The lamps are going out
"The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time" is a remark attributed to British statesman Sir Edward Grey on the eve of the First World War. It is not certain whether Grey, who was the Foreign Secretary, in fact made such a statement. Nevertheless it has earned historical and popular attention as an expression of popular perception of the First World War.
Grey's own memoirs, published in 1925, mention the remark as taking place on 3 August 1914:
- A friend came to see me on one of the evenings of the last week — he thinks it was on Monday, August 3rd. We were standing at a window of my room in the Foreign Office. It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below on which we were looking. My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words: "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time."
- I had two short talks with Grey during the "twelve days." I ran into him on the stairs of the Foreign Office on Saturday, August 1st [...] I saw him again late in the evening at his room at the Foreign Office on Monday, August 3rd, and it was to me he used the words which he has repeated in his book, "The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." We were standing together at the window looking out into the sunset across St. James's Park, and the appearance of the first lights along the Mall suggested the thought.
Allusions in subsequent culture
Grey's quotation has been used as a popular summation of the war in numerous historical works. The German author Ludwig Reiners (1896-1957) published an account of World War I entitled The lamps went out in Europe. Therein Grey's comment is followed by the assertion attributed to Otto von Bismarck: "The mistakes that have been committed in foreign policy are not, as a rule, apparent to the public until a generation afterwards." Samuel Hynes began his 1990 A War Imagined with a paragraph covering the quotation, referring to it as the best-known and most often quoted response to the beginning of the war.
In the 1963 Theatre Workshop play Oh, What a Lovely War! the lines are given to an unnamed Englishman. In the 1969 film adaptation they are spoken by the character of Grey, portrayed by Ralph Richardson.
In the Upstairs, Downstairs Series Three finale "The Sudden Storm", which concerns the beginning of the First World War, the Conservative MP Richard Bellamy (David Langton) tells his daughter-in-law Hazel Bellamy (Meg Wynn Owen) that he was in Grey's presence when he said it the previous day (3 August 1914).
The Divine Comedy's song 'When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe', from the Promenade album (1994), is a paean to the cinema stars of the 1940s and '50s.
In the final episode of the third series of That Mitchell and Webb Look, a sketch depicts the show closing down due to lack of funds (because the show was illegally pirated). At the end of the sketch David Mitchell (in character as himself) declares tearfully "The lights are going out all over television, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime!"
- Hynes, S. "A War Imagined, The First World War and English Culture", (London, 1990) p. 3 books.google.
- Viscount Grey of Fallodon, "Twenty-Five Years 1892-1916" (New York, 1925) p. 20 books.google.
- J.A. Spender, "Life, Journalism and Politics", Vol. 2. Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York 1927. Chapter 20, p. 14-15 archive.org
- Reiners, L. "The lamps went out in Europe", (London, 1955), p. 5 books.google. Translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston. In Europa gehen die Lichter aus. Der Untergang des Wilhelminischen Reiches. Munich 1954.
Bismarck's memoirs contain the following: "Concerning the blunders which had been made in our foreign policy public opinion is, as a rule, first enlightened when it is in a position to look back upon the history of a generation, and the Achivi qui plectuntur are not always immediately contemporary with the mistaken actions." The Kaiser vs. Bismarck. Suppressed Letters by the Kaiser and New Chapters from the Autobiography of the Iron Chancellor. Translated by Bernard Miall. Harper New York & London 1921, p. 183 archive.org
"Ueber die Fehler, welche in der auswärtigen Politik begangen wurden, wird sich die öffentliche Meinung in der Regel erst klar, wenn sie auf die Geschichte eines Menschenalters zurückzublicken im Stande ist, und die Achivi qui plectuntur sind nicht immer die unmittelbaren Zeitgenossen der fehlerhaften Handlungen." Otto von Bismarck: Gedanken und Erinnerungen chapter 12 zeno.org
Achivi qui plectuntur refers to the proverbial verse "Quidquid delirant reges, plectuntur Achivi" from Horace's Epistles Liber I Epistula II la.wikisource: Whatever their kings are raging the Achaeans have to pay for.
- "Are the lights going out all over Nigeria?". The Nation. 24 January 2010. Retrieved 20 February 2010.