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

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