A Historian of the Present: A conversation with Timothy Garton Ash, British historian and expert on Central and Eastern Europe.
NEW EASTERN EUROPE: You not only reported, but participated in, the revolutions of 1989. How did you first travel to Central Europe?
TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: Thomas Mann is really to blame. Through reading his novels, I first became interested in German history. What came to fascinate me in German history was the question of what makes one person a dissident and another a collaborator. Then I realised that people were facing that question behind the Iron Curtain every day. I went to live in Berlin in 1978 and began travelling behind the Iron Curtain, getting to know the opposition movements. Therefore, when 1989 happened, I knew all the main actors better than most people in the West. I had been what Raymond Aron called the spectateur engagé. I just consider myself incredibly privileged to have been such a close witness of that turning-point in world history. Now, more than 20 years on, the outcome is still overwhelmingly positive. I can imagine, in another life, I might have got excited about the revolution of 1789 or 1917, for example, and having somewhat more negative reflections 20 years on.
How would you capture the atmosphere of those days in a single word?
Well, “incredible” is the obvious word; miraculous, fantastic. Every day brought something that had seemed impossible. By the time we got to Prague in November 1989, it was almost like a fairy-tale. The Velvet Revolution was the most fabulous of them all, partly because Havel created this great play on Wenceslas Square, headquartered in a theatre. But also because, by then, we had a pretty clear idea that the Soviet Union was not going to intervene, and therefore the chances were on success. I would say that we were aware of the historical dimension, everything from the transformation of the lives of my oldest individual friends in East Germany, whose lives would never be the same again, to the transformation of world history.
Is there anything we still don’t know about the events of 1989?
It is amazing how much we do already know, including information from the secret archives. So I doubt there are any huge revelations to come. What we don’t know is the long-term consequences. What looks like an ironic consequence of 1989 is that China, which is still ruled by the Communist Party, is the emerging superpower of today. There is a direct connection: 1989 unleashed globalisation, which has hugely benefited China’s export economy. In addition, the Chinese Communist Party learnt the lessons of 1989 in order to avoid making the same mistakes as the leadership of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
What is the current meaning of 1989 for the countries of Central Europe in which these revolutions occurred?
I think the myth of 1989 shines brightest in the imagination of those outside. For those inside, it is a much more of a mixed story, because it got mixed up with the hardships of transition. There are so many losers in these societies and, through the negotiated transition, many nasty people stayed in power or translated political power into economic power. All of this makes the perception of 1989 within these countries more ambiguous. It’s what Ernest Gellner called “the price of Velvet”: the price of the Velvet Revolution.
What is the meaning for the recent popular uprisings in the Middle East?
1989 produced a new default model of revolution, replacing that of 1789. So, when Tunisia happened, as with Ukraine, the default hope was that it would be another Velvet Revolution; it is going to be peaceful, or some sort of negotiated transition. When things become violent, as in Libya or Syria, we feel that something has gone wrong. Fifty years ago, people would have said, “That’s just revolutions. Revolution means violence.” It is not often you see such a world historical shift in models. It was very interesting how quickly people reached for 1989 as a comparison during the Arab Spring.
You describe your essays as the “History of the Present”. What do you mean? The label comes from a review of my first book of essays, The Uses of Adversity, by the American diplomat George Kennan. He described it as a rather unusual genre of trying to write about the very recent past (what we conventionally call “the present”), as if it were history; asking the historian’s questions, about causes and consequences. And that is what I have tried to do for 30 years. It is more necessary now than ever, because history is increasingly being recorded instantly, using technology. But it is also more evanescent. In 30 years’ time, you won’t be able to find these recordings in the archives, so it is actually more urgent than ever to start asking these historian’s questions sooner rather than later.
What role is there for this approach to history in Eastern Europe where recent history is such a contested issue?
Look at the textbooks, with the tremendously unsatisfactory things they say about the recent past. Look at the current argument between Poles and Lithuanians, or Czechs and Germans in the 1990s. Here, you see that the past is not past.
Would you say that history is more of a divisive issue in Europe, or one that can bring people together?
No one has quite worked out how to write European history in a way that is helpful to the European project. There are still the two extremes. On the one hand, you have nationalist histories; ever more of them, as Europe gets increasingly smaller nations. So suddenly there is the Serbian version, the Croatian version and the Bosnian version, and the Czech and the Slovak version. On the other hand, you have a kind of mythopaeic history writing, what I call “euronationalism”, which attempts to tell the story of the European Union as if it were one single national unification. This produces books with titles like “From Charlemagne to the Euro”, which is just as much a falsification of history. We need to find a middle way which says: we come from very different places, with many conflicts, but we have somehow decided to travel forward together. In order to do so, we each need to understand where we are coming from. And there is nothing inevitable about us continuing to travel together.
Are you sceptical about uniting the two halves of European history, East and West?
It is already happening and Norman Davies started the process in his books by putting the two together and giving equal weight to East and West. And then Tony Judt continued the process, this time by integrating the two. In Postwar (Judt's history of Europe from the end of the Second World War – editor's note), he really tries to tell them not as if they are two separate histories, but how they connect; for example, the events of 1968 in Paris and Prague were tightly intertwined. So people are doing this, but these are not the books that people read in schools.
In a recent article, you spoke of the “horrible divergence” between Poland and Ukraine. Why is this happening?
This is one of the really depressing stories of the last ten years. I was fortunate enough to witness part of the Orange Revolution; the people on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv (Independence Square – editor's note) hoped that it would be another Velvet Revolution that would launch Ukraine on a trajectory towards the West. All of the Polish governments, both left and right, have consistently supported Ukraine’s path to Europe. The responsibility is split between the horrible mess in Ukraine itself, with the Ukrainians being their own worst enemies, and an awful lot of Western Europeans who say “yes” but mean “no”. The most recent example is the Tymoshenko case. Clearly, “she’s no angel” as we say in English, but this is so obviously a political arrest. Listen to President Viktor Yanukovych speaking about it and it is pure homo sovieticus; he can’t even lie very well about it. This provides the perfect pretext for those EU member states that don’t want Ukraine as a member, or even to have a close association, because they can say Ukraine is not living up to European norms.
Can we speak of a new division of Europe in the 21st century? Where is this line drawn and how fixed is it?
I absolutely don’t think that we can talk about a new Iron Curtain. The lines are both more fluid and more complex. For example, if you look at the politics of the Eurozone, the North-South line is almost as important as the East-West line. It is now a question of multiple fault-lines, across multiple Europes.
Over the past few years, your work has focused on freedom.
Looking back, I realise that my work has been devoted to two great themes: Europe and freedom. I have always been happiest when the two have marched together, as in 1989, and least happy when they have conflicted; because sometimes they do – the European project has not always been an unambiguous friend of freedom. When my dear friend, Ralf Dahrendorf (a German-British sociologist, philosopher, political scientist and liberal politician – editor's note) died in 2009, I established the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom, here at Oxford University, in his memory. As part of this programme, I am currently leading an online project called Free Speech Debate (www.freespeechdebate.com). Using an international team of graduate students, we are trying to explore what we think should be the norms of free speech. The website appears in 13 language versions, and we are trying to organise a genuinely global debate on these issues.
Why freedom of speech, in particular?
I have increasingly been focused on freedom of expression for two reasons. First of all, because at the heart of the European challenge of the 20th century is how we combine liberty and diversity; a familiar problem in Eastern Europe because of old minorities, and a dramatic problem in Western Europe because of new minorities, in particular, Muslims. This is fundamentally a question of freedom of expression, including the question of how we talk about difference, of all kinds. Secondly, in the age of the internet, we are all becoming neighbours. Up to four billion people are digitally connected. In a broad sense, we are all living in the same country, and so the question of “living with difference” is posed in an entirely new way.
What is the situation in the former USSR? Is the legacy of communism still felt?
The most characteristic issue here is media freedom. The Putin model is very different from the old Soviet model. You can say almost anything you like on the Russian internet, but how many people does it reach? If you look at the control of the mass media, both direct state control and indirect control, then the question of getting a variety of genuinely open mass media becomes crucial. And, moreover, you might get killed for saying it. So there is a combination of brutal intimidation and this rather subtle form of political technology and media control.
Does Russia have different values regarding these fundamental freedoms? Or is it just the rhetoric of Vladimir Putin and his establishment?
There is a specific post-imperial and post-Soviet Russian trajectory. In the 1960s, US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, said that Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role. And the same goes for Russia since 1991: Russia has lost an empire but not yet found a role. It takes time for a great country to adapt to its new position; to work out where it wants to be and what it wants to be. So I do not believe that there is a Huntingtonian, black-and-white difference between so-called “Russian values” on the one hand, and “European values” on the other, and that when you cross the Latvian border with Russia you step mysteriously from one value-world into the other. I don’t believe that for a moment. But Russia’s trajectory is obviously longer and more difficult.
Do you think that the EU is sending across a clear message regarding basic freedoms?
It is sending a very unclear message. Occasionally, the EU can pleasantly surprise us; the message on Yulia Tymoshenko and on Hungary was quite good. The EU is a community of law, so where there is a clear violation of law or constitutional standards, then the EU can be quite good. But, on the whole, the EU is extremely weak in projecting and promoting its own values, except in countries which want to be members. That is the only case, and it only applies until they become members; once you are in, you can get away with murder. And it is particularly weak with Russia because of the special energy relationships of a few key European states.
What is the main contribution that Poland can make to the EU?
Poland has really stepped up to its potential in the last few years. I think it is already a major player in European policy. I think the current government has done a great job. I think the EU Presidency went very well. You could well argue that Poland has had more influence on European external policy in the last five years than Spain or Italy – which is quite an achievement. But Poland must learn to be more than just an advocate of Eastern policy. Everybody knows that when the Polish representative is in the room, Ukraine will be mentioned, Russia will be mentioned. And that’s fine; it is as it should be. When the Spanish representative is in the room, the Mediterranean will be mentioned. But if you are going to become a first-league player in European external policy, you must have something to say about other people’s neighbours and other people’s problems. And there Poland is still very weak.
Timothy Garton Ash is a British historian and Professor of European Studies at Oxford University. He is the author of several books including We the People: The Revolution of '89 witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (1990) and a collection of essays Facts are Subversive (2009), as well as a weekly column on international politics for the Guardian. To read more about his project, the Free Speech Debate, visit www.freespeechdebate.com.