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28 July 2021

How history haunts the present

This tumultuous age demands that we rethink our relationship with the past.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Should we imagine historical time as a smoothly flowing stream? Or as an unsteady torrent, pooling and meandering at points and surging over waterfalls at others? Or as a ribbon, folded and twisted, doubling back on itself? Or as a three-dimensional space, a network of passages and caverns in some twilight cave complex? “I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all,” declares the protagonist of WG Sebald’s Austerlitz, “only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like.”

As battles rage over the content of school textbooks and the meaning of statues, monuments and historic buildings, it is striking how rarely such questions are posed. Many of today’s debates present an absurdly simplistic view of our relationship with the past: one where events happen, spool backwards and then land in books or online, only to be plucked out later by a columnist or speechwriter on deadline who gets to have their way with them. George Santayana did not deserve the vacuities uttered under the cover of his line about being doomed to repeat the history from which we do not learn. 

Christopher Clark’s new book of essays challenges this tendency with resounding success. The Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge has a knack for writing accounts of the past that make waves in the present. His Iron Kingdom (2006) was a nuanced and influential revision of the crude notion of Prussia as an aggressive “army with a state attached”. In The Sleepwalkers (2012) he demonstrated how states were propelled into the First World War not by a single guilty party but by the narrow-mindedness of governments across Europe; Angela Merkel advised her ministers to read it, the better to understand our own risky age. 

In Prisoners of Time, Clark brings the same complexity to the subject of history itself. This collection of 13 essays, reviews and lectures reflects on the narratives that one time imposes on another; on the grey zones between sunny and gloomy accounts of history; on the meaning of ruptures and eras in our understanding of the past; on how history is imagined, remembered, negotiated, deployed; and most of all on the fundamental instability and subjectivity of historical time. The pieces all read well on their own (though one based on three articles on the class and cultural dimensions of Nazi leaders would have benefited from further knitting together). Overall, they add up to far more than the sum of their parts, evoking a series of themes and arguments that resonate throughout the whole. 

[See also: Reviewed in Short: New books by Jon Yates, Lucy Ellmann, Denton Welch and Brandon Taylor]

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One typical essay considers the historical significance of battles, which Clark organises around Albrecht Altdorfer’s 1529 painting The Battle of Alexander at Issus, which hangs in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. The painting visually melds Alexander the Great’s defeat of the Persians in 333 BC with the siege of Vienna that took place in the year the painting was composed. “So powerful was this analogy that it could bend time, pleating it in the way we see in that picture,” writes Clark. “For Altdorfer, all of the known past was enclosed within a single time-plane, a single temporal envelope.” He then contrasts this with the Battle of Jena, a defeat by Napoleonic forces that prompted the Prussian leadership to undergo a modern “lessons learned” exercise. From history as fixed fate and foreshadowing to history as something fluid, something to be shaped. 

Clark’s attention to the relationship of one time to another also emerges in a review that explores how we (and our recent ancestors) think about future wars, and in a humorous reflection on a blog post by Dominic Cummings that referred extensively to Bismarck. Clark imagines a new corporate strategy bestseller “The Bismarck Way”, with such easily extractable takes as “seek to provoke” and “recruit the boss”, before concluding that disrupting institutions and starting culture wars only work if you know how to build new institutions, and stop said wars. 

Clark’s interest in Bismarck typifies his preoccupation with the role of individuals, and their quirks and flaws, in shaping history. This concern informs both his admiring review of John Röhl’s three-part biography of the catastrophically flawed personality of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and his account of “the life and death” of the old-school Prussian military man Johannes Blaskowitz. Blaskowitz helped lead the 1939 occupation of Poland, but compiled dossiers objecting to acts of SS brutality even as it became clear that they had been sanctioned from the top. 

Individuals also loom large in Clark’s unexpected and engrossing detour through the story of a religious tendency that thrived in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) in the 1830s. This city of rationalist theology and governance, the hometown of the philosopher and “Königsberg celebrity” Immanuel Kant, was suddenly confronted with a movement that promoted a relatively egalitarian and sex-positive approach to marriage led by two preachers, Johann Wilhelm Ebel and Georg Heinrich Diestel. The Enlightenment-loving authorities cracked down: “Reason could be a strict mistress, a tyrannical one even, when her champions sought in her name to impose on the incorrigible a better way of thinking and living.” The account brings new complexity to our perceptions of the now-gone state of Prussia, whose trajectory is often defined in binary terms as a contest between darkness and light. 


The theme that comes across most forcefully in the collection is how societies divide up history. In the crowning essay of the book, Clark delves into the Old Testament story of how Daniel, a captive from sacked Jerusalem, purported to decipher a dream by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel claimed that the dream told of a gradual fading of the present golden age, to ages of silver, then bronze, then mere iron and clay and finally the eschaton. This, Clark argues, established a notion of history as “the unfolding of a prophesied sequence of empires” that runs through the Greek and Roman eras, through the Holy Roman empire to the “rapture websites” of our own era, which espouse an “eschatological doctrine positing that the history of the world will end with a seven-year period of tribulation, before or after which Christians will be seized away into the heavens” (adherents were a significant presence in the storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021). “Daniel’s prophecy,” Clark writes, “imagined world history before it had even happened, as a sequence of powers”, informing our modern notion of power. And power, in turn, “shapes what we have and know of history”. Clark examines the relationship of historical time to power in another strong essay on the role of eschatology in 18th- and 19th-century Prussian attempts to convert Jews to Christianity, and then in genocidal Nazi anti-Semitism in the 20th century.

[See also: The pain and shame of girlhood]

Clark has an eye for memorable details. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was riding in an open car in Sarajevo in 1914, where he was assassinated, because the snobbish Austrian court deemed his wife not noble enough to merit the enclosed Habsburg royal carriage. A book published anonymously in 1763 imagined the reign of a “George VI” from 1900 to 1925, in which the British, still in possession of their American colonies, went to war with a Franco-Russian alliance. Darkest of all: the SS seemingly tried to set up a Jewish Museum in Prague complete with devotional and cultural objects and staffed by experts, to anticipate a coming time when the Jewish people would be literally history. 

History is messy, plastic and utterly non-linear. It haunts the present. Prisoners of Time provides erudite glimpses of those truths. And while Clark broadly stays out of today’s politics, he finishes with an essay (written before the Covid-19 pandemic) on the post-1989 world and the blows of the Iraq War, the financial crisis and the growing questions about the future of the West. He notes that the West once at least had a story “about becoming more modern, about the prosperity and ease that would come with economic growth, and about the universality of [liberal democracy]”, but that this vision of progress is no longer compelling at a time when “modernity has turned out to be dirty, unsustainable, choked with discarded plastics and heading for planetary catastrophe”. 

[See also: Anthony Horowitz: “I couldn’t possibly support the Conservative Party now – it makes me feel queasy”]

Yet Clark does not side with the post-Western pessimists. Instead, he advises the West to “re-plot and re-occupy the future”, not out of desperation but determination. “In the 1520s, the religious reformers Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon thought the end of the world was nigh,” he writes, pointedly. “When the end kept on not happening, they changed their minds and postponed it.”

Prisoners of Time: Prussians, Germans and Other Humans
Christopher Clark
Allen Lane, 272pp, £25

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This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special