Civilizational Collapse: Dystopian Imaginings of the Past,
Present, and Future (1880 – Present)
Richard Overy: Will Civilization Crash?
The period from 1918 to 1939 was marked by powerfully polarised visions of politics in society. By 1939, the war against fascism could be represented as a war in defence of civilization against a threat that might extinguish that civilization. The stakes of the war were enormous, far beyond the fate of the nation which appears to have animated German thinking about the war effort. The effects of such extremity were to make moral radical acts, such as the mass bombing campaigns, since they became justifiable if civilization was to be preserved. The crisis of civilization is reflected in numerous publications, lectures, and newspapers through the period. It was the major trope of sociological thought. Nevertheless, there are problems in this English obsession. Despite the 1929 crash, capitalism in Great Britain restored itself relatively quickly. The empire was not under any great threat. The origins of this are complex: they lie partly in the first world war, and the great losses that resulted. That war also showed the mechanisation of slaughter that was brought about by science. Scientific and political progressivism suffered in the experience of modern warfare, suggesting a civilization about to destroy itself. Images of ‘Barbarians at the Gate’ are common, and although civilization was in itself taken for granted, a fact which no-one needed to define, it was quite difficult to locate. The masses provided a threat to civilization. Similarly, environmental degradation threatened to break with the ‘natural’ conditions of man, worries expressed in eugenics, and furthermore there was the vision of future weapons capable of bringing vast destruction and ending the institutions of civilized and killing the civilized man alongside his more humble brethren.