The End of History: Sir Christopher Clark at the Korber Forum

Sir Christopher Clark at the Körber Stiftung

By the time I arrived at the Körber Forum, the event had already started and the participants were talking about – 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. I settled for a place on the floor and a view of a TV screen that relayed the goings-on up front.

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. 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 temporal, discussing several rulers’ perception of time and how this affected their tenure. He was accompanied by German historian Ute Frevert and Nils Minkmar (Der Spiegel) was in the chair.

Clark (Professor of History at Cambridge University) suggested there are two possible interpretations of “the end of history”. One is like a train that has simply come to its 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 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 they are please? Applied to Germany, 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, they 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. He said a similar attitude could be observed in Friedrich II and Bismarck: revolutionary characters who brought about change but nevertheless attempted to hold back time, or freeze further development, when they were finished. Friedrich II built his summer palace, Sans Soucci, with the intention of preserving his youth. He gathered people around him for the purpose of enjoying invigorating conversations and entertainment. The paintings he commissioned were intentionally timeless, giving no clues about the epoch in which they were set.

Clark 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. 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 an account of his life that is of little substantive merit.

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.

Another interesting question is 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 despite the seating situation!