Annual Feldman Lecture: The Times of Power

by Tianxing Cao, Ellen Harper, and Danielle Miller

On Thursday, November 7th, over 60 students, faculty, and community members convened at the Bancroft Hotel in Berkeley to attend the Annual Gerald D. and Norma Feldman Lecture, a highly anticipated event honoring the life and work of former IES Director Gerald D. Feldman. This year, IES was pleased to host Sir Christopher Clark, Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, for an exciting lecture exploring temporality and power in history from the perspective of Prussia, and how this shapes our current understanding of politics and power.

Clark led the audience through a brief history of Prussian rule, highlighting how each ruler conceptualized time through their exercise of power. Clark began with Fredrick Wilhelm, the so-called “Great Elector,” arguing that his rule was fused with a sense that the present was a precarious threshold. Though Wilhelm aimed to be innovative and future-oriented, his legitimacy was rooted in tradition. This ruling style comes in contrast with the rule of Fredrick II, which famously featured what Clark called a “non-alignment of history,” reflecting a desire to be as ahistorical as possible, focusing on present decisions rather than future consequences or historical reflections. Clark next discussed Otto von Bismarck as a decision maker who intervened in day-to-day politics to assert his power and viewed history as an unceasing process that predetermined choices, making the statesman solely a decider between the options that history provides. Jumping to far more recent history, Clark conceived of the Nazi party as one that anchored its identity between the remote past and the distant future. The Nazi regime, in Clark’s view, was the temporary transition period between the two, a necessary transition to an ideal Nazi future.

To conclude the lecture, Clark related temporality in history to temporality of our present time. He likened French president Emmanuel Macron’s vision of curbing previous national privileges in order to prepare for a more advanced European integration to Fredrick Wilhelm’s proactivity in preparing his state against possible Pomeranian invasions. In addition, Clark pointed out the tendency of contemporary populists such as Boris Johnson to construct a glorified perception of the past in order to further their agenda.

During the lively Q&A, Clark spoke of the mechanisms by which regimes and governments can manipulate historical narratives and conceptions of time. In some cases, this can be via the introduction of new calendars, such as the French Republican calendar during the French Revolution. In other cases, such as under Mussolini’s regime in Italy, fascist-futurist versions of history became integrated into broader society through public exhibitions like Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista. Clark also discussed the concept of time as a benchmark for goals. While some political actors may see time as a process shaped by the push and pull of political entities, others—such as the Nazis under Hitler—saw time benchmarks as goals themselves, with the “end” of a timeline viewed as equivalent to their desired “final state of affairs” under Nazi ideology. Finally, when asked about the rise of populism across Europe, Clark characterized a common technique used especially by populist movements as one seeking to “replace old futures with new pasts.”