Western curiosity about other lands has a long history as a literary phenomenon – its fashionable origins are generally dated to the Grand Siècle, the time of the voyages to Mughal India of François Bernier or Thomas Coryate. Distinctions between the more advanced European cultures in the volume or quality of travellers’ tales would be difficult to make for most of the modern period. In the Enlightenment, for every Cook there was a Bougainville or Georg Forster; somewhat later, at a higher level, Humboldt or Custine. But in the 20th century, one society seems to have outproduced all others, across the genres. Between the wars, there was a strong strain of exoticism in French writing, variously surfacing in Gide, Morand, Saint-Exupéry, Michaux, Leiris, Malraux and others, to which Tristes Tropiques can be seen as a melancholy quietus. Little comparable followed. On this side of the Channel, where the tradition was always less philosophical, no such break is visible. The literature of travel appears to have become something of a British speciality.
Why this should be so is not at first glance clear. But two powerful – opposite, yet not unrelated – impulses may supply much of the explanation. On the one hand, the stifling parochialism and puritanism of an insular middle-class culture, with all its weight of boredom and repression, made escape abroad an instinctively attractive option for restless spirits: a motive that can be traced back to early Victorian times, when George Borrow’s fascination with Spanish or Gypsy low life was bred of detestation for native ‘gentility’. On the other hand, Britain’s Imperial primacy – whose memory long outlasted its reality – inevitably encouraged dreams of daring exploits in remote lands and stirring encounters with alien peoples, without necessarily unsettling loyalty to the values of the Home Counties. The horizon of Empire habituated Englishmen to the idea of overseas adventures.
Between these two banks an abundant stream of writing poured forth, with any number of undertows, eddies and crosscurrents. If we confine ourselves to the first half of the century, a number of features are noticeable. Geographically, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the Danube basin were for a long time privileged zones – the terrains of St John Philby and Robert Byron, of Norman Douglas and Patrick Leigh-Fermor, of R.W.Seton-Watson and Rebecca West. Sorties farther afield – like Peter Fleming’s expeditions to the Gobi or Matto Grosso – were fewer. Paradoxically, the vast expanse of the Empire itself was not fertile soil for this kind of writing. There, British power was too close at hand. It generated another set of forms altogether: memoirs, morose or nostalgic, of colonial functionaries like Orwell or Woolf, or avowedly scientific monographs by anthropologists such as Firth or Evans-Pritchard.
In principle, three types of author were professionally distinguishable – the journalist, the writer, the scholar. In fact, Seton-Watson, most unambiguously a scholar – chairs in history at London and Oxford – made his name as a periodical correspondent in Eastern Europe; Leigh-Fermor, by any definition a writer, was no less interested in the distant past of his obscure finger of the Peloponnese than in its present; Evelyn Waugh set out for the Horn and the Levant as a mercenary for Northcliffe, but who imagines he ceased to observe or write as a novelist? In the postwar period, the enormous growth of the media and the dwindling number of authors with ‘independent means’ have made resort to journalism of one kind or another a necessity, even for relatively successful writers; and this has encouraged journalists to think of themselves as writers, if not – on receipt of institutional grants – as interim scholars.
Another kind of taxonomy would take as its focus neither local subject nor alien object but the relationship between them. Here the range of possible aims and attitudes behind a literary engagement with unfamiliar cultures is much wider. It is interesting that systematic hostility should be rare (and the exceptions often light-hearted), in contrast to the notorious ambivalences of biography, showing perhaps that it is more difficult to turn against a society than an individual. For the most part, the stances adopted have not been those of the critic, still less the foe. They are, rather, those of the adventurer, the admirer and the advocate. These positions may be combined, but should not be confused – though there are no watertight divisions between them. An advocate is likely to be an admirer. An admirer may easily also be an adventurer. An adventurer – this is much more unusual, but possible: Malraux in Indochina – can be an advocate, without being an admirer.
Where the roles blend in any given individual, it is rarely hard to see which is dominant. Evelyn Waugh in Ethiopia was an adventurer sans phrases. Wilfred Thesiger, although unquestionably adventurous, was an admirer. In 1916, at the age of six, he had watched Ras Tafari’s triumphal entry into Addis Ababa, his enemies hauled behind him in an atrocious procession. ‘I believe that day implanted in me a life-long craving for barbaric splendour,’ he later recorded, ‘for savagery and colour and the throb of drums, and that it gave me a lasting veneration of long-established custom and ritual.’ In 1930, watching Ras Tafari’s coronation as Emperor Haile Selassie, Thesiger regretted that Waugh, ‘the one person present with a gift for writing, was blind to the historical significance of the occasion, impercipient of this last manifestation of Abyssinia’s traditional pageantry’. His vision of Waugh is a violent declaration of distance between the two species.
I disapproved of his grey suede shoes, his floppy bow tie and the excessive width of his trousers; he struck me as flaccid and petulant and I disliked him on sight. Later he asked me, at second hand, if he could accompany me into the Danakil country, where I planned to travel. I refused. Had he come, I suspect only one of us would have returned.
Thesiger, passionately attached to Ethiopian feudatories, Arabian bedouin, dwellers in the Iraqi marshes, saw the worlds he admired dissolve in his lifetime: Haile Selassie deposed by the Dergue, Nuri al-Said felled in his palace, the Imam of the Yemen – for whose slave-holding tyranny Thesiger fought in old age – defeated in his bid for a counter-revolution. But his books contain little or no advocacy; they are virtually pre-political. St John Philby, his senior in exploring the Empty Quarter, offers an ironic contrast. An outspoken enemy of British imperialism after the First World War, who encouraged Ibn Saud to cut deals with American oil companies to assure the latter’s independence of London, he died a self-declared socialist – who never hesitated to advocate unpopular causes in his own country – under secure Saudi protection.
The figure of the British enthusiast for the cause of an oppressed people abroad goes back to Byron in Greece. Lawrence and Philby, espousing rival dynasties in the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, brought it to the Middle East. But its more natural stage was always Mediterranean or Balkan, where buried identities or ancient unities of European civilisation could more readily be invoked. Rebecca West’s massive and idiosyncratic Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, an emotive cry for the Serbs as the Wehrmacht swept through Yugoslavia, belongs in this tradition. Its greatest representative, however, was the elder Seton-Watson, who not only wrote the first modern histories in English of the Czechs, Slovaks and Romanians (he did not live to complete a companion study on the South Slavs) but played a key role in the wartime ideology and diplomacy that led to the creation of all three states of the Little Entente. This was advocacy at its highest – historically most effective – level.
After the Second World War, conditions changed. The figure of the explorer, still significant in the interwar literature – Fleming, Thesiger, Saint-Exupéry – soon became defunct, as the inventory of the globe closed. Distance was banalised by television and mass tourism. ‘Primitive’ societies were enrolled in modern markets. The world became a universal political battleground. In this setting, the heroic strain in the earlier literature – its Foreign Legion side – was more difficult to sustain. Not that drama was missing. But it was now typically modern and political, calling for professional skills of a different kind. The representative figure became the journalist with specialist knowledge of a given country or region, reporting or analysing the events of the day, from some longer historical or cultural perspective. The literature of overseas engagement is now dominated by this form.
Among its most fluent practitioners are the three Anglo-musketeers regularly featured in the New York Review of Books: Neal Ascherson and Timothy Garton Ash (spurs won in Eastern Europe) and Ian Buruma (in East Asia). United by common liberal convictions, the trio are otherwise quite distinct. Garton Ash, a generation younger than Ascherson, followed his path from Germany to Poland as lands of primary reportage. In 1982-83, both wrote passionately committed books about Solidarity. Thereafter, Garton Ash immersed himself much more deeply and single-mindedly than Ascherson in the politics of Eastern Europe during the final years of the Cold War. The period may have something to do with the difference. As the Eighties unfolded, the East European oppositions to Communism were steadily drawn into the magnetic field of the West’s dominant ideology – the uncompromising doctrines of the Right proclaimed by Reagan and Thatcher. For Garton Ash, then an editor and contributor at the Spectator, this was a natural and desirable evolution. For Ascherson, no friend of Thatcherism, it must have posed more difficulties. Probably, too, domestic considerations weighed in their own right. Ascherson and Buruma mix Scottish and Dutch with Jewish origins; both have expressed sharp dislike of standard British identities and their customary supports – leading, in Ascherson’s case, to direct involvement in Scottish national politics. The English credentials of Garton Ash, by contrast, appear to be unalloyed. When he set out in 1978 for Berlin in his blue Alfa Romeo, Britain was not in question. Undistracted by doubts about the home country, he could throw himself more completely into patriotic causes beyond the Elbe.
The result has been an impressive oeuvre, widening over two decades. After initial reportage on life in East Germany based on his time as a postgraduate there, serialised in Der Spiegel, and a detailed account of the rise of Solidarity in Poland (The Polish Revolution), came The Uses of Adversity – subtitled ‘Essays on the Fate of Central Europe’ – in the spring of 1989, extending his range of testimony to Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In these years, slipping intrepidly from one underground to another, he developed an incomparable set of friendships with dissident intellectuals in the last three countries (by now he was banned from the DDR) that enabled him to chart the erosion of Communism in the region more vividly and acutely than any other journalist of the time: a process he expected to take the form of a prolonged ‘Ottomanisation’ – loosening and decay – of Soviet power in Eastern Europe.
When, a few months later, sudden collapse came instead, he was perfectly placed to provide the best snapshots of the victors. The Magic Lantern (1990) offers a slide-show of the heroes of the hour, caught in dazzling close-up: Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, Leszek Balcerowicz, Bronislaw Geremek in Warsaw; Árpád Göncz and Viktor Orbán in Budapest; in Berlin, ‘the greatest street-party in the history of the world’; and finally, the climax in Prague with Havel – ‘it was extraordinary the degree to which everything ultimately revolved around this one man’ – which Garton Ash observed as a participant alongside Václav Klaus or Jirí Dienstbier in the headquarters of the Civic Forum, ‘the very heart of the revolution’, as the old order disintegrated around it. Adventurer and admirer have seldom been so dramatically or effectively at one.
After this triumph as a reporter, Garton Ash went back to his intended startingpoint as a scholar, with a major historical study of the origins and outcome of German Ostpolitik. Based on careful archival research, as well as extensive interview material, In Europe’s Name (1993) traced Bonn’s oblique and often camouflaged path to German unification: a goal pursued by ambiguous invocation of the unity of Europe and tenacious cultivation of relations with Russia, but relished by neither France nor Britain. Garton Ash’s own reservations about the process attach to actors or episodes judged culpable of backsliding from Western values in dealing with Communist rule in Eastern Europe – principally, Social Democrats from the time of Schmidt’s coolness to Solidarity onwards. But the book, his most substantial achievement to date, is scrupulously balanced and fair in its overall judgment of the upshot of West German strategy towards the East. The File (1997), his quest, via their Stasi dossiers, for those who spied on or informed against him as a student in East Berlin in 1980, can be read as an autobiographical coda. What could easily have been a formulaic inquest becomes, as memory is startled into life by disturbing encounters, the most self-questioning and humane of his writings.
Historically, Garton Ash belongs to the last levy of the Cold War, a cohort fired by an uncomplicated anti-Communism. His staunchness made him a natural candidate for recruitment to MI6, which propositioned him early on, as it had Ascherson in his time. Though not unattracted by the idea of this kind of clandestine work, he eventually decided against it on the grounds that he did not want to be controlled from above: it was better to be a freebooter than a functionary in the battle against totalitarianism. After his book on Solidarity came out, he was invited to become deputy director of Radio Free Europe in Munich; again he declined. Repeated approaches of this kind were logical enough. Politically, his credentials as a Cold Warrior of the liberal Right were impeccable. According to George Urban, the best inside source, he could be counted, by the mid-Eighties, among the select group of academics – Hugh Thomas, Brian Crozier, Norman Stone, Leonard Schapiro and others – lending extra-mural advice and assistance to Mrs Thatcher.
Urban’s refreshingly forthright memoir, Diplomacy and Disillusion at the Court of Margaret Thatcher, also makes clear that Garton Ash was a courtier with quirks of his own. Looking round the table at Chequers, with the Prime Minister at its head, Urban noted of his neighbour:
Tim is an excellent analyst; he is young and has already made a name for himself. I can see in him a future R.W. Seton-Watson or a politician of the first water. He is rational, can think on his feet and his heart is in the right place – with one or two exceptions: he made misjudgments about Nicaragua and has a soft streak in him when it comes to the Third World, but on Eastern Europe he is sound and has written some excellent stuff.
Doubts about the Contras proved to be less of an anomaly than they might have seemed. A sceptical, empirical side of Garton Ash – he identifies it with the best native traditions – was always capable of checking doctrinal enthusiasm. The overthrow of Communism in Eastern Europe, he concluded in 1990, may have brought no new ideas into the world, but it recalled West Europeans to moral and intellectual values they had often forgotten. It was – simply and decisively – the World Turned Rightside Up: that is, the arrival in Eastern Europe of a familiar order of elected parliaments and free markets, civil rights and private property, in which there was only one kind of democracy, legality and economics. Still, it was possible that some of the new converts would overdo things in the first flush of enthusiasm. Among intellectuals in the forefront of the transition to capitalism, Garton Ash detected a dangerous tendency to regard ‘the free market as a cure for all ills, social and political as well as economic. Hence the popularity of Hayek. One might almost say that the free market is the latest Central European utopia.’
The essays and dispatches brought together in History of the Present record Garton Ash’s responses to what has happened since this was written. The collection opens with various German themes, later amplified: Kohl’s electoral triumphs with unification in 1990 and 1994, and his downfall over its consequences in 1998; vignettes of Honecker in prison, Markus Wolf on trial, and reflections on the Gauck Office as catharsis for the legacy of the Stasi. It then moves to Poland with a critical sketch of the beginning of Walesa’s Presidency – the former leaders of Solidarity ‘belabouring each other with rusty clubs’, amid potentially hopeful signs of a Thatcherite economy under his authoritarian rule. An account of its unthinkable sequel follows: the victory of the post-Communist Aleksander Kwasniecki in 1995 – under whom, nevertheless, such changes as the evolution of Solidarity’s Gazeta Wyborcza into a Murdoch-style media conglomerate offer wry confirmation of Polish entry into Western consumer normalcy. The different meanings of the Hungarian Revolt, for contemporaries and posterity, are revisited. In the Czech Republic, a set-piece – one of the pivots of the book – recounts a public clash between Havel and Klaus, President and Prime Minister, in which the author also had his say.
Returning to the lands of his choice, Garton Ash is generally shrewd and measured. The predominant note is one of rueful satisfaction. Walesa and Havel may have been disappointments in office, hopes of a higher regional ethos may be all but extinguished in a common rush for humdrum consumption, yet – however unseemly some of its former nomenklatura ornaments – the foundations of a democratic capitalism have been secured. The principal interest of the new collection, however, lies elsewhere. From 1995 onwards, Garton Ash started to go beyond his traditional beat, travelling into what was once Yugoslavia. His sorties into this unfamiliar landscape produce the best sketches and essays in the book. Here, as if freed from conventional attachments, he has reached more radical and original conclusions.
These give little comfort to the semiofficial liberal consensus about the region. Garton Ash’s coverage opens with a chilling description of the Krajina just after the Croatian sweep had emptied it of 150,000 Serbs, to the indifference of Western Europe. When he comes to Bosnia, the complexities of the tripartite war between communities are given their due, without diminishing Serbian responsibility for unleashing ethnic savagery, or the enormity of European moral default in face of the disaster. In Kosovo, Garton Ash argued for independence before there was talk of any Western intervention, and expressed pointed reservations about the aerial assault on Serbia when it came – as he had about the Potemkin polity set up in Bosnia.
Informing his treatment of these issues is an unpopular conviction, or perhaps it would be better to say, divulgence of what the Western consensus (voices in the bars of Tuzla) would prefer to leave unsaid. Stable European democracies, he argues, require fairly homogeneous populations – an ethnic majority of at least 80 per cent. In this matter a background outside the Balkans was perhaps a condition of breaking ranks. Although tact prevents him mentioning it directly, Garton Ash’s favourite countries, Poland and the Czech Republic, were founded on by far the largest two ethnic cleansings in Europe since the Second World War. There is no hint of condonement in his account of the repetition of these processes by the Adriatic, only horror – and the prediction that out of them may come liberal democracy as we know it. The example he gives is the abluted Croatia of tomorrow. This is an argument first made by Tom Nairn about Bosnia, in much the same tension of grief and realism.
The extension of Garton Ash’s range to the Balkans thus involves more than a geographical move. It represents an intellectual and moral enlargement. But by the same stroke, it throws into sharp relief the limitations of some of his earlier work. For if there was a single leitmotif of his writing until the mid-Nineties, it was the special character of the countries of Central Europe in the spectrum of captive nations, and their quite particular call on the sympathies and resources of Western Europe. The notion of ‘Central Europe’ – as expounded by spokesmen like Milan Kundera or Czeslaw Milosz – designated Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, extending on occasion to Lithuania. Its function was, on the one side, to draw a cultural line demarcating this zone from such truly East European (viz. backward) countries as Romania or Yugoslavia – and even more from perpetually barbarian, totalitarian Russia; on the other, to link it, as a cradle of political tolerance and high culture, to the homelands of liberty and prosperity in Western Europe, from which, on Kundera’s showing, only malign fate had wrenched it away.
The naively ideological character of this construct was transparent from the outset. If Bohemia and Western Hungary could reasonably be described as Central European, the idea that Bialystok and Vilnius were situated in the middle of the continent – with Belgrade and Timisoara to the east of them – was always ridiculous. The notion that ‘Central’ Europe thus construed – lands where serfdom persisted down to the late 18th or even the 19th century – was culturally or socially closer to Western than Eastern patterns of historical experience does not withstand serious scrutiny. Essentially, this was the kind of redescription to be found in estate agents’ brochures, where some disregarded quarter is upgraded by metonymy to a more fashionable district (its glamour typically exaggerated): Haringey promoted to ‘borders of Highgate’.
In one part of his mind – the historian’s – Garton Ash always knew that this version of Central Europe was a self-interested myth; apart from anything else, he pointedly asked, what of the region’s contribution to the most violent forms of modern racism and nationalism? But in another part of his mind, he needed the myth, and cultivated it: was it not the case by the mid-Eighties that the PCH trio were genuinely set apart from their Comecon neighbours by the vigour of their democratic oppositions, and the longing of their populations to join the Western comity of nations? If the past did not offer any very firm foundation to the current idea of Central Europe, the future might do so, for here surely lay the Achilles heel of the Soviet Empire. In this sense, the definition of Central Europe was political: it designated the frontline against Communism, wherever that might be; Garton Ash even cites a friend’s opinion that we might now say George Orwell was a Central European, and if so, he himself ‘would apply for citizenship’. His was a pragmatic usage, he explained. The British do not like splitting hairs.
In itself, such a conception – just because it was so unabashedly designed to render the PCH trio salonfähig in the West – could be dismissed as a harmless ideological fancy of the hour. Garton Ash had no recourse to it in his earlier book on Solidarity, which locates Poland straightforwardly in Eastern Europe, and repudiated its most obvious danger – the pale it drew between civil and uncivil nations in the region – when he later turned to the Balkans. History of the Present rejects such ‘cultural determinism’. Indeed, Garton Ash now writes that he is appalled at the way the idea of Central Europe has been ‘recruited into the service of a politics of relativism and exclusion’. The failure of the European Union to prevent disaster in Yugoslavia he condemns in the strongest possible terms. Preoccupation with the misbegotten project of a single currency was responsible: the fiddlers at Maastricht were blind to the fires about to engulf Sarajevo.
Something, however, is wanting here. Absent is any note of self-reflection. Yet, if ever there were a case of the pot calling the kettle black, Garton Ash’s complaints of the indifference of Brussels to the fate of the Balkans would be it. For the cult of ‘Central’ Europe – which he still defends as ‘a good cause’, and continues to manipulate (with lurid descriptions of why Ukraine doesn’t belong, though happily Slovakia is rejoining) – was not just a matter of whimsical definition. It had a hard policy edge. In adopting it, Garton Ash moved from admirer to advocate in a quite precise sense. Warmth of sympathy for Polish, Czech or Hungarian dissidents as they fought their regimes was one matter. Urging privileged treatment of the PCH trio after the fall of Communism, at the expense of other East European nations, was quite another. In October 1990, Garton Ash was demanding that ‘a clear and very high priority’ – both of economic assistance and political welcome into the European Union – be given to Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. ‘If German, European and Western help is spread more or less indiscriminately across this whole vast region,’ any transition to liberal capitalism would be compromised, and ‘the region could indeed become Europe’s Near East.’ Since everything could not be done at once, discrimination was essential. The Visegrad countries, whose Western Christianity and prewar legacies anyway made them natural partners, should get fast-track access to the EU. In fact, Garton Ash soon came to insist, they deserved entry forthwith.
Although this last demand was plainly impracticable, it served to ratchet up the rhetorical pressure for special PCH treatment, in a campaign that was otherwise thoroughly successful – in large part because it coincided so closely with German foreign policy objectives, aiming for a security and investment glacis round the Federal Republic. French proposals for equitable treatment of all former Communist states in the region, in a confederation linking them to the EU, were indignantly scuttled – not least by the Czechs, Havel at their head, furious at the prospect of being put on the same footing as Bulgars or Romanians. At Kohl’s behest, the PCH states were promised first claims on the EU, and promptly received the lion’s share of Western assistance. Hungary, with a per capita income four times that of Macedonia, got 12 times as much aid. Central Europe had found its economic rationale: to him that hath shall be given.
Garton Ash’s justification of this Biblical wisdom was consistent: it alone could prevent disaster befalling the region as a whole, since the success of democratic capitalism in the PCH trio was the condition of peace and stability in the rest of ex-Communist Europe – all that stood between it and the squalid destiny of the Levant. As late as 1993, he was still writing: ‘Once again, the Central European question bids fair to be the central European one.’ As these lines were printed, Sarajevo had already been under siege for a year, and the main ‘Central European’ contribution to peace in the Balkans had been the illegal sale by the newborn Hungarian democracy of 36,000 Kalashnikovs to the Croat paramilitaries.
The historical reality is that not only was an ‘all favour to PCH’ strategy morally objectionable, it was also politically astigmatic. In his conclusion to The Magic Lantern in early 1990, Garton Ash complained angrily of commentators in the West who warned of the dangers of nationalist revival in Eastern Europe. ‘What on earth does this mean?’ he exclaimed. ‘The historical record must show that 1989 was not a year of acute national and ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe west of the Soviet frontier. Quite the reverse: it was a year of solidarity both within and between nations.’ Deleted from the record were the Balkans. Banished from ‘the central European question’, they effectively vanished from sight.
The truth was that nationalist conflicts had already reached fever-pitch in Yugoslavia by the spring of 1987, when Milosevic made his bid for power on Kosovo Polje. With Slovene complicity, Serbia tore up the autonomy of Kosovo a year later, before the two dominant republics themselves entered on a collision course. In 1989 – the year of ‘no acute ethnic conflicts’ – massive Albanian demonstrations in Kosovo led to violent clashes with the police: a full-scale state of emergency was declared, jets and tanks enforcing a virtual occupation of the province, while Croat and Slovene leaders prepared for secession. These were not obscure or peripheral events. They clearly presaged the break-up of Yugoslavia, a country with a larger population than Hungary and Czechoslovakia combined. For democrats, they involved violations of human rights that far exceeded any in ‘Central Europe’, and had done for some time, as a glance at Amnesty reports would have shown. A disaster was plainly in the making.
To blame the Treaty of Maastricht for West European failure to perceive what was at stake in Yugoslavia will not do. The ‘powder-keg’ in the Balkans was evident long before the Treaty was conceived. Nor did the project for a single currency ever distract the EU from the East. Enlargement of the Union was officially endorsed as a goal at Maastricht itself. Thereafter, preparations for the Euro were managed by central banks and finance ministries. Policy towards the East, on the other hand, was determined in the European Council and among the officials of assorted foreign ministries, cruising on auto-pilot towards Warsaw, Prague and Budapest. To make the single currency the whipping-boy for Sarajevo, however convenient for a conservative British sensibility, is displacement – as Freud understood it – with a vengeance. The Western leader who did most to force through monetary union, François Mitterrand, was actually the only one with a unitary vision for Eastern Europe as a whole. This is exactly what Garton Ash opposed. A tireless lobbyist for aid and attention to be concentrated on ‘Central’ Europe, he remained oblivious to the Balkan crisis. If the voice of any individual in the public realm bears a measure of responsibility for the tragic inversion of priorities as Yugoslavia slid towards the abyss, it would be his.
Of course, he was not just on his own. From the Eighties onwards, well before it was marketed as such, ‘Central Europe’ was a magnet for good reporters and enquiring intellectuals. Its attraction was obvious. Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were both the scene of the most vigorous and interesting movements against Communism, and the zone readiest to claim kinship with the West itself. Yugoslavia – still more, its neighbours – lacked both these elements of affective investment. However turbulent Balkan politics might be, they could not easily be dramatised as a straightforward battle of good against evil (at least not yet). Culturally, too, they offered few of the images d’Epinal – the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Wenceslas Square, the Crown of St Stephen; the liberator Pope, the philosopher President, the Nobel electrician – with which the media could uplift audiences in the West. Kadare might be a better writer than Havel, but apart from a few readers in France, who cared? No Montenegrin estate lay waiting to be reclaimed by English lords; but in Bohemia, Garton Ash can introduce us to Diana Phipps recovering her ancestral domain, with its seven thousand acres, boar-filled woodlands and venerable castle (‘re-stored with rare taste and imagination’), and find this ‘not just fabulous, in the original sense of the word, but also moving’.
In the literature of foreign engagement, advocacy has an honourable record. Comparisons with R.W. Seton-Watson do Garton Ash credit. But there is a general rule here. Such advocacy is best when free of any inclination to find likenesses to the self in the championed other. Colonial history is too rich in versions of that – the ‘Martial Races’ in India as so many subcontinental Highlanders. The trope of Central Europe was delusive in part because it was so self-regarding: the cousins of Orwell in the mirror.
So Poland was forgiven half its foreign debt, while the same Western creditors squeezed Yugoslavia dry. One draconian stabilisation plan after another was forced on the country; unemployment rocketed, the Federal Government was undermined. The immediate background to the disintegration of Yugoslavia was economic breakdown. The myth of Central Europe was not just a negative condition of the unfolding of this crisis; it was an active catalyst. As Susan Woodward’s Balkan Tragedy, the commanding scholarly work on the break-up of Yugoslavia, puts it,
As early as 1989 Western governments began to declare that the central European countries were better prepared to make the economic and political transition from socialism to capitalism than those in south-eastern Europe. But this historico-cultural criterion, largely of Mitteleuropa, Roman Catholicism and Habsburg tradition, cut straight through the centre of Yugoslavia. It left a great gash undefined where the military border of mixed populations between Habsburg and Ottoman rule had been, and it reinforced the separatist arguments already being made by Slovene and Croat nationalists. These intellectuals began to talk about the existence of ‘two worlds’ in Yugoslavia, and both groups proclaimed their greater preparedness for European membership as central Europeans.
The supposed precondition of civil peace in the East proved, not unexpectedly, to be an incitement to ethnic war.
History of the Present avoids any acknowledgment of this fatal link, separating use (the ‘good cause’) and misuse (the ‘appalling exclusion’) of the cult of Central Europe as if they were unrelated. Yet its condemnation of Croat ethnic cleansing (Feldund-Flurbereinigung) and Western indifference to it, and the breadth of its sympathy for all the victims of ethnic hatred in the former Yugoslavia, still stand among the most powerful commentaries on the region in the later Nineties. In the face of such decency, why recall its troubling antecedents? There are two answers to this, one intellectual and the other political. They take us to the way the collection is framed as a whole.
The book, in a new twist in the spiral of contemporary hype, takes its title from an encomium in the New York Review of Books of one of Garton Ash’s earlier works, in which George Kennan compares him to Tocqueville as ‘historian of the present’. This sobriquet the author now appropriates to describe his new work, which helpfully displays Kennan’s full laudatio on the back, beneath a heroic representation of the writer, posed against a bleakly peeling wall, gazing sombrely into the distance with the garb and air of a Scott of the moral Antarctic. No doubt this image-making is the work of Penguin’s publicity department, rather than of Garton Ash himself, who has often given signs of modesty and dislike of such pretensions even in his friends, lamenting Václav Havel’s adoption of a ‘gruesome imperial stare’. (What now of his own?)
If so, however, the packagers have induced more than lapses of taste in presentation. For his introduction to the book sets out to justify its title with a set of claims about contemporary history. Today, so Garton Ash argues, actors in great events no longer commit their thoughts or deeds to paper as they did in the past; they talk or telephone or issue electronic instructions. Documents dwindle in importance. On the other hand, statesmen and others have never been so eager to give their version of events ‘live’, in the real time of television interviews or speeches. The result is that ‘what you can know soon after the event has increased, and what you can know long after the event has diminished.’ This affords opportunities for a quite new kind of history: one capable of transcending the retrospective illusions of a cloistered archival scholarship with direct reports of ‘what it was really like at the time’, as Garton Ash puts it – that is, conveyed by the informed eye-witness. Here television – not only scholars, but viewers will be taken aback to learn – becomes of inestimable help in capturing the truth of the world: ‘it brings you closer than any other medium to how things really were.’ Best of all, however, is the writer on the spot himself, as Garton Ash has so often been: ‘there is nothing to compare with being there.’
The innocence of this discovery recalls, irresistibly, Peter Sellers’s bewildered tenure of the White House. The notion that personal presence affords a special access to reality, or that a television interview is a higher vehicle of truth, belongs to the world of the airport bookstall, not an Oxford college. To try to elevate even the best journalism to supra-Rankean status in this way can only discredit it. The distance between a real history of the present, necessarily only a preliminary version, and History of the Present can be seen by looking at Woodward’s Balkan Tragedy. It is not just the scale of narrative, or level of detail and documentation, that separate the two. It is above all the difference between an enterprise that consistently holds to a chain of causality, however difficult it may be, tracing the complexities of major processes from their remote origins through to their ultimate consequences, and one that essentially offers a series of episodes and vignettes, without responsibility for any deeper understanding of the interconnections between them. For the study of these, the frisson of the bystander is no more than a lure. No amount of time in the Magic Lantern will ever tell us what the role of the secret police was in the student demonstration of 17 November that set off the Velvet Revolution: historians are still arguing about it. Garton Ash, the author of In the Name of Europe, knows this perfectly well. His actual work as a historian is sufficient reply to the title of this volume.
Not that its credo is that of just any reporter. In Garton Ash’s case, the illusions of immediacy come from something else as well. He is best known as a writer for the intimacy of his knowledge of the leading dissidents of Eastern Europe. These were the friends in whose company he witnessed historic events. When they became rulers, he did not hesitate to criticise them or argue with them, when he thought it necessary. This was not simply a question of temperament, it was also one of belief. In his famous disagreement with Havel, Garton Ash held to a radical distinction between the roles of intellectual and politician. The task of the intellectual was, in the phrase Havel coined as a dissident, to ‘live in truth’. The job of the elected politician, Garton Ash rejoined, was to ‘work in half-truth’ – the best that can be hoped for in a competitive party system based on ‘limited adversarial mendacity’. Each was an honourable calling. But to try to combine the two, power and truth, was to serve neither. In a liberal state, a division of labour between independent intellectuals and professional politicians was essential. Having become President, Havel – his friend put it very politely – risked ceasing to be a serious intellectual.
Havel naturally rejected the antithesis, not only as too absolute in itself, but as tantamount to denying that purity of intention could be of any effect in practical government. Why should intellectuals not try to raise the standards of public office? For Neal Ascherson, seconding Havel, this is just what sterling figures like Geremek and Balcerowicz – architects of military integration and shock therapy in Poland – have been doing in Eastern Europe. Garton Ash would no doubt reply that as ministers they are no longer the thinkers they had once been. In this strange debate, two features are striking. Garton Ash’s definition of an intellectual derives from a coinage of Havel’s – ‘living in truth’ – originally of quite general application, as a term for moral integrity under totalitarian rule. There was always a somewhat sententious pathos to the phrase, since truth is not an abode but at best an aim, variable and missable, in life. But if clandestine literature has its licence, argument overground needs to be more exact. Garton Ash’s conversion of the term into a talisman of the intellectual rests on a confusion. Integrity can be found (or lost) in any occupation. Intellectuality is something else: its field is ideas.
Values – ethical, epistemological, aesthetic – figure in the contests over this field, but they do not define it. Intellectuals are judged not by their morals, but by the quality of their ideas, which are rarely reducible to simple verdicts of truth or falsity, if only because banalities are by definition accurate. As bearers or originators of ideas, intellectuals have quite naturally participated in politics – with roles both in opposition and in power – ever since they first emerged as modern types, in the epoch of the American and French Revolutions. Legitimately invoking de Gaulle for his case, Havel could just as well have cited Jefferson. Indeed, Garton Ash’s exemplars of intellectuals who lived in moral independence, free from the blandishments of political power, tell the same story, less gloriously. ‘We have Orwell. We have Raymond Aron’: the one supplying officialdom with a secret list of suspect acquaintances, the other keeping silent about the Algerian War for years, not to displease his employers at Le Figaro. To seek to insulate intellectuals, even such cynosures, from the grime of politics is vain.
Although it was his prescription for intellectuals that attracted debate, perhaps the more significant aspect of Garton Ash’s dichotomy lay on its other side, which passed virtually undiscussed. Politicians could not be expected to speak the unvarnished truth; lies were part of their professional equipment, functional necessities of a successful career in any parliamentary democracy, where competition between parties typically requires the skills of advertising, rather than the pursuit of ideas or exercise of reflection. In other words, if norms for intellectuals are set at improbably high (unworldly) levels, expectations of politicians appear to be geared to indulgently low (all too worldly) standards, as if mediocrity and chicanery were more or less inherent in the trade as practised in the West. This is not, however, as Garton Ash sees it. On the contrary, while occasionally scathing about the collective default of Western leaders in Eastern Europe, he is remarkably respectful about most of the individual statesmen who feature in his pages.
Here the illusions of immediacy seem to come from too close a proximity to power: regular briefings by senior officials, discussions at semi-diplomatic conclaves, intimate conversations with Top People. The tone of his references to the latter can become stuffily reverential to a degree difficult to imagine, for example, in the more unconventional and free-spoken Buruma. Although Garton Ash finds himself longing for Mrs Thatcher in Yugoslavia, it is the German Chancellor who receives the most abundant accolades. ‘Helmut Kohl is the most formidable politician – and statesman – in Europe. He will not lightly be deflected from the last great task he has set himself,’ he writes. ‘As the 20th century draws to its close, we can safely say that Helmut Kohl is its last great European statesman. Watching him leave the stage, I thought of a memorable conversation we had a few years ago ... This amazing sally encapsulated several ingredients of Kohl’s greatness: his acute instinct for power, his historical vision, and the bold simplicity of his strategic thinking.’ If Gerhard Schroeder is not, alas, of the same calibre, there is consolation in the higher values of his counterparts in Britain and America: ‘Someone who knows him quite well told me that, unlike Clinton or Blair, he does not have any religious attachments. So he’s a sort of Clinton without the principles [sic].’
Best of all, however, is the Pope himself. ‘Philosopher, poet and playwright as well as pastor,’ Garton Ash declares, ‘John Paul II is simply the greatest world leader of our times.’ Commensal witness to the planetary vision of the Pontiff – ‘When I once had dinner with him, in a circle of Polish friends, speaking Polish, I was struck by his ... global experience, faith and mission’ – he has no doubt that among historical giants, the Pope overtops all. ‘I have had the chance to talk to several credible candidates for the title of “great man” or “great woman” – Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl, Václav Havel, Lech Walesa, Margaret Thatcher – but none matches Karol Wojtyla’s unique combination of concentrated strength, intellectual consistency, human warmth and simple goodness.’ Too many dinners of this kind are unlikely to produce the sort of intellectual Garton Ash recommends.
But in his case the principal danger lies not so much in a seduction by power, effusive though his idiom on occasion becomes, as in a distortion of perspective. The sense of face-to-face contact, ‘being there’ with the regents of the world, risks telescoping history into edifying fables. He concludes his homage to John Paul II by claiming that the Pope was the prime mover in the fall of Communism, from Berlin to Vladivostok – Gorbachev to be seen as little more than a by-product of the forces Wojtyla set in motion, when his return to his homeland stirred the Poles thaumaturgically to action in Solidarity. ‘Here’ – he exclaims – ‘is the specific chain of causation that goes from the election of the Polish Pope in 1978 to the end of Communism, and hence of the Cold War, in 1989.’ What this amounts to is something like a parodic inversion of Stalin’s ‘How many divisions has the Pope?’ With perestroika demoted to a sideshow, the pious may now ask: How many Masses had the Kremlin?
With this, however, we arrive at the politics of Garton Ash’s late reinvention of Central Europe and the reason it continues to mortgage his understanding of the time. The idea was constructed as a barrier to dissociate Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia from Russia. When Communism fell, myth logically required it to be the work of their oppositions, overthrowing the old order from below. In fact, the historically decisive change came in the hegemonic power itself. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the East German dissident Rudolf Bahro wrote in The Alternative that the politbureaucratic system would come to an end when – he thought this inevitable – a Dubcek appeared in Moscow. His prediction was accurate. Nothing fundamental could change in Eastern Europe so long as the Red Army remained ready to fire. Everything was possible once fundamental change started in Russia itself. Bahro foresaw matters more clearly than he knew. Gorbachev’s figure and fate eventually came to resemble Dubcek’s: the puzzled, well-meaning naif, unceremoniously bamboozled and bundled to his ruin by those he still imagined were his friends – now as much in the West as the East.
Russia is to all intents and purposes absent from History of the Present, as it was in Garton Ash’s scenarios of 1989. But if it remains the limit to his imagination, the reason is no doubt the same as for the Pope’s pre-eminence within it. Garton Ash orchestrates his European themes on a generous scale; but in the scoring, there is always a ripple of the Polonaise in the background. Within Central Europe, one country was his first love – by tradition, the most passionately anti-Russian – and still commands his prospect. In this he is not alone. For different reasons, Poland has in recent years held a special position in the calculus of Western capitals. In the United States, the Polish vote that worried Roosevelt at Yalta was a powerful support of Reagan, and remains a broad domestic force. In Germany, the desire to have a firm political and military buffer against Russia gave diplomatic priority to relations with Warsaw. Sentimental and cultural memories linked France to Poland. With much the largest population and most strategic location of the PCH trio, not to speak of its seniority in the loosening of Communism, Poland was bound to be the centrepiece of Western Drang nach Osten after the Cold War.
Repeatedly deploring the failure of the European Union to extend an immediate welcome to the Visegrad states, Garton Ash is more discreet about the success of Nato in absorbing them. He expresses regret that Britain did not take a lead in the process, as he would have wished it to do, but otherwise confines himself to the passive impersonal phrase: ‘the Nato argument has been won.’ The practical implications are left unspoken. Today Western command-and-control systems camp on the edge of White Russia. The confidential assurances Gorbachev received (but characteristically never thought to secure on paper) that Nato would not expand to the east if he would dismantle the Warsaw Pact are scattered to the winds. Ten days after digesting Central Europe, the Atlantic Pact – still ‘defensive’ – uncorked a full-scale military offensive in the Balkans.
Honourably troubled by an aerial assault from stratospheric distance on the supports of civilian life in Serbia, Garton Ash passes over in silence the evolution of strategic purposes behind it. His book ends by stating once again its case for a ‘liberal order’ in Europe: a free trade zone that would avoid a common currency and shun any federal unity, but embrace the lands that were once Communist, admitted in their appropriate sequence. Eschewing any attempt to be a single actor on the world stage, this European order would yet possess ‘a degree of power-projection, including a co-ordinated use of military power in adjacent areas of vital interest to us, such as North Africa and the Middle East’. It could be the viewpoint of any mildly Eurosceptic, enlightened British conservative. As a prospectus for the continent, its principal interest lies in what it leaves out.
For just as when he writes of Eastern Europe, a roller-blind falls across Russia, when he turns to Western Europe – the Community and the Union that has developed out of it – a more delicate veil falls over the United States. References of any substance to Washington are few and fleeting. At most, Garton Ash discreetly notes that even in a ‘liberal order that is by design non-hegemonic’, a ‘benign external hegemon’ may be necessary. From this standpoint – harshly translated: traditional British servility to America, imagined as a special affinity – it is clear why the notion of Europe as a single actor, and so capable of challenging America, is anathema; while at the same time local ‘power projections’, in which British forces can continue to act as the most reliable dobermans of American will, remain indispensable. But this is at most a negative deduction. The positive structure of American dominion in Europe is not so much as skirted in these pages.
Yet, as the founders of the Community were well aware, if the continent was to be united, it would ultimately have to be at the expense of the United States as a global power, no matter how benevolent Washington’s assistance in helping to jump-start the process of integration. Mountains of unctuous rhetoric to the contrary, such remains the unspoken truth of European construction to this day, A common identity in the Old World can only be realised in tension with the New, which has been its fifty-year master. That American ascendancy is not just practical or institutional. In proper Hegelian fashion it continues to be theoretical too. If we want to understand contemporary Europe, it is to the United States – producer of the largest and often sharpest academic literature on the Community, as well as commander of its military and diplomatic field – that sooner or later we have to turn. To adapt a famous dictum of Adorno and Horkheimer: he who would not speak of America should be silent about Europe.
So if we want to see the reasons why Nato so swiftly overtook the EU in the drive to the East, it is to debates in Washington and Boston that we should look. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, two schools of thought contended over Western policy towards post-Communist Russia. One camp, including some of the most conservative as well as ‘liberal’ minds in the US, argued that the overriding priority was to shore up Yeltsin’s new Russia against the risk of a Weimar-style descent into social chaos and embittered nationalism, by supplying generous material assistance, and avoiding unnecessary humiliation of the country. The expansion of Nato to Russia’s doorstep would be an unwise provocation, pushing Moscow into resentful isolation, without really strengthening the Alliance. This standpoint, common among Russianists in the universities, also enjoyed a good hearing in the media: Edward Luttwak and Thomas Friedman were not unrepresentative.
Ranged against it was the camp of those who argued that Russia remained a dangerous potential foe, a semi-barbarous imperial power that would not readily change its spots, and should be fenced in forthwith, while the going was still good in Eastern Europe. From this viewpoint, the rapid expansion of Nato was a priority, to deter Russia from any temptation to think it could regain Great Power standing, by bringing home to the Federation its reduced circumstances in the world. Rather than cosseting status susceptibilities or national nostalgia in Moscow, the West should build a strong set of fortifications on former Tsarist soil: independent states firmly integrated into the Western Alliance, capable of checking any resurgence of Russian ambitions. The pivot of such a system of containment would inevitably be Poland. In due course, however, it should extend to the Baltic states in the north and the Ukraine in the east. Henry Kissinger was among those favouring this option.
Not by accident, however, its leading exponent was another Polonist, Carter’s National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. It was the trenchancy and clarity of his case that carried the day. Nato expansion into Eastern Europe, from which Bush had vowed to refrain, was espoused by the Clinton Administration, and pushed through by Brzezinski’s dim former pupil and sidekick on the National Security Council, now promoted to Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright (suitably enough, of Czech origin). To understand the political thinking behind the advance of Nato to the marches of Belorussia and Ruthenia, we need only turn to Brzezinski’s recent manifesto, The Grand Chessboard. Here are laid out, with impressive candour, the foundations of a long-term American design for Europe. Confidently and consistently, it spells out what Garton Ash prefers to leave unsaid, or not to confront. Not that Brzezinski can be treated simply as the truth of Garton Ash between the lines. There is at least one element in his argument that would make painful reading for the latter. But by and large, this is the outer frame of the landscape sketched in History of the Present, in the real world.
Brzezinski starts by noting that today ‘America stands supreme in the four decisive domains of global power.’ Militarily, it is without rival; economically, it is the locomotive of world growth; technologically, it leads in all areas of innovation; culturally, its appeal is universal among youth. The result is a global hegemony without precedent in history. But if its scope is wide, its depth is in some respects shallow, since it stretches across a far more extensive space than any of the empires of the past, but unlike them does not rest on direct control of territory. Imagination and vigilance will be necessary to preserve US power. The Grand Chessboard sets out the requirements for maintaining American primacy for another half-century.
Here one battlefield will be decisive. ‘For America the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia.’ There, where three-quarters of the world’s population and resources are located, for the first time in history ‘a non-Eurasian power is pre-eminent.’ This is the great chessboard on which the United States must play to win, all the way from the Atlantic to the Indian to the Pacific Oceans. Brzezinski has much to say about the Far East, the Middle East and Central Asia. But his survey starts uncompromisingly in the West. ‘Europe is America’s essential geopolitical bridgehead on the Eurasian continent. America’s geostrategic stake in Europe is enormous. Unlike America’s links with Japan, the Atlantic alliance entrenches American military power and political influence directly on the Eurasian mainland.’ In Europe itself, there is a common market in the Western half of the continent, but so far no political unity, and signs of a decline in economic vitality.
In these not altogether healthy conditions, ‘a truly European “Europe” as such does not exist.’ Brzezinski explains the consequences without euphemism. ‘The brutal fact is that Western Europe, and increasingly also Central Europe, remains largely an American protectorate, with its allied states reminiscent of ancient vassals and tributaries.’ Nevertheless, European unity should be encouraged by the United States, which ought to engage constructively with its leading actors to guide the process in a mutually desirable direction. These actors – here Garton Ash might wince – do not include the United Kingdom. ‘Great Britain is not a geostrategic player.’ Entertaining no bold vision of Europe’s future, clinging to the illusions of the special relationship, the country has lost continental relevance. ‘It is America’s key supporter, a very loyalally, a vital military base, and a close partner in critically important intelligence activities. Its friendship needs to be nourished, but its policies do not call for sustained attention.’
By contrast, France and Germany – the axis historically central to the Community – each have ambitious agendas for Europe, derived respectively from an imperial past and a unified present, whose directions may now increasingly diverge. Given French coolness towards American primacy, the US should support German leadership in the EU in the short run, the two working together for common goals such as Nato expansion. But in the longer run, once the right security framework has been established, it should be willing to make concessions to French sensibilities. For in time France will become a useful partner for Poland to balance against Germany. These three states might then form the backbone of a unified Europe of the future. America, meanwhile, should quietly dissuade Germany from any unwise commitments to Russia, coaxing it towards the extension of Nato to Riga and Kiev. A map displays the combined might of France, Germany, Poland and Ukraine in 2010. As for Russia, the test of its democratic credentials will be acceptance of European arrangements like these, and the shedding of its residual pretensions in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Perhaps, Brzezinski has speculated elsewhere, it might break up altogether into a number of more manageable units.
It is not difficult to discern visionary features in this prospectus. Brzezinski himself expresses misgivings about the future of the Ukraine, as liable to be reabsorbed by Russia if America fails to anchor it to the West. But what is most striking is something else. Official rhetoric in Europe, and to a large extent in America too – not just the lofty communiques of G-7, but the pious editorials of countless bien pensant columnists – continually stresses the need to treat Russian patriotism with dignity, the danger of fostering a revanchist reaction against the West, the risks inherent in a loose nuclear stockpile and the urgency of conciliating the country’s fledgling democracy. What more reckless contradiction of this chorus of commonplaces than the game-plan of The Grand Chessboard?
Yet its calculation has so far proved more realistic. Practice says more than any amount of preaching. America – with Western Europe in tow – has expanded Nato to once Soviet borders without a flicker of real resistance in Moscow. The new Nato has since unleashed the first war of ‘postwar’ Europe, against the last state supposedly close to Russia, not only without any serious opposition from Moscow (dire warnings of which filled a loyal Western press), but ultimately with its active collaboration – Russian diplomats and soldiers proffering the necessary fig-leaf behind which Milosevic could more decently surrender. A free hand in Chechnya is small return for such services. Behind the clouds of canting solicitude, a lucidly contemptuous judgment has been reached. The Russian élites are so corrupted and supine, from the Presidential family down to all but the lowest deputy in the Duma, that – whatever the bluster – they will in practice take anything from the West, provided the taps of the IMF are not turned off.
How long that will continue is another matter. Precedents say little. For the moment this is the reality of the continent, in which derisory entities like the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe are mere phantoms. At the end of History of the Present, Garton Ash expresses his disappointment with the current state of things – rather like R.W. Seton-Watson, who felt after Versailles that his cause had won the war, but lost the peace. ‘Whatever its name,’ Garton Ash writes, ‘this is not the order I hoped for.’ Torn between continuing Cold War attachments and humane impulses that have long ceased to square with them, he has chosen to blame Brussels. But he has got the address wrong: the problem lies not in the Charlemagne Building, but the Boulevard Léopold. Garton Ash’s last words enjoin Britons to ‘see Europe plain and to see it whole’. But the whole is wider than he allows; to get a view of it, we need a different travelcard.