Prisoners of Time by Christopher Clark review – bravura examination of political power

The Australian historian and Regius professor of history at Cambridge, Christopher Clark, is best known for his commanding study of the origins of the first world war, Sleepwalkers. The historian Thomas Laqueur admiringly observed that it was not only the best book on the subject, “but a brilliant and intellectually bracing model for the writing of history”.

In this new collection of essays, Prisoners of Time, Clark displays that brilliance and bracing intellect to exhilarating effect. He is not only a learned historian but an engaging historiographer, able to combine a far-reaching grasp of research with a critical understanding of how history is created.

The long opening essay, entitled The Dream of Nebuchadnezzar, is a bravura exploration of the role of political power in history. It begins with the Book of Daniel and the king of the neo-Babylonian empire’s disturbing dream, which the imprisoned Daniel interprets as a prophecy, thus rendering the grateful king his worshipful servant.

The story is both a fable of power and, as Clark explains, the beginning of the understanding of history as a foreordained “sequence of hegemonies”. Until the modern era, that was the conventional means of delineating the march of time, a tendency that was only slightly amended by Hegel’s notion of historical progress.

Even today, having emerged from what Henry Luce called the “American century”, there is much talk of China’s assumption of the mantle of world power. “The habit of imagining history as a succession of empires has been hard to shake.” And it’s a habit that in its era-defining clarity promotes a picture of the struggle for power that obscures its complex nature. As Clark notes: “Power is at once the most ubiquitous and most elusive theme of historical writing.”

Yet power, even so-called absolute power, is seldom a straightforward matter of maximum coercion resulting in a desired outcome. Even in Hitler’s Germany, Clark reminds us, citing Robert Gellately’s work, acquiescence and consent played a more significant role in shaping popular support than the terroristic side of nazism.

Power, then, is as much consented to as claimed, though of course that consent is often “given” from a position of weakness. Germany features throughout the succeeding essays, not least because it forms the area of Clark’s expertise. I particularly enjoyed a fascinating essay called The Life and Death of Colonel General Blaskowitz, with its deliberate echo of Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Colonel General Blaskowitz.
Colonel General Blaskowitz. Photograph: ullstein bild Dtl./ullstein bild/Getty Images

It tells the story of the eponymous Blaskowitz, a celebrated Prussian officer who killed himself in February 1948 on the day his trial was due to begin at Nuremberg. Suicide in that setting was not unheard of – Hermann Göring’s being the most notorious. But Blaskowitz was far from a Nazi ideologue. Indeed he protested the brutal actions of the SS in Poland, a stance that infuriated Hitler and caused him to transfer the Prussian to the western front, though not before promoting him to a colonel general. (It’s worth noting, in terms of the exercise of power, that Stalin would not have been nearly so forgiving with that kind of insubordination.)

Yet for all his distaste for the SS’s vile antics – he adjudged the terrorising of civilian populations to be counterproductive – Blaskowitz never joined the ranks of the underground opposition, much less Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed plot to kill Hitler. He remained committed to the Führer’s war efforts, even as he abhorred the methods. What to make of such an ambiguous figure? Clark’s stark conclusion is that individuals who took exception to specific features of the regime but nonetheless continued to serve it may have had “a subtle but important regime-stabilising effect”.

It’s this characteristically nuanced approach to familiar territory that makes Clark such a stimulating read. He’s a historian who is willing to step outside the academic borders of his discipline and quote names such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. But perhaps his most unlikely citation is of the Norwegian auto-fiction novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Clark admits to being a devoted fan of the writer’s epic My Struggle series, but in Psychograms from the Third Reich, a thoughtful analysis of the Nazi elite’s stunted personalities, he takes him to task for his 360-page essay on Hitler in the series’ concluding volume, The End. What Clark finds most bewildering is Knausgaard’s sustained attack on the work of the historian and Hitler expert Ian Kershaw. The Norwegian argued that Kershaw was too damning of the young Hitler, freighting him the unbearable weight of the monster he would become.

Clark believes this is unfair, pointing out that it is the job of the historian to understand what it is about Hitler, even in his youth, that might “explain his later impact on history”.

Knausgaard tried to locate Hitler’s humanity – or perhaps universality – by empathetically evoking his own alienated youth. Kershaw sought to trace the character deformation that would have such a deleterious effect on humanity. The pleasure of Clark’s writing is that it embraces an impressive spectrum of thought, without ever losing sight of the historical truth, or of the difficulty in reaching it.

Prisoners of Time: Prussians, Germans and Other Humans by Christopher Clark is published by Penguin (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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