the pragmatist reformers and vaguer in their prescriptions, which amounted to little more than the nationalisation of all industries. But both looked forward to a better or at least a more viable future. Only the forlorn rearguard of unreconstructed pre-1914 liberal individualists saw no hope. For the great guru of the London School of Economics, Friedrich von Hayek, who does not appear in this book, both socialist and Keynesian prescriptions for the future were predictable stumbles on ‘the road to serfdom’.

This should not surprise us. A great many Europeans had the experience of Armageddon in the Great War. The fear of another and very likely more terrible war was all the more real because the Great War had given Europe a set of unprecedented and fear-inducing symbols: the aerial bomb, the tank, the gas mask. Where past or present provided no adequate comparison, most people were inclined to forget or underestimate the hazards of the future, however minatory the rhetoric surrounding them. That many Jews who stayed in Germany after 1933 took the precaution of sending their children abroad shows they were not blind to the perils of living under Hitler, but what actually awaited them was literally inconceivable in the early 20th century even by a ghetto pessimist. No doubt there were prophets in Pompeii who warned of the dangers of living under volcanoes, but it is doubtful whether even the pessimists among them actually expected the total and definitive obliteration of the city.

There is no single label for how social collectives or even individuals envisage or feel about the future. In any case ‘apocalypse’, ‘chaos’ or ‘the end of civilisation’, being beyond everyday experience in most of Europe between the wars, were not what most people really expected, even when they lived, uncertain about the future, in the ruins of an irrecoverable old social order, as many did after 1917. These things are more easily recognised in retrospect, for during genuinely apocalyptic episodes of history – say, Central Europe in 1945-46 – most non-uniformed men and women are too busy trying to keep going to classify their predicament. That is why, contrary to the champions of air-power, civilian populations in great cities did not wilt under the bombs and fire-storms of the Second World War. Whatever their motivations, they ‘carried on’ and their cities, ruined and burning, continued to function because life does not stop till death. Let us not judge the intimations of disaster between the wars, even when they proved correct, by the unimagined standards of subsequent havoc and desolation.

Overy’s book, however acute in observation, innovative and monumental in its exploration of archives, demonstrates the necessary oversimplifications of a history built around feelings. Looking for a central ‘mood’ as the keynote of an era does not get us closer to reconstructing the past than ‘national character’ or ‘Christian/Islamic/Confucian values’. They tell us too little too vaguely. Historians should take such concepts seriously, but not as a basis for analysis or the structure of narrative. To be fair to the author, he makes neither mistake. His purpose has clearly been to compose an original set of variations to compete with the other riffs by professional historians on what is assumed to be a universally familiar theme: the history of Britain between the wars. But it is no longer familiar except to the old. The Overy Variations in the key of C (for crisis) are an impressive achievement, though one misses any serious comparison with the situation in other European countries. Since he writes well, his book also becomes what it was not intended to be, a tourist guide to terra incognita for readers to whom the Britain of George V is as remote and unknown as that of George II. It should be read with intellectual pleasure and profit for its perceptiveness and its discoveries of much that was unexplored in some parts of British intellectual life, but not as an introduction to interwar Britain for the inexperienced time-traveller.