Timothy Garton Ash: 34 years on, Eastern Europe does not exist

Timothy Garton Ash

Timothy Garton Ash was in Prague last week, presenting the Czech version of his latest book Homelands: A Personal History of Europe. While he was here, the UK historian, who spent time in this region when communism was collapsing, took part in events marking the anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution. And Mr. Garton Ash also spoke to Jan Bumba of Czech Radio, about those dramatic times – and where Europe is headed today.

We are meeting in Prague in mid-November. At this time 34 years ago, Czechoslovakia was going through historic changes. The vast majority of people were happy to get rid of the Communist regime. Nevertheless, today there are many who tend to remember the ‘70s and the ‘80s as the “good old times”. Why do you think this is happening?

“The Velvet Revolution, which I witnessed at first hand, thanks to Václav Havel in Laterna magika, was such an extraordinary, magical moment, and the beginning of what I call the ‘post-wall’ period, the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it was a very, very good period in European history.

“Lech Walesa said, Before 1989, people had security and wanted freedom; now they have freedom and want security.”

“Human nature is that you always yearn for what you haven’t got, rather than what you have. In English we say the other man’s grass is always greener.

“To your question, this was very well summarised to me once by former Polish president Lech Walesa. He said, Back then, before 1989, people had security and wanted freedom; now they have freedom and want security. And I think that captures some important aspect of what people are missing: the sense of security and certainty and stability.”

One of the slogans of the Velvet Revolution was “Back to Europe”. Why do you think that more than three decades later there are still significant differences between the Old Europe and the former communist countries?

“Forty years of communist dictatorship is obviously going to leave traces. But fundamentally I would like to say that, 34 years on, Eastern Europe does not exist. The countries of the eastern half of the continent are as diverse as those of the western half of the continent.

Petr Pavel | Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

“And if you look at Central Europe, you have the Czech Republic with a very clearly pro-European, pro-Western orientation; both President Pavel and the government.

“You’ve also had an amazing election result in Poland, which has turned the country sharply back towards Europe and the West, with the new government coming under Donald Tusk.

“At the same time, you have Viktor Orban, being the spokesman of the nationalist, populist, anti-liberal, explicitly anti-liberal, and in some important senses anti-European tendency, and Robert Fico; so I would say Central Europe encapsulates the divisions that we have in Europe as a whole.”

When you witnessed the events of the autumn 1989 was it clear to you that those were events that were going to change the face of Europe?

“Without question. World history was being made on Národní and on Václavské náměstí, as it was made in Berlin and in Warsaw and in Budapest.

“World history was being made on Národní and on Václavské náměstí, as it was made in Berlin, Warsaw and Budapest.”

“Hegel’s Weltgeist, the world spirit, was here in Central Europe in that year. And it did change the history of the world, because from Central Europe flowed change elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and eventually in the Soviet Union.

“So as I say, and this is what I argue in my new book, it launched us into that new period of European history, the post-wall period – I date it back to November 9, 1989 – which I believe ended on February 24, 2022, with Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”

At the same time, in your latest book Homelands you write about the pride and over confidence of Western politicians, financiers and also intellectuals.

“The post-wall period, like a game of football, is a game of two halves.”

“Exactly so. The post-wall period, like a game of football, is a game of two halves. The first half, I would say is from 1992 to 2007. We made extraordinary progress in the spread of freedom, of democracy, the enlargement of the European Union and NATO.

“Think about it: the Baltic States, which did not exist on the map of Europe in 1989 when we were on the streets here in Prague, were by 2007 prosperous democracies and members of the EU and NATO.

“It was at that point, in the early to mid-2000s, that we became lazy. We became complacent, we became hubristic and we believed that history would go on going our way.


“And that was exactly the moment when it turned into what I call the downward turn, a cascade of crisis starting with the global financial crisis and Vladimir Putin’s seizure of two great chunks of Georgia. I would say from 2008 onwards we have been paying the price of our hubris.”

Have we learned our lesson? Is there more humbleness in our thinking, or are we still too confident and maybe ignorant?

“I think intellectually we have learned our lessons. I think in any conversation or interview you do, people would probably recognise this.

“But the question is, Have we successfully drawn the political conclusions? Because what we have is populists quite skillfully exploiting the discontents that had accumulated in those periods, whether their names are Donald Trump or Marine LePen or Viktor Orban or Robert Fico, and often with an interesting mix, which is sort of slightly left-wing economics but right wing in culture.

“And we liberals, in the broadest sense, haven't yet quite worked out how to win those voters back in large enough numbers.”

You’ve been traveling across Europe. Anyone who follows you on social media is quite familiar with your travels. How would you describe the general atmosphere in Europe these days?

“Worried. Everybody senses that we’re in this new period. After the Velvet Revolution, we thought we were going to a Europe without wars and without walls. It was all about knocking the walls down, cutting the Iron Curtain and opening the frontiers.

“Now we have two big wars, in Ukraine and Israel-Hamas, and the walls are going up, rather than coming down. So I would say worried.

“And then, interestingly, it varies a lot from country to country. Somewhat smaller countries, somewhat on the periphery… I went to Estonia for the Estonian edition of this book, to Ireland for the English edition and to Portugal for the Portuguese edition, and they're still quite optimistic about Europe.

“But you go to the core of Europe, to a country like Germany or the Netherlands, and there's a huge amount of angst and fear and worry.”

You've mentioned that the situation in each European country is different, and the atmosphere is different, and you've been very critical of populism in politics. Do you think that European populists have something in common?

“Without question. They have sensed these discontents that were accumulating in all our societies, which were partly economic; after all we have to acknowledge that globalised capitalism, unconstrained free markets, have created levels of economic inequality not seen for a hundred years.

Photo: Zuzana Jarolímková,  Czech Radio

“It is also cultural. People in small towns in the countryside, people without higher education, felt that they were being ignored and disrespected by people in Prague or in Paris or in Berlin: the liberal metropolitan elites.

“And populists picked up on those twin discontents, economic and cultural, in multiple different variants.”

Is it the fault of the, say, traditional political parties, which possibly overlooked these needs and demands of many ordinary people, who then turned to populists? Is it the fault of the traditional political parties that they paved the way, maybe, for the populists?

“I would say what it’s a matter of what went wrong with liberalism. This is a book also of liberal self-criticism. I consciously speak as a liberal European, and we have to ask ourselves what we got wrong.

“One of the things we got wrong was that we quite rightly paid a lot of attention to the other half of the world, but not enough attention to the other half of our own societies. And that I think was a failure of many mainstream parties.

Donald Tusk | Photo: European Council

“Let me give you a quick example. Platforma, the leading liberal party in Poland, the party of Donald Tusk, presided over tremendous economic growth, but neglected social policy. And then the populists, PIS, came along and said, We're going to give 500 zlotys for every child once a month. And that was a clear failure of liberal policies.

“The other thing is that politicians became a kind of remote professional caste, like the Brahmins, all dressed the same way, in dark suits and white shirts, and all speaking the same language and eating in nice restaurants. And people thought, They no longer represent me.

“Then a populist came along and managed to convey the message, I'm a bloke like you, I get you. Even if the populist’s name was Donald Trump and he was a millionaire who had absolutely nothing to do with ordinary people in his real life.”

Professor Garton Ash, which issues need to be focused on and resolved in order to gain the trust of the people who may be have lost faith in liberal democracy?

“The competition in the Cold War between East and West was good for the business of liberal democracy.”

“In all our societies: housing, education, healthcare, good jobs. I mean, that's self-evident, a kind of classic agenda.

“The Germans have a saying, Konkurrenz ist gut fürs Geschäft: competition is good for business. The competition in the Cold War between East and West, the Soviet bloc and the West, was good for the business of liberal democracy, because in a sense it kept us honest; we had to pay attention to the welfare of our people, not just to the welfare of the elites.

“And we became lazy and hubristic – so we have to get back to that agenda of the welfare of society.

“The other issue I would single out, apart of course from helping Ukraine to defeat Vladimir Putin, that is very important is immigration.

“I increasingly fear that 2023 is turning into a new 2015, where the single issue of immigration, or to be precise the fear of immigration, is going to drive a lot of voters to the right, to the populists, maybe in next year’s European elections.

“So quite quickly those in power need to convey the message that we actually have it under control, that we are actually managing the challenge of migration.

“‘Take back control’, the Brexit slogan, was a brilliant slogan, because it captured exactly what that what people need to feel: it’s not the absolute numbers – it's that we have it under control.”