The Europe that never was

Timothy Garton Ash at the presentation of his book at the Cercle d'Economia in Barcelona, November 2023. © Cercle d’Economia, Lucía Meler

Timothy Garton Ash is an unconventional Briton who viewed Brexit as both a personal and collective failure. He is deeply enamoured with the continent, having started exploring it at the age of 18. Fluent in German and Polish, and proficient in French, he was educated at Oxford, affording him the credentials to engage with prominent figures of his time, including Helmut Kohl, Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher and Madeleine Albright, with whom he has maintained close relationships.

Timothy Garton Ash travelled to Gdansk (Poland) during the formative months of the Solidarność union (known as Solidarity); there, he became closely acquainted with Václav Havel, the dissident instrumental in the Velvet Revolution that ushered in democracy in Czechoslovakia. He crossed paths with Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg in 1994, back when Putin was just a discreet municipal official… He didn’t like him then, and he has persistently cautioned against his character ever since.

Garton Ash is not only a historian and a brilliant intellectual but also a person with a journalistic spirit. This quality shines through in Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, which is far more than a mere narrative of events and encounters in distant, inaccessible offices. It brims with personal testimonies, anecdotes and human stories that the author gathered during his extensive sojourns in Germany and Eastern countries. This aspect renders the book both easy and very enjoyable to read.

Book cover

The journey begins in the year 1945, right after the end of the Second World War, with cities still smouldering from the devastation wreaked by the airstrikes from both sides. In the years of scarcity that followed the conflict, when memories of the hardships endured by many Europeans had endured were still vivid, the groundwork for European unity was laid. The ideal of unity and integration, along with the conviction that Europe must be a continent of peace and avoid repeating past mistakes, emerged from the fragility of post-war Europeans.

The second year of significance in the book’s narrative is 1989. Few other years capture the optimism that characterised that period. The year marks the fall of the Berlin Wall, widely regarded as the event symbolising the end of the Cold War and the triumph of the Western bloc. In the ensuing months, at a dizzying pace, Germany would reunify, the Soviet Union would dissolve without resistance, and there would be a surge of democracy in Central European countries, which had previously been under Soviet rule.

In short, 1989 stands out as the year when the post-war dream comes to fruition. It’s perhaps the most vibrant part of the book, blending the author’s personal experience of living through a historic moment with the exhilaration shared by witnesses across the cities he visits or resides in, from Berlin to Prague.

The third significant year in Garton Ash’s narrative is 2022. More precisely, 24 February 2022, marked the day when Russian army tank columns breached the border of Ukraine, shattering the illusion of a continent that thought it had been spared from wars.

From hope to the unexpected turn
Homelands: A Personal History of Europe is not exactly, or not solely, a historical essay. It is also a testament to how the author’s aspirations come to fruition, only to ultimately wither in an unexpected turn of events: from the euphoria of the late 1980s to a more subdued reality. As Garton Ash explains, when post-war Europe imagines the continent’s future, it always envisions a sort of confederation of states with a strong social component. However, what arrives, what ultimately shapes the common institutions, is the free market, liberalism in its most extreme form. He speaks not so much of neoliberalism as of the harsh conditions that the new globalised capitalism, pressured by the emergence of China and new competitors, imposes on European societies. Europe dissolves into a society where money rules, where the market is the beginning and end of everything, and where inequality will grow in the years to come.

Retaining this perspective is crucial because it sheds light, at least partially, on the subsequent reactions that will increasingly cloud the reality of the continent. Garton Ash highlights Islamic terrorism, the surge of the far-right in response to migration, and the desire for vengeance among the Russian elite who witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine cannot be fully grasped without considering the resentment harboured by the high Soviet echelon against the West during the 1990s. It was a decade in which Russia, along with other Eastern European countries, suffered from the shock therapy prescribed by Western consultants. Without understanding its impact on the populace, the subsequent anti-liberal shifts in societies such as Poland or Hungary would remain inexplicable.

The book makes explicit references to two intellectually profound works that the author mentions at different points throughout the narrative. The first is Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin Books, 2006) by Tony Judt, a more systematic and denser book compared to Garton Ash’s. Judt penned it in 2005, expressing a bittersweet sentiment about the path Europe has taken. The other book is The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European (Pushkin Press, 2011) by Stefan Zweig. The Austrian completed it in 1942 and tragically ended his life with his wife shortly after submitting the manuscript. Fortunately, Garton Ash’s outlook is more optimistic and less tragic than Zweig’s. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that Europe hasn’t evolved in the manner he had anticipated.

Homelands: A Personal History of Europe
Timothy Garton Ash
Vintage, 2023. 384 pages

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