Monday Book: The East comes West

HISTORY OF THE PRESENT: ESSAYS, SKETCHES AND DISPATCHES FROM EUROPE IN THE 1990S BY TIMOTHY GARTON ASH, ALLEN LANE/ PENGUIN PRESS, pounds 20

THE TITLE of these essays was invented by George Kennan to describe an earlier book by Timothy Garton Ash, a deft phrase to describe what the grand old man of foreign policy called "that small and rarely visited field of literary effort where journalism, history and literature... come together". Within this fertile intellectual triangle, the author situates his evocations of the Europe that has emerged and is still emerging from the rubble of the Berlin Wall and the retreat of Soviet Communism.

As Garton Ash observes, Westerners are steeped in the Whig tradition of expecting history to bring progress, and the good to drive out the bad. Yet the happy ending that 1989 seemed to provide to a century overshadowed by two hot wars and one cold one proved illusory. Ten years on, the future has been forged in a part of Europe by violent "ethnic cleansing", rockets and mortar shells. It is being resolved, or rather cauterised, by means of aerial bombing and an international protection force.

The sheer scope of this collection reminds us that the continent of Europe is wide, "Not only up and down but side to side", as Cabaret's Sally Bowles observed. Garton Ash rightly insists on the term "Central" rather than Eastern Europe - the latter being a lazy appellation that makes it too easy to discount the emerging democracies as lying beyond the main family of European nations.

As the Balkans darken and Europe havers, his frustrations intensify. "One day," he writes at the end of 1995, "I want to hijack Helmut Kohl, Jacques Chirac and Jacques Santer and all the other leaders of the European Union." He would take them to Sarajevo to confront the despair and the lack of belief in the West as saviour. "I should like to see if they can go on smoothly delivering their soft, prefabricated speeches about our Europe of peace and progress."

The point is well made. The gap between the rhetoric of European integration and the inability of institutional Europe to prevent bloodshed, let alone build the promised Common European Home, verges on the grotesque. Yet Garton Ash's contempt sometimes strikes me as coming a little too easily. The spectateur engage, as he describes himself just a bit preciously, has the best of both worlds. He investigates reality and often finds it wanting, while avowing that it is not his business to change it.

Another chapter describes his extended argument with Vaclav Havel about whether the place of intellectuals is to reflect on politics or become involved. When Havel suggests that some people are capable of injecting "a new wind, new spirit... into the stereotypes of everyday politics" - people like the author, in fact - the spectateur's fastidiousness reasserts itself: "The role of the intellectual should be as mirror-holder," he writes.

This is a conundrum not only for countries emerging from totalitarianism. The result of this intellectual retreat from active politics is all too clear here in Britain, in the baleful inadequacy of arguments about the euro. Cultivated, cosmopolitan people with profound doubts about the direction on which the EU has embarked are reluctant to become openly associated with campaigns against the single currency. So the predominant voices opposed to EMU too often appear shrill and isolationist, while we continue to build the wrong sort of Europe.

Garton Ash has an uncanny ability to sketch transition through a single encounter or scene. There is a masterful account of meeting the late Erich Honecker, dying of cancer in jail in the unified Germany. Honecker doggedly explained that the East German economy wasn't that bad - because one had to offset the hard-currency deficit against a surfeit of transferable roubles.

In such scenes, the author's psychological accuracy rarely errs as he nets political and intellectual shifts. Towards the end of the book, he revisits an old friend from Solidarity in Poland, transformed into a successful newspaper editor and free-marketeer. When he reminds her that he once described her as the "Rosa Luxemburg of Solidarity," she writes back without embarrassment, "I am Thatcher now, not RL any more."

This is a book that makes me want to take the next plane out to Warsaw, Budapest or Sarajevo and reconnect to the peoples and parts of Europe we tend to say were "cut off" by the Cold War, but from which an inward- looking West continues to distance itself. One conundrum asserts itself by its near-absence, and that is Russia. The map that concludes the book shows European Russia, but the mighty and troubled land itself is scarcely treated here, other than in relation to other countries.

I wondered whether this betrayed a suspicion that dare not speak its name: that Russia will continue to lie outside the paradigm of the liberal order Garton Ash desires. The Nineties have been one of Europe's great formative decades, although what precisely is being formed remains unclear, and its boundaries are uncertain. That is the fear, and the challenge.

Anne McElvoy

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam