Rulers ruled by a sense of history

“Christopher Clark’s subject is neither time nor power, but something even more evanescent: how those who wielded power were influenced by their sense of history”

More Cromwell than Charles I: Friedrich Wilhelm, the “Great Elector”, by Frans Luycx, c.1651

A special place in Purgatory is reserved for historians who don’t just write history, but write about History. Your columnist is one of them. So, evidently, is Christopher Clark, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, whose new book Time and Power has a long subtitle (Visions of History in German Politics, from the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich) and an even longer time frame of four centuries.

His subject is actually neither time nor power, but something even more evanescent: how those who wielded power were influenced by their sense of history. More specifically, Clark investigates four case studies: Friedrich Wilhelm and Friedrich II of Prussia, known to posterity as the Great Elector and Frederick the Great respectively; Otto von Bismarck, who re-founded the Reich; and Adolf Hitler, who left it in ruins. Here these historical protagonists are not primarily seen from a political but from a temporal perspective — as it were, through an hourglass darkly.

If you find not only the subject matter but the style of Time and Power hard to grasp, you are unlikely to be alone. Though Clark is a master of narrative, as his highly acclaimed histories of Prussia (Iron Kingdom) and the origins of the First World War (The Sleepwalkers) demonstrate, here he is addressing (and impressing) his academic peers. At times, the prose gets bogged down in jargon (“diachronic”, “palimpsestic”, “chronopolitics” and “chronoscape”). At others, it bristles with polemical asides on Brexit, Trump, climate change and “the current wave of temporal uncertainty and disorientation”.

Yet the broad thrust of the argument is sustained with a scholarship so dense and an eye for analogies so acute as almost to disarm criticism. For the small number of academic specialists and the doubtless even smaller number of amateurs (among whom I count myself) who relish keeping up with “the temporal turn” in contemporary historiography, this book will be a feast for the gods. For those who like their history served plain, Clark’s treatise may be less ambrosial, perhaps even indigestible.

For my own addiction to what might look to non-historians like self-indulgence, I blame Hugh Trevor-Roper. When I was an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, in the 1970s, a degree in Modern History required one to sit a Preliminary examination at the end of the first term. This course, the brainchild of the then Regius Professor Trevor-Roper, was intended to inspire us with a love of history by acquainting us with the greatest practitioners of the craft. It was a baptism of fire even for privately schooled students; for a state school swot like me, it was an ordeal — but also a revelation.

Apart from Gibbon and Macaulay, we were expected to read at least two historians in other languages; for me, with no Latin and less Greek, that meant, in their entirety, Alexis de Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime et la Revolution and Jacob Burckhardt’s Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (“Reflections on World History”). Looking back, mastering all this was a lot to expect even geeks to master in eight weeks. Today, Oxford allows three terms for Prelims and historiography has been demoted. Foreign languages are optional and set texts are far shorter; Burckhardt has been quietly dropped.

You do not need to have lived under Trevor-Roper’s ancien régime to enjoy reflecting on History with a capital H. Nor do you have to share the present Regius Professor’s politics. “This book,” he tells us, “was written during the crescendo and triumph of the Brexit campaign in Britain . . . [a campaign] animated by the appeal to an idealised past in which the ‘English-speaking peoples’ had effortlessly dominated the world.” On both sides of the Atlantic, Clark claims, “new pasts are being fabricated to replace old futures”. This book, he concedes, will “do little to diminish the contemporary allure of such manipulations, but it may at least help us to read them more attentively”.

The background to Time and Power is the rise of Prussia from a remote backwater to great power status. Clark begins with “the History Machine”: Friedrich Wilhelm, the “Great Elector” — so-called because he belonged to the smallest electorate in history, the four temporal and three spiritual princes who chose the Holy Roman Emperor. He shows how the Elector mobilised “the future against the past” by confronting the libertas of the estates with the necessitas of the state — in other words, raison d’état. In mid-17th-century England, Parliament was humbling the Stuart monarchy by defending liberties hallowed by tradition. In Prussia, meanwhile, the estates’ appeal to the past was trumped by the permanent state of emergency dictated by an embattled present. Friedrich Wilhelm’s military prowess conferred on him the nimbus not of the hapless Charles I, but of the formidable Cromwell.

In his concluding tour d’horizon of the present day, Clark draws an analogy between the Great Elector and Emmanuel Macron — a juxtaposition that would, I suspect, have surprised both men. The French president would doubtless prefer to be compared to Frederick the Great, Voltaire’s patron, friend and foe — an intellectual who wrote, conversed and made love in French.

But Macron’s record so far does not remotely stand comparison with old Fritz. His 2017 speech at the Sorbonne (where else?) urged Europe to end its “civil war” in order to “construct . . . genuine sovereignty”. Clark sees parallels here with the Great Elector’s subjection of his estates. Macron warned that “for too long we were sure in our belief that the past would not come back”. This sense of foreboding about the return of a terrible past is comparable to the Elector’s use of the Thirty Years’ War, which had ravaged Germany early in his reign, as a warning of what might happen if his subjects defied him. Macron’s deployment of the past to justify the aggrandisement of power — in this case the power of the Europe at the expense of the nation states — is surely no less of a “fabrication” or “manipulation” than Boris Johnson’s or Trump’s. The only difference is that Clark’s sympathies lie with the EU.

Friedrich Wilhelm also anticipated present-day leaders by employing one of the leading scholars of his day, Samuel Pufendorf, to write an official history of his “life and deeds”, which chronicled his conflicts with and triumph over the estates — and incidentally established the sobriquet “Great Elector” (Grosser Kurfürst) by which he is still known to posterity. No doubt Macron would be glad of a similarly versatile and obliging court historiographer — step forward Bernard-Henri Lévy — but any attempt to attach “great” to his name risks the same fate as that of the Great Elector’s contemporary, Louis XIV: despite all the efforts of royalist historians, “Louis le Grand” has never stuck.

“The Historian King”, on Frederick the Great, astonishes by the virtuosity of an author worthy of a subject who was himself a virtuoso in the use of power. From his unpromising origins as history’s mostly notorious case of paternal abuse — the young Fritz’s ogre of a father had his best friend executed in front of his eyes — he became the very model of an Enlightenment despot. Clark shows how Frederick was indebted for his “politics of stasis”, governed by immutable, timeless laws, to the Newtonian physics of his day. His brilliant historical writings enabled him to exercise absolute control over his posthumous reputation.

Frederick’s determination to escape from his father overshadowed his life; only in this context does the full significance of his homosexuality become clear. The ambiguous legacy of a figure simultaneously apostrophised as “the soldier king” and “the philosopher king” extends even into the Third Reich, with its camp cult of masculinity and paranoid persecution of “perversion”. Just how far Frederick’s expression of his gay identity could go becomes clear in an extraordinary poem in French, “La Jouissance” (“Lust”), fleetingly referred to here and mistakenly described as “lost” in Iron Kingdom. Dedicated to “Monsieur Algarotti, the swan of Padua”, the poem fantasises about his lover in the arms of “Cloris” and culminates in an untranslatable description of orgasm that is too good not to quote: Baiser, jouir, sentir, soupirer et mourir,/Ressusciter, baiser, revoler au plaisir.

Clark’s chapter on Bismarck, “Boatman on the River of Time” is, if possible, even better. He reproduces an 1875 cartoon of the Iron Chancellor playing chess with “Pio Nono”, Pope Pius IX, at the height of the Kulturkampf between Bismarck and the Catholic Church. This leads to a marvellous digression on chess and the accelerating tempo of modern politics, applying the profound theories of Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official world chess champion, to Bismarck’s Realpolitik. Chess metaphors are ubiquitous in history, but never more revealing than during the era of “blood and iron”.

In “Time of the Nazis”, Clark investigates museums and monuments to contrast the Third Reich’s technocratic, even futuristic, modernity with its leaders’ atavistic regression into an “ahistorical, racial continuum” that made the Holocaust seem like an imperative. Clark lets the German historical profession off lightly: he argues that the Nazis were too obsessed with the prehistoric past to focus on rewriting the historical one: “Oddly enough, the books and articles produced by the professional historians of the Nazi era are the last place we should look for traces of [ideological] manipulations.” Yet history obviously mattered hugely to the Nazis: why, otherwise, would they saturate a highly educated society with propaganda based on the idea that the Germans had a uniquely tragic yet noble past, as a prelude to their uniquely glorious destiny? Indeed, that view of German history outlived the regime for at least a generation, not least among many historians. The abysmal depravity of the Third Reich eludes Clark’s study of its historicity — perhaps because, unlike Frederick and Bismarck, Hitler never really comes into focus here. Radical evil defies abstract analysis.

I hope Professor Clark’s Time and Power will find readers outside the guild of his peers. Alerting us to a scholarly Meisterwerk such as this is what a magazine like Standpoint is for. And there is much to be learned from these erudite studies of “the warping of temporality by power, the appropriation of historicity by the claimers of sovereignty”. I only wish that academics would broaden their minds sufficiently to examine their own political prejudices with the same mordant alacrity that they devote to others. Even Regius Professors.