C (for Crisis)
The Morbid Age: Britain between the Wars by Richard Overy
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.
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