Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Twilight Years by Richard Overy

For some years now there has existed a popular belief that the Western world faces a profound crisis. Whether the doom-mongers predict terminal decline or just radical transformation, they have helped to generate a language of anxiety and sentiments of uncertainty. The very titles betray morbid fears: Suicide of the West, The End of Order, Dark Age Ahead and perhaps the best known of all, Patrick Buchanan's The Death of The West (2006).

The fact that the Western world has never been richer, more secure or more heavily armed in its history is taken not as a sign that 'decline' is at best a misuse of the term, at worst a historical absurdity in the early years of the twenty-first century, but as evidence of a disconcerting vulnerability in the face of malign forces, both of nature and of man, for which the West actually bears a good deal of the responsibility.

How often in the last few years has the the 'defense of our way of life' or 'the defense of democracy' been mobilized as an argument, as if it were really endangered from within or without. This sense of crisis has been shaped and enlarged by the concepts, metaphors and language exploited to describe it, and not because of the intrinsic nature of the historical reality the West confronts. What is said develops a reality of its own.

The theme of this book deals with an earlier age in which a strong presentiment of impending disaster also touched many areas of public discourse. The subject-matter is the idea of 'civilization in crisis' in Britain in the years between the two world wars (1919-1940), a period famous for its population of Cassandras and Jeremiahs who helped construct the popular image of the inter-war years as an age of anxiety, doubt or fear.

It is true that the inter-war years differed from the current malaise in the sense that many of the issues confronted by the West were neither phantoms nor extrapolated fantasies but the fruit of real historical dramas. Yet here too the idea of Western civilization in peril, repeated as endlessly as 'our way of life' is today, was persistent and widespread even during periods of relative stability or in the face of evidence to the contrary...they flourished long before the economic slump and the shadow of Hitler gave them more plausible substance.

In the inter-war years fear of decline or collapse was elaborated in Britain in ways that often defied historical reality. The arguments used to explain crisis appear with the passage of time fanciful or exotic or plain wrong – though it is interesting to be reminded that these fears date back only the span of a single lifetime- but they must be understood in their context.

No generation has a monopoly of certainty, ours no more than our parents. The thesis of civilization in danger won a broad popular audience in an inter-war Britain receptive to anxiety as one of the defining features of contemporary culture, cohabiting uneasily with the glittering promise of mass consumption and a narcotic hedonism, which for the lucky minority was real enough...

The constant theme of civilization in crisis, if repeated often enough and in different contexts, develops an explanatory power that does not have to take account of any existing disjuncture between historical reality and the language of threat. British society did not enter the last stages of the end of civilization in the 1920s and 1930s but the constant repetition of the language and cultural tropes of crisis made it seem as if that possibility were real.

These fears were underpinned by historical theories of cyclical change and uncertainties about the biological survival of the race or of a sound economic system or of a political order free of extremes , and above all by the idea that war was an endemic feature of all human evolution. Many of the fears of a future dystopia, of the disastrous consequences if the democratic utopianism of pacifism or race improvement or world government or planned economies should fail, were just as irrational in their turn as the utopian dreams promoted by European dictatorships Britain confronted.

Democracies are no more immune from the distortions of reality or from the dangerous power of popular fear that provokes it, either then or now.


  1. In his detailed examination of the public and private records of the inter-war period the author was rarely able to discover, either in the works of noted intellectuals or in the widespread popular discourse, clear or compelling or unambiguous definition of what was actually meant by the 'civilization' , 'our way of life', that was endangered. As is the case today, it seems that term often referred to a society or system of social or economic interaction that was, characteristically anachronistic- 'a former thing out of harmony with the present' as the Oxford Dictionary puts it. One wishes the author had pursued this theme in a more explicit fashion.