‘As gravity bends light, so power bends time,’ Christopher Clark writes. The ‘temporal turn’, which has recently become fashionable among historians, looks at the interplay between an individual’s subjective experience of the world and the temporal systems that surround them. These systems are generated, on the one hand, by the infrastructure of modernity – clocks, railways, the internet – and, on the other, by ideas about stasis and change, and the past, present and future. The particular kind of temporal awareness that developed in Western Europe between 1750 and 1850 is seen as a central element of modernity. In Time and Power, Clark considers what time meant to those who wielded power in Brandenburg-Prussia as it grew from a fragile and unwieldy conglomeration of historically distinct territories into the political core of a nation-state capable of dominating Europe – not just under Hitler but in our own time, too.
This trajectory was once the focus of heated historical controversy. In Clark’s book, however, German history doesn’t feature as a subject in its own right but is used to illuminate the relationship between time and power in the lives and minds of key actors. Constructing the book in this way allows him to write against the idea of a German special path, or Sonderweg: only if Germany’s case was not, in fact, so particular can general conclusions be drawn.
Men, as Marx remarked in The Eighteenth Brumaire,
make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before … they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service.
Clark turns the aphorism on its head by asking not how great men shape history, but how the kind of men who feature in conventional political narratives understood their relationship to the past, present and future.
Frederick William of Brandenburg-Prussia – known to posterity as the Great Elector – inherited a state in crisis. When he came to the throne in 1640, 22 years into the Thirty Years’ War, much of his land was under Swedish occupation; the people in his capital, Berlin, were starving; and many of the city’s buildings had been burned down. He needed an army but this was difficult in a state made up of a patchwork of territories scattered across Germany and beyond, governed in consultation with regional elites organised in bodies known as Estates. The monarch had an eye to the survival of the whole, but the outlook of the Estates was vehemently parochial: they had no interest in helping him secure faraway territories.
What followed was, at one level, a familiar series of disputes between a ruler and his parliament over money. In this sense, Clark’s narrative is conventional enough; what it shows us, however, is not. The arguments made by the two sides were underpinned by fundamentally different understandings of what the state needed, and of its place in historical time. The Estates based their case on continuity with the past, vowing ‘to protect unchanged in every point and clause all of the praiseworthy old orders, customs, traditions and usages … which the Honourable Estates in general and specifically have received, used and possessed from the times of the [German] Order right down to this hour.’ Frederick William, by contrast, justified his demands for men and money on the need to respond to the ‘conjunctures’ and ‘current trends’ of a ‘constantly changing present’, something that had not yet become history.
The Great Elector was preoccupied with history – or at least with his place in it. In 1656 he wrote a short account of the Battle of Warsaw, at which a massive Polish-Tartar army was defeated by Prussian and Swedish forces. He later employed a series of court historians. The best of them, hired shortly before Frederick William’s death in 1688, was the celebrated legal and political theorist Samuel Pufendorf. Like Hobbes, Pufendorf believed that only the state could guard against violence and disorder. His 1200-page history of Frederick William’s reign was simultaneously a history of the Great Elector and his state: to Pufendorf, the two were inseparable. He sided with Frederick William in his struggle with the Estates, but his chief focus was on the monarch as a decision-maker navigating the European state system.
Acting historically in the present meant ‘discarding tradition, apprehending the multiplicity of possible futures, identifying the threats posed by each, and selecting among them’. This was not a deterministic or teleological vision: neither Pufendorf nor Frederick William was much interested in modernisation, or a state-building project that stretched beyond the immediate horizon. Their break with the past was distinctive in 17th-century Europe only in the way the Prussian monarchy embraced the disruption of continuity. When Frederick William’s son Frederick became the first king of Prussia he chose – like Napoleon – to crown himself, in defiance of European custom. ‘Power,’ Clark writes, ‘was what defined the legitimacy of the Brandenburg-Prussian state, not tradition.’
This remained the case fifty years later when Frederick William’s great-grandson Frederick the Great ascended the throne. He did not need to employ a court historian since he was himself a historian king. Frederick created change but did not like it. Winning Silesia from the Austrians and dismembering Poland, he initiated momentous geopolitical developments that shaped the future of Europe. Yet he also played the same three hundred flute concertos in rigid rotation for forty years, an idiosyncrasy that testifies to a sense of time that was ‘strikingly recursive and nonlinear’.
Frederick corresponded with Voltaire, and his writings had both a trenchantly secular outlook and a sense of the progression of history through successive states of refinement. Yet his Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de la maison de Brandebourg also emerged from a more parochial historical tradition, focused on the Prussian state and its history. He did not think much of Pufendorf, whom he dismissed, along with his contemporary Lockelius, as ‘mere workmen, who amass, scrupulously and without discrimination, quantities of material that remain useless until an architect can shape them into the form they should have’. The 17th century, he believed, had not produced ‘a single good historian’. Frederick deliberately ignored the conflict with the Estates that had been central both to Frederick William’s reign and to Pufendorf’s depiction of it. He held that ‘good monarchies, whose administration is wise and gentle’ were more like ‘oligarchies than despotisms’ because they represented a collaborative effort between the ruler and all those involved in state administration. He did not accept the premise that conflict between the crown and the nobility was inevitable and saw himself as leading from among his nobles.
Yet in Pufendorf’s narrative the conflict between the crown and the Estates had been the principal driver of change. Understanding processes of change over time is a central feature of the historian’s task, but it was one that Frederick ignored. For him, the Prussian state was ‘a historically non-specific fact and a logical necessity’. He wasn’t interested in chronology, but understood history as a storehouse of good examples. He compared states to human beings: life-forms driven by a quasi-biological cycle of maturation and decay. Decisions, in this context, might be important, but they were ultimately products of history’s essentially repetitive structure.
Otto von Bismarck’s relationship to the Prussian state was detached from the first. He, too, was a self-conscious historical actor with a powerful sense of his ability to shape political events – and the constraints on it. ‘The stream of time runs its course as it should,’ he wrote to his mother-in-law in 1852, ‘and if I stick my hand into it, I do so because I believe it to be my duty, not because I hope thereby to change its direction.’ This, Clark says, was a metaphor to which Bismarck returned repeatedly through his long career. Still, I find the timing of this statement significant: not just because it coincides with Marx’s aphorism, but because it predates Bismarck’s emergence as the architect of German unification and long-serving chancellor of both Prussia and Germany.
Bismarck, unlike Marx, was not a Hegelian. Yet both men had a sense, common in their time, that history was more than the sum of its parts. Events were not singularities but rather formed the ‘stream’ of Bismarck’s description. The historian, theologian and philosopher Ernst Troeltsch conceptualised it rather more grandly as, in Clark’s words, the ‘violent flow of becoming’. Crucial for both Marx and Bismarck were the Revolutions of 1848. The opportunities they created enabled Bismarck’s whole career, and he understood them differently from traditional conservatives. ‘I, too, acknowledge the struggle against the Revolution as my principle,’ he wrote to one of his early sponsors, Leopold von Gerlach, ‘but I do not take it to be correct to view Louis Napoleon as the only representative of the Revolution, or even as its representative par excellence, and I do not believe it is possible to apply this principle as such in policy.’ Unlike von Gerlach, Bismarck accepted the transformative impact of the 1848 Revolutions and understood that they had introduced new forces into political life, forces whose interaction had to be carefully managed in the face of an unknown and unknowable future.
Bismarck saw himself less as a pilot – as he was depicted in a famous 1890 cartoon – than as a chessplayer, dealing not with individual decision-makers but with the interplay of powerful forces and able to put aside ideology when taking political decisions. ‘I must keep this possibility open,’ he wrote when contemplating an unlikely alliance with the man who had now become Napoleon III, ‘because one cannot play chess if 16 of the 64 squares are forbidden from the very beginning.’ This openness allowed him to take some surprising decisions: allying with his former opponents, the National Liberals, for instance, or instituting universal manhood suffrage in the new, Prussian-led German Reich.
For Bismarck, Prussia created the framework for this flexibility. He understood the monarchical state not as a manifestation or plaything of social and political forces but as ‘the enduring structure that made it possible for them to play themselves out without collapsing the entire system into chaos’. Increasingly, he also understood his own career as comprising a chain of epoch-making moments of decision. His religious faith – shaped by the Pietism of the 1830s and 1840s – allowed him to take comfort in the thought that his career had been sanctioned by God. Yet unlike Hegel or Marx he had no sense of history as infused with a deeper meaning. He did not look towards a future in which the spirit of freedom would find ever greater expression, or towards the overthrow of the capitalist order. His commitment to preserving the state at all costs was characteristic of a fundamentally defensive conservatism.
Here, Bismarck parted company with the Prussian school of historians, who understood the state not only as the vehicle and agent of historical change, but as an instrument of divine Providence and a moral good in itself. This view was certainly not shared by those on the democratic and socialist left, who were critical of Prussia’s militarism and illiberal tendencies. Nor could it survive the experience of the First World War, which left it subject to a peace settlement that, in the eyes of many educated Germans, indefinitely suspended the sovereign independence of the state. For the historian Friedrich Meinecke, the world-historical consequences of the conflagration were so shocking that he thought they might mean the end of German history as he understood it. Others, too, saw the collapse of the German Empire as a decisive and traumatic break in the historical continuity of the state.
Nothing, in Clark’s view, more profoundly exemplified this revolt against history than National Socialism. Like fascist Italy and communist Russia, Nazi Germany sought to propagate a particular view of its place in time through museums designed to commemorate the revolutionary change that had brought the regime into being. Yet unlike Italy and Russia, National Socialism was not rooted in ‘a kind of turbo-charged Hegelianism’ and its proponents didn’t see the state as an end in itself, as their Prussian forebears had done. Instead, they saw the state as a means to a racial end, and they distinguished between the history of events on the one hand and, on the other, the longue durée of the struggle of the Germanic race for existence. As Clark explains, ‘a temporality centred on the Volk – not as a population, but as a transhistorical racial essence – was likely by nature to be non-progressive and non-developmental.’
At one level, Hitler was, like Bismarck, a political operator of great tactical skill. Yet his approach to political decision-making reflected the subordination of conventional means to unconventional ends. He described himself as a prophet, and acted with an eye to the eschatological endpoint: a millennial future dominated by Germany and purged of Jews. It was this prophetic ‘chronoscape’ that served to endow the actions of the Nazis and their regime with ‘meaning and legitimacy’.
The four essays in Time and Power, originally given as lectures, reflect Clark’s own trajectory as a historian, shaped by his training as a Germanist, but also by his more recent, internationally conceived work, The Sleepwalkers. This book, with its Prussian focus and engagement with major figures in both Prussian history and the German historical tradition, is written in the same vein. He departs from the road taken by proponents of the Sonderweg in two different ways. First, he posits a break between the National Socialist regime and its Prussian forebears. Second, he emphasises the difference between the Nazi regime and its totalitarian counterparts in Italy and Russia. ‘Since our temporal and historical imagination is more deeply structured by relations of power than most of us suspect,’ he writes, ‘disruptions in the flow or structure of power can produce corresponding realignments in historicity.’ For Clark, the key factor is the impact of the First World War. Counterintuitively comparing Hitler’s understanding of time with Gandhi’s, he stresses the ways in which ‘political disruption or trauma can trigger a reorientation away from contingency and towards continuity in one form or another.’
Time and Power is a vehicle for Clark to elaborate his own understanding of history. On the one hand, it steps away from what he calls ‘the currently prevalent emphasis in temporality studies on diffused processes of agentless change’. In demonstrating the warping of temporality by power, Clark underlines his view that historical agents matter, and men of power mattered more than most. In an era preoccupied with inequalities not just of class but of gender and race, this is by no means a fashionable view – even if it does speak to a certain kind of historical reality.
At the same time, Clark explicitly rejects the teleology of modernity. ‘Instead of a linear advance towards modernity,’ he writes, ‘we see something more oscillatory; changes in the intellectual climate fuse with a process of transgenerational reflection in which prior forms of regime historicity are rejected, emulated or modified.’ He does not dispute that modernisation was ‘taking place in some form in the societies that generated these regimes’, but rejects the idea of a binary opposition between premodern and modern forms of temporality, or anything else. For Clark, the recent past has discredited the idea of modernity as an organising schema, because it calls into question the underlying assumption of progress. Both liberals and socialists have lost faith in the inevitability of a utopian future, while concerns about climate change and mass extinction feed fears of imminent catastrophe. These uncertainties may help to explain historians’ current preoccupation with temporality. Yet in his conclusion, Clark reminds us that the fear of apocalypse is itself cyclical, and finds in Emmanuel Macron a figure not unlike the Great Elector, for whom solidarity between the constituent parts of a fragmented polity provides the best hope of defence in a time of social and political upheaval. Needless to say, he is far too clever not to appreciate the contingency of this insight, which speaks to a moment that has already been superseded by events.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.