Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 3
24 January 2000

Orwell He Ain't
Timothy Garton Ash
A History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s
London: Penguin Books, 1999 (xxii + 441p).
ISBN 0-713-99323-5 (hbk).

Seán Hanley

Like many students of East and Central Europe in the late 1980s, my interest in what then was then a half forgotten periphery of Soviet "satellite states" was given a major boost by reading Timothy Garton Ash's collection of essays and impressions, The Uses of Adversity. Unlike many academic writers on Eastern Europe, Garton Ash not only knew the languages and history, but also knew the people and the places. He also wrote in a direct and literate style that captured both key political ideas and fragments of the atmosphere of the late Communism of the 1980s in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. Ten years on, the book still impresses. Garton Ash's vignettes of reportage, such as his pen portrait of the Czech dissident Karel Pálek (better-known under his pen name 'Peter Fidelius') living out a lonely but defiant intellectual existence in the boiler room of a Prague hospital have an immediacy that go beyond even the best academic pieces of Sovietology or dissident writing translated out of context. The essays in The Uses of Adversity also retain much of their intellectual bite. 'Does Central Europe exist?', with the possible exception of Milan Kundera's 'The Tragedy of Central Europe', perhaps did more than any other single piece of writing in English to introduce the notion of "Central Europe" to a wider Western public, and is still one of the clearest and most accessible explorations of Central European identity. Similarly, despite mistaken expectations of a slow "emancipation in decay" paralleling that in the Ottoman Empire earlier in the century, the 1988 essay 'Reform or Revolution?' remains of the best analyses of the dynamics of change in the region on the eve of the collapse of Communism. Along with his eye witness accounts of the rise of Solidarity in Poland in 1980-1 (The Polish Revolution, London: Penguin, 1999) and of the collapse of Communism across the region in 1989-90 (We the People, London: Penguin, 1999) - both now also reissued in Penguin - The Uses of Adversity won Garton Ash a deserved place as one of the best, and most original, new writers on East and Central Europe.

In many ways, Garton Ash's new book, A History of the Present, seeks to take up where The Uses of Adversity left off. The collection of essays, book reviews and pieces of reportage deals with Germany, East Central Europe, the former Yugoslavia and the future of Europe, and is padded out with sketches, newspaper articles, diary entries, a chronology and an introduction in which the author tries to define "the history of the present" as a coherent genre straddling journalism, history and literature. A first impression, quickly confirmed, is that much of this is superfluous padding. Did the often banal diary entries or a rather breathless and sycophantic tribute to Pope John Paul really merit such anthologisation? A slimmer volume of essays would have been a worthier successor to The Uses of Adversity - or, given that most of the substantive pieces here are already freely available over the internet (see links below), a well-maintained website might have sufficed just as well. However, Garton Ash's writing has been overtaken by more than technology. His attempts to build upon the personal and intellectual agenda of the 1980s also flounders. For a number of reasons, post-Cold War Europe does not quite lend itself to the would-be genre Garton Ash has pioneered in the same way as the 'Other Europe' of closed, Communist societies. Celebrity status and the greater self-consciousness as a "historian of the present" often turn these cracks in his style of reporting and his approach to the recent past of East and Central Europe into gaping flaws.

As one might expect, the pieces on East and Central Europe are among the best and most enjoyable. Garton Ash revisits and updates his reflections on the notion of "Central Europe", now the term of choice for politically correct politicians and academics. He considers the changes that have taken place since 1989 in Poland and East Germany: the one time chain-smoking Solidarity underground journalist transformed into a power-dressing media entrepreneur; the doctor in West Ukraine promoting Ruthenian nationalism on a shoe-string in his back room; the embittered, but strangely dignified, figure of Erich Honecker in prison, still with his direct line telephone number to the West German Chancellor's office - left over from the days of Ostpolitik - on a crumpled piece of paper in his pocket. Garton Ash reflects on the new dilemmas of post-Communist Europe, as for example in the essay on the "coming to terms" with the crimes of the past, arguably the best and most penetrating piece in the entire collection. There are also a number of well-written, if generally boring pieces on the new, united Germany, their dullness reflecting what Garton Ash is surely correct to see as the success of Germany in becoming a "normal" democracy, despite his initially over-optimistic assessment of the ease of transition in the former GDR.

On the broader issue of the Europe, Garton Ash's central argument - repeated and developed in a number of essays here, many of which are angled towards a Eurosceptic British readership - is that the debate over the future of post-Cold War Europe has largely been reduced to a narrowly conceived argument about "Europe". A "Whig interpretation" of a historical progress, seeing ever tighter monetary union and political integration of the European Union as both desirable and, in a certain sense, historically inevitable, has, Garton Ash argues, blinded politicians to the real limitations and potentialities of the Union. This narrowly teleological view, he thinks, is not only bad politics (given the Union's well-known 'democratic deficit', the lack of a strong popular European identity and the likely political and economic difficulties of operating under a single Europe-wide currency and fiscal policy), but also represents an enormous missed historical opportunity. Garton Ash argues that rather than pushing ahead with economic and political union the key priority for the EU should have been quicker and more meaningful expansion to include the post-Communist states of Eastern and Central Europe, coupled with the integration of security and defence policy (perhaps even the creation of a single European army). This, he argues, would have been a project for a "liberal Europe" - liberal in the sense intended by the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin: a plural and variegated community centred on an expanded (rather than more integrated) EU; an EU capable, when necessary, of speaking softly (and with a single voice) and wielding a big stick, rather than falling back, woefully unprepared, on (what Garton Ash considers) the benevolent presence of the United States in Europe in response, for example, to the extended crisis of the former Yugoslavia.

Lightweight philosophising

Such an analyis of post-Cold War Europe, however, has a number of loose ends. That the EU lacks democratic legitimacy and a real European political identity is a point made earlier and more clearly by, for example, Garton Ash's fellow New York Review of Books contributor Tony Judt in The Grand Illusion (London: Penguin, 1997), whose conclusions ran in a quite opposite direction to Garton Ash's. More significantly, however, Garton Ash does not convincingly make his case for Eastward expansion as the great moral and political imperative of our time. Despite nods to Isaiah Berlin, his philosophising about a "liberal order" is intellectually lightweight, and his outlook as a whole seems to amount to little more than an updated, milder, more urbane, and, of course, more British version of the old Gaullist notion of a Europe des patries, able militarily to stand on its own two feet. This is somewhat ironic given Garton Ash's Germanophile disdain view for France and French Euro-integrationalism.

More fundamentally still, the notion of a "liberal Europe" as a great missed opportunity for a final putting together of a "Europe whole and free" is arguably as much a piece of romantic historical hubris as its Eurocratic rival. As George Schöpflin has argued, the historic cleavage left by the Iron Curtain will not go away simply because the Iron Curtain itself has gone away, whatever immediate political fixes are applied. Europe will, most likely, remain not only diverse, but also divided, whatever the pace and mode of EU enlargement. Arguably, therefore, the EU should not be burdened by intellectuals with any historical mission to "unite" Europe, either by integrating or enlarging.

Garton Ash's "pragmatic" arguments about the need for Western Europe to build democracy, the market and a civil society in former East Europe in its own interests also ring hollow. Whilst it might have been plausible to argue in mid-1990 that "Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia are the countries where the fate of democracy hangs in the balance today" (p.47), it is clear today that this is - and probably always was - a gross exaggeration. Since 1989, despite the lukewarm embrace of the EU, the countries of East Central Europe have generated plenty of stability and democracy on their own without so much as a failed military coup - something neither Spain nor Portugal, the great success stories of democratisation in Southern Europe, can boast despite the carrot EC membership being offered earlier. There is simply no convincing argument why politics should not take its course. If the EU does, as seems likely, leave the new democracies of East Central Europe if not exactly out in the cold, then at least shivering in the waiting room for a few more years, then this is normal politics, not the "huge fateful, almost melodramatic changes" (p. 189) that might offer a cause to the would-be engaged intellectual. In the first decade of the 21st century Garton Ash's basic underlying argument - that a benevolent and paternal West should take a interest in the orphaned and abused countries of East, treating them with understanding and kindness and, of course, the occasional clip round the ear for bad behaviour, before finally adopting them into its own big and happy, if slightly unruly, family (the argument which underlay his intellectual and personal involvement with the region in the 1980s) - is simply outdated.

The case of Yugoslavia

The exception that proves the rule is (or was), of course, Yugoslavia, which Garton Ash deals with in this collection both in essays and in reportage. Yugoslavia is the one country where "normal" post-Communist politics did not prevail. In former Yugoslavia Garton Ash is on new ground, both geographically and intellectually. As a reporter he writes well. His impressions of the desolate and depopulated Krajina region after its re-conquest by the Croatian army in 1995 and the mass exodus of the Serbian population, for example, is powerful and moving. But it is clear that Garton Ash knows the language, the people and indeed the history less well. His eyewitness observations and broader reflections in Bosnian Croatia and Serbia never quite gel as they do in his writing on the post-Communist Poland after the break-up of Solidarity, or on former East Germany. His account of on the anti-Milošević student demonstrations in Serbia in 1997, for example, while it could grace any good Sunday newspaper and despite some pious hopes for the future, gives little deeper insight into the "degraded re-Balkanised society suffused with a national self pity and psychic denial" (p. 265) he finds post-Communist Serbia to be.

His substantive conclusions about former Yugoslavia are bleakly optimistic: when the historical dust of war, ethnic cleansing and prolonged international intervention finally settles, more stable and potentially democratic states and statelets will emerge - more stable because, in the main, they will be more ethnically homogeneous. Seasoned observers of Balkan politics may perhaps regard his judgements on the sanguine long-term prospects of full and final democratisation with a certain scepticism. More seriously, however, his stress on the ultimate virtues of ethnic homogeneity in democratic state building sit very uneasily with his liberal values (his admiration of, for example, the embryonic multi-culturalism of post-Communist Prague where Albanian words are already creeping into the local street argot). It suggests that in a certain sense Tuđman and Milošević were right all along, i.e., that they were unsavoury but ultimately necessary agents in the process of democratic state-building. Garton Ash is, of course, a good enough historian - and an adroit enough stylist - not to state his conclusions in such crudely functional terms, but nevertheless, this is where his rather ham-fisted political realism leads. It raises worrying questions: if, in some paradoxical historical sense, the sacrifice of multi-culturalism and cultural pluralism had could yield up democracy and stability in post-Communist South East Europe, could the same argument not apply at some point in the future in the increasingly diverse societies of Western Europe? Despite his concern with "Europe", rather than "Central Europe" in A History of the Present Garton Ash does not address such deeper issues, focusing entirely on the 'new' - that is Eastern - part of the continent.

The intellectual in politics

One of Garton Ash's intellectual heroes is George Orwell, who, he states, invented the genre of the "history of the present" in his Spanish Civil War memoir Homage to Catalonia. It is against this standard, argues Garton Ash, that we should measure up all attempted histories of the present. As Garton Ash noted in a recent review of Orwell's collected works in the New York Review of Books (not included in A History of the Present, but see link below) the essence of such a political writer is that "he goes there, he sees things and he takes risks". This is coupled with a wider reflection on a the role of intellectuals in politics taking the form of a critique of - or as Garton Ash insists, given an oblique reference to him in one of the Czech President's speeches, a "long range dialogue" with - Václav Havel. Garton Ash feels that it is erroneous to believe, as Havel does, that the role of the traditional central European intellectual "living in truth" can be combined with that of the professional politician seeking power and support, "living in half truth". However, he thinks intellectuals do have important role in public affairs as bearers of an Orwellian critical spirit and conversely.

Such a critique of Havel and the restatement of the importance of "public intellectuals" are to say the least unoriginal. However, the notion of a history of the present as a genre blending reportage, personal experience and historical analysis does deserve further consideration. The gap between current affairs journalism and academia that Garton Ash highlights is undoubtedly a real one. He deals competently with the usual historiographical questions of evidence, interpretation and subjectivity, arguing interestingly that despite the usual stress on the need for historical distance, the past can sometimes be understood best in its immediate aftermath. Although he expands on some of these concerns in a piece on the "new" post-Communist history of the Hungary Revolution of 1956, he does not really address the problems, limitations and requirement of a genre which could easily degenerate into a mixture of second rate travelogue and glorified journalism. As he himself notes during his own 1997 visit to Serbia, there is a great risk that most histories of the present could easily amount to little more than a compendium of "intellectual elite explanations of what 'the people' think, supplemented by opinion polls, anecdotes and a few personal encounters" (p. 263).

"A man of the corridor and the salon..."

Sometimes it seems that the demands of the genre which require a historian-writer are also too great for Garton Ash. For, despite his strengths as an essayist and observer, as even his most enthusiastic admirers would concede, George Orwell he ain't. Apart from the fact that an Orwell for our post-Communist times would perhaps be penning Down and Out in Prague and Budapest, rather than rubbing shoulders with the Great and the Good at the innumerable official receptions, academic symposia, diplomatic occasions and good meals in good restaurants chronicled in A History of the Present, Garton Ash is too unforthcoming about his own position, both politically and personally. Orwell successfully transformed himself in print from awkward, upper class Englishman into a special kind of Everyman; Garton Ash does not quite manage this. Even a book such as The File, a "personal history" tracing his involvement with East Germany through his newly released Stasi dossier is marked by a reticent and aloofness that many readers will have found disappointing. Similarly, in A History of the Present, despite an impressive directness and simplicity of style, Garton Ash's writing is simply too self-conscious and too polished, and his literary persona too remote to merit comparison with Orwell.

In A History of the Present this missing sense of honesty and engagement with the reader that is so characteristic of Orwell is most painfully visible in pieces written about a three-week visit to Bosnia and Croatia in 1995. Despite a laudable (and successful) concern that Orwell would have approved of not to romanticise and heroicise the victims, Garton Ash's dismissal of the "endless foreign visitors [such as Susan Sontag] on their Sarajevo safaris" (p. 208) as mindless celebs despised by war-weary Sarajevans, while he - he seems all too eager to impress on us - is a immediately trusted confidante of the embattled intelligentsia of the besieged Bosnian capital ("knowing something of my work she [his interpreter] decides that it might after all be worth trying to help me" (p. 203)). This seems deeply disingenuous. Given that he had no little previous interest in Yugoslav affairs how can one we view Garton Ash's presence in Bosnia except as part of a VIP safari? A safari perhaps prompted by the effective extinction of many of the exotic political animals in his former hunting grounds in Central Europe, but a safari none the less. We should perhaps therefore look elsewhere - perhaps to too younger, less well-known writers, for histories of the present in the former Yugoslavia written in the tradition of Orwell. Mark Thompson's overlooked masterpiece A Paper House (London: Vintage, 1992), would seem to be a worthy candidate, passing the Homage to Catalonia test where Garton Ash himself flunks it or merely scrapes through.

Like the Polish dissident historian turned politician Bronisłav Geremek, whose memoirs he reviews in an excellent essay on post-Communist Poland, Garton Ash himself seems "above all... a man of the corridor and the salon, the small circle and the elite group" (p. 79). Rather than George Orwell, Garton Ash - particularly in A History of the Present - seems to be fall more into the tradition of romantically-minded, upper-class British writers on East and Central Europe - a tradition dating back (with a substantial interruption for the years of Nazi occupation and High Stalinism) to the 19th century. Men such as Wickham Steed, R W Seton-Watson, Patrick Leigh Fermour or Robert Bruce Lockhart were travellers in and friends of Central Europe who wrote what we might term Edwardian and interwar 'histories of the present' using, like Garton Ash, a mixture of eyewitness observation, scholarly erudition, good literary style, abundant connections with the social, political and cultural élites in the region and great personal charm.

Just like these earlier writers, it is difficult to dislike Garton Ash in print and impossible not to respect him. Nevertheless, despite his erudition, undoubted skill as a writer and observer and his intellectual heroes on the heterodox left, much of the writing in A History of the Present comes across less as a biting critical defence of democratic values than as a slightly complacent affirmation that established political and cultural élites are, or at least are close to, doing things right. This is laced throughout with moderate Euro-scepticism and a sense of special pleading for a Central Europe which is as touching as it is now out of date.

Seán Hanley, 10 January 2000
Seán Hanley is Lecturer in Politics at Brunel University, West London

Sean Hanley's Archive of CER Articles

History of the Present
from Amazon.com.

Some other works mentioned in the review:

Links to pieces reprinted in A History of the Present

22 April 1999: Hail Ruthenia!

18 March 1999: The Puzzle of Central Europe

14 January 1999: Cry, the Dismembered Country

19 February 1998: The Truth About Dictatorship

24 April 1997: In the Serbian Soup

August/September 1997: Bad Memories

11 January 1996: 'Neo-Pagan' Poland

21 December 1995: Bosnia in Our Future

12 January 1995: Prague: Intellectuals & Politicians

13 June 1991: Poland After Solidarity

Links to other pieces mentioned

Tony Judt

Garton Ash's review of The Complete Works of George Orwell.


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