- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2010


By Richard Overy
Penguin, $20, 544 pages

Acclaimed World War II military historian Richard Overy ventures into (for him) new territory in this often de- manding but richly rewarding book.

The vast tribe of American Anglophiles, reared now for generations on beguiling “Masterpiece Theater” period dramas, have come to regard Britain in the 1930s as a solid bastion of middle-class decency and common sense, if anything far too stuck in the mud and unimaginative, as it coolly faced the rising threats of fascism, Nazism and then communism in Continental Europe.

There is a great deal of truth to this picture - and to the picture of a complacent and comfortable but shortsighted society blind to the gathering storm that Winston Churchill warned it of in vain.

But in fact, Britain in the 1920s and 1930s was a society teeming with intellectual and scientific ferment, creativity and even paradox. The extraordinary surge of patriotism, martial valor and industrial mobilization it achieved during World War II can only be understood in terms of the strengths it already was exhibiting in the decades before the great crisis came.

Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, after all, still ruled the largest empire in the history of the human race, controlling a full 25 percent of the land territories and population of the globe. It was the third industrial power in the world after the United States and Germany: It held the world air, water, land and rail speed records simultaneously for almost all of this period. Its engineers designed the radical monoplanes - the Spitfires and Hurricanes - that defeated the Nazi Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

Sir Frank Whittle pioneered the jet engine. Sir Robert Watson-Watt and his team invented radar. Sir Alexander Fleming at Oxford with Sir Howard Florey and Sir Ernst B. Chain discovered penicillin. Ernest Rutherford and his team at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge University outstripped both the U.S. and Nazi German teams in their crucial work on subatomic physics.

Interwar Britain was also a nation that embraced Sigmund Freud’s radical theories of human psychology and the subconscious - and it swelled with visionaries and crackpots who advocated eugenics not far removed from Nazi race theories, and extreme socialists led by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, who revered Stalin and the Soviet Union as the true millennium and future destiny of mankind. (The great philosopher Bertrand Russell, it should be noted, was disgusted by Lenin and Stalin and never fell for either of them).

Even many of Britain’s far more serious intellectuals, like Arnold Toynbee, feared that democracy and decent, tolerant Western society on the model of Anglo-American law was doomed in the dark new age of mass industrialization and totalitarian mass movements.

Why was so much creativity accompanied by so much pessimism? And how did the British people, including their intellectual and propertied classes, throw off this pessimism with such sudden, startling, apparent ease and rise even joyfully to the great challenge of the struggle for survival when it engulfed them in 1939-40?

These are deep, seldom-asked questions. Richard Overy does not provide comprehensive answers to them, but he goes a long way to suggesting and documenting many of them in this remarkable book.

Mr. Overy wisely recognizes that the same dynamism in British society that produced so much agonizing and doubts at first eventually came to motivate and fertilize the huge surge in national cooperation and creativity that fueled the war effort. It also provided the remarkably broad consensus for radical social reform and the divestment of Empire in the postwar years.

From the 1960s inward, the British people, while recognizing and cherishing their extraordinary performance through World War II, simultaneously down-valued the preceding decades as years that the locusts ate.

Mr. Overy radically challenges that assumption. His work is not entirely original. A.N. Wilson in “After the Victorians” (2006) and John Halperin in “Eminent Georgians” (1997) have pioneered this ground covering the fertile interaction of radical science and technology with deep-rooted tradition. But Mr. Overy takes it much further.

In pre-World War I Austria-Hungary and post-World War I Weimar Germany, the stresses generated by the conflicts between the theories, scientific discoveries and life-transforming technologies of modernity - and the yearnings for permanency, roots and tradition - tore those societies apart. Those paradoxes opened the way for monstrous nihilistic movements - radical revolutionaries who posed as reassuring conservatives - to rise and seize power.

But that never happened in inter-war Britain, even though the challenges and opportunities of scientific progress were recognized and seized at every opportunity. Mr. Overy in this masterful book goes far to explaining why.

Martin Sieff is chief global analyst for the Globalist (theglobalist.com) and a columnist for Fox News.



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