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Christopher Clark: Prisoners of Time review - from Kaiser Bill to Dominic Cummings | reviews, news & interviews

Christopher Clark: Prisoners of Time review - from Kaiser Bill to Dominic Cummings

Christopher Clark: Prisoners of Time review - from Kaiser Bill to Dominic Cummings

A leading historian finds the past busily at work in the present

Times of power, powers of time: Christopher ClarkChristopher Clark

Historians seldom make the news themselves. However, Christopher Clark – the Australian-born Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University – hogged headlines and filled op-ed pages in Germany when the centenary of the First World War’s outbreak arrived in 2014.

His magisterial 2012 book The Sleepwalkers argued, with formidable research and a propulsive narrative drive, that the catastrophe that struck Europe, then the world, after August 1914 came about not because of secret grand designs, plots or conspiracies. It happened thanks to the convulsive but unplanned breakdown of a multi-player game of great-power rivalry in which all parties thought that they understood and controlled the risks as they gambled for advantage. Until they didn’t, and they couldn’t. 

The primary casualty of what became known as the “Clark Effect”, of course, was the notion of sole German culpability. He never excuses or underplays elite, reactionary militarism in Germany (indeed, he studied it for decades). But he does make clear that whiskered ogres in pointy helmets alone could not, and did not, drive all Europe into a disaster whose outcomes still shape our lives. In a sardonic piece in this volume of essays, entitled “Brexiteers, Revisionists and Sleepwalkers”, Clark notes that both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove attacked his arguments in 2014 because they supposedly let those beastly Germans off the hook. Only treasonable lefty wimps did that, maintained the pair of semi-intellectual mid-market blowhards who now wield ever-more absolute power over us. In contrast, in Germany itself, the fire came from the opposite flank. Clark’s critics assumed that to qualify the consensus belief in national guilt for 1914 – established after 1945, and entrenched by the deeply influential work of historian Fritz Fischer – was to encourage right-wing, even neo-Nazi, revivalism. The Daily Mail damned him from the right; Die Zeit and its like from the left.

Clark is neither the anti-patriotic apologist for German hegemony fantasised by Gove-Johnson, nor the cunning ally of resurgent nationalism who found himself pilloried in the liberal German media. He is an outstandingly clear-headed, open-minded and resourceful researcher-writer with a talent for finding the big picture hidden in the fine mesh of 19th- and 20th-century European, especially German, history. This gathering of essays, lectures and review-articles has its problems: it never quite adds up to a coherent package, although Clark’s preface points to his recurrent concern with “religion, political power and the awareness of time”. Allen Lane has made it harder to trace a clear path through its disparate elements by omitting an index. Only two essays have proper footnotes. Still, individual articles do showcase both the force and the finesse of Clark’s reasoning as he connects small incidents to vast movements, the local and the global, while paying heed to the ways that power frames our view of the past and our “sense of history” itself. 

As Clark well knows, not only professional historians deploy the past to win rank or sway in the present. With a dry sense of mischief, he picks up on Dominic Cummings’s obsession with the disruptive statecraft of Otto von Bismarck to reveal what the Iron Chancellor who unified Germany really thought and did – and how this bizarre political genius relates to the now-ousted Svengali of No. 10 [pictured above]. Clark identifies the Bismarck precepts – “Otto’s mottoes” – that so appealed to Cummings: “Seek to Provoke”; “Mature the Chaos”; “Act Unpredictably”, and so on. Johnson’s former brain-in-chief may have sought to emulate Bismarck’s art of moving fast and breaking things as he endeavoured “to keep changing the game”. But that skill went, Clark shows, along with an utterly dysfunctional, even hysterical, personality that saw Bismarck poleaxed by psychosomatic illness and overwhelmed by “torrents of grief and rage”. Besides, disciples of Otto in our Trump-Brexit times lack his “intelligence and foresight”. “They know how to disrupt institutions but not how to build them. They know how to start and stoke culture wars, but not how to end them.”   

Clark not only delves deep into his sources; he always asks who told the story that survives, and why. His opening remarks reflect on the current pandemic and the widely-noted absence of Spanish Flu from accounts of the world after 1918. Historians, indeed most people, are “addicted to human agency” and “love stories in which people bring about and respond to change”. For now, at least, the virus’s POV remains a little beyond our storytelling skills. We can, however, recount history from below as well as from above. A tribute to the late, great historian of the emerging global world, Christopher Bayly, notes that his studies of Indian social networks complicate the usual picture of colonial domination with a grasp of “the intricately layered qualities of human societies”. In India, the Raj could not always rule by fiat; “subaltern” groups retained a degree of choice and agency.

Power may be brutal but individuals often mitigate or bend it according to their values and their needs. In a judicious, close-grained portrait of the Wehrmacht general Johannes Blaskowitz, Clark argues that his forthright if limited protests against Nazi war crimes in Poland occupied “a grey zone between courage and obedience”. An old-school career officer, Blaskowitz was genuinely appalled by the atrocities inflicted by the SS on Jews and other Poles. He complained, repeatedly, and was sidelined as a result. He never, though, took the further step into full-scale resistance to the Hitler regime. His “episodic”, “non-linear” spasms of decency perhaps make Blaskowitz a truer Everyman for the age of mass terror than its heroes, or its monsters.

Another first-rate essay dissects the uncannily Trump-like character of Kaiser Wilhelm II [pictured above], that voluble and irascible adult baby whose whiny rants Clark memorably likens to listening to “a dog barking inside a locked car”. A study of the Protestant missionaries who (largely in vain) tried to convert Jews to Christianity opens grippingly out into the mindscape of “apocalyptic expectation” that lay behind German attitudes to their Jewish fellow-citizens. In a ghastly, pregnant detail, Clark reminds us that the SS even planned a Jewish museum in Prague – to commemorate the people they had annihilated. Less effective is a patchwork montage of insights about the Nazi era stitched together from separate review-articles and presented as “Psychograms from the Third Reich”. Clark has much of value to say about Hitler, that “strange and hateful man” who is “still playing with our heads”, but this material needed a makeover. A closing essay on “Uncertain Times” shuffles suggestive ideas about the return of a multi-polar instability, pre-1914-style, to the world after the Cold War – and, especially, after the 2008 financial meltdown helped to hasten “the death of the stories that gave us a future”. These reflections have a patchy, scattergun feel; they stimulate more than they persuade. As a reminder of Clark’s gifts and strengths, Prisoners of Time does a valuable, if uneven, job. His admirers, though, will be thrilled to learn that he’s writing a history of the European revolutions of 1848. Now there’s a future event worth waiting for. 

Both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove attacked Clark's arguments because they supposedly let those beastly Germans off the hook


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