Timothy Garton Ash’s Homelands is, like Fintan O’Toole’s recent bestseller We Don’t Know Ourselves, subtitled a “personal history”, in Garton Ash’s case, of Europe, and the two authors, each in their own fashion, cover more or less the same era.
Garton Ash reaches back a little further, though, to the second World War, partly out of narrative necessity and also to encompass his father’s experience as an officer in the Royal Artillery, in which he took part in the postwar occupation of Germany.
The younger Garton Ash begins his book with an intriguing visit to the Lower Saxony town of Westen, where his father was photographed playing cricket with other soldiers, and speaks to a handful of locals who are old enough to remember the end of the war.
Homelands runs the gamut of Europe in his lifetime, from the anti-communist resistance in the Eastern Bloc to the Ukraine war, via the establishment of the European Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the Euro-zone crisis, the horror of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, and Brexit.
‘I can’t believe we’re living here’: Historic Wexford cottage that was at risk of falling into decline is restored
Garton Ash is that rarest of Britons, a multilingual intellectual as much at home on the Continent as in the UK. He counts the homelands of the book’s title as his own, even if Brexit deprived him, as a British national, of the free movement he once enjoyed. (He wryly notes that travelling the Continent in recent years has for him been reminiscent of his early years of foreign travel, when visas and checkpoints were the norm.)
Garton Ash says he was approached in the 1970s to work for MI6 but turned down the offer
Those early travels took him to places that were improbably exotic during the cold war – East Berlin, Poland, Czechoslovakia – first as a student and later as a journalist, during his time as European editor of the Spectator. The Stasi thought he was a spy and ran a comprehensive dossier on him, about which Garton Ash later wrote a book, The File. He says he was approached in the 1970s to work for MI6 but turned down the offer.
Nonetheless, his journalistic work behind the Iron Curtain was avowedly partisan, with little distance maintained from pro-democracy groups. Given the circumstances of the time, it would be a bit punctilious to describe such activity as unethical, but many reporters might flinch at the descriptions of being a courier of messages from the West to Solidarity leaders. All this was moot by the end of the 1980s, when Garton Ash had moved out of journalism and into academia.
Garton Ash is a clear-headed chronicler of the Continent. A fervent supporter of the EU, he is nonetheless critical of its missteps – the countenancing of Viktor Orbán’s dismantling of Hungarian democracy, the vindictive pursuit of austerity in Greece, and a repeated indulgence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And while he has a clear affection for Europe, he is not misty-eyed about it. The historian’s perspective allows him to dismiss the notion that Europeans cast aside their proclivity for war in 1945, given the conflicts they continued to wage to hold on to their colonies, not to mention the genocidal wars that rent Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s.
Where the book jars at times is the writing. Garton Ash is not the most adept of stylists
His personal experience brought him into contact with an impressive array of world-historical figures, his fraternising with Eastern Bloc dissidents in particular opening doors after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Surprisingly, the frequent references to conversations with big figures don’t grate as you might expect, the one exception being a chapter on his old friend and hero Václav Havel, though such indulgence is probably forgivable enough in this instance.
Where the book jars at times, however, is the writing. Garton Ash is not the most adept of stylists, exemplified in the ungainly neologism he coins to describe European history – “kaleidotapestry”. Some of his locutions – “Lech was a laugh a minute”; “It turned out the most prophetic of the Abba songs we sang in our student years was ‘Money, Money, Money’” – are so clunky and bathetic as to occasionally give the book the unfortunate air of a footballer’s autobiography. Neither is it really that necessary to introduce Hannah Arendt as “the German philosopher” or William Faulkner as “the American writer”.
These flaws aside, Homelands is an engaging read, not least because of Garton Ash’s amiability. Unlike many British liberals of his generation, he has no tendency for crotchetiness (there is no railing at “wokeness”) or a debating-society benevolence for the arguments of the far right. He is as critical of Viktor Orbán’s filleting of Hungarian civil society as he is of the communists he and Orbán once railed against. You can’t but admire such consistency.