Christopher Clark begins his exploration of history by showing that societies perceive history differently as well as their role and place within it. This perception reveals how a society sees itself in relation to the past and to the future, and its degree of desire to maintain continuity between its founding and its destiny determines its view.
Clark’s specific study focuses on the way four different regimes in modern German history have projected views of time and power. In this way, the author focuses not on inherent cultural perceptions, but on those propagandized and consciously shifted by the rulers themselves. The subjects in question are, in chronological order: Frederick William, also known as the Great Elector, the first Brandenburg Elector; Frederick II, also known as Frederick the Great, also known as Frederick the Great; Otto von Bismarck; and the Third Reich.
The author distinguishes the reign of the Great Elector by focusing on the monarch’s struggle with the landed nobility, the local authorities of the different polities over which he ruled. This sees him constantly having to justify his decisions and requests by referring to the wider and longer-ranging perspective he must have a ruler concerned for more than just local affairs. The landed nobility in their own turn respond with appeals to tradition, the importance of it as that which has enabled them to ascend to this level of prosperity and general state of affairs (one might add, to this level of civilization). For the Great Elector, it is not a respect for the past that will take them forward, but a constant and unwavering preparation for possible contingencies in the future. In other words, each decision must preempt a possible calamity or threat. Clark, anything but an impartial recorder and commentator of history, applauds the Great Elector’s quasi progressive views and condemns the “parochial” views of landed nobility that want only to mind their own business within their own territories without meddling in long-distance foreign affairs and taunting power plays.
Frederick the Great, tells us the author of the book, held a classical ideal as the highest. This comprehended Greek and Roman antiquity, as well as anything in the future which expressed the eternal, unchanging and the enduring irrespective of time. While Clark does not mention it, this is not unique to Frederick the Great, but is actually the artistic view in general at the time, giving birth to the greatest, some would argue, generation of artists in all mediums that Germany would ever see: Haydn and Mozart, Goethe and Hoelderlin, to mention a few. Once past the descriptive part of his essay, the historian Clark takes great pains not to mention anything of worth performed by Frederick the Great, his exploits as a successful monarch all around which made him a paragon for the nationalist cause going wholly unmentioned. Instead, jab after jab, Clark arrives at his conclusion by reducing Frederick II’s viewpoint as a deluded one, the regrettable result of his homosexual psychology paired with childhood trauma effected by an abusive father.
The section on Bismarck is, at once, the most necessary and the less interesting. It is too much of an important piece of modern German history to go unmentioned; its omission would leave a gaping hole, a missing link to what occurs in the twentieth century. But it seems uninteresting simply because, for those who have at least a cursory knowledge of German history, the basics (and this is really all that Clark gives in this book, despite the extended wordiness) of concept and action which Bismarck upheld are well known. What does surprise the reader is that Clark spends a great part of the time trying to reduce Bismarck to an aristocratic opportunist. Although the historian does not mention the Englishman, his portrayal of Otto von Bismarck is a less eventful of the much more conspicuously mercenary and warmongering Winston Churchill.
Lastly, Christopher Clark brings us to his discussion of the view of time and power, of historicity in the Third Reich. This, the author argues, was one in which the present regime saw itself as detached from the current of history, though not in the same way as Frederick the Great, who wanted to stir this current towards the eternal and enduring. For Clark, the Third Reich was one of contradiction, delusion, and fraudulent propaganda. The height of obfuscation is reached by Clark in this climax in which he refuses to acknowledge a source for direction in the Third Reich (Adolf Hitler), where no attempt to clarify or actually shed light into the Third Reich as an application towards action of National Socialism as a political-philosophical complex. One reads Clark’s forty pages on the Third Reich coming out the other end empty handed as far as functional insights go. The only impression one is actively given is that all that was to be found here was madness. Clark dwells on his interpretations of a museum, of propaganda, and of the “appalling” ideas of National Socialist figures. In between the lines, the reader is told to fear, to look somewhere else, to be appalled and not even try to understand.
To finish our commentary on Time and Power, it must be said that very often, less than halfway through each section, the reader can sense how the topic is being stretched beyond any worthwhile point. In effect, including the introduction and the extrapolations in the conclusion where Clark stamps a politically minded diatribe from his historian’s armchair as such academics are wont to do, the book could be a third of its current length and not lose its essence. A suggestion to future editions of the book would be to edit the first section on the Great Elector, stopping when Clark starts to talk about the works of contemporary historians; to leave a few pages of the second section on Frederick the Great, without needing to accuse him of poor taste in painting or reducing himself to fanciful psycho-historic Freudianism; to do something similar with Bismarck’s section, trying to concentrate on the man’s policies and actions, rather than on trying to detract from his character; lastly, to entirely omit his utterly irrelevant mention of the Third Reich. The pamphlet that would result from this would at least exemplify Christopher Clark’s ideas of historicity with the work of the Great Elector.
Christopher Clark has been called a “Germanophile” on account of his interest in studies regarding Germany. However, his views do not reflect admiration or even an interest in shedding light upon its history. Rather, there is an antagonistic tone underlying his writing, soothed by academic eloquence, and a ratio of substance to words along with the direction and tone of voice, that indicates an ideological motivation to propagandize and deconstruct Germany as his subject. The external tell-tail signs of this being the case should be firstly, that no author of such subjects could receive the extent of mainstream support were his work not as intellectually accessible, if floridly redacted, compounded with the lowest common denominator understanding of ‘controversial’ topics; secondly, that the cited praises for the book come from well known rabid detractors of historical Germany, not least of whom is Ian Kershaw, prominent for having published a second rate, two-volume invective of Adolf Hitler touted as a “biography,” laughable for its meticulous and barely disguised attempts at showcasing “evil” from every aspect of his subject.
As an afterthought for the readers of this article, if any one is seriously interested in a political, historical and philosophical understanding of the Third Reich as influenced and directed through National Socialism by Adolf Hitler, we recommend Lawrence Birken’s Hitler as Philosophe: Remnants of the Enlightenment in National-Socialism (1995).