'The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars' by Richard Overy (2009)

A selection from Richard Overy's The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars, 2009, later reissued and published with the title The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilization, 1919-1938.

Chapter I

Decline and Fall.

It is a fact so familiar that we seldom remember how very strange it is, that the commonest phrases we hear used about civilization at the present time all relate to the possibility, or even the prospect, of its being destroyed. G.N. Clark, 1932.

On 3 February, 1922, at precisely 5.45 p.m., the distinguished missionary Albert Schweitzer began the first of a series of lectures at Mansfield College in Oxford.

Schweitzer's chosen subject was... 'The Struggle for the Ethical View of the World and of Life in European Philosophy'. [...] By 1923 Schweitzer had turned them into book form and they appeared first in Munich. The two volumes were translated... and published at the end of the same year with the less long-winded title 'The Decay and Restoration of Civilization'. On the opening page Schweitzer warned his readers: 'We are living to-day under the sign of the collapse of civilization'; and two pages on: 'It is clear now to everyone that the suicide of civilization is in progress.' The crisis was the crisis of all civilizations, Schweitzer thought. Western civilization had not yet been swept aside by the 'destructive pressure' that had destroyed its predecessors, but it tottered on rubble: 'the next landslide will very likely carry it away'. The crisis, he claimed, had begun before the war and had its root cause in a failure of spirit. These reflections, he explained in his preface, had matured far away from the degenerate world they described, 'ripened in the stillness of the primeval forest of Equatorial Africa'.

For a great many educated Europeans the war represented a clear fracture with pre-war expectations of relentless advance. The publication in London of Schweitzer's book with its tendentious title coincided with a wave of post-war anxiety in Britain about the apparent impossibility of reconciling a barbarous and sensless conflict with the conviction that Europe before the war had represented a high point in the development of human history. The novelist H.G. Wells, for example, often regarded as a prophet of doom before 1914 on account of the apocalyptic nature of his popular science fiction-- The War in the Air and The War of the Worlds were the best known-- insisted after the war was ended that it was something he had neither expected nor wanted. 'I was taken by surprise by it,' wrote Wells in 1927 in an introduction to one of the many books of its kind, J.M. Kenworthy's Will Civilization Crash? In his own survey of civilization's prospects, published six years earlier [in 1921] under the title The Salvaging of Civilization, Wells painted a picture that became familiar in the inter-war years of a rosy belle epoque before the war when the 'easy general forward movement of human affairs' suggested 'a necessary and invincible progress'. The 'spectacular catastrophe' of the war ended that comfortable illusion. 'Has the cycle of prosperity and progress closed?' asked Wells, who wondered whether the crash of the ancient world would not now be repeated in the modern.
The juxtaposition [after the Great War] of illusions of pre-war progress with post-war disaster requires little historical explanation... . The contrast became a literary trope which survived even the experience of a second war. Reflecting in the 1960s on the world he had grown up in before 1914, the historian Arnold Toynbee explained a cast of mind that was rudely shattered by the reality of the war:

It was taken for granted by almost all Westerners-- and by many non Westerners too, including some who did not like the apparent prospect-- that the Western civilization had come to stay. Pre-1914 Westerners, and pre-1914 British Westerners above all, felt that they were not as other men were or ever had been... . Other civilizations had risen and fallen, had come and gone, but Westerners did not doubt that their own civilization was invulnerable.

Even critics of European imperialism and class divisions could be seduced into believing that there was more promise in the pre-war world than in the new. The writer Leonard Woolf, who had been employed in the imperial civil service in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) before the war, observed in 1939, on the eve of a new conflict, that no one who had regularly read a newspaper in the years 1900 to 1914 could fail to be struck by the contrast with the barbarities that daily populated every newsreel and radio report about the 1930s. 'In those days,' Woolf wrote, 'there was an ordered way of life, a law, a temple and a city-- a civilization of sorts.'

The rupture with the past was evident with the return of peace and the homecoming of millions of survivors scarred physically and psychologically by the conflict. [...] In a letter to the art critic Geoffrey Keynes in 1938 [the poet Siegfriend Sassoon] described catching a butterfly... before the war: 'What a peaceful world it was! And what a bullying, barbarian world it is now!' The futurist artist and writer Wyndham Lewis later recalled his sense on returning from the Western Front that a 'state of emergency came to mean for me, as for most soldiers, a permanent thing'. In such circumstances, Lewis continued, 'values change'; 'Everything now, almost, since the war seems a matter of life or death.'

...the generation that grew into manhood after the war also came to see itself as separated by a gulf from the pre-war world, 'a bewildered generation' in the words of the philosopher Cyril Joad.

T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, written in 1920, whose memorable lines 'What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish?' and the reply 'You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images', has often been taken to symbolize barren disillusionment with the post-war world and the terrible sense of loss. Yet no one at the time was willing to publish it... . 

The sense of crisis was not specific to any one generation, though more pronounced perhaps among the young, nor was it confined to one political or social outlook... . [...] The idea of crisis, wrote the Oxford historian George Clark, whose epigraph prefaces this chapter, was also the property of the 'ordinary man' thanks to a popular press that promoted remorselessly, in his view, the 'most universal and comprehensive menace' of all, 'a collapse, an extinction of our civilization'.

The novelist E.M. Forster, writing to Leonard Woolf in March 1936 after a dangerous illness, thought how odd it was to be nursed 'with so much kindness and sense', only to return recuperated to 'a civilization which has neither kindness nor sense'. [...] ...Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, observed in his private journal in 1922 that as civilization crumbled he felt 'puzzled, broken, shut out... a strange, fatuous end of meaningless life'. In almost his last entry before the prostate operation that cost him his life in 1932, he worried that 'a breakdown in the existing order' might mean for him and his dependents 'actual starvation'. William Inge, Dean of St Paul's..., confided to his diary in September 1931: 'I cannot help wishing that my life had ended before seeing these terrible misfortunes'; and, in 1937: 'Civilization was being overloaded, too complicated, too artificial'; and findally, in his summary for 1939: 'I shall be really glad when my call comes to leave this mad world.' What is striking about all these entries-- and there are many more-- is the morbid connection made between the death or debilitation of civilization and the death or psychological decline of the observer. The crisis of civilization was also something experienced as the crisis of individual mortality.

In 1922 the American journalist Lothrop Stoddard, obsessed with the crisis of the white races [i.e., The Rising Tide of Colour Against White World Supremacy], published The Revolt against Civilization... . The sub-title, The Menace of the Under-Man-- a parody on the Nietzschean concept of the 'over-man' (Ubermensch)-- revealed Stoddard's principle thesis that civilization ('a recent and a fragile thing') was in mortal danger from the rise of a biologically inferior and barbarous underclass. The more sophisticated the civilization, Stoddard continued, 'the graver the liability to irreparable disaster'. This was also the central argument of a short book by the Oxford philosopher Ferdinand Schiller published two years later under the title Tantalus or The Future of Man. [...] Schiller's book was a pessimistic survey of human folly. [...] Like Tantalus, doomed according to classical legend never to satisfy his appetites for having presumed to dine with the gods, modern mankind was fated to pursue the fruits of modern civilization only to find instead of satisfaction a putrefying decadence. The Great War and the Russian Revolution showed, Schiller thought, that modern civilization as not even skin-deep: 'it does not go deeper than the clothes'. Schiller blamed the current crisis on biological decline [of the race] and the 'flood of feeble-mindedness' created by modern social institutions, which pressed mankind back towards primitivism. 'Civilization', Schiller warned, 'carries within it the seeds of its own decay.'

So embedded did the trope [of collapse] become that George Clark concluded that 'optimism in any form must hide her head'. The Chalcot Discussion Society, founded in London in 1899 as a forum for women to discuss issues of the day, debated the proposition in 1928 'Is it better to have as a constant companion an optimist or a pessimist?'-- a subject which made sense only in the context of an increasingly institutionalized pessimism. An article written in 1934 in the Oxford-based Hibbert Journal claimed that what made theories of decline so pessimistic was that they were almost certainly true. Another article a year later in the same journal under the title 'Will Our Civilisation Survive?' quoted a speech by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw given in 1933 to the American Academy of Political Science in which Shaw remarked that the 'mental attitude' of the post-war world was different from that of 'our fathers and grandfathers'; once confident and uncomplicated, the mental landscape was now a bleak and dangerous realism.  After the war, Shaw suggested, mankind had reached 'the edge of the precipice' over which all previous civilizations had fallen and been 'dashed to pieces'. The end of optimism was the theme of another reflection on 'The Twilight of Civilization' published in 1940 by the zoologist P. Chalmers Mitchell. Up to the war of 1914 optimistic philosophy dominated expectations for the future. If an occasional philosopher 'proclaimed pessimism', he was, Mitchell suggested, 'usually a foreigner or addicted to drink, or a victim of some kind of mental or physical derangement'. But the modern world, he concluded, writing just before the outbreak of the Second World War, was faced with irrefutable evidence, both scientific and social, that the easy upward ascent of man was an illusion: 'it seems as if our Western civilization is doomed'.

The tireless search for crisis had limits even for publishers in search of a best-seller. When in 1934 Leonard Woolf tried to get his American publisher Donald Brace to accept his latest book Quack Quack (a study of the social inadequacy of contemporary capitalist society), the American city-planner and amateur philosopher Lewis Mumford recommended finding a different title that would properly reflect the manuscript's gloomy contents. Brace rejected this suggestion on grounds that there had been 'too many books with titles of this general sort'. In his view the public no longer wanted to be'worried, warned or exhorted with any more' and Quack-Quack, with a hyphen inserted, remained the title. This diffidence proved short lived. In October 1938 the British publisher Victor Gollancz told Woolf that it was no time any longer for optimistic books and asked him to submit a manuscript on the lines of 'The Defence of Western Civilization'. Woolf agreed and sent in a draft manuscript the following May. He called it Barbarians at the Gate and it was finally published in November 1939. Woolf also sent the manuscript to Brace who gladly accepted it, but this time he insisted that Woolf alter the title to reflect more closely the doom-laden thesis of the book, that civilization could be destroyed not only by the external forces of war but by a rising tide of barbarism in the heart of civilized society itself. Woolf suggested Barbarians Within and Without and Brace accepted. The book appeared in the United States under this title in 1940.

The popular assumption of a 'crisis of civilization' was reflexive as much as reflective; the phenomenon 'civilization' was all too often taken for granted rather than defined.

The art critic Clive Bell, brother-in-law of Virgina Woolf, published a book titled Civilization: An Essay in 1928, which he dedicated to her. [...] Bell found it easier to define what civilization was not-- 'something to which savages have not attained'...-- but his final definition of the necessary elements of civilization described a reality that his Bloomsbury colleagues would have found entirely familiar:

A taste for truth and beauty, tolerance, intellectual honesty, fastidiousness, a sense of humour, good manners, curiosity, a dislike of vulgarity, brutality and over-emphasis, freedom from superstition and prudery, a fearless acceptance of the good things of life, a desire for complete self-expression and for a liberal education, a contempt for utilitarianism and philistinism, in two words-- sweetness and light.

Arnold Toynbee observed in his memoirs that the classical education in Britain, which his whole generation of students experienced, had focused only on the period of high culture in the Greek and Roman worlds, ignoring the subsequent period of decline in order, so he thought, to promote the illusion that the British Empire was part of an unbroken succession of civilized life from the great empires of the past to the great Empire of the present. This perception was reinforced by the reading of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which Gibbon, reflecting on the possible fate of his own civilization in the eighteenth century, concluded that it could not possibly suffer the disaster of the late Roman period. The implicit, often explicit, identification of British civilization with those of the ancient world was rooted in the nineteenth century elevation of the idea of the Pax Britannica and the separation made between 'civilized' modernity and the apparently archaic societies that peopled the colonial territories under British domination.

One of the leading spokesmen for this view was the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray.

Murray was well aware that the failure of civilization as he defined it might result in a new 'Dark Age'. He had helped to popularize that very term, which assumed a wide currency in Britain only in the early twentieth century, at the same time as anxieties began to surface about the durability of civilization. [...] The understanding that the civilized life of the Roman world was followed by centuries of barbarous darkness went back to at least early Renaissance Italy; Gibbon talked about 'the darkest ages' following the fall of Rome. But only in English did the term 'Dark Ages' emerge as a shorthand description of the late classical and early medieval world following the barbarian invasions. In English the term seems to have been used for the first time in 1837 in Henry Hallam's History of England, but it became commonplace only following the publication of The Dark Ages in 1893 by... Sir Charles Oman... . In 1904 the philologist William Ker published a cultural history of The Dark Ages.... . By the 1920's the concept was instantly recognizable and easily appropriated as a metaphor for an age anxiously observing the current prospects for civilization.

These definitions of civilization did not go unchallenged by those who perceived its darker side. For socialists, civilization represented not a grand historical tradition but a bankrupt social order. The young Marxist Christopher Caudwell... wrote that 'all civilization up to the present' was nothing more than the 'prehistoric stage of society'. For Caudwell only the world proleteriat could 'inaugurate an historic civilization'. Leonard Woolf in Imperialism and Civilization, published in 1928, took a very different view of European expansion from Lord Cromer's: 'It was a belligerent, crusading, conquering, exploiting, proselytizing civilization,' wrote Woolf. 'Imperialism hitherto, by imposing it on subject peoples at the point of a gun,' he continued, 'has heavily overweighed the blessings with a load of war, barbarities, cruelties, tyrannies and exploitations.' In Europe itself civilization represented for Woolf the advantage of one class over another... . Some communist writers deplored the tendency even among Marxists to share with 'bourgeois' authors an exaggerated 'respect for civilization' on the assumption that the alternative must be barbarism. [...] Strachey, like Caudwell, could only see true civilization emerging out of the triumphant class struggle and the destruction of the old order.

...one of the most well-known of the new grand historical narratives both inside and outside Germany, Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West, [was] published in Germany in two volumes at the end of the war and in Britain a few years later. Spengler was an unlikely prophet. [...] He was born in 1880, the son of a minor post-office official. He was an autodidact... . [...] He lived from modest teaching jobs and a small inheritance, a reclusive and [during the war] increasingly impoverished figure.

The books, almost 1,200 pages in length, sold 100,000 copies in a period of acute economic crisis, making it one of the most successful publishing ventures of the decade. [...] Academic criticism was generally hostile since Spengler had no scholarly legitimacy while his historical claims did a good deal of violence to established conceptions of the past.

Volume I of Spengler's Decline appeared in English in 1926, the second volume in 1928,... Spengler insisted on choosing his own translator.

In Britain the idea that past civilizations had perished... relied less on Spengler than it did in Germany or in the United States. The British grand historical narrative was based on a remarkable flowering of archaeological research, particularly in the Middle East... . [...] The most influential professional account was by the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, whose brief text The Revolutions of Civilization, first published in a pocket-book format in 1911, argued that civilization was not a continuous thread from antiquity to the Western world but was intermittent, discontinuous but recurrent. He defined each civilization of the past, in terms also employed by Spengler [in fact, Spengler read Petrie's book], of a spring and summer of birth and growth and an autumn and winter of decline and fall. Like Spengler, Petrie arrived at the view that a civilization began to decay at just the point when it seemed wealthiest and its values democratic... . New civilizations arose from the injection of fresh blood, usually in the form of barbarian invasions. The vitality and ambition of the invader mingled with the residue of a previous civilization to promote the development of a different though not necessarily superior one [this is precisely the role which Chamberlain attributed to the German barbarians in relation to Rome's moribund culture in his Foundations of the Nineteenth Century which became a central text of racial ideology in Germany]. [...] In the 19020s and 1930s Petrie's conclusions were just as likely to be cited as Spengler's.

One figure stood out from all the rest in the attempt to establish a proper science of civilization. With the publication in 1934 of the first three volumes of A Study of History, the Oxford historian Arnold Toynbee became in the course of the 1930s the British Spengler. This is not a description he would have approved. [...] But critics of Toynbee thought he owed a good deal to Spengler. In a radio debate with the Dutch historian Peter Geyl in 1948 Toynbee defended himself against Geyl's accusation that his gloomy view of civilization merely echoed the Decline... . The doom of civilization, Toynbee [wrote], was a 'call to action' not 'a death sentence'. Toynbee had read Spengler in German early in 1920s... and later confessed that the experience almost persuaded him that there was nothing more for him to write, but he decided that Spengler was too speculative and persisted with his own version of the grand narrative. What distinguished Toynbee from Spengler was his insistence on what he called 'English empiricism'... .

Toynbee, on his own account, began to speculate on his future grand narrative just after the Great War. [...] He claimed to have been inspired in part by an urge to reject Edward Gibbon's confident assertion that Western civilization would not go the way of Rome. This was a view, he told an audience in 1939, which had been all very well up to 1914, when it 'seemed inconceivable' that civilization should collapse like the ancient world. Gibbon he considered too optimistic. He dated the onset of the popular realization that Gibbon was wrong from the period 1929 to 1933, and it must be certain that Toynbee included himself among this number for in the early 1930s his lectures and radio broadcasts were peppered with the observation that the crisis in the West was manifestly comparable to the final crisis of the Roman Empire. Western civilization, he told a radio audience in 1931, was nothing more than one of many bubbles in the stream of world history, as Rome had been: 'Isn't it most probable that our bubble will burst like the rest?'

Toynbee was the product of a very individualist tradition in which personal endeavour, of which his own success was an example, was supposed to overcome the barriers imposed by circumstances. 'The issue', he told Wilson, was between 'determinism and spontaneity'.

Things happen through ordeals. When somebody is subjected to an ordeal things cannot stand still. Either one or other of two things must happen. Either the person subjected tot he challenge fails to meet it and goes under, or else he reacts victoriously and produces some sort of creation. I believe that there is some spark of divinity in every living creature which makes any of us capable of any one of these creative acts at any time, and I think this is the most illuminating of the many possible approaches to the history of civilizations.

The idea of 'challenge and responce', banal enough in itself, became one of the cornerstones of Toynbee's theory of historical development. More than that, Toynbee came to see his own personal experience and that of his generation as a model. Challenged by the war ('the great watershed of 1914' as he later called it), he felt impelled by 'one of the great turning points' in the history of Western civilization to respond to the challenge in ways both original and creative.

In the annual Survey [which he helped to compile for the Royal Institute of International Affairs] for 1931 he observed for the first time that all over the world people were beginning to realize 'that the Western system of society might break down and cease to work.'

In 1934 the first three volumes were published by Oxford University Press on the genesis and growth of civilizations; the next three volumes, detailing the breakdown and disintegration of civilizations, were published at what the historian A.J.P. Taylor described as the 'unbearably appropriate' moment a few weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War, late in July 1939.

Breakdown and disintegration come into play only when the fund of creativity grows weak and the responses become merely mechanical. The creative minority becomes a dominant minority of tyrants or demagogues or the wealthy while the rest of society becomes a disaffected 'internal proletariat' (in the Roman rather than the Marxist sense). Stagnation then provokes the barbarians on the frontiers, or the 'external proletariat', to become more violent. Internal degeneration is the primary cause, but external defeat the likely consequence. Breakdown provokes what Toynbee called 'a time of troubles', of social crisis and internecine warfare.

The publication of the first three of Toynbee's volumes was an immediate success. [...] 'The greatest intellectual need of our age', wrote the reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement, 'is a new interpretation of history.'

By chance an assistant schoolmaster and historian at Tonbridge School, D.C. Somervell, had prepared an abridgement during the early years of the war without Toynbee's knowledge. Compressing the six volumes into a single span of just 589 pages, Somervell succeeded in turning Toynbee into a best-seller.

His solution to the terrible danger inherent in the current crisis of civilization, whose destructive capabilities his theories endorsed, was to embrace Christianity as the key to humanity's survival. There was from the start a mystical or metaphysical element in Toynbee's approach to history. He told Arnold Wilson in 1931 that the story of civilization could be illuminated most clearly in Manichean terms-- the idea of a conflict between 'the Church Militant and an opposition force'. [...] Religions featured a good deal in his grand narrative... . They were... the fount of all spiritual value without which, Toynbee came to believe, no civilization could survive and no new one emerge. [...] To make bearable the possible collapse of Western civilization, Toynbee argued that a universal Christian society might succeed it.

In a pamphlet on 'Religion and Race' published... in July 1935 he elaborated the dualistic struggle between good and evil as the struggle between fascist tribalism and transcendental Christianity. 'We may well believe', he wrote, 'that the outcome of this battle is going to be decisive for the earthly destinies of Mankind.' [...] In a sermon in the University Church in Oxford in 1940, after the outbreak of war, he told the congregation that the enemy were all idolaters who had abandoned the one true God. The war, he continued, was a total war not just in military terms but a fundamental 'war of the spirit' found out 'inside every country, in every class, in every soul'. His knowledge of history, he concluded, persuaded him that the true God would in the end prevail. The same year Toynbee gave the annual Burge memorial lecture in Oxford in which he assured the audience that even if Western civilization were to perish, Christianity would not only endure 'but would grow in wisdom and stature'. When the Oxford University Press publicity department decided to release a 10-inch gramophone record of Toynbee talking about the genesis of the Study he ended it with the declaration that history 'is the unfolding of the purpose of God'.

In the late 1930s he undertook occasional retreats to the Catholic abbey at Ampleforth in Yorkshire, where he had sent his son to school. In a letter written to the Benedictine community in January 1937 Toynbee confessed that he sought refuge because he was 'oppressed by a view of the world that one gets from studying international affairs' and hoped his sojourn would leave him refreshed and hopeful. Lord Robert Cecil, president of the League of Nations Union, listening to Toynbee in a radio broadcast the same year thought he sounded 'like a Roman Cardinal'.

Roger Lloyd, reviewing volumes IV to VI of the Study for the Quarterly Review in 1940, thought that Toynbee was the St Augustine of the modern age and that this history would be found on the same shelf in the world's library as The City of God, a book that Toynbee much admired. [...] Toynbee went on after the war to a career preaching the need for a Christian universalism as the only hope in a world in which mankind faced the awesome reality that annihilation now lay in its own hands in the shape of nuclear weapons. [...] He later began to explore Hinduism and Buddhism as pathways to spiritual peace. In a volume of Reconsiderations published in 1961 Toynbee wrote that it was still impossible to be clear about whether Western civilization would perish, but it was certain that Western society had to rediscover 'the essence of religion' without which human beings cannot exist. This was, in bare outline, the central message of Albert Schweitzer's Dale lectures forty years before.

The great narratives of history are a phenomenon of the inter-war years. [...] The relativist and cyclical character of the new forms of historical explanation differed from the nineteenth century's only because they gave the modern Western civilization no special dispensation as the triumphant apogee of world historical development but instead suggested that the current crisis could be understood as the final manifestation of a process of stagnation and ecay that went back hundreds of years. [...] Spengler's Decline, wrote Lawrence Jacks in 1940, presented man as 'a fated being'.
This approach to human destiny had its counterpart in the world of the natural sciences. The popularization in the 1920s of the notion of entropy, for example, undermined any sense of certainty or durability about the wider universe. Derived from the second law of thermodynamics, entropy could be used to describe any physical state which tended towards stasis, degeneration and extinction. Applied to the universe, it suggested that whatever human beings did, their world was doomed to disappear in the cosmic future. In 1920 Joseph McCabe, a former monk turned popular author, published a book with the timely title The End of the World which gave a simplified account of recent developments in astronomy to show that... there was no doubt that eventually the sun would end its life as a star. [...] The idea of entropy was easily taken over as a scientific metaphor for the apparent decay of modern civilization. In 1929 Ernest Guest published At the End of the World: A Vision, a self-conscious parable of the final geological end of the earth. [...] In 1931 Dean Inge explored 'the religious and philosophical implications of the Law of Entropy' in the first of his Warburton lectures given at Aberystwyth University in Wales. He explained that the astronomical certainty of the death of the solar system had echoes in the collapse of confidence in progress in all areas of the human sciences, a paradigm for the current 'century of disillusionment', but he puzzled over the divine plan that might now condemn the world to 'universal doom'.

Some contemporary writers saw in this exalted sense of doom a shifting attitude towards the idea of death itself which was approached with a degree of morbid contemplation less characteristic of the pre-war era, 'a society with an orientation towards death', as one scientist put it. The theme of death also ran through the lecture series and journal literature of the inter-war years.

Chapter IV

Medicine and Poison: Psychoanalysis and Social Dismay

We encounter here a remarkable paradox. Civilization, our weapon and our shelter, which we have devised against pain, instead has become a house of suffering. It is at once medicine and poison. Theodor Reik, 1942.

There is an unavoidable impression that psychoanalysis was precisely attuned to the age in which it emerged. Barbara Low, author in 1920 of the first popular introduction to psychoanalysis in Britain, recalled Freud's own observation that 'increasingly manifest in modern civilized life are the Neurotic and the Hysteric'. Low reflected that the pressure of civilization had been 'too extreme, too rapid in its action' for many people to adapt to its demands.

It was only in the 1920s that 'complexes and repressions, transference and sublimation invaded the drawing-rooms of the English-speaking  world'.

The response to shell-shock helped to fuel a growing public appetite for information on psychology of all kinds. [...] There were in the years after the war a number of different schools of psychiatry and differing approaches to psychopathology, all of them clamouring for attention.

Interest in psychoanalysis in the 1920s reflected a break with conventional psychology, much of which was positivist in outlook, interested predominately, as Burt suggested, in the conscious mind. [...] The young psychologist John Bowlby... recalled that among historians, economists and doctors, psychoanalysis was regarded 'as one of the outstandingly important modern movements'. When Charles Blacker... was invited to lecture on 'The Modern Conception of the World', he devoted a long portion of his talk to the effect the discovery of the unconscious would have on the now old-fashioned belief that reason guided human action. In the mid-1920s the young Kingsley Martin... contributed an eassay on 'The War Generation' to a French journal. [...] Though he thought the theory 'little understood', Martin argued that the influence of the Freudian argument that reason was governed by unconscious urges was very great even in the minds of 'unthoughtful persons'. The fear that reason could no longer be relied upon to sort out the problems of the modern world was, Martin continued, 'the most devastating of all'.

From much of the medical world the reaction was deeply hostile. Nevertheless in October 1926 at the annual meeting in Nottingham, the British Medical Association, representing the entire medical profession, adopted a resolution to establish a committee to report on psychoanalysis and its implications for medical practice. The resulting investigation, which was completed with the publication of a final report in June 1929, offers a unique window onto the many debates surrounding psychoanalysis... .

Some of the criticism from... psychologists challenged the claim that psychoanalysis was remotely scientific or its conclusions capable of scientific testing. [...] Wohlgemuth drew a vivid picture of the seductive milieu in which the analysed patient is set-- 'the half-darkened room, the stillness... the recumbent position on a sofa or a comfortable couch, the soft modulated voice of the analyst...'

Throughout the committee's deliberations the psychoanalysts gave a robust defence of their science. When Jone's colleague Edward Glover was called to give evidence he suggested that the lack of understanding among those who were questioning him indicated a 'psychological blind-spot'; on their refusal to admit a sexual basis for neurosis, Glover suggested the operation of 'unconscious self-defences' against the idea of sex.

Sex was the chief source of concern and criticism throughout the committee's deliberations. Freud, one expert reported, was so 'engrossed with the cruder side of sexual life' that psychoanalysis was more of a 'contribution to pornography' than medicine.

Much of the discussion during the BMA investigation focused on the broader issue of just what the unconscious was and its role in shaping human nature. The doctors were generally sceptical that any useful division could be made between a conscious, directing mind and an unconscious mind over which the conscious human had no control.

When Edward Glover was asked during his BMA cross-examination whether he recommended psychoanalysis in a normal person, Jones interjected, 'In a so-called normal person.' Glover thought that everyone would benefit 'enormously'.

This view of the human individual directly challenged conventional notions of rationality and free will. [...] Psychoanalysis was the science of the irrational. Its challenge to reason seemed in the 1920s a reflection of the wider crisis of civilization.

The celebration of the decline of reason was 'implicit in the thought of the age', claimed the philosopher Cyril Joad, writing in the Rationalist Annual in 1935. He blamed D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley in particular... . But the same year in a lecture by the German writer Rene Fulop-Miller on the 'New Revolt Against Reason'..., it was claimed that modern psychology was 'unanimous in denying that human activities are primarily determined by reason'; other sciences-- astronomy, physics, chemistry-- had also exposed the 'irrational' character of much of the phonemena of the natural world with which they had to deal. Confronted by the scientific demonstration of the irrational, Fulop-Miller argued that the modern age would simply have to adjust to creating a different kind of world that could accommodate the irrational in place of the 'logically fashioned system' which modern civilization had constructed hitherto. Gilbert Murray recognized the truth that conventional rationality no longer worked in the sciences, but deplored the idea that the word 'rationalist' had virtually become 'a term of abuse' in the mouths of psychologists... . Psychoanalysis, he thought, was as responsible as anything for the current moral chaos. It was a doctrine, Murray complained, that was 'very violent and very modern'. The current troubles of the world-- Murray was writing in 1932-- sprang, he believed, not from the decline of religion but because modern man had deserted Reason.

The idea of the divided self was a difficult concept to accept since it implied like Jekyll and Hyde that civilized man contained within, permanently but usually unobtrusively, the capacity for exotic and primitive behaviour. Much of the popular discussion of psychoanalysis assumed that this dichotomous state suggested a civilized exterior and a savage within... .

In the summer of 1929 Freud began work on a book ['Civilization and its Discontents'] that expressed the relationship he had finally come to understand between modernity and human nature. [...] The central theme of what Freud himself described as a 'dilettantish' piece was an exploration of the permanent state of conflict between the modern civilizing process and the demands of human instinct. Freud's motive was to try to explain just why modern man was afflicted by a crippling malaise when civilization should have been a source of pleasure rather than pain. It became one of Freud's best-known and best-selling books.
Freud's answers to the questions he set himself were profoundly pessimistic. [...] The real source of malaise was the particular form that suffering took in the process of becoming civilized, for civilization intensified the repression of an instinctual life and magnified anxiety. In a memorable passage, Freud records his 'astonishing' discovery that 'what we call civilization is largely responcible for our misery'. In modern life there exists a permanent irreconcilability between individual drives and social demands... . The hallmark of modern Western civilization was the excessive repression of the sexual impulses and the tendency to... aggression that repression generates in the unconscious mind. [...] The conclusion for modern civilization was dangerous in the extreme because the profound dualism at work... became more marked and more intense the more 'civilized' a community became. The failure to expend aggression in the external world throws the energy back [upon] the individual and is manifested in a deep sense of guilt. Guilt reflects the ambivalence of the whole project of civilization, and accounts for the loss of happiness, the 'discontents' of the title.

Over the following decade [1930s] issues of social order, political behaviour, international crisis and war were subjected to psychoanalytical review. [...] Arnold Toynbee read Freud at just the point when he was formulating his own theories, in 1930. 'When I put the book down,' he wrote to Barbara Hammond, 'my mind was running on the bearing of all this upon the situation now.' [...] In his preface to a book on psychoanalysis and world problems, published in 1933, [Ernest Jones] observed that at a time when the present state of the world menaced 'the basis of our civilization' more fundamentally than even the Great War, it was at last being recognized that psychoanalysis might be able to avert the 'threatened danger'. ...Jone's own contribution on the 'Problem of Government',... opened with the blunt assertion that all relationships between the governing and the governed reproduced the relationship of parent and child: 'There is not one single political interaction', Jones continued, 'that is not of this nature.'
Freud's great rival Carl Jung was also affected by the state of apparent crisis in Europe in the late 1920s, though his response was not to despair of civilization but to call for spiritual renewal. He was hostile to Freud's willingness to see the worst in civilization and assumed that Freud was 'under compulsion from the Zeitgeist to expose the possible dark sides of the human soul'. [...] ...one of Jung's most important essays, 'The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man', first written in 1928 [was] published in an English version of a book of essays on Modern Man in Search of a Soul in 1932... . [...] Jung, too, believed that the discovery of the unconscious had enormous significance for modern man: 'We can no longer deny that the dark stirrings of the unconscious are active powers, that psychic forces exist which... cannot be fitted into our rational world order.'

Jung's collection of essays was his best-selling book in Britain before 1939, with 9,000 printed and five impressions in a little over thirty months.


The public appetite for literature on psychoanalysis or popular psychology... expanded sharply in the 1930's. [...] In 1929 Alice Raven's An Introduction to Individual Psychology was a restatement of the view that the neurotic had to pull himself together and learn the 'discipline of life'. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, the individual should show 'a healthy self-reliance based on personal effort'. ...many other popular books reflected the impact of Freud-- Jackson and Salisbury's Out-witting Our Nerves..., W.B. Wolfe's Nervous Breakdown: Its Causes and Cure, Karen Horney's The Neurotic Peronsality of Our Time, or Joseph Ralph's How to Psycho-Analyse Yourself, which suggested that self-analysis among normal people, a 'mental purgation', would prevent them succumbing to the 'unconscious morbid influences' within them. The idea of neurosis became widely accepted as a modern reality and advertisements of all kinds of remedies for everything from stammering to melancholy became the commonplace of every magazine. 

The British Institute of Practical Psychology Ltd published a book under the title I Can... and I Will in 1935 which had by the end of 1937 sold 350,000 (if the figures are to be believed). The book promised to reveal the secrets of 'The Mind Behind the Mind', in this case the 'Subconscious' rather than the unconscious mind. The list of conditions apparently susceptible to cure was remarkable: 'Self-consciousness, self-distrust, unsociability, nervous apprehension, bashfulness, depression, worry, sleeplessness, fear, weakness of will, indecision... hot hands, trembling limbs, word obsessions' and so on. [...] The effect of mass-circulation popular psychology was not to provide effective therapy but to familiarize growing circles of the population with the idea that every individual is the prey of inner demons which could manipulate at will the outer person. 

The principle source of fear in the 1930s was the deteriorating international situation and the strong possibility of war. Two months after the Czech crisis, in late November 1938, another Hampstead-based discussion forum, the Federation of Progressive Societies, invited Ernest Jones to lecture to them on what was by then a general fear: 'How Can Civilization be Saved?' [...] He did not accept that civilization was about to collapse as far as he could judge; what interested him as a psychoanalyst was the fear that it might do so. Jones took as his starting point the widespread evidence of popular anxiety, 'what we may call a series dis-ease'... . Fear was the result of unconscious impulses which triggered a strong sense of guilt, as Freud had argued. To cope with the subsequent anxiety people searched for a Messiah figure, as the Germans had done with Hitler; or they projected their 'badness' outwards by expelling the Jews, who were made to carry the rest of the population's guilt and fear. [...] In general he thought that the century and a half since the French Revolution had imposed a burden of responsibility on people that was 'greater than they could bear'. For all this could offer a diagnosis but no prescription. He hoped that psychology might be more widely taught; he even suggested that psychoanalysing the prime minister and the Foreign Secretary would make a crisis like Munich less fearful; but he made it clear to his audience, as Freud had done in Civilization and Its Discontents, that he could offer no 'nostrum or panacea' which could resolve the visible ills that afflicted mankind. 

Jones recognized, when writing about the 'Present State of Psycho-Analysis' in 1930,... how resistant a person could be to 'facing his own nature' even when current political conditions cried out for it. [...] The theory of the unconscious, though it was designed at first simply to explain mental illness, was a metaphor of such remarkable explanatory power that it undermined the whole liberal projection of human nature as essentially reasoning and reasonable, or of individuals exercising free will unconditionally. [...] When this paradigm was applied to society as a whole, as it was regularly throughout the 1930s, it only served to illuminate what many people already suspected, that beneath the thin veneer of civilization there lurked a monstrous other self whose release would spell the end of civilized life and the triumph of barbarism. 

Edward Glover, in his remakrs on a 'Psychologist's Utopia', concluded that 'the task of civilization is to make our day-dreams correspond more closely with the capacities of man'... . In 1938 Pryns Hopkins wrote a book himself on A Psycho-Analytic View of Society. In the final chapter on 'The Road to Happiness' he... called on psychological education as the key to a future Utopia. Unlike Glover, Hopkins had a practical solution to hand: a government-sponsored nationwide system of psychoanalysis clinics in which the whole population would be both entitled and strongly encouraged to be psychoanalysed.