“We always have the feeling that our present will last forever, especially in dark times,” said Clark in an interview with the Handelsblatt. The Trump era, which is just coming to an end, and the corona pandemic would, however, prove the opposite. “The election of the US president and the discovery of a vaccine by two German scientists, both from Turkey, were the good news for me last year.”
Australian-born Clark is a chronicler of political power and powers. In Germany he was mainly recognized by his book “Die Schlafwandler. How Europe moved into World War I ”is known – and controversial. In it, Clark questioned the prevailing opinion of German historiography that the German Empire was solely responsible for the outbreak of war.
The metaphor of sleepwalking powers has made a career since then and is also used, for example, to describe the constant escalation between the great powers USA and China. It is all the more important to Clark that the metaphor is used correctly: “Sleepwalkers don’t slide like on an ice surface,” he emphasizes. In sleepwalking, one has a specific intention, but awareness of the broader context of one’s actions is limited. It was the same before the First World War: “The powers that be at that time tried to pursue their interests, but they had a very narrow horizon that neglected the well-being of the entire political order.”
Many of his fellow historians have completely misunderstood the metaphor, says Clark. They would have interpreted his picture to mean that the Germans fell asleep before 1914 and should therefore be acquitted of war guilt. “For me, this is far too narrow a reading, which also has to do with the historian Fritz Fischer’s assessment of the First World War.” of the First World War blamed.
Christopher Clark: Prisoners of Time. History and Temporality from Nebuchadnezzar to Donald Trump.
Clark sees sleepwalking forces at work again today. “If you look at how the EU reacted to the financial crisis in Greece or the crisis in Ukraine, you can see here too that it was not well thought out. Helmut Schmidt once said that he saw sleepwalkers everywhere in the Ukraine crisis. “
Doesn’t that also apply to the British and the recently completed Brexit from the EU? “Yes, Brexit is also an example of sleepwalking,” agrees the historian. The supporters and opponents of Brexit would have understood the fateful referendum of 2016 completely differently: “For me, as a Brexit opponent, it was a question of the mind: is it more useful to us if we are inside or outside the EU?” Supporters it was a question of their identity: “Are you a free Brit or a servant of the EU in Brussels?”
For the historian, the fact that the image of Europe was so distorted in the Brexit debate has to do with the fact that Europe has not yet succeeded in countering the critics of the EU with a positive narrative. “It’s very difficult to make a European narrative,” says Clark. Why? Because the European nation-states had monopolized the image since the middle of the 19th century.
“At the moment I’m writing a book about the European revolutions of 1848,” reports the 60-year-old. “If there was an event in world history that was really European, then it was the revolutions of that time in 20 to 30 European cities that were deeply networked with one another.” Nevertheless, these events were only remembered nationally. “We have to start with European education,” demands the historian.
As unhappy as the “Australian European”, who is married to a German and speaks excellent German, is about the departure of his adopted home from the EU, Clark is confident about the coming change of power in the USA. For him, the election of Trump is a historic turning point that also extends beyond America. “Nobody leaves the stage of world history without leaving something behind,” warns Clark, referring to the legacy of Trumpism.
The crisis of confidence will remain
However, he doubts that Trump’s socio-cultural fan base will politically survive the populist US president. Trump profited greatly from the normative power of the factual, i.e. from his presence as US President. “If the plug of power is pulled now, his very heterogeneous following will probably fall apart,” the historian predicts.
The religious evangelists from Trump’s fan base had little to do with the brothers-in-arms of the “Proud Boys”, whom the Republicans had repeatedly defended.
Clark predicts that the geopolitical style of old power politics will suffer a significant loss of legitimacy as a result of Trump’s departure. “On the other hand, the crisis of confidence that was exacerbated by Trump but began with the global financial crisis will remain.” Many people have lost their trust in politics, governments, authorities and financial institutions. The crisis of confidence is the headline for our time. “
Even before the First World War, there was a similarly large crisis of confidence. Today, however, is much deeper and more complex: “Think of the credibility of the big newspapers, which was huge back then and continues to decline today.” At that time one read newspapers to find out what one should think about the world. “Most of them don’t do that anymore.”
At that time, the universities, too, enjoyed tremendous respect among the population. “That is no longer the case today either. The acquired knowledge, the expertise no longer enjoys this appreciation. “
This is particularly evident in the corona pandemic, which has made many people extremely insecure. “Pandemic experiences have always been drastic and dramatic,” says Clark, “it is no different this time.” For those affected they often felt like upheavals and turning points.
“If you look at pandemics historically, however, you realize that they were often anything but upheavals,” states the historian, “afterwards people mostly plunged back wildly into the old normal.”
The forgotten pandemics
For Clark this is only one reason why pandemics are disappearing from our historical memory. “The pandemics were often forgotten very quickly,” reports the Cambridge professor, “think of Heinrich Heine, who was unable to discover any trace of it after the cholera outbreak in Paris in 1832.” And that was much worse than the Corona at the time Pandemic today. Both in terms of the number of deaths and the course of the disease itself.
“It is a peculiarity of our historical memory that these human catastrophes disappear from our consciousness so quickly,” says Clark. This also provides guesswork among historians. Some of his colleagues suspected that this was also due to the male view of historiography. “The fact that women tend to care for the sick is less interesting for male historians,” says Clark of the discussions in his guild.
The American scholar Gary Gerstle also points out that deathbeds in intensive care units do not win wars or defend human rights. “This is what makes the historical narrative of pandemics so difficult. They fill us with horror and shame, but offer little room for historical highlights. ”In addition, the virus is not a historical figure. “We experience this as a fight against an invisible, non-human opponent.”
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