History has its images and voices. It also has specific smells. For Timothy Garton Ash, passing back and forth through an East Berlin checkpoint as a journalist-activist in the 1980s, the cold war stank of “plastic wood, cheap cleaning liquid, damp boots and sweaty armpits”. By that decade’s end, what he calls a “one-in-a-million piece of historical luck” wafted the promise of a more fragrant future over the rotting Soviet empire. Walls fell; blocs crumbled; minds and economies opened. For all the doubts and shocks that struck a newly united Europe, “liberal internationalists” such as Garton Ash felt “that we knew which way history was going”.
The past 15 years have seen that hubris punished in a hail of blows. They culminated, a year ago, when Vladimir Putin savagely returned Ukraine to the state of fear and chaos this book’s shorthand formulation dubs “1945”.
As Europe’s “old normal” of state-on-state thuggery comes back, Homelands looks through the prisms of personal memory, shared history and political analysis to measure the continent’s progress in its post-war decades of hope, and to ask how much endures. Bright nuggets of autobiography — whether Garton Ash’s father’s memories of the D-Day landings, or his own adventures in insurgent Poland and on the scorched earth of former Yugoslavia — illuminate a broad-brush chronology. This “history illustrated by memoir” journeys via bold strokes and pivotal scenes from the “Destroyed” continent of 1945 across its “Divided”, “Rising”, “Triumphing”, and now “Faltering”, periods.
Readers could hardly wish for a wiser guide. Over 40 years, Garton Ash has both watched from the stands and played on the pitch in the arena of European change. From his youthful beginnings as reporter-advocate of democratic dissent behind the Iron Curtain, to his later roles as essayist, academic and adviser, he has acted as flag-waver for the free, liberal Europe he cherishes. He hobnobs with the great, good and not-so-good (from Václav Havel to Oswald Mosley). He even advises Margaret Thatcher on her German unification stance (“All right . . . I’ll be very nice to the Germans”). But he keeps a decent distance from the lures of power. Amid the plutocratic fleshpots of Davos, he grasps that VIP pundits like him look from the outside “as much members of a global liberal establishment” as the hedge fund managers. Homelands often reports from the top table; but it always strives to read the whole, raucous European room.
This is not a potted history of the European Union — still less of Britain’s tortuous relationships with it. Instead, the book casts a panoramic eye over a far-flung continent of 850mn people, and heeds the word on the street in Pristina as much as in Paris. Yet what Garton Ash calls “the conundrum of unity and diversity” sounds throughout the book like some Wagnerian leitmotif built on a haunting dissonance. “Push too hard for unity and the forced union starts to fall apart. Push too hard for diversity and the Europeans end up fighting each other.”
Crisis by crisis, the forces of convergence and divergence spar. Although “the most reluctant empire in history”, the EU acquires deeper roots and broader bounds. If the “miracle” of 1989 brings “spectacular enlargement”, then the fudges and fixes of the euro’s birth in the late 1990s leaves much of the Union stuck in the “awkward halfway house of a common currency without a common treasury”.
Garton Ash views Brexit Britain as an extreme case of post-meltdown rage at the ruling class, “not a uniquely anti-European outlier”. He registers the populist anger at Europe as a “fortress of the privileged”, felt equally by thwarted migrants outside its barbed-wire frontiers and by left-behind legions within the gates who suffer “an inequality of attention and respect”. For him, the gains of growing liberty and harmony still eclipse the pains. From Helsinki to Lisbon, citizens enjoy “the largest area of relative freedom, prosperity and security achieved in European history”.
Until February 2022, Garton Ash’s reckoning might have sounded smug or bland. Now Putin’s war in Ukraine has taught everyone what this fair-minded but warm-hearted book never forgets: that the blood and iron of “1945” lay just under the soil of European peace. Defiantly hopeful, the book ends with Garton Ash back in Normandy, where his father fought in 1944. Over a bistro lunch, he meets a “bibulous retired dentist” and urges this Le Pen-voting sceptic to drink to Europe, “quand même et malgré tout”. All the same, and despite everything, Homelands finds good reason to toast that tenacious ideal.
Homelands: A Personal History of Europe by Timothy Garton Ash, Bodley Head £20/Yale University Press $28, 384 pages
FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival
Timothy Garton Ash will be appearing at the Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday April 1 at 10am