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Homelands: Timothy Garton Ash and His Critics Discussed Contemporary Europe


By Maria Paula Angel Benavides

How has Europe been transformed in the overlapping timeframes of post-war and post-Wall? What insights does Homelands, a “history illustrated by memoir” written by a distinguished European, offer its readers?

Felix Ackermann (FernUniversität in Hagen), Celia Donert (Cambridge University), Ferenc Laczó (Maastricht University/Review of Democracy), Renáta Uitz (CEU/DI) and Joanna Wawrzyniak (Warsaw University) discussed Homelands. A personal history of Europe in an online panel organized by the CEU Democracy Institute and its journal, the Review of Democracy. Timothy Garton Ash, the author of the book, also responded to the comments. The discussion was moderated by László Kontler (CEU/DI).

The roundtable covered several topics such as the transformation of Europe during the post-war and the post-wall periods, insights that a volume like this offers to its readers, and many more.

Watch the discussion:

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“A diary for the future”

First, Renáta Uitz offered her comments. “Homelands reads very much like a diary for the future. It is a personal history [...] It is as much a story about a continent, but also the story of an idea and a story of aspirations for multiple generations,” she said.

“I read this story through a filter of how my generation, those people who were born in the 1970s, got to experience Europe. Our Europe, especially from Hungary, is a continent where possibilities were slowly opening up and where I felt the most intimately involved was not so much 88-89, where things seemed obvious, but rather Tim's way of presenting how those events of 88-89 have roots in the 70s and 80s, very often around diplomatic tables,” she continued, adding that “I come from a generation where the possibility to access to the European Union seemed like an almost linear trajectory where we will also get to live our own democracy, a liberal democracy, not an illiberal one. Once we become old and finally get to sit down and enjoy the achievements of our fathers, it turns out that this story is much more grim”.

Renáta Uitz thinks that

“reading Homelands as a diary for this very present is unsettling in many ways and also reassuring.

Reassuring because it seems that if you rely on historians then they can give you much better guidance than when you talk to lawyers. Lawyers like linear stories and normative arguments. In Tim's argument, as normative as it is at its heart, it is hard to miss the point that Europe was a good idea. It was a complicated idea, but a good idea.”

“The book gives a lot of texture to where this idea is coming from and also the many points where those people who made it happen actually faltered and did not necessarily stand in the best light of themselves,” she continued.

What she especially appreciates about the book is “how this is a travel not only in time but also across East and West. Tim's insistence on putting the dictatorships back into European history, not only to Central European history but also to Western European history, is a very important contribution of the book: open up the space for conversations, especially on the threshold of a liberal democracy, where you might blame the Orbáns and Kaczynskis for the recent illiberal turn, but there is plenty of intellectual potential in what is Western and the South of Europe.” She also appreciated “that there is plenty of emphasis not only on the longevity but also on the adaptability of the Salazar and Franco regimes.

That is the lesson which I think those who would like Europe to turn back to being an inspiration of young democrats should take from the book and read much more carefully than they would otherwise to.”

Another lesson which Renáta Uitz finds equally important is “an active engagement with the generation of the post-89ers and trying to make a very active and approachable effort to build a community of memory with this generation. This is a historian's project, that is how the book is written, but I feel that at the end of the day the weight is on the shoulders of all the readers to build this community. I am extremely grateful for Tim to draw those connections, which might not be evitable when we sit in East Central Europe or at the Balkans or Southern Europe.”

“History as experienced by individual people”

“As someone whose own journey through Central Europe has been shaped by reading Timothy Garton Ash's work from an early age, there was both a sense of familiarity when reading Homelands and much that was new. As we have heard, it is a personal history, not in the sense of being an autobiography, but rather as a history illustrated by memoir. It is history as experienced by individual people, but not only European leaders but also ordinary people, who are often more remarkable human beings than their leaders,” Celia Donert started her intervention.

Tim writes that today's Europe cannot be understood without going back to the period that Tony Jut encapsulated in the title of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 but overlapping and in some important ways superseding that post-war framing is post-Wall Europe,” she continued, adding that “Homelands suggests that for many Europeans the post-war era was a 30 years peace, but that it was brought to an end by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022. So,

these three points, 1945, 1989 and 2022, give the book both its narrative arc and drive its argument.”

Celia Donert thinks that “Homelands is much more than a collection of personal reminiscences about Europe, it's an argument about seeing those personal histories as deeply embedded in a particular project of European integration, based on the premise that the project has been shaped by a common thought: ‘We have been in a bad place, we want to be in a better one and that better place is called Europe’.”

“The first half of the book is composed of a succession of brief chapters that interweave a narrative about Europe since 1945 with Timothy Garton Ash's distinctive voice as an astute observer of that history. He is always managing to be in the right place at the right time, illustrating big arguments with well-chosen anecdotes from figures such as Václav Havel or introducing perfectly drawn pen portraits of characters that he meets on his travels. Woven together, these illustrate what he calls the intricate polychromatic local histories of the so-called kaleidotapestry of contemporary Europe, an image which Tim sets in explicit opposition to the two-dimensional black and white Europe of British political debate today,” she argued, and concluded that “one key argument of the first half of the book is that personal memories, starting with those from the hell that Europeans made for themselves on Earth, are among the strongest drivers of everything that Europe has done and become since 1945.”

“A crucial personal matter”

“Timothy Garton Ash's new book builds its narrative around five key themes: Europe destroyed, divided, rising, triumphing, and faltering. The most waxing question to emerge out of this sequence should be easy enough to intuit: why has Europe’s rise and triumph been followed by its recent faltering? That question appears to be a crucial personal matter for the book's author as well,” Ferenc Laczó stated.

He argued that “the narrator recalls the sheer remoteness of continental Europe back in his schoolboy days in the UK and, as the narrative develops, it becomes abundantly clear that the two political causes Garton Ash has been devoted to throughout his adult life are freedom and Europe. In this regard, he has been a rather atypical Brit and someone much closer to people in various corners of the continent, especially in countries that have emerged out of dictatorship since the 1970s.”

Homelands shows that Garton Ash's personal experience of Europe over the past half a century or so has essentially revolved around how he came to be at home abroad and develop an elective affinity with Central Europe in particular. While too many West Europeans, one might say, were content with the Cold War division of Europe,

he personally felt a strong and markedly romantic desire that people less fortunate than him should gain more of the freedom that he enjoyed,”

he said.

In his assessment, “the delightful dissection of what Garton Ash calls ‘the bewildering variety of ways that Europeans use the word ‘Europe’ belongs among the most memorable parts of this book. He describes with great erudition our fuzzy and contested ideas of geography; the powerful and problematic beliefs in a historical core region; the Europe of culture and values, which he aptly calls a ‘well-dressed but distinctly two-faced character’; the institutional organization of Europe; and Europe's crude identification with civilization as such, a pattern which the author clearly rejects”.  

“All these ways of conceiving of Europe fail to relate to what means most to most of us, as the author emphasizes: the continent of personal experience. Here comes the chief subject of the book, which in the author's case has been closely intertwined with his fine appreciation of a shared vocabulary of symbols, myths, archetypes and quotations, that might be said to amount to a European Gesamtkunstwerk,” Ferenc Laczó continued.

“What might be slightly absent are more critical reflections on how and to what extent providing informed analyzes of Central European countries to which Garton Ash has been dedicated for decades has managed to challenge and perhaps help overcome that rather narrow, Carolingian vision of Europe. If the discovery of this Europe of high culture and also pleasurable ways of life was largely novel and often quite stunning some half a century ago, it is little surprise that it also generated a great sense of curiosity and possibility for the fortunate youth of those days,” he argued.

He also talked about the book being “clearly cognizant of how Europe's integration has been frequently ironic, and the consequences have often been rather disappointing.

Garton Ash does not hide the fact that decades of deepening interconnections notwithstanding the core political conundrum, that is to say the uneasy balance between unity and diversity, has by and large been reproduced, nor has politics on the European level been able to capture much popular attention.”

“The book's narrative of contemporary Europe revolves around the concept of hubris,” Ferenc Laczó emphasized, adding that “Garton Ash suggests that the West won the Cold War because it feared that it was losing it. He rightly considers the contrast with the early 2000s instructive. This then leads him to highlight a core paradox of liberalism: for liberalism to flourish, there must never only be liberalism. In other words, in the interpretation of the book, the best of days were also the worst of days, in the sense the triumph was the direct source of the faltering. Now Homelands has clearly been penned by a liberal critic of the shape liberalism has taken in recent decades, as the dream of spreading individual liberty was connected much too closely to one model of capitalism and liberalism came to be viewed, damagingly enough, as the ideology of the rich and the powerful.”

In his view, “what must also strike the reader is just how defensive his plea for the European project sounds towards the end of the book. I would say that instead of offering a stirring defense of this cause, that would then yield demands for a more integrated continent, he rather reminds his readers, in a somewhat anti-climactic manner, that much of the post-war and post-wall European achievement still endures and that this achievement is nothing less than the largest area of relative freedom, prosperity and security achieved in European history.”

“One might say that the story of the book tells is not so much about the unmaking of the grand project, but about the disappointed high expectations of a consciously European liberal from the UK. It is less clear to me how liberal complacency could be overcome and how the European project could be developed further. The critics of environmentally heedless capitalism, sexism, offensive language, and behavior, that the politically conscious members of younger generations, such as mine, have articulated in recent years, have not really brought a liberal revival closer. Such critiques, justified as they are, I think, have also not made political engagement more pro-European, nor are they really likely to do so,” Ferenc Laczó concluded.

“A great compelling read”

“Homelands is a great compelling read. It's a masterpiece of clarity of writing, as well as connecting an erudite narrative with anecdote, and of combining serious intellectual concepts with micro stories. Homelands is about the European project and passion, about political dreams coming true, and about liberal democratic hopes against all odds. The book is composed of conversation and episodes from all over Europe and proposes a rich, epic narrative of almost 80 years that passed between the Second World War and the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, including various aspects of the Cold War, decolonization, transition to democracies, changes in lifestyle,” Joanna Wawrzyniak said. She talked about three structural processes “that are somehow in between the lines of the book but perhaps would merit a little bit more discussion, namely deindustrialization, digitalization and new social movements.”

“In relation to them, I think

it is so difficult today to imagine a European public sphere in the liberal democratic manner which is something that many protagonists of this book did.

Homelands pays some attention to economic processes, including the neoliberal term, that is so important for understanding the populist backlash all over Europe, so acutely visible in Poland and Hungary. However, the very processes of deindustrialization and its consequences, which have resulting in the total reshaping of economies, electorates, spaces of experience and horizons of expectations of European societies, would perhaps deserve a bit more attention. Deindustrialization does not mean the end of industry, but the shifting of the roof from the industrialized economic core of Western Europe to Eastern Europe and the Global South and new compositions of economic and political interests organized around new regimes of work,” she argued.

“The digitalization of societies, including media, changes the very functioning of the public sphere. If a printed newspaper was a key medium of the public sphere in the Habermasian sense, the television meant the other way of organizing imagined political communities in the second half of the 20th century. Those two main channels of the streaming of political interests and emotions have been largely undermined by the development of New Media and the interaction with political projects is more complex,” she continued, and added that “we get an acute picture of the rise and demise of a key political generation of postwar Europe, the 1968ers. The answers to the future of Europe in the first half of the 21st century lies in the hands of new social movements all around Europe.”

“All these processes are open-ended”

“I really admire the author’s great amount of mobility during the Cold War. It seemed to me that at many times you decided yourself how many days you would stay in one place. […] Of course, looking back from today’s perspective this might seem more logical, but for me it was different as I grew up in the very east of Berlin, in the shadow of the wall,” Felix Ackermann said.

He found it “really brilliant” how the author was able “by not putting the story chronologically to contextualize very different phenomena,” and “really convincing” how he “pointed to the crucial interlink between a more general geographical configuration at certain points and the agency of politicians, but not only of politicians, also the broader social imaginary.”

“The most important point for today, I think, is that all these processes are open-ended. That is very clear from your book.

In 1980, 1982 or a year later, it was not clear whether it would be possible to overcome communist rule in Poland, Hungary and in other parts of Eastern Europe. Even in 2008, or 1989, it was not so obvious if it was going to be possible to find, for instance, a ‘solution to the German question’: how to shape a future Europe in a peaceful way and find a new configuration,” Ackermann argued.

“Having in mind what is going on in Ukraine and the way and the extent how it changes Europe in 2020, 2022 and 2023 as an ongoing full-scale war, I asked myself a question that I wanted to ask you: to what extent does it make sense to uphold this notion of the 20th century as a short century of extreme violence, as it was put by Hobsbawm?,” he said.

“To what extent we should think about the 21st century as a form of continuation of the 20th and those 25 years between 1989 and 2014 not as something that disconnects us from what happened before?,” Felix Ackermann asked. “The idea would be that we are in a way still in the shadow of 1989 and also of its shortcomings,” he concluded.

“I am happiest whenever Europe is advancing freedom”

In his reply to the commentators, Timothy Garton Ash stated that “the book is history illustrated by memoir and reportage, […] every anecdote in the book makes a larger historical point,” and that “the book is a personal history as much because it is about the personal experience of other Europeans, both so-called ordinary and well-known figures. And, as Renáta said, it is a story of generations who have made Europe: the 14ers, the 39ers, the 68ers, the 89ers.”

“One of you said I am broadly pro-Europe. Yes, I am pro-Europe when Europe is enhancing, extending, defending, and improving freedom, but the normative commitment can be summarized in the phrase ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,’ meaning ‘an Isaiah Berliner’ So,

I am happiest whenever Europe is advancing freedom, which of course was the case in Southern Europe after the 1970s and in East Central Europe, we have thought and hoped in the 1980s and 90s. But I am also very unhappy when it is not advancing freedom and that also happens and that is also Europe,”

Timothy Garton Ash argued.

He warned that “we must not make the prescriptive mistake of assuming that Europe is always on the side of freedom, enlightened values, democracy, and human rights. Adolf Hitler was also a European. Viktor Orbán is also a European. He is not wrong to say that the values he represents, nationalist, xenophobic, ethnocentric, anti-liberal, are part of the larger corpus of European values. They are not the values of the European Union, but they are empirically, historically European values.”

“To those of you who asked about the explanatory power of the term hubris, I would say that what underlies that is what I call a historiosophical mistake. The fundamental mistake we made, not so much in the 1990s but in the early to mid-2000s, which was the point at which we made the end of history mistake, was to take history with a small h, history that is always a product of a combination of structure, process, contingency, conjuncture, choice, collective and individual will and leadership, and turn it into History with a capital H, a Hegelian process of inevitable progress towards the spread of freedom. We took freedom as struggle and quite mistakenly turned it into freedom as process,” he continued.

“One of the points I make very strongly in the book is that

the European Union, which likes to imagine itself as this wonderful liberal post-imperial construct, has itself a colonial past,”

he emphasized, adding that “West European colonial powers were still fighting brutal colonial wars for 30 years after 1945, up to and including the time when I started traveling in Europe in 1973. Portugal only gives up Angolan Mozambique in the mid-1970s [...] The EU immediately forgets all that and goes around the world presenting itself as this wonderful liberal post-imperial advocate of human rights, democracy, freedom, dignity and all these good things, in a language which very much recalls a mission civilisatrice.”

Timothy Garton Ash thinks that “the ‘Global South’ is itself a deeply problematic term, it implies that there are these serious countries in the North and then there is this undifferentiated mass of the Global South, who have to be won over to the right side. It has almost a kind of neocolonial undertone.”

He noted “the fact that after a year of a brutal war, a genocidal war of terror in Ukraine, which is a war of recolonization, not just China but also India and Turkey are absolutely not on the side of the West in this war, and say that Russia is an ally or necessary partner. That tells you something very significant. One of the things it tells you that is they remember six hundred years of European colonialism and two hundred years of Western hegemony and now it is payback time.”

Answering the question why he still believes in the explanatory power of a short 20th century, he stated that “the post-wall period is also the period in which we move into a post-Western world, one in which non-Western great powers are calling the shots and setting the agenda. Not to mention global warming, global overheating, so that there are large structural forces that seem to me that characterize the post-wall period, as well as its illusions of proceeding to eternal peace.”

Timothy Garton thinks that the explanation “offered by Stephen Kotkin in his book about 1989 in Eastern Europe, that it was simply collapse, the end of the GDR explored as bankruptcy” is “clearly deeply inadequate”, and it “succumbs to the illusions of retrospective determinism.”

“I am not going to claim, and I don't claim in the book, that it was all about the dissidents and the social movements, and all about Solidarnosc and Vaclav Havel, that would be absurd. What I think is true is that you have four quite distinct developments: in the Soviet Union with Gorbachev, starting in 1985; in Western Europe with Jacques Delors; in Eastern Central Europe with the dissidents developing the new evolutionism, a strategy for political change; and in the United States with Ronald Reagan. It seems to me that it is only the convergence of those four in 1989 in what I call a one in a million example of historical luck, of Machiavellian fortuna, that gives us that change,” he continued.

Garton Ash also stated that his “problem with the, let us say Philipp Therian, interpretation of how the neoliberalism that sort of revved up in Thatcher's Britain and Reagan's United States, then advanced into Central and Eastern Europe, which became a sort of laboratory for a crude neoliberal experiment, is the following: that sort of suggests that the people who were leading the transition in post-communist Europe were in some conscious sense neoliberals, in the way that people in the late 1940s in Central Europe were consciously communists and the people in the 1930s were consciously fascists. Not true.”

“Most of the politicians of that time were not in any meaningful sense neoliberals,”

he argued, adding that “for most of them, Sweden would have been the perfect sort of West European Social Democratic model. I had these conversations with them at the time. They just had no idea how you turned the fish soup back into an aquarium, a command economy back into a market economy. As they said to me, ‘we are not economists, we do not know about capitalism’. This is simply what they were told from the West about how you do capitalism – the Washington consensus, and so on. Even then, when you look at the reality of economic and social policy in post-communist Europe, it was anything but purely neoliberal.”

“What I think is true is that there was a particular version of capitalism, which I call globalized and financialized capitalism, which became predominant, which post-communist Europe got in a particularly crude form and which had a particular ideology in East Central Europe, because it was connected to cultural issues and claims about historical injustice,” he said. He also noted that “it had a particular ideology, it produced unprecedented levels of inequality and it led us into the 2008 global financial crisis, which segued into the Great Recession and the Eurozone crisis. By the way, if you look at Viktor Orbán's rhetoric, this plays a significant part in his embrace of the illiberal route to modernity. He says, ‘you know, the 2008 crisis showed us that liberal democratic capitalism is not the only way to modernity.’”

“For me, the real shock of the post-2008 and particularly the post-2010 period is the fact that it was possible for Viktor Orbán to systematically demolish a liberal democracy inside the European Union,

whose clear, not just normative but legal commitments, were to preserving liberal democracy, and to do it actually with the aid of EU funds and EU membership," he emphasized.

He concluded with stating that “Britain is part of Europe, the history of Europe is unthinkable without Shakespeare and Churchill [...] Britain can no more leave Europe than Piccadilly Circus can leave London. Even the Eurosceptics acknowledge that. Unfortunately, many Brits are starting to forget it again.”