A history of the present

Timothy Garton Ash’s Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, published on May 23 by the Yale University Press, is either a historically-informed memoir or a memoir-infused history, take your pick, reflecting Garton Ash’s own personal experience of the Europe he has chosen as his professional interest. Many of the essays here — as in his longer books like The File — also reflect his status as an interested observer: a journalist who, as a European, has skin in the game. The fall of the Berlin Wall? Garton Ash was there. Prague during the Velvet Revolution? There too. Brexit? Garton Ash was a dedicated Remainer, knocking on doors to convince Britons to stay in the European Union prior to the referendum. So he observed, but was often an actor in this history as well.

Conceived during the Covid pandemic, Homelands consists of nearly 50 short essays, divided into five sections: Destroyed (1945-1960), Divided (1961-1979), Rising (1980-1989), Triumphing (1990-2007), and Faltering (2008-2022). This creates a narrative arc from the fall of the Third Reich to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, from one European land war to another. Along the way, Garton Ash discusses the push-and-pull of signal events in the postwar era, some of the more recent of them from a participant’s eye view: the discovery of the concentration camps, the death of Stalin, the Gdansk shipyards through to 9/11, Charlie Hebdo, the migrant crisis, and Vladimir Putin — “a short thick-set man with an unpleasant, vaguely rat-like face,” Garton Ash reports as his impression of his first meeting with Putin in 1994. Overlaid on this is a conceit about the four age groups who experienced the events of the past eighty years: “Today’s Europe has been shaped by four key political generations: the 14ers (with their life-changing youthful experience of the first world war), the 39ers (the second world war), the 68ers (1968, in all its different manifestations) and the 89ers (influenced by then Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution and the end of the cold war).” I wrote more about this here; I’m an 89er myself.

Through the essays Garton Ash traces the development of fascism into a populist nationalism, and admits that the historian is always damned by what he doesn’t recognize, especially in the reconsideration of happier geopolitical days. “It’s not that we liberal internationalists were blind,” Garton Ash explains in a chapter entitled “Hubris”:

We saw many of the gathering problems and discontents … But after a quarter-century in which history had so gloriously gone our way, we did tend to assume that these would be temporary setbacks, obstacles on an upward path, delaying but not reversing the larger course of historical development. In other words, deep down we somehow thought — or more accurately, felt — that we knew which way history was going. That is always a mistake and one that historians should be the last people on earth to make.

It will come as no news to anyone familiar with Garton Ash’s work that his prose style is fluid and wry, his tone self-effacing and ironic, as the last sentence of the above excerpt indicates. And he is just as likely to report on his conversations with aging German farmers and teenage refugees as he is his conversations with Tony Blair and Donald Tusk — a ground-level perspective he shares with Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, and Marci Shore, historians of Central Europe who followed in his footsteps.

Homelands closes the “Faltering” chapter with a report on a visit with his wife Danuta to the archaeological remains of the oracle at Delphi. Musing on the oracle’s often ambiguous advice to seekers of the truth, he recommends that we “remember both lessons of Delphi. First, we don’t know what will happen this afternoon, far less in a few years’ time. Second, we need intelligent, historically informed guesswork to prepare for the challenges we seem likely to face.” Prognostication is a fool’s errand, he admits, so perhaps our best attitude is Romain Rolland’s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” And hope? “Hope is not prognostication,” Václav Havel wrote in a prison letter than Garton Ash quotes. “It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. … an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. … It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

While Garton Ash’s subject is Europe, the US is implicated in these thoughts as well, from the weaponization of the Constitution itself by today’s Supreme Court to the chilling of discourse on college campuses. As for my own crystal ball, well, I don’t find it hard to imagine that Joe Biden might not make it through to the Presidential election next year, fragmenting the Democratic field and providing a path to another Trump victory. There’s pessimism of the intellect for you. And so far as Europe goes, I’m immensely saddened by the death of Ukrainian novelist, essayist, and war crimes researcher Victoria Amelina in Kramatorsk this past weekend, as I’m saddened by the thousands of deaths the Russians have visited on Ukrainians over the past decade. US and international interest in the war seems to be waning nonetheless. I’m hoping I’m wrong. One more difference between optimists and pessimists is that pessimists are never happy when they’re proven right.

Homelands is a fine personal chronicle of the ways in which one individual has negotiated the promises and disappointments of liberal democracy in our lifetimes. It encourages readers to think deeply about their own negotiations with these promises and disappointments, and the role they might play in “working for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed,” as Havel has it. Or, as T.S. Eliot once put it, “there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.” Keeping that something alive, as Garton Ash tries to do in books like his, is really all that counts.