Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The more things stay the same

The years between World Wars I and II are the focus of an enlightening book by Richard Overy titled The Twilight Years. Although Britain as a country hadn't suffered many of the tragedies that had recently befallen other European countries (economic problems, occupation, etc.), there was a pervading sense of doom following World War I. This book examines the causes for the negative outlook between the wars and why the second world war was seen as a test of Western civilization.

The book begins with several helpful explanations, including an overview of the currency then in use, the names and political affiliations of the governments in Britain from 1919 to 1940, and key dates in foreign policy.

The introduction draws many parallels between what was happening then and what is happening in our own turbulent times. Both societies were relatively powerful in the world, had high standards of living and fairly robust economies. Yet there is a deep concern for the future, with many pundits predicting the downfall of the western civilization and way of life.

Overy documents the negative feelings in pre-WWII Britain. During the "Century of Hope" (the 19th century), there was a great deal of optimism about the future. This was followed by the destruction of war, which resulted in something of a general malaise in society and an overall fascination with death. This general negativity was helped along by increasing access to mass communication, which informed the public of all the horrors that the anxious age was producing. Even if people didn't see their own lives as all that bad, they were constantly being given the message that society was headed for a great downfall. This contributed to the general unease that was the hallmark of this period in time. The great thinkers of the age (including H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley) almost welcomed World War II as a test of the validity, resilience and sustainability of modern civilization.

Adding to the societal unease were the rise of ideas such as pacifism, birth control, eugenics and fascism. Radical changes and ideas were part of the general unease fueling the drive toward the inevitability and perhaps the desirability of a new war which would reorder and redefine society.

The book is meticulously researched, with over 100 pages of notes and cited sources. For history buffs, or social critics who want to learn from lessons of the past, The Twilight Years provides a fascinating look at how history can teach us a great deal.

I received a review copy of the book from Katy at Penguin/Viking Publishers.

Final Verdict for The Twilight Years: Four Gherkins, for being a well-researched look at a tumultuous time in British history

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