The idea of progress in history has become problematic to us.
Americans have so far been paying relatively little attention to this year’s centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. But it has been quite another matter in Europe. I happened to be in England during the first days of August this year, and there one could sense how palpably the weight of the past still lingers, and how heavy it hangs upon the consciousness of so many people, albeit in ways difficult for them to sort out or articulate, let alone agree about. Britons were asked to dim their lights—an allusion to the famous premonitory words attributed to Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey on the eve of war, that “the lamps are going out all over Europe”—and to display a candle for the hour before the British declaration of war took effect at 11 p.m. on August 4, 1914. If one can judge from the little town just outside Oxford where I was staying, a great many people did so, and the gesture was repeated in public venues, most notably at Westminster Abbey. One could not help but be touched by this poignant example of the extraordinary British gift for the unifying ceremonial act.