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The Locust Years

The unbearable lightness of interwar Britain.

Jun 28, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 39 • By MARK FALCOFF
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The Twilight Years

The Locust Years

Neville Chamberlain arrives in Munich in 1938.

The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars
by Richard Overy
Viking, 544 pp., $35

A  few months ago Peter Hitchens reminded his readers in the Daily Mail that a mere 70 years ago—in 1939 to be precise—“we were the world’s greatest empire. Half the globe used our currency, we controlled vast resources, and owned enormous foreign investments. .  .  . We possessed an enormous Navy, a modern Air Force, and, at the same time, the most advanced welfare state in the world.”

Anyone casually picking up this account of Britain in the interwar period might well conclude that Hitchens was referring to another country altogether. Of course, the key to the paradox is that while all the things in the Daily Mail piece are true, there can be a crucial difference between what a country actually is and how it feels about itself. Given particular circumstances, the possession of great power and loss of nerve can go together. This is what makes The Twilight Years of more than mere historical interest for the present-day American reader. 

While Britain emerged technically victorious from the First World War, that conflict inflicted grievous wounds upon its society. Nearly a million young men were sacrificed in the killing machines of the Somme and the Marne, many from the very families from which the country’s leadership class had been drawn for generations. After 1919, the country was led by old (or at least older) men, most of whom lacked the energy and imagination to steer Britain successfully into the complicated shoals of the postwar period. Resources that might have been devoted to modernization of industry or new technologies had already been diverted into financing the war effort, and latent industrial strife postponed for the duration was suddenly given free rein. New antidemocratic ideologies from Eastern and Central Europe were beginning to poison the atmosphere in elite cultural and intellectual circles. 

The Twilight Years is hardly a cheering volume. In some ways it amounts to a long slog through two decades of clinical depression—if a society as a whole can be likened to an individual. The major themes are the (prematurely announced) death of capitalism, a concern with eugenics, and the sudden discovery of psychoanalysis and the unconscious, the love affair with the distant (and mythical) Soviet Union, and finally, a “peace movement” which eventually foundered upon the realities of Hitler’s advances on the continent.  

The anticapitalist motif is perhaps the principal thread that holds much of the politics together. Overy asserts that, particularly after 1929, there was “an unspoken assumption” in Britain—even among people who were not necessarily
Marxists—that “capitalism meant chaos, while planning equaled progress.” Moreover, the widely publicized assumption that capitalism always led to war opened a two-way conduit between Communists and fellow travelers on one hand, and pacifists on the other. 

Fear of war was, of course, a natural and understandable concern—if not, indeed, obsession—for Great Britain in this period, and not only because of the huge losses suffered during the most recent conflict. Changes in technology (particularly the development of airpower and the sudden possibility of long-range bombing) suddenly stripped the island of a sense of physical security long granted by geography. A fact perhaps forgotten today, Overy writes, is that the antiwar movement in Britain was the largest popular cause during the interwar period, “crossing all conventional lines of party allegiance, social class, gender difference, and regional identity.” 

Nonetheless, one cannot help being struck by the naïveté and unwisdom with which the peace movement attacked the problem. There was, for example, the Peace Pledge Union, which gathered millions of signatures, or the Peace Ballot, in which Britons were invited to vote against war—as if anybody was really “for” it. Great hopes were pinned on the League of Nations—until it failed to act after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Sillier still was the notion that “collective security”—in other words, a paper alliance system linking Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and perhaps Czechoslovakia—combined with disarmament!—could somehow discourage voracious dictators like Hitler and Mussolini. 

The peace movement collapsed slowly in the face of harsh realities. One was the Spanish Civil War, which caused many leftists to suddenly reexamine their pacifist convictions; another was the Munich agreement; yet another was the Hitler-Stalin Pact followed by the carving up of Poland which deprived advocates of “collective security” of their Soviet linchpin. 

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