From Bismarck to Hitler, how German rulers rewrote history

Christopher Clark’s new book explores how Germany’s leaders learnt to bend the past to suit the present. Today’s politics shows that the habit dies hard.

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Frederick the Great was dismissive of those historians he defined as “mere workmen, who amass, scrupulously and without discrimination, quantities of material”. For him, the compilation of facts was futile until an “architect can shape them”. He considered himself such an “architect”. He would, I think, have recognised Christopher Clark as another.

Clark’s book considers Frederick alongside three other German rulers: the 17th-century Elector Frederick William, Otto von Bismarck and Adolf Hitler. There is very little in Time and Power, though, about warfare or nation-building. Clark’s interest is not in what his chosen subjects did, but in how they positioned themselves in relation to past, present and future.

It may seem perverse, in an essay on the Nazi regime, to concentrate on the layout and contents of a few small museums, or, in writing about Frederick – a conqueror abroad and an innovative administrator at home – to dwell on his taste for the works of the rococo painter Antoine Watteau. In focusing, though, on these apparently minor phenomena, Clark develops a major theme.

“As gravity bends light,” he begins, “so power bends time.” Each of his chosen subjects inhabited a distinctive “chronoscape” (Clark’s word). Frederick William, known as the Great Elector, ruled Brandenburg-Prussia through the latter part of the traumatic Thirty Years War. Subsequently he governed as though “on the threshold between a catastrophic past and a threat-rich future”. He was repeatedly confronted by the claims of the nobility and the provincial Estates to freedoms and privileges founded on long-established tradition. Repeatedly he countered those claims by “playing the future against the past”. Regardless of precedent, the Estates must pay tax so that the central government (himself) could raise armies to defend them against dangers that might be looming ahead.

It was an argument about money, but it was also a clash between continuity and contingency (key words for Clark). The Estates looked back, appealing to the authority of “our estimable forebears of blessed memory”; Frederick William looked forward. (He even negotiated trading agreements for a merchant fleet he did not yet possess.) In uncertain times, he insisted, he must be free to respond swiftly to whatever might lie in the womb of time. He employed a court historian, Samuel Pufendorf, who elaborated a vision of history as a series of branching paths, at whose every junction a ruler had to take a decision. It was a dynamic viewpoint. “One thing is quite certain,” wrote Frederick William, “if you sit still, in the belief that the fire is still far from your borders: then your lands will become the theatre on which the tragedy is played out.”

To his great-grandson, Frederick II (Frederick the Great), sitting still seemed praiseworthy. The Great Elector might hurtle towards the future; Frederick favoured stasis.

Frederick was a historian. His writing was not a diversion from statecraft but an essential part of it. The present, as he described it (despite all the wars and upheavals over which he presided in reality), was stable. The state, and the forces that drove it, were conditioned by universal laws. The prince was not the quick-witted improviser Frederick William aspired to be, but one who subjected the present to principles established in the distant past (Frederick II liked to see himself as an ancient Roman). It is in this context that Clark makes his illuminating digression into Watteau’s paintings. Enigmatic figures, whose theatrical costumes make it impossible to locate them in any particular period, pose in indeterminate leafy settings. Nothing is happening. Nothing can happen. Watteau’s vision, Clark argues, was congenial to Frederick because it is of a world without a backstory and without forward momentum, a world without time.

Clark’s third exemplar, Otto von Bismarck, shared Frederick’s insistence that the monarchy was, and must remain, constant and inviolate. But Bismarck didn’t see himself attending fêtes galantes in Arcadia. He felt he was exerting all his energies to keep his vessel (the state) afloat on a roaring torrent. The revolutions of 1848 had changed everything. The past was obsolete. Time was racing forward towards an unpredictable future. History (a concept that was repeatedly redefined in the centuries covered by this book) was a process of continuous becoming. Only a statesman with a prodigious gift for reading the fluctuating eddies in its current (Bismarck himself, for instance) could ride it out.

He was a chess player, alive to the way each move in the game altered the options open to him. He prided himself on being able to identify, always, the “moment”, the exact point when he should make his move. He once, despite having only flimsy paper and inadequate ink, scribbled a note at the dinner table and sent it, at a gallop, from the battlefields of France back to Bavaria because such a “moment” had come. There was no time to lose. He had to proclaim his king a Kaiser right then, at once, or else forever after regret his tardiness.

And so to the Nazis and those museums. If Bismarck lived in the moment, Hitler lived in the distant past and the equally far-away future. For authentication of his racial theories he looked back to the murky fantasies of an aboriginal Germanic past. For the preservation of his glory he imagined a future where cities he had yet to build would stand in ruins and be marvelled at.

There was to be no continuity between the recent past and the present under this regime. The Museum of the National Socialist Uprising in Halle, opened only a year after Hitler became chancellor, was at once (upstairs) a memorial to fallen Nazi “heroes” and (downstairs) a cluttered display of the “dead rags” – communist tracts and leftist posters – of a “superseded era”. Everything anti-Nazi was finished and done with, hustled at speed from complex experience into simplified memory.

 With similar impatience, Hitler couldn’t wait for the present to be over, for posterity to begin. In what Clark describes as “the single most perverse institutional articulation of the Nazi regime’s eschatological timescape” the SS established the Central Jewish Museum in Prague, showing Jewish artefacts and devotional objects. The attempted extermination of Europe’s Jews had barely begun. But already, in anticipation of a judenfrei future, these bits and pieces of a still-living culture were to be displayed like the knapped flints and bone-ornaments of a race many centuries extinct. Power was bending time again.

Clark’s book began life as a lecture series. Its style is forceful rather than elegant. But whatever it lacks in grace, it amply makes up for in intellectual vigour. To read this book is to be constantly stimulated to think new thoughts and to be exhilarated by the grandeur and subtlety of Clark’s argument.

He discusses Calvinism and Hegel and Mircea Eliade. He acknowledges the work of predecessors considering historiography’s “temporal turn”. He distinguishes illuminatingly between prophecy and prediction. And as he explores all those doctored pasts and imaginary futures, Clark sheds light on our present. He quotes the Brexit slogan “Take back control” and Trump’s “Make America great again” (my italics). The past is once more being bent to suit present purposes in the hope of ushering in something that may one day look as bizarre as anything in this history of “past futures”. 

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Time and Power: Visions of History in German Politics, from the Thirty Years War to the Third Reich
Christopher Clark
Princeton University Press, 312pp, £24

This article appears in the 15 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam