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.

Notebook of an 89er

The verdict is in. According to 23andme, “[my] DNA suggests that 98.1% of [my] ancestry is Eastern European.” The 23andme findings more specifically identify “places where you have DNA in common with more people who report ancestry from that particular region.” The specific regions are identified from “highly likely” to “possible match”; for me, Lithuania and Poland are “highly likely” matches; the Czech Republic (specifically Prague), Ukraine, and Russia “likely” matches; and Hungary and Slovakia “possible.” This more or less coincides with what I already knew for certain about my family’s background: on my father’s side Ukrainian and Slovak, on my mother’s Lithuanian and Polish. There were no real surprises. The remaining 1.9% of my ancestry appears to be comprised of Scandanavian (0.7%), Ashkenazi Jewish (0.2%), and somewhat amusingly Chinese (0.7%, which may explain my delight in spicy Szechwan cooking) fore-fathers and -mothers.

Of course, these identifications are based on present-day national borders — geopolitical fictions, as the history of the region proves over and over again. When my father’s father emigrated from Europe in 1914, he emigrated not from Ukraine but from the state of Austria, which was where the town of Ternopil was located before World War I. Similarly, the borders of both Poland and Lithuania shifted almost hysterically through the twentieth century, not to mention the centuries before. The only thing that is most certain is that my family’s origins, from the Baltics to the Black Sea, were located in the Bloodlands: Timothy Snyder’s name for the region most heavily devastated by the twentieth century’s Thirty Years’ War between 1914 and 1945.

Born in 1962, I am a second-generation American: for the dozens of generations before that, my family was Eastern European. As I’ve tried to piece together my more recent familial genealogy, I’ve found too many voids in the record to be more certain than this. But my cultural genealogy — ah, that’s a different matter. In his excellent new book Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, Timothy Garton Ash notes: “Our identities are given but also made. We can’t choose our parents, but we can choose who we become. ‘Basically I’m Chinese,’ Franz Kafka wrote in a postcard to his fiancée. If I say ‘basically I’m a central European’ I’m not literally claiming descent from the central European Yiddish writer [Scholem] Asch, but declaring an elective affinity.” The similarities in their names — Asch and Ash — aside, there is that which draws Ash to the region not via intellect or emotion exclusively, but via a sympathetic temperament and disposition (I wrote a little about mine here) that combines these two characteristics with others. When I first visited the region in 1990 on a whirlwind six-week tour through Austria, Germany, Hungary, and what was then Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (those pesky borders again), I had an uncanny feeling of comfort, of belonging. My Jewish friends have described to me a similar feeling when they first travel to Israel, and I imagine it’s much the same. It feels like home.

It certainly did so when in August of 1990 I joined thousands of others for a Rolling Stones concert in Prague, well described here. The anonymous author quotes Czech journalist and musician Ondřej Hejma, who was also there somewhere in the crowd near me:

This was a confirmation that we are entering the world of free market, democracy, and free speech, and that we will see it with our own eyes. And that’s exactly what happened. … The [Rolling Stones] concert at Strahov was a social event, a philosophical event and something like a milestone in history.

In his book, Ash also introduces a generational concept that defines age groups according to their formative political experiences in their early adult lives. He defined this in a recent Substack post: “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 am myself an 89er, as are two historians whose writing I find sympathetic to my own cares and interests, Anne Applebaum (born 1964) and Timothy Snyder (born 1969). Blessed it was to live in that time, as the saying has it.

And, from the perspective of 2022, perhaps damned as well. The deep hope and life-changing experience that Hejma describes couldn’t last, but one would have hoped that it wouldn’t have deteriorated so rapidly. Even a few years after 1990 I noted a distinct difference in the eastern European zeitgeist when I returned to teach English to high school students in Moravia: the students’ interests turned more to Germany and Austria than to the United States, primarily for economic reasons, and the hostility directed towards the Romani population was palpable even among those Czechs who were otherwise most politically liberal in the Western sense of the word. Americans were not welcomed as warmly has they had been in 1990. Last year, when the Russo-Ukrainian War began, it seemed as if the promise of all those color revolutions had been cruelly dissipated. In Europe there was also Brexit and the immigrant crisis, but here there was Trump and an immigrant crisis too, not to mention an upswing in threats of political violence and to the sanctity of the individual conscience — sexual, religious, racial, cultural. My own two children are likely 22ers, as Ash would define them. I can only wonder what’s next.

There is still a war in Ukraine to be fought and a Presidential election here in the United States next year that threaten to remind us that, as some wag once put it, history may not repeat itself but it does rhyme on occasion. As I recall my experiences in Eastern Europe (as 23andme calls it), and look back with some more atomic attention to my ancestry, I hope not to succumb to nostalgia or sentiment but to shore up those personal ideals that were so profoundly represented in the culture of the 89ers: that of freedom, of validation of the individual conscience, of the right to determine one’s own integrity as countries like Ukraine defend the right of geopolitical self-determination. That it remains clearly an uphill battle is not in dispute. But if I don’t fight that battle, I and my family will clearly lose. Slava Ukraini, and the rest of us, too.