Conscious European, Critic of Hubris: Timothy Garton Ash’s Personal History of Contemporary Europe

by Ferenc Laczó

Homelands, Timothy Garton Ash’s personal account and interpretation of contemporary Europe, is a history book illustrated by memoir. A “post-68er” who is equally accomplished as a historian and as a journalist, and a highly reputed member of the British and European liberal establishments, Garton Ash proceeds chronologically on the book’s pages to cover “the overlapping timeframes of post-war and post-Wall.”

He builds his narrative around five key themes: Europe destroyed, divided, rising, triumphing, and faltering. The most vexing 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 is indeed a crucial personal matter too for the author.

Timothy Garton Ash begins by underlining what “post-war” has meant in European history. As the horror of the recent past has still been within easy reach, it has implied the social and political centrality of the “memory engine.” Homelands aptly compares evil to radiation with its long half-life – what Europeans have tried to do since 1945 can indeed only be understood if the hell that they previously created is recalled and properly considered. Much of the “barbarism” of the recent past was admittedly done by Europeans on “other people’s continents” and to other Europeans, and much of the violence was even committed “in Europe’s name,” Garton Ash clarifies. As he adds soon after, Europe also became “the better place” to strive towards after 1945 – a strange irony he never quite addresses.

The narrator instead continues with recalling the sheer remoteness of continental Europe back in his schoolboy days in the UK, which he memorably illustrates by just how foreign France appeared to him on his first visit in 1969. Garton Ash thereby makes it clear that he was not born a European but gradually became a conscious one in the 1970s and 1980s (“between that first schoolboy inhalation of Gauloise tobacco smoke in 1969 and signing books in revolutionary Budapest in 1989,” as he writes with great evocative power but less precision). He reminds his readers that when he set out to explore a divided continent in the early 1970s, much of it was still a continent ruled by dictators, and the traumatic recent past hadn’t begun to be properly worked through in the liberal democratic parts of it either. Much of the author’s youthful excitement about discovering this divided continent apparently came from not knowing where history was heading.

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 were essentially content with the Cold War division of Europe, he felt a strong – and markedly romantic – desire that people less fortunate than him should gain more of the freedom that he enjoyed. Poland would soon emerge as his Spain, with the Solidarity movement, and especially those parts of it he considered to be the liberal opposition to the regime, amounting to his Republican forces, and where, as he discreetly notes, “to political romanticism was added personal romance.”

Timothy Garton Ash writes captivatingly about how he saw “the stars aligned for freedom in Europe” in the second half of the 1980s when “a cast of extraordinary individuals, a set of historical processes and a sprinkling of happy accidents combined to produce a peaceful transformation of our continent.” He depicts artfully, though in surprisingly few words, Poland’s peaceful, self-limiting revolution; the persona and ideas of Václav Havel, that extraordinary Czech intellectual in politics and close acquaintance of the author, receives just about the same attention. Homelands offers a sharp illustration of how the subsequent discontents were “visible, in perfect miniature, at the birthplace of Solidarity, now called simply the Gdańsk shipyard,” showing how the yard where Polish workers organized and asserted themselves to near global acclaim in 1980 had gone bankrupt by 1996. However, reporting on this ironic and tragic experience of decline is not followed by elaborate words of soul searching regarding the meaning and consequences of 1980-81 and 1989. To be fair, the brevity of these vignettes follows quite logically from the book’s basic principle of composition: Homelands contains numerous short chapters on specific subjects, the discussions of which reflect on more overarching themes.

As the narrative develops, it becomes abundantly clear that the two political causes Timothy Garton Ash has been devoted to throughout his adult life are freedom and Europe. “Where the cause of Europe has marched arm in arm with that of freedom, I have been happiest; where Europe has seemed to conflict with freedom, or at least be indifferent to it, I have been most dismayed,” he writes in a characteristic passage. In this regard Garton Ash 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. He lacks any trace of the “slightly insecure boastfulness” he rightly identifies as characteristic of many of the latter people though. It is sadly ironic then that in the context of Brexit he suddenly found himself forced into the position of (what he suitably calls) a “petitioning European from the periphery.”

More generally, Garton Ash’s delightful dissection of the “bewildering variety of ways” that Europeans use the word Europe belongs among the most memorable parts of his history illustrated by memoir. The author describes with great erudition our fuzzy and contested ideas of geography; the powerful and problematic beliefs in a historical core region (the “Carolingian” as opposed to the more inclusive, “Ottonian” idea of Europe); the Europe of culture and values, “a well-dressed but distinctly two-faced character”; the institutional organization of Europe one might often – and out of various political sentiments – be inclined to call “Euromess”; not to mention – fifthly – Europe’s crude identification with civilization as such (a pattern which the author rejects).

All these ways of conceiving of Europe by and large fail to relate to what “means most to most of us,” Garton Ash emphasizes: the continent of personal experience. Here is the chief subject of Homelands, which in the author’s case has been closely intertwined with his fine appreciation of the shared vocabulary of symbols, myths, archetypes, and quotations, a shared vocabulary that might be said to amount to a European Gesamtkunstwerk. The book coins the expression “kaleidotapestry” to describe this rich complexity.

As Garton Ash perceptively notes, Europe’s meaning has been located somewhere between the literal and the metaphorical – one of Homelands’ most impressive achievements is indeed to have captured quite a bit of both at the same time. What might be slightly absent though are more critical reflections on how, and to what extent, providing informed analyses of Central European countries – to which Garton Ash has been dedicated for decades – has challenged the rather narrow, Carolingian visions of Europe.

This European kaleidotapestry became a source of special pleasures and personal enrichment for its author just when – after centuries of wars, poverty, and hunger that generated forced movements and mostly negative transnational encounters – it was suddenly becoming a much more pleasant direct experience for most other Europeans too. If the discovery of this alternative Europe of high culture and pleasurable ways of life was largely novel and often stunning 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.

Having sketched the above with masterful touches, Garton Ash is also cognizant of European integration’s frequently ironic and often rather disappointing consequences. As a Brit, he is all too acutely aware of how being proficient in foreign languages is a matter that continues to divide many European societies in two. He does not hide that, decades of deepening interconnections notwithstanding, Europe’s core political conundrum – the uneasy balance between unity and diversity, between “dreams of Rome” and “dreams of escaping from it” – has by and large been reproduced in the decades since the days of his youth.

An economic and political union might be desirable for other reasons, but such plans cannot count on majority support, which would obviously be a fundamental precondition for a democratic Union. Nor has politics on the European level – which, as the book fittingly puts it, can be “at once terrifying and extremely boring” – been able to capture much popular attention. Peter H. Wilson’s conclusions concerning the Holy Roman Empire, which Garton Ash cites, indeed seem almost directly applicable to the EU today: “success usually depended on compromise and fudge. Although outwardly stressing unity and harmony, the Empire in fact functioned by accepting disagreement and disgruntlement as permanent elements of its internal politics.”

More specifically, Homelands’ narrative of contemporary Europe revolves around the concept of hubris. 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 leads him to highlight a core paradox of liberalism: for liberalism to flourish, there must never only be liberalism. Temporarily liberated from fierce ideological competition from 1989-91, Western liberal democratic capitalist countries soon became complacent and self-indulgent, he argues. The best of days were thus also the worst of days, triumph the source of faltering.

Homelands has clearly been penned by a liberal critic of the shape liberalism has taken in recent decades. The dream of spreading individual liberty was connected much too closely to one model of capitalism and liberalism thus came to be viewed, damagingly enough, as the ideology of the rich and powerful, Garton Ash emphasizes. He also offers unflattering depictions of the EU’s technocratic liberalism, its short-sighted priorities, and the ongoing erosion of democracy under Brussels’ watch. He states that NATO’s “fateful compromise” of communicating the promise of future membership to Ukraine without significant concrete steps towards it amounted to the “the worst of both worlds” – it increased Putin’s sense of threat without guaranteeing Ukraine’s security.

More generally, Garton Ash admonishes the at times hollow pretenses of a liberal and rules-based order. Such pretenses have been contradicted by the disgraceful mismanagement of the fallout from the financial crisis and, perhaps even more conspicuously, by the new Iron Curtain being raised around Europe’s edges. It is a profound and tragic irony that, after centuries of European colonialism, it is now Europe’s attractiveness that has led its political elites and societies into what the author rightly calls “extremely dubious moral territory.” Garton Ash articulates his critique in no uncertain terms: it seems “neither morally tolerable nor politically feasible” to turn Europe into a “fortress of the privileged,” he writes.

What must also strike the reader though is just how modest and defensive his plea for the European project sounds towards the end of the book. This suggests that the evolution of the author’s personal perspective has mapped rather closely onto the arc of history he aims to reconstruct on these pages. Instead of offering a stirring defense of the cause that would yield demands for a more integrated Europe, Garton Ash reminds his readers, in a rather anticlimactic manner, that much of the post-war and post-Wall European achievement still endures – the achievement is no less than the “largest area of relative freedom, prosperity and security achieved in European history,” he underlines. “If we simply manage to defend and extend this achievement for another few decades, we will be doing very well,” he asserts. He adds a few dire warnings to this declaration of status quo liberalism: disintegration would be traumatic, it would amount to a standing invitation to foreign powers, and liberal democracy and peace would probably soon be endangered as a result.

In other words, the story the book tells is not so much about the unmaking of a grand project but rather about the disappointed high expectations of a consciously European liberal from the UK. This manner of writings risks projecting the personal onto the general while underestimating the further steps European integration has taken in recent years. Homelands culminates in a manner of relating to the present which is not so much incorrect as unambitious – and strikingly so, not least since its last part explicitly propagates “resolute defiance” without too many specifics on how that defiance could and should be expressed.

Homelands does well at distinguishing the author’s (68er and post-68er) generational cohorts from that of the “Born-Frees” of the post-89er cohorts (Garton Ash borrows the fitting expression from South Africa). He admittedly paints with a broad brush, but accurately enough, when he says that he and his ilk have managed to raise the next generation with attitudes that were “anti-imperialist, anti-fascist, anti-war, internationalist, educationalist, environmentalist, agnostic if not atheist, sexually liberated and socially liberal.” As a member of the “pre-89er” cohort, I deeply appreciate the achievement, and consider myself a beneficiary.

It is less clear from the book how liberal complacency could be overcome and the European project developed further by the – not always so fortunate – natives of Garton Ash’s promised land. The critiques of environmentally heedless capitalism, sexism, and offensive language and behavior that the politically conscious among the “Born Frees” have articulated in recent years have not really brought a liberal revival closer. Such critiques, justified as they are, have not made political engagement more meaningfully pro-European either, nor are they likely to do so.

As a sober kind of Euro-Atlanticist, Garton Ash recognizes that it was always likely that the interests and priorities of Europe and the United States would diverge after the Cold War. He sounds more forward-looking and assertive though when emphasizing how essential a partnership with the US and all other liberal democracies remains in an increasingly post-Western world and how such a partnership would need to be combined with an embrace of the many people who live in unfree countries but “yearn to breathe free.” In short, whereas Timothy Garton Ash’s discussion of the European project at times resembles – and understandably so – that of a disappointed lover, making for a strange contrast between the first and the second halves of Homelands, his youthful liberal idealism still echoes in this articulation of a more global vision.

There are a few remarkable omissions in the book. Garton Ash notes rather early on that Europeans have a strong tendency for self-congratulation and would need to learn to also see themselves through the eyes of non-Europeans. A fair point, certainly. However, it is also one that the book does not follow up on, which is only fitting in the sense that Garton Ash is explicit about how little the colonial past of, for instance, his own maternal grandfather has mattered to him and how it took a new generation to start facing up to Europe’s colonial past. In other words, this omission can be said to be appropriate as memoir, even if it is less convincing as a form of historical analysis. Secondly, noting his insatiable cultural appetites (“today Mycenae, tomorrow Florence, the next week, Paris”) and indeed penning many erudite pages, the author offers surprisingly few reflections on the intellectual influences that have shaped, and the cultural accomplishments that have accompanied, him over the decades – nor does he try to analyze the reception and impact of his own manifold and significant public interventions.

Such quibbles aside, Timothy Garton Ash proves a learned, witty, and judicious observer on the pages of this history illustrated by memoir. The result is an account that may not develop too many ground-breaking historical interpretations, but one that offers a host of sparkling insights and raises vexing questions. Homelands amounts to a complex and critical account of contemporary Europe that depicts “ill-founded intellectual optimism” as a major cause behind Europe’s recent faltering. If its author may be said to have shared such optimism, he has apparently lost it.

Timothy Garton Ash: Homelands: A Personal History of Europe. London, Bodley Head, 2023. 384 pages.

In collaboration with Oliver Garner and Kasia Krzyżanowska.

Contact Us