History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s

November 17, 2000

History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s by Timothy Garton Ash


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I’m Joanne Myers, Director of Merrill House Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I’d like to say how pleased we are to see so many of our members, guests, and C-SPAN at our Books for Breakfast program.

This morning it is with great pleasure that we welcome to the Carnegie Council one of the most astute commentators on contemporary European politics, Timothy Garton Ash. Our guest is an award-winning author and Oxford historian who in his new book, History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, poignantly chronicles the extraordinary events of the last decade of this past century.

As we look back on the last ten years or so, we can’t help but be grateful that Timothy Garton Ash was on hand to wade through the complex thickets of history and politics in order to compose a coherent picture of these times for us.

For example, imagine the map of Europe in 1989. Now compare it with the landscape of Europe today. What you will see is the result of a phenomenal decade of change: the Soviet Union has dissolved, Czechoslovakia is divided, Yugoslavia was dismembered, and the two Germanies have reunited. As the old European order collapsed and the new outlines of the future emerged, our guest this morning was there as a witness to record these events and to testify to this historical passage of time.

His book, as the subtitle suggests, combines an anecdotal style with an analytical acuity, thereby blending a journalist’s powers of observation with a historian’s sense of content. But Timothy Garton Ash is no ordinary historian or journalist. Having followed his writings for several years now in The New York Review of Books and in other publications, I can attest to both the power of his words and to the penetrating quality of his observations.

History of the present in many ways is a continuation of the work that Mr. Garton Ash began within his trilogy of books about Central Europe in the 1980s. These included The Polish Revolution, which was the winner of a Somerset Maugham Award; The Uses of Adversity, for which he was awarded the Prix d’Européen de l’Essai, and We the People, the U.S. edition of which is known as The Magic Lantern. This is his personal account of the revolutions of the 1980s. Throughout the 1980s he reported on and analyzed the emancipation of Central Europe from communism in his contributions to The Spectator, The Independent, The Times, and The New York Review of Books. Please join me in welcoming the very distinguished Timothy Garton Ash to our Books for Breakfast program.


TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: Thank you very much for that very kind encomium at this early hour. It’s a very great pleasure to be here at this extraordinary moment in American history, to be here in the land of the dimpled chad.

Most people in Europe and the United States think of America as being the land of the new and Europe as the place of the old, but when one watches this extraordinary electoral process and thinks that it goes back 200 years even in the details of the procedure, then one wonders whether that’s quite right.

It’s hard to think of a country in Europe which has constitutional arrangements and precise electoral arrangements that have the same continuity. And at the same time, if one looks at Europe over the last ten years, one thinks, “Here is the new.”

Europe has the strange habit of almost entirely reinventing itself once every thirty or forty years. Since the Congress of the Peace of Westphalia, we have had periods of a stable order in Europe—Westphalia Europe, Vienna Europe, Berlin Europe, Versailles Europe, Yalta Europe—and in every thirty or forty years we see a convulsion of normally violent disorder in which the whole map of Europe is redrawn.

The 1990s have been such a decade. I have two maps of Europe, the political map of Europe in 1989 and 1999. If you look at that map, virtually every line has been redrawn. There are no less than fourteen new nation states.

My book is a kaleidoscope of essays, sketches, dispatches from this extraordinary decade; a kaleidoscope tied together with a detailed chronology and timeline in which I have inserted various little vignettes from the period.

Let me give you just a few thoughts from the book. The decade starts with that extraordinary moment of peaceful self-liberation from communism in Central Europe, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember walking down Wenceslas Square in Prague in February 1990, shortly after the Velvet Revolution, and meeting a very charming old Hungarian writer and translator friend of mine from Budapest.

He said to me, “After the revolution it seems we have found a compromise on a new Hungarian president.”

I said, “Oh yes, that’s very interesting. Who is it going to be?

He said, “It seems it will be me.”

This was Arpad Goncz, who had been the president of Hungary for the last ten years, until this August, and one of the unsung heroes of the peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy in Central Europe. People call him “the Hungarian Havel.” He asks, “Why don’t they call Havel ‘the Czech Goncz?’”

Then came the story of German unification, the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Central Europe, from command to market economy, from East to West, the stories of the European Community’s great leap forward, the great gamble of Maastricht and monetary union; then also the story of the bloody disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, culminating in the wars in Bosnia and at the end of the decade in Kosovo.

I have asked myself, “What was the single most remarkable encounter I had in this decade?” I believe it was a conversation I had with a distinctly extraordinary man, perhaps the single most important political figure in Europe in the 1990s, Helmut Kohl.

Helmut Kohl is a mountainous man, in Dr. Johnson’s marvelous phrase, in every sense of that phrase. If one hadn’t met him personally, it is hard to evoke the simple sheer bulk of the man. As he leans forward, you feel that he’s going to have you for lunch.

This was a conversation I had with Kohl in 1993, when I was working on my history of Ostpolitik and German unification. At a certain point in the conversation, he leant forward and said, “By the way, Herr Professor, I hope you do realize that you’re sitting opposite the direct successor to Adolph Hitler.”

I was a little nonplussed. I have to say I think it’s the greatest single conversation stopper I’ve ever heard. What does one say? I wanted to say, “My dear fellow, don’t take it so hard,” but I was still reeling.

What I wish I had actually said is, “With great respect, Herr Bundeschancellor, it’s not quite right, because Grand Admiral Doenitz was the last chancellor of a united Germany before you after Hitler’s suicide.”

But the point of this remark, as Kohl went on to explain, was that he was profoundly conscious of that historical responsibility, of being the first chancellor of the united Germany since Adolph Hitler, and, as he went on to say very explicitly, he was determined to do everything differently. Hitler had tried to put a German roof over Europe; he, Helmut Kohl, was going to put a European roof over Germany.

This is an anecdote with a much larger point. As I look back over the decade, these very different dramas—monetary union in Western Europe, war and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, the transition in Central Europe—can be traced back to that formative period in 1990 and 1991 where the course was set. The crucial part of setting that course was the decision of the leaders of Western Europe, notably of Helmut Kohl and François Mitterand, to make as their great answer to the end of the Cold War, to the end of the east-west division of Europe, a great project of the unification of the existing European communities, Maastricht.

One of the most crucial explanations of why they did that is summarized in Helmut Kohl’s rather startling remark to me. Namely that at the moment of German unification Germany’s neighbors—especially France but also other neighbors—were doubly concerned to embrace Germany in a tighter European framework. This was a warm embrace but also a tight embrace. And at the moment when Germany regained sovereignty and independence as a great power in Central Europe, Germany itself determined to bind itself into a European framework. There are many cases in Europe of containment. There are not many examples in history of a country which asks for self-containment. It was a magnificent gesture of statesmanship.

At the same time, as a result the leaders of Western Europe disastrously set the wrong priorities at the end of the Cold War. We in Europe are rather like people who have lived for forty years in a large, ramshackle house. We in the Western half had put in new plumbing, new wiring, put on a new roof, knocked rooms together, redecorated; the house was in very good nick and we were living peacefully together. In the Eastern half of the house, the roof was leaking, the wiring was extremely dicey, the drains stank, the house was about to fall down. And then, this house was divided through the middle by a large concrete wall.

Then that wall came down, and what did we do? We decided that what the whole house needed most of all and most urgently was a new computer-controlled system of air conditioning in the Western half. And while we prepared to install that new computer-controlled system of air-conditioning in the Western half, a system called the euro, or EMU, the Eastern half of the house began to fall down and went up in flames. We fiddled in Maastricht while Sarajevo began to burn.

The leaders of Western Europe share a direct responsibility for much of what went wrong in the Eastern half of the continent through the 1990s, for having, for the best of reasons, set the wrong priorities. I would even go so far as to argue that to some extent the Bosnians and the Kosovars paid the price in blood for those wrong priorities, although there were many other reasons why it came to war in Bosnia and Kosovo. The problem that this leaves us with is the missed opportunity of 1990 and 1991—the missed opportunity to start building a liberal order for the whole of Europe, to start reforming the European Union in a way which makes it ready for enlargement, to make a common environmental security policy, to make a common defense policy .We should have first made a common army, and only then a common currency.

This is not an argument against making a common currency. I have to say that because you may have noticed I have an English accent. I have nothing against this in principle. I am talking priorities, and I believe that was a more urgent priority.

The problem it leaves us with at the end of the decade is that we are starting in Europe at the end of the 1990s to do what we should have done at the beginning, to prepare the European Union for enlargement, to make a common environment security policy, to make a common army, to take on this great challenge of working out how we can make a Europe whole and free, how we can construct a European Union of twenty or twenty-five or thirty states.

First, we are doing it not in that wonderful atmosphere of hope after the Velvet Revolution of 1989; we are doing it after a decade which in the other half of Europe has seen the bloody disintegration of states. And we are doing it not in response to the peaceful Velvet Revolution, but rather as the result of having descended into war. That is a rather bitter lesson. Heraclitus famously remarked that “War is the father of all things.” It took the Bosnia and Kosovo wars before we started doing at the end of the decade what we should have done at the beginning.

But the other reflection is that we are trying to do it now in much less favorable conditions, because the elites of Western Europe are on the whole genuinely now committed to this project of enlargement, although with some reservations.

I quote a conversation I had with a very senior French businessman about enlargement. I was making the case for the rapid enlargement of the European Union as one of the keys to building a liberal order for the whole of Europe. He said, “I’ll tell you my view of enlargement: il faut toujours en parler et jamais en penser.” That is, one should always talk about it and never think about it. And there are quite a few people in Western Europe who privately have that attitude.

The elites of Western Europe are now finally convinced, at least intellectually, that this is the top priority for the next decade, the most important project in Europe. But in the meantime, the movement of public opinion in our countries has not been towards greater support for this great project of enlargement. In Austria, a great part of Heider’s success was connected with fears of immigration and enlargement. In France, public opinion has long been against it, now more so.

But crucially, in Germany, a key country for this whole project of enlargement, we have seen public opinion moving very strongly against it. One of the problems is that Chancellor Schröder has not shown the kind of leadership on this issue that Helmut Kohl did on the issue of Maastricht and monetary union ten years ago.

A majority of the Germans throughout most of the 1990s did not want to give up the Deutschmark. Helmut Kohl, in a sustained act of statesmanship, led the German people into monetary union—rightly or wrongly is another question, but it was sustained out of quite visionary statesmanship. Schröder and others have spectacularly failed to explain to the German people over the years why enlargement is in their own vital national interest, and indeed in the interest of the whole of Europe but particularly of Germany, that Germany should have Western neighbors to her east.

The result is that the conditions for enlargement in public opinion in Western European politics are now quite unfavorable, and it will be a major struggle to see even the first enlargement happening in 2004 or 2005. Let me end with a final anecdote. My book closes with the Kosovo war—the first war in NATO’s history, the last European war in the 20th century, an extraordinary tragicomedy of errors.

After it was over, I talked to a senior NATO official and asked if NATO had been prepared for a seventy-eight-day war, or even for a war, and he said, “Of course not. We thought it would be over in three or four days.” And indeed, the military preparations were only for three or four days. He said, “We cracked open the champagne on the 24th of March when NATO decided to go to war, because for us in NATO the real victory was to have got the sixteen member states to agree on anything, and particularly on military action.”

“And no one,” he said, “in the leadership of NATO was sitting there saying, ‘Now what happens if Milosevic doesn’t concede? What planning for the contingencies that would then follow?’” And he said, rather ruefully, “Yes, I think in future we have to improve our consequence management.”

JOANNE MYERS: I would like to open the floor to questions.

Questons and Answers

QUESTION: I would like to return to your metaphor of the house to describe the differences between East and West in Europe. Would you agree that the difficulties should be perceived in a longer historical context, not only in the context of the last ten years?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: My book is called History of the Present, which is of the very short durée, and we might indeed want to spend a moment reflecting on whether it is possible to write a history of the present and what the advantages and disadvantages are.

But if we talk about the long durée, I would say that there are deep differences in history, culture, tradition, heritage, between different parts of Europe—and I deliberately don’t say “East and West Europe,” because I don’t believe as a historian that we can say there is an eastern Europe and a Western Europe. There are many Europes—Central Europe, East-Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Southeastern Europe.

History matters. If you look at the map of the outcome of the presidential election in Romania in 1995, pro-communist Iliescu versus anti-communist Constantinescu, what you see is the map of Romania in the 19th century. That is to say, painted blue at the top is Transylvania and the Banat, all those parts of today’s Romania which were in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, part of Central Europe, and they voted for the anti-communist candidate Constantinescu. Painted red at the bottom is the old kingdom, that part which was for centuries in the Ottoman Empire. It’s a marvelous small example of how important history is.

But one of the things that went wrong in the 1990s was what I call by analogy with vulgar Marxism, vulgar Huntingtonism. I mean by that the extraordinary influence and misinterpretation of Sam Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations to be taken as a crude cultural determinant: if you had Western Christianity, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, you are predestined to democracy; if you had Eastern Christianity or Islam, the Ottoman or Russian empires, you are doomed to dictatorship. This crude cultural determinant seems to have been a pernicious influence on a lot of Western policy approaches to the region.

Nations can be reconstructed, they can remake themselves in new ways—look at the transformation of West Germany after 1945—and deliberate policies and the quality of political elites and the policies they conduct are at least as important as any cultural heritage. Thus, Bulgaria, consigned to outer darkness by vulgar Huntingtonism, has quite a sophisticated policy elite and is not doing so badly, while Slovakia, which by every cultural historical definition is part of the West, actually did extremely badly for most of the 1990s. So I would plead on the whole against that sort of cultural determinism.

QUESTION: Where do you see enlargement by the year 2010?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: The first wave of enlargement will probably only come in 2004-2005, particularly because Germany is clearly now going to wait until the parliamentary elections in 2002 before making the difficult decision. And France is quite happy to wait too. And so you only get a deal in 2003, which means you only get ratification and realization in 2004-2005.

One thing does lead to another, however, and since you have this queue of twelve-plus-one candidates lined up there, and many of them quite far advanced in the process, by 2010 we could well have a European Union of between twenty-two and twenty-five Member States.

QUESTION: Would you elaborate on your remark about the redrawing of the map?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: It is a remarkable fact that half the frontiers in Europe are newer than those in Africa. But what matters is not whether you have one large state or five small states. What matters is how that process takes place—is it peaceful and by negotiations, or is by war and violence and ethnic cleansing—and what kind of states are left. One mistake we made in the West in the 1990s was to be too focused on outcome and not pay enough attention to process.

QUESTION: Could you talk about the nuts and bolts of Central and Eastern Europe governmental aid?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: The answer has to be given in detail, and there is a very different answer for each country. Even the core Central European countries—Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic—have quite different records in detail.

First, the demands made on them by the EU have been exorbitant. With every enlargement, the bar goes higher, because the EU aggregates the special interests and demands of every Member State and every special interest in every Member State. And so it is, for example, absurd to expect candidate countries to reach our level of environmental standards.

Secondly, the first wave of candidates, by and large, painted with a broad brush, are ready by any reasonable standard of the acquis communautaire. And so the obstacle to enlargement is not there, it’s here in Western Europe—not in those applicant countries.

Third, the specific dimension of legal training and establishing the rule of law is one that was very much neglected in democracy-building in the 1990s. In the post-Communist countries, we did a tremendous amount about the conversion to a market economy, about elections and political parties and civil society. We did much less on this question of the rule of law, which in the event turns out to be absolutely crucial, because if you ask what distinguishes Poland from Russia or Slovenia from Serbia, one of the key answers is the rule of law or the lack thereof. So that is another lesson from the 1990s. Next time when a transition starts coming somewhere else—maybe one day in Burma or in Asia or in Africa—this is something to pay much more attention to.

QUESTION: Could you comment on the role the United States has played during this decade, in NATO in particular, its actions and its possible future?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: One way of answering that question is to tell you what I have heard so many times traveling around the Balkans, which is that people start talking about what the international community has done, and then they say, “The international community—I mean the United States.” This is a rather shaming reflection for Western Europe, which is just next door. But for many people in the Balkans, the international community has become the United States. That is rather an extreme case of the European failure and the United States having to come in and pick up the pieces, both at Dayton and then in the Kosovo war. But the other thing that the United States has done is NATO enlargement. When we sat around discussing what could be done in 1990 or 1991, the conventional wisdom was, 'The easy one is EU enlargement. Because that’s civilians, the Russians won’t mind. What’s difficult is NATO enlargement.”

In the event, it came exactly the other way around, and this was a very positive example of American leadership. NATO enlargement was one of the most important and positive things that happened for Europe in the 1990s, and I hope it will continue. I wouldn’t be too surprised if not just the first part of NATO enlargement but the second round of NATO enlargement happens before the first round of EU enlargement. So the United States in that respect remains crucial.

A final point. There is a lot of worry about a new Bush Administration. Part of it has to do with the perceived character of Governor Bush. But there are some specific worries, one of which is about this proposal to pull out the troops from the Balkans in the first place. That is a very dangerous proposal to make publicly: if the international community means the United States and people get the idea that the United States is pulling out, that’s very destabilizing.

But in the longer term I have considerable sympathy with that. We need you for NATO enlargement, we need you very much for the strategic umbrella, the heavy lift for intelligence. I see no reason why in ten years’ time American soldiers from Ohio and California should be escorting children to school in Europe’s backyard or protecting grannies in Mitrovitz. That demand, reasonably and privately presented in Milan, is an entirely reasonable one.

QUESTION: In one of the reviews of your book, I read that monetary union is not necessarily doomed to failure, but will always be short of success, because it is not linked to the project of the United States of Europe.

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: We have an issue of consequence management here all right. This is perhaps the single most important question for us in the EU. This is the first time anyone has tried to put together twelve or fifteen countries in a monetary union without first making a political union. All monetary unions that have lasted in the past have been preceded by political union. Here we are putting the cart before the horse.

People have therefore predicted that there will be enormous strains within the system because divergent economies are shackled together with a “one size fits all” interest rate, and asymmetric shocks will affect those countries differently. We are already beginning to see that happening in Euro-land.

In Ireland, for example, the economy is clearly overheating; inflation is 3 percent above the Euro inflation on average. If that goes on for three years, you have a crisis—3 percent above the average inflation for three years means that you cut your profit margin by 9 percent, which means a lot of companies will go bust.

The question is not: will there be a crisis of the Euro-zone? —because there will be. The question is: how will Europe respond to that crisis and how much political unification is needed in order to keep this thing together? I’m not at all convinced that the answer has to be a full political union, a United States of Europe. I’m not convinced that you need that to make a monetary union work. But you do clearly need significantly more than what we have at the moment. The question is, how will Europe respond to this crisis? Is there that solidarity between the different peoples of Europe, which clearly exists between the different states of the United States, so if Ireland is doing badly, you have fiscal transfers out of the pockets of Portuguese farmers and German workers? I have serious doubts about whether it will happen, but I’m sure that is how the question is posed.

QUESTION: Earlier you talked about political leadership in Europe for enlargement, but you did not mention immigration.

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: The problem is that perception and reality are not only far apart, they’re moving further apart. Because of the relative success of economic transformation, particularly in East-Central Europe, in the leading candidate countries, a realistic guesstimate of the immigration flows that will follow from enlargement is very modest indeed.

On the other hand, the popular perception in Western Europe, and particularly in Austria and Germany, is ever more alarming. There is the German phrase “the boat is full,” which is an absurd saying in a country which needs 500,000 immigrants a year to pay its pension bill.

That is a very worrying development. And again, it comes back to this lack of information and leadership. No one in Western Europe is systematically standing up and saying (a) the threat is not so large, and (b) we need these immigrants for Europe to survive.

QUESTION: Acknowledging your ambivalence about former Eastern Germany, how would you compare or contrast the rest of the Eastern countries’ reckoning with the past ten years and the communist era?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: "Ambivalence” is a very nice piece of English understatement about my feelings. Again, like the question about readiness for enlargement, the experiences of individual countries are so different that it would require a longer time to go through them.

First, facing up to the past, whether by a truth commission or by opening the secret police files or by putting former leaders on trial, is not necessarily a precondition for the consolidation of democracy. But the degree to which a country has faced up to its past is a good measure of how mature the democracy is.

That correlation is pretty good. So Germany, which has faced up to its communist past in an absolutely model way, is in many ways the most consolidated and mature democracy. Poland, pretty much so. And then on the other hand, look at Russia, a country still in denial, where virtually no files have been opened except for financial gain, and look at the state of democracy there.

Therefore, if we look for example at Serbia, if you are asking how well is this country doing, then ask how they are facing up to their past. Incredible as it may sound, most Serbs regard themselves simply as victims. In the outside world we think of the Serbs as perpetrators, the villains of Bosnia and Kosovo.

I was sitting with a mayor of a small town in central Serbia and he said to me, “Mr. Garton Ash, we have a very difficult conversation here because you are sitting here as a perpetrator and I am sitting here as a victim.” This is a man who had been Milosevic’s mayor of this town for ten years. But he absolutely believed it. At the end of the conversation, he said to me, “We Serbs can forgive but we cannot forget.” So there is an absolute complex of victimhood, and it will be a very difficult process to take the country out of that.

QUESTION: How successful do you think the Russian president has been and how effective do you think the whole strategy will be?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: At the time of German unification there were great fears in the West of a familiar pattern from history being repeated, a German rapprochement over the heads of the Central Europeans and at their expense.

One of the remarkable things about the 1990s is the way that traditional German priorities—Russia first—has been reversed, and for the first time in modern German history, Germany has systematically put Central Europe first, with very good consequences. And Germany does now have western neighbors to its east, and is therefore no longer the pig in the middle in this geopolitical situation.

Having done that, Schröder is quite right to try to develop a stronger relationship with Putin, but our problem is not the strength of Russia; our problem is the weakness of Russia. Great power politics and diplomacy at that level cannot make up for that constitutional structural weakness.

The real question remains: can the basic reconstruction of the state, the economy, the society and the rule of law in Russia take place? That we can only influence at the margin, alas.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much.

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