Homelands: A Personal History of Europe by Timothy Garton Ash - review by Piers Brendon

Piers Brendon

I Believe in Yesterday

Homelands: A Personal History of Europe

By

The Bodley Head 384pp £22
 

Timothy Garton Ash describes this book as ‘history illustrated by memoir’. It is a fluent and authoritative account of Europe since the Second World War, punctuated by vivid personal vignettes. These begin with a description of his father landing in Normandy on D-day with the first wave of British troops and fighting his way into Germany with the Allied forces that liberated the continent, only in later life to become a Eurosceptic. Garton Ash himself is a passionate pro-European. Witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which not only signalled the end of the Cold War but also led to a peace settlement that had been pending since 1945, he shared in the ‘spontaneous, joyful epitome of people power’. The whole experience ‘felt like Pentecost’. When Brexit took place, an event wished by both Trump and Putin in order to weaken the EU, Garton Ash felt as if he ‘had just lost a loved one’. This was a great defeat, he says, for someone who, as a journalist and an academic, ‘had spent a lifetime deeply engaged with Europe’.

Over the years he has encountered a large cast of characters, who enliven his pages. He advised an unconvinced Margaret Thatcher that Helmut Kohl’s Germany was very different from what had gone before. He helped Tony Blair with his speeches, which were often strongly pro-European abroad but tepid about Europe at home, Blair fearing the Eurosceptic press. At a dinner in Castel Gandolfo he heard Pope John Paul II saying (in Polish, which Garton Ash speaks, along with other languages) that he disliked capitalism almost as much as communism because it fostered ‘false and superficial gratifications’. Dick Cheney told him that the Iraq War would end with the ‘elimination of the terrorists’ – a remark that shocked Garton Ash with its stupidity, since George Bush’s ‘crusade’ would obviously provoke revenge attacks, as indeed it did in Madrid, London, Paris and elsewhere. In 1994 he met Putin, who, although an apparently insignificant 41-year-old deputy mayor of St Petersburg at the time, evinced clear ‘post-imperial yearnings’. When Garton Ash exclaimed that even Milošević would not try to ethnically cleanse 1.8 million Albanians, the Slovene president Milan Kučan replied chillingly, ‘You don’t know Milošević.’

Garton Ash’s hero is Václav Havel, the playwright whose struggle for human rights helped to inspire Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989. As a dissident, Havel suffered much at the hands of the communist government. His first prison commandant was a sadist who told him that Hitler knew how

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