The way a person or institution understands history and their relationship to it may not tell you who they are, but it can say a lot about how they see the world and operate within it. Assumptions about the connections between past, present, and future, along with a feeling for the motion of time—consciously or otherwise—frame all our actions. This makes exploring how different people see time a chance to consider the mindset they reflect. Behind a scholarly literature on historicity and temporality stands the fact the people of different eras have understood time differently. For example, thinking in terms of cyclical patterns or a linear unfolding of events guided by divine providence, or in terms of a secular alternative, imposes different starting points upon all of us. A mania for progress sets history on one deterministic path, while an emphasis on decline epitomized by Oswald Spengler with its accompanying cultural pessimism charts another. The assumptions of a person who sees events or particular episodes in history as providing timeless lessons differ greatly from those of a person who embraces the historicist tendency to see historical development as the most fundamental aspect of existence.
Christopher Clark, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, argues that “as gravity bends light, so power bends time.” Adapted from his Lawrence Stone Lectures at Princeton in 2015, Time and Power takes four examples from German history to develop his theme. Historicity, which Clark defines as individual or collective assumptions about the relationship between past, present and future, along with an intuitive sense of time, shaped how rulers and regimes wielded power. These factors set boundaries and opened possibilities for action, and the resulting events revealed how other people understood them. Episodes from the clash between Frederick William, the Great Elector of Prussia, and his provincial estates, to the eras of Frederick the Great and Bismarck, to National Socialism’s coming to power after World War I, also point to other changes. Exercising power bolstered belief in the Prussian state and its Imperial German successor whose collapse in 1918 opened space for a rejection of history in a favor of an imagined past transcending it.
Competing Visions of Providential History
Vulnerability during the Thirty Years War provided the context for Frederick William’s clash with the provincial estates of Ducal Prussia. The region from which the later kingdom would take its name was only part of a composite monarchy he ruled and forged into a more coherent state. Territories scattered across northern Germany whose local elites claimed privileges and rights that constrained their ruler compounded the weakness of an electorate whose core territory of Brandenburg suffered military occupation. Frederick William found it difficult at best to compel them to provide for their common defense. His position as the Calvinist ruler of a Lutheran realm, a commitment reinforced by his teenage years in the Dutch Republic, complicated matters further. An electorate divided against itself risked falling prey to more powerful rivals, especially when it lacked natural defensive frontiers or the wealth to field a large army.
Clark raises the question of how Calvinism, whose salvation theology opened a new time horizon “within which everything was possible and ‘constructible’”, shaped the change Frederick William imposed. His grandfather John Sigismund had converted to Calvinism, outraging his Lutheran subjects whose suspicion of their rulers’ policies strengthened reluctance to finance them. Friction between the two Protestant confessions persisted into Frederick William’s reign until he intervened. The elector’s toleration for a small Calvinist minority and an invitation to theological discussion which might resolve differences both implied by an open-ended view that ran into his subjects’ insistence on limits grounded in tradition. Resistance led him to impose his policy with a purge of Lutheran clergy that curbed their ability to operate separately from the state. Frederick William promoted Calvinism because he saw it as an advance, theologically and perhaps also in building a stronger state.
Overcoming his subjects’ resistance to his policies enabled Frederick William to find money for the army he needed, and curbing the estates set his realm on the path to absolutism. Crisis enabled him to invoke the logic of emergency to set aside long-standing privileges. The fierce urgency of the moment swept aside historic claims as the Great Elector played the future against the past. Nobles invoked an ancient constitution whose liberties they had a duty to uphold for posterity. Clark notes a parallel with England’s parliamentary opposition to Charles I with its arguments from history, but describes a very different outcome. Necessity could justify temporarily overruling provincial estates or a principle that executive power need not require approval which fundamentally transformed the relationship. Frederick William established a new normal looking forward that no longer relied on the same appeal to historic precedent his subjects had made. Breaking with deference to precedent inaugurated a news way of thinking about the relationship between politics and time.
A new history promoted by the Great Elector and written by Samuel Pufendorf put the institution of monarchy at the center of affairs, relegating estates and nobility to the sidelines. The open-ended account of decisionmaking presented the future as undetermined and thus open to be shaped by state action. Continuity mattered less than contingency. Having mobilized the future against “inherited structures of privilege,” Frederick William memorialized his own state-building in a guide for a forward looking, self-fashioning Prussia.
Tensions Between Classicism and Enlightenment
Frederick II, great-grandson of the Great Elector, thought in different terms. Where his forbearer built a state, partly through conflict with the nobility, Frederick inherited one that he ruled in a cooperation with them to reshape the European order. Clark describes Frederick as leading “from within the midst of his nobilities,” whose interests the king promoted through initiatives that upheld the economic foundations of their social standing. Those efforts made him and the aristocrats who commanded the army and staffed his government’s administration partners in oligarchy, albeit with the latter in a subordinate role. War, and the efforts to enhance Prussia’s wealth that accompanied it, required cooperation, and Frederick “accommodated his account of the past to the priorities of the present” by downplaying internal conflict as a historical theme.
Frederick believed that history worked in cycles, with decisions, however important to short-term events, ultimately proceeding from a repetitive structure. Analogies linked one period with another, with the recent past being overshadowed by classical antiquity. Classicism dominated Frederick’s cultural world, as Tim Blanning’s recent biography demonstrates, with Rome exercising a particular hold on the king. Associating himself with that distant past claimed a place outside time and its imperatives, which fit with an ahistorical vision of the state operating amidst cyclical patterns.
Winston Churchill’s quip that history would be kind to him because he would be the one writing it comes to mind with Clark’s discussion of Frederick. A self-styled philosopher-king, he produced several works with lasting influence, including Mémoires pour server à l’histoire de la maison de Brandenbourg. Drawing on earlier histories by Pufendorf, political testaments by his predecessors, and official records, these frequently reworked texts went beyond reputation-management or manipulating political constituencies to form parts of what Frederick intended as an overarching history of the realm. He imposed on this wealth of material a vision reflecting how he understood the state as the chief actor in events. Despite publicly disparaging Niccolò Machiavelli, Frederick echoed him in using the past as a storehouse of examples and looking particularly to classical antiquity for them. Some things may have changed since the 15th century, but an awful lot remained similar. Antiquity served Frederick’s need for exemplars and his desire for order. The ancients provided a template for commemoration that met his concern to shape his posthumous reputation.
What Clark calls Frederick’s “strikingly undynamic view of his place in time” stood in unresolved tension with late Enlightenment stadial historicity, which understood society to build to successive levels of sophistication. That tension meant that, while the king’s style and the priority he gave political and military affairs had an enduring influence on Prussian historiography, the underlying logic did not, since it conflicted with a linear approach.
Bismarck and the Age of Revolutions
Transformation eclipsed stasis from the late 18th century as upheavals during the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras sensitized intellectuals to the problem of discontinuity and fundamental change. Focus shifted to a linear sense of history understood as becoming, with Ernst Troeltsch arguing that understanding events in terms of change in time marked the signal faculty of history. Otto von Bismarck, Clark argues, thought historically in Troeltsch’s sense, with an eye to moments of opportunity amidst the uncertain course of events where decisions could manage flux and unpredictability. Statesmanship involved reading the present to seize that moment, and to use it to best advantage. The monarchial state kept history in bounds and provided a fulcrum from which decisions could give leverage over events.
While recognizing that change could not be stopped, Bismarck realized that it could be directed. Events in 1848 had created new conditions. Clark quotes him asking Leopold von Gerlach what state was not anchored in some revolutionary upheaval. The word “revolution” had itself changed in meaning from a particular event to an ongoing condition. Contemptible and dangerous as revolutionaries might be, Bismarck understood them as producers of a historical transformation that could not be undone. Seeing resistance as an error, he instead sought to manage or balance change. Clark takes Bismarck’s preferred political metaphor of chess to stress that pieces held each other in balance, each being a force to be reckoned with. A flexible approach made it possible to play pieces on the chessboard against each other and introduce new forces to counter existing ones.
Bismarck operated with a remarkable ideological flexibility that reflected his short-term focus on political alignments. The fierce urgency of now shaped maneuvering to discomfort or divide opponents, even as he appreciated how deep history grounded in the past guided trends affecting nations. He thought of history in developmental terms, but not progressive ones. Bismarck’s viewpoint knew nothing of secular teleology. Nor did he feel a debt to the past and its inheritance as many conservatives did. Instead, he emphasized reading or seizing the moment. Since politics involved managing variables in a situation constantly in flux, Bismarck believed that power belonged by right to those whose ability to understand and thereby anticipate enabled them to act decisively.
The monarchial state, which operated as a vehicle and agent of history, gave Bismarck the platform from which he could manage complexity without immersion in it. The 19th century Germans, along with some Russians and others who took them as a model, treated the state as an independent force able to manage conflicts among interests within the nation and thereby promote the good of the whole. But what if the state collapsed? Society would lose not only a referee, but also a reference point for navigating the raging currents of historical change. An end to the state for Germans who had placed it as the center of their historical understanding meant an end of history itself. Defeat in World War I left Germany psychologically adrift.
The Eternal Germany
National Socialism’s appeal to an idealized and distant past rejected history in favor of the very different phenomenon of mythic memory which collapses time and eschews context. Memory, instead of locating occurrences in their relationship with past, present, and future, creates an eternal now. Clark sees National Socialism as very different on this point from the futurist tendencies of Italian fascism and Soviet communism—both of which sought to realize what they envisioned as history’s promise. Timeless archetypes drawn from Germanic memory served as reference points for National Socialism instead of “history still conceived as a forwards-driving machine of progress.”
Clark finds in this rejection of history a triumph of prophesy over contingency. Instead of viewing history as the interplay of forces that Bismarck had sought to manage, the Nazis understood it as an existential struggle to achieve an authentic existence for their race. Adolf Hitler could and did operate tactically for advantage in domestic and foreign politics, but in formulating ultimate objectives, he looked to end states where the demands of the present would have resolved themselves. He subordinated “conventional means to unconventional ends.” The future, in his imagining, became something that was inherited from the distant past and that was looked back upon in an imagined retrospect. Racial self-realization would be achieved by violent acts of will.
Aspects of Germany’s experience make historicism controversial. Historicism represents the philosophical tendency to treat historical development as the most important aspect of existence. This in turn elevates the importance of historical thinking, because of its focus on the concrete and particular. The contentious debate lies outside Clark’s present subject, as he points out. Engaging it adequately would reach beyond the scope of a short volume. Critics treating historicism as either deterministic or relativizing at the expense of justice address questions not directly raised here. Focusing on the relationship of power to both history and time stresses agency to show that choices matter in every sense of that word.
Clark shows how changes of intellectual climate join with reflections across generations to reject, emulate, or modify prior ways of understanding the relationship between past, present, and future. Besides challenging assumptions about modernization that relegate earlier perspectives to the proverbial dustbin and impose a bias toward the present, what he demonstrates points at ways of engaging particular regimes on their own terms to better appreciate why they acted as they did and how those actions reflected thinking behind them. Contests over historical meaning shed light on other conflicts and the way protagonists approached them as key points in German history.
How those in power over a sequence of governing regimes appropriated historicity and warped temporality might seem a question largely for specialists. The language for discussing it seems to presume so. But history and politics have always been linked in ways that affect governance. Writing history has been a political act since Thucydides, while history has been hard to detach from politics of varying kinds. Neither side of this equation involves anything esoteric, and exploring how they operate in relation to one another brings both into clearer view. Then as now, where people stood on history and how they understood their place in the flow of time shaped their actions. Keeping that dynamic in mind helps sketch a map for the twists and turns of politics.