Mustafa on Clark, 'Time and Power: Visions of History in German Politics, from the Thirty Years' War to the Third Reich'

Christopher Clark
Sam Mustafa

Christopher Clark. Time and Power: Visions of History in German Politics, from the Thirty Years' War to the Third Reich. The Lawrence Stone Lectures Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. Illustrations. 312 pp. $29.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-691-18598-9; $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-18165-3.

Reviewed by Sam Mustafa (Ramapo College of New Jersey) Published on H-War (July, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Germany has long been something of a historiographer’s Nirvana. The fraught nature of political and social change in the German lands has guaranteed that historical revision is often jarring and sudden. The fact that Germans in the past two centuries have lived under virtually every political system created in the Western world (absolutism, constitutional monarchy, bourgeois republic, Nazism, Communism, and a federal republic enmeshed in the supranational framework of the European Union) has meant that revision carries the inevitable burden of reinvention. Streets and plazas have been renamed, monuments have been torn down or repurposed, textbooks and school curricula have been radically altered, and a parade of new national holidays has passed every few generations.

A number of scholars have addressed these transformations in the three decades since the Wende. Christopher Clark’s new contribution is unique in that, instead of using narratives of regimes and polities as tour guides through German historiography, it chooses to focus on four German regimes and explores the ways they harnessed the narratives of German history for their legitimacy and raison d’état. Although the word “German” is implicitly and explicitly referenced in this effort, Clark’s focus is primarily Prussian. Three of the four regimes he chooses—the Great Elector’s genesis of Prussian statehood, Frederick the Great’s enlightened absolutism, and Otto von Bismarck’s Kaiserreich—are specifically Prussian polities. Only the fourth, Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, embraces a pan-German identity.

The reign of Frederick William, the Great Elector, was defined by financial crisis and war. Clark identifies the Elector’s struggle with his estates as the crucial determinant in Prussia’s formation as a state. In this formulation, the estates’ repeated assertion of their “ancient rights” pitted history and tradition against modern monarchical authority. Frederick William initially attempted to use confessional policy as a wedge to advance the interests of his state but eventually found that military glory—in other words, entering history as a protagonist—was more satisfying and persuasive. By the end of his reign, Frederick William’s control of the narrative juxtaposed Brandenburg-Prussia’s ascent against the antiquity of the Reich, foreshadowing the reign of his great-grandson.

That ruler is the focus of Clark’s second chapter. It is a commonplace to contrast the youthful, rash, and energetic Frederick the Great with the stolid, conservative old king of the 1770s and ’80s. Clark, however, sees a continuity in Frederick’s fascination with (and writing of) history. The philosopher king was the only German ruler who wrote his own History of My Times and did so apparently out of genuine scholarly interest. His writing conveyed a streamlined conception of the trajectory of the Prussian state, deemphasizing conflict between the monarch and the nobles, replacing it with a narrative of progress that justified Frederick’s values and goals, not the least of which was “augmenting his existing assets” (p. 100).

The nineteenth century has collected more adjectives than its chronological neighbors. It was the “bourgeois” century, the “industrial” century, the “scientific” century, and so on. Clark sees in the chess enthusiast Bismarck a modernist sense of time and history: rulers are not merely card players who must accept the hands they are dealt, they are chess players with a near-infinite ability to alter the balance of the present. Bismarck’s conservatism in an era of revolutionary change was more congenital than opportunistic. The upheaval brought out Bismarck’s innate reverence for the traditions of monarchy but also alerted him to the necessity of managing historical change rather than resisting it. Policy, like a chess move, should be grounded in a web of possible outcomes. Clark depicts Bismarck as having an exceptionally refined historical palate: a sensitivity to patterns of change and an ability to recognize the long-term effects of decisions.

In this company the Nazis stand out as exceptional in their sense of time and history. Unlike the other three regimes, the Nazis were not inheritors in the strict sense of that word. They seized power and then sought to fashion historical narratives to legitimize the changes wrought by their coup. They sought to undo their immediate predecessors historically, culturally, and temporally, by closing museums or repurposing them for the Nazi narrative, ensuring that “the vanquished ‘system’ of the recent past [was] evacuated from the present” (p. 178). Unlike the Prussian regimes, the Nazis made no effort to communicate to planned successors via instructions or meditations on the meaning and limits of temporal power. Their sense of a future was entirely grounded in their present, in which a dictator with no constitution and no designated successor symbolically promised a Thousand-Year Reich. Clark identifies Hitler’s conception of race as the ultimate political longue durée: the preservation of a trans-generational present tense rooted in a mythical past and stretching indefinitely into the future. Such an understanding of time was a revolt against the nineteenth century’s narrative of progress and particularly against its most teleological proponent, “the Jew, Karl Marx” (p. 190).

In both his preface and epilogue, Clark asks whether the tensions between present-day regimes and the societies they govern bear resemblance to any of his four examples from German history. The apparent weakness of liberal democracy in the face of populist and anti-democratic impulses, the discontent with the progressive goals of the European Union, and the general deterioration of support for states and their institutions all hint at the beginning of a new derangement of political norms. Whether we are witnessing transformative opportunities, such as those seized upon by the Great Elector and Bismarck, or a regression to an “eternal present,” such as that embraced by the Nazis, is not yet clear. 

Citation: Sam Mustafa. Review of Clark, Christopher, Time and Power: Visions of History in German Politics, from the Thirty Years' War to the Third Reich. H-War, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019. URL:

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