Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Michael Geyer reviews Time and Power

Christopher Clark, Time and Power: Visions of History in German Politics, from the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2019. 293 pp.

Review by Michael Geyer

12 February 2020

Unusual for a historian, Christopher Clark proceeds by exemplum, isolating four moments in the flow of time. Each one of these moments has its distinct “time-signature” (p. 211), an “intuited . . . timescape” (p. 2), which Clark defines as the “feeling for the motion of time” (p. 6) and distinguishes from regimes of historicity (“assumptions about the relationships between past, present and future” [p. 6]). With the intriguing exception of the fourth (Nazism), each moment is identified with the persona of the key decision-maker.

Uncannily, the most remote ruler, Frederick William, the Great Elector, appears as having as distinctly a present mindset as would behoove any Silicon Valley disruptor. A self-consciously self-made ruler, he fought against a traditionalist society and its representatives and their legal traditions, which were wedded to a partly scripted, partly remembered past of privileges and exemptions. He created for himself a preemptive and dynamic understanding of his place in history with an unselfconscious, but nonetheless evident future-orientation. It is befitting that Frederick William’s temporality came with a highly contingent sense of history and had natural-law thinker Samuel Pufendorf (1623–1694) as its main theorist. Pufendorf is more generally known for getting lost in the thicket of facts and events when descending from the heights of natural law theory. This, in any case, is what Frederick II thought of him a century later. In Clark’s rendition, Frederick II is the quintessential anti-historicist before historicism: a monarch who left a striking time-signature. He willfully and recklessly wagers his kingdom in wars of expansion and enrichment (Silesia!), throws himself into the power-political turbulences of the moment, has an acute awareness of his temporality as a time of decision (not following precedent but “imaginary design” [p. 101]). Yet, he seeks to transcend the “violence of time” (p. 102) in the stasis of an aesthetic world of unchanging laws and principles and personal detachment, which he found in flute playing. Clark explains all this, citing Judith Butler, in reference to childhood trauma.

With Otto von Bismarck, we see another century’s work of reconciling temporality and historicity. This is, in part, the work of Bismarck himself, who insisted that revolution cannot be stopped, but in each moment––in serially recurring, “unique envelope[s] of time” (p. 150)––social forces can be managed to one’s advantage. The cost of this concentration on the historical moment of action is a loss of future horizons, which were staked out instead by Liberalism, Socialism, and Nationalism with their grand schemes of time’s progression. Once again, the present of turbulent action is transcended in the unchanging fixture of “the state as an agency wielding power” (p. 156). The more Bismarck throws himself into a temporality of an ever-present moment of decision, the greater his need to escape historicity in order to hold onto a transcendent order.

When this transcendent state came to an end in defeat and revolution (1918), a world ended, not with Fukuyama’s whimper, but with a bang––with a revolt against historical reality. Clark’s treatment of Nazism in this context is as revealing as it is curious, even if his eye for telling historical detail is brilliant. He starts with the creation of a new type of Nazi museum, the Revolutionsmuseum in Berlin, and ends with the SS schemes for a Museum of an Extinct Race in Prague. His message is both daring and convincing. In contrast to Italian fascism, the Nazis were distinctly anti-historical. Adolf Hitler directed his animus against the Prussian fusion of history and state, extolling instead a “millennial chronoscope” (p. 192), in which neither development nor progress matters (p. 199). Nazism suspends history; the Volk (as opposed to the state) becomes the essence of being and “prophesy” is the new mode of temporality. While I would protest Clark’s sense of “prophesy” as life-defying, his reading of the “prophetic” time-signature of Nazism as a repatterning not only of historicity, but of temporality, the sense of time, is brilliantly provocative. It is a temporality in which the end is always already given. This is the discordant “temporal music” (p. 211) of “being-towards-death” (Martin Heidegger), either by extermination or self-destruction. If this dystopian temporality creates museums exemplifying the timeless nature of race, Nazi historicity anticipates the grandeur of ruins for future generations to contemplate.1

If it remains unclear in Clark’s exposition, how deeply this sense of time penetrated German life, it did leave behind the dead whose presence affected all. The burden of the murdered and the dead––Germans tended to conflate the two––shapes the temporal signature of postwar Germany and its looping and iterative memory compulsion, as Dan Diner has put it.2 This is “the terror of history” that postwar German historians sought to elide, contain or fight and for which, pace Clark, Mircea Eliade is the wrong witness.This a history that has been simultaneously uncertain and dogmatic. It came after the end of a (Prussian-German) History and, with or without philosophy, attempted the impossible task of bending power to time––disrupting the link between past and present, extending the present into a longue durée, or disappearing into the all too present past. It was British historians who established some order in this discordant music, Christopher Clark foremost among them. At this point (8 October 2019), though, the end of History is playing out in a most un-Hegelian fashion in Great Britain and the United States, and we shall see who is capable of interpreting and rescuing it and in what form.


See Julia Hell, The Conquest of Ruins: The Third Reich and the Fall of Rome (Chicago, 2019).

See Dan Diner, Kreisläufe: Nationalsozialismus und Gedächtnis (Berlin, 1995).

See Mircea Eliade, Le mythe de l'éternel retour: archétypes et répétition (Paris, 1949); The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, trans. Willard R. Trask, ed. Jonathan Z. Smith (Princeton, N.J., 2018).