By the time I arrived at the Körber Forum, the event had already started and the participants were talking about – somewhat appropriately – time. Appropriately, I say, because my plan to arrive half an hour early in order to get a seat was foiled by having misremembered the start time. Instead of getting a first-row seat, I was faced with the choice of either standing or sitting on the floor. Luckily, the event was being live-streamed so there were screens around the place that I could watch on. Suppressing the fleeting thought that I might just as well have stayed at home and watched from the comfort of my office chair, I settled down and listened in. (The Körber Stiftung’s adverts for their live-streaming service, enabling viewers to watch from the couch, didn’t make the suppression any easier.) Craning my neck, I could just about see the stage.
Anyway, where were we? Ah yes, time. The title of the event was inspired by Francis Fukuyama’s seminal essay, The End of History. Anyone who has studied anything political or taken an interest in recent history should have heard of it: it contained a bold claim that, following the Cold War and the success of liberalism, history had surely run its course and there were no more questions to be answered. Something like that – and I’m not sure whether he wrote it with a straight face, because he must be laughing or horrified looking back after less than 30 years.
Clark’s new book – Time and Power – is also very much temporal; hence, no doubt, the choice of subject. He was accompanied by the impressive German historian Ute Frevert and the event was chaired by Nils Minkmar (Der Spiegel) who at times had little to add, but it was to his credit that he resisted the temptation to put himself centre stage by butting in too often.
Clark (an Australian professor of history at Cambridge), speaking exceptional German, suggested there are two possible interpretations of “the end of history”. One is like a train that has simply come to the final station; the journey is over, and now it’s time for everyone to get off. The other one, if I’m honest, escapes my recollection but I think it was that history itself has fallen apart. Rather more alarming – a little like the train track being sabotaged.
Frevert gave an insightful analysis of Germany’s predicament: people, she says, long for stability. The end of history is precisely what they want, in the former sense at least. They are quite happy with the way things have developed so far, but that’s enough now thank you very much and can we just freeze things and keep them as we are please? This has paradoxical consequences: on the one hand people are very satisfied with the stability that Angela Merkel has provided over the past decade or so, which is a cause for celebration in the first instance. On the other hand, people see that the world is changing, and fear the worst. This triggers their Verlustängste, fears of losing what they already have, and absent someone who can point to a positive vision of the future, they become susceptible to apocalyptic ideas.
Clark agreed with this (if there were any criticism to be levelled at the event, it would only be that the concord between the two left little scope for opposing ideas, which explains why the chair had little to say). He said a similar attitude could be observed in Friedrich II and Bismarck: very revolutionary characters who nevertheless in one sense or another attempted to hold back time, or freeze further development when they were finished. Clark’s exposition about Friedrich II was most interesting: he built his summer palace Sans Soucci with the intention of preserving his youth, gathering people around him with whom to have invigorating conversations and enjoy entertainment. All the paintings he commissioned – by an artist whose name eludes me – were intentionally timeless, giving no clues about the epoch in which they were set.
Much of Clark’s latest book, I gather, is about the impact of the powerful upon the eras they inhabited. He and Frevert discussed various figures, who had to a greater or lesser degree attempted to tell their own story instead of leaving it to later generations to make their own mind up. Interestingly, Churchill is considered to have done his best to keep control of his image by publishing his memoirs while alive. Frevert lamented the decreasing quality of memoirs these days, naming and shaming former chancellor Gerhard Schröder for rushing out memoirs that are of little substantive merit. (On the point of telling your own history, instead of leaving it to others: at the risk of digressing, this is a source of power itself. Vanley Burke, a photographer who moved to Birmingham with the Windrush generation, recently said on Desert Island Discs that his motivation was to tell his community’s story because the tropes and stereotypes in the media were simply unrecognisable to him.)
On the issue of how history can be co-opted to determine the future, Clark says populist movements such as those in Hungary and Poland are all too aware of the importance of this. They frame their history explicitly on a nation-state level, eschewing any global or European-wide narrative. Later, in response to a question, he gave the example of his book about the causes of the First World War: rather than seeking the causes entirely within Germany, he took a Europe-wide perspective. Other examples he gave were the French Revolution and the 1848 revolution, a first attempt at establishing a German state. All of these were felt, if not conducted, in European countries at pretty much the same time but each nation told its version of the story in entirely national terms. So the idea that Europe doesn’t have a common past is simply a question of framing, not of fact. Understanding this, you can see how nationalists control our view of the future – no European demos, no European unity – by controlling our past. I’d add colonial history to that list: Belgium, France and the Netherlands have their own cross to bear in this regard, not to mention Britain, and discussing on a European level how best to deal with the repercussions of colonialism surely wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Another interesting question is that of whether having a lengthy history to look back on changes the perception of the future. I was surprised to hear that China’s frame of reference is relatively short, despite its very long history. The Communist Party is hell-bent on not repeating China’s century of humiliation, beginning roughly with the Opium Wars, and ending with the ascent to power of the Communists. This, to some degree, explains their urge to dictate the future on the world stage, ensuring China is not a subject but an active participant.
After one-and-a-half hours, the floor was becoming quite unbearably uncomfortable so I left to get ahead of the crowds. Very insightful, and I’m glad I went.