When European Progress Gets Too Progressive

REVIEW: 'Homelands: A Personal History of Europe' by Timothy Garton Ash

Poles greet then-pope John Paul II in 1979 (Photo by Barbara Bartkowiak/Wikimedia Commons)
October 1, 2023

The bloody decades of Communist rule over Central and Eastern Europe were made darker by the forced absence of contact with the rest of the continent.

News—truly fake news—was provided exclusively by state agencies, promising that abundance was just over the horizon while the West was on the verge of a proletarian revolution. Travel across the Iron Curtain was rare, difficult, and often a humiliating experience at the border (the interminable wait to get out as well as to get in was tedious and nerve-wracking, followed by a slow, meticulous, but possibly bribable control of one's luggage and person). And dissident intellectuals could not participate in local or international seminars to share their ideas, writing their thoughts instead on scarce paper circulated among friends. The more one opposed the Communist regime, the less one could travel abroad or connect with foreigners.

But no matter how hard they tried, Communist goons could never fully sever the connection between West and East. There were, for instance, a few brave souls who from the well-lit Western cities regularly ventured to gray Central Europe to meet the oppressed, to chronicle back home the struggles of those nations, and to share with Western audiences the thoughts of Central European intellectuals laboriously typed on tissue paper.

A chronicler well known to the English-speaking audience is Timothy Garton Ash. A British public intellectual based in Oxford but also with a perch at the Hoover Institution (where I also have a small affiliation), he has been a fixture in Central Europe. Throughout the years, his articles, interviews, and books, such as The Magic Lantern, recounted his conversations and encounters from Gdansk to Budapest and beyond. He was read in the West, but also in the East where he was seen as an adopted intellectual of Central Europe, albeit with a British accent and a polished Oxfordian comportment.

In his latest book, Homelands, Garton Ash continues his chronicling of Europe. He begins with World War II when his father hopped over the Channel and landed in Normandy on D-Day and ends with Russia's war against Ukraine. He travels from the Thames and the Rhine to the Dnipro, from Washington, D.C., to Warsaw, from Davos to the Hellenic mini-Davos in Delphi. He narrates conversations with German villagers and European politicians (with a foray into the United States with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney).

This is neither a biography nor a history, but a personal history, loosely placing the author's European travels in the context of historical events, from the early Cold War to the 1990s and more recent years. It is Timothy Garton Ash's stroll through history. The reader, therefore, should not expect a history of Europe, albeit some events, key for the author, are examined in greater detail: for example, 1968, the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the Bosnian war, Brexit, and the rise of conservative parties in recent years.

The vignettes of his encounters and of life under Communism are where the author is at his best. A meeting with Václav Havel (the Czech playwright and then the last president of Czechoslovakia) under the obnoxious watch of Communist agents, the trips across East Germany and in Berlin, the conversations with Bronisław Geremek (medieval historian and then Polish foreign minister), the description of the massacre in Srebrenica and of visits to the bloody lands of Bosnia and Kosovo offer insights into Europe's travails and successes.

Garton Ash's stories conjure images of life beyond the Curtain: the crackling sounds of short-wave radios bringing the newscast of Radio Free Europe, the conversations among few friends or family members on the latest crackdown or dead (or especially in the late '70s and early '80s, the not-yet-fully dead) Soviet leader, the dreary 1970s apartment buildings with churches nonetheless being built by the proletariat, the sound of a Trabant two-stroke engine struggling uphill (if the slope was steep enough, you had to go in reverse as the first gear was insufficient to pull the cheap car, which did not even have a tachometer). It's a world that has retreated into history, but it's worth remembering, especially for those who have not lived through the Communist experiment and are now intoxicated by woke versions of Marxism.

The underlying theme of the book is the development of Europe as a political entity, with blurry, moveable frontiers. Europe's progressive march began in the hell of the world wars, continued through the divisions of the Cold War, the various iterations of the European project of unity, and maybe has reached in the last two decades the "promised land."

But what is this Europe? For the author, Europe is "about the struggle for freedom. Where the cause of Europe has marched arm in arm with that of freedom," the author has been "happiest; where Europe has seemed to conflict with freedom, or at least be indifferent to it," the great British chronicler has been "most dismayed."

He is, therefore, a passionate advocate, "with pen and voice," of this Europe constantly struggling for freedom. It appears to be a Europe that is in geographic motion, perhaps even beyond the Mediterranean (Morocco is part of the author's itinerary) and the Dnipro (Russia has excluded itself by pursuing a war of aggression against Ukraine).

The 1990s were intoxicating because Central European nations embarked on the almost impossible: how to return to liberty from Communism. Or, as the author puts it, it is easy to turn an aquarium into a fish soup, but how can one turn fish soup into an aquarium? That's what political leaders from Warsaw to Budapest had to do, and they did it.

And yet, Garton Ash is disappointed in the end. In part, his disappointment is caused by the return of brutal violence on the continent, compliments of Russia. Russian tanks and missiles killing Ukrainians are a painful reminder that Europe has not reached the expected uniform harmony, and in fact it may be reaching its limits.

But in part the author's disappointment is deeper. His idea of freedom, the struggle for which characterizes Europe, is simply not the same as that of many others. His compatriots chose democratically and freely to exit from the European Union, a move—Brexit—that hurt him, as he repeatedly writes. In continental Europe, various political leaders—from Poland to Hungary, from France to Italy—have expressed visions that do not align perfectly with the liberal internationalism of the dominant elite that the author embraces. And Republicans in the United States from Bush and Cheney to Trump worry him.

We read that Pope John Paul II did not share the author's love of capitalism and spoke "in impenetrable philosophical vocabulary." It is surprising because to those who listened to him it was quite clear what he meant. And the author himself understood the pope when he allegedly "raged" in Poland against a "consumer society's 'web of false and superficial gratifications.'" The quote is in reality from the 1991 encyclical Centesimus annus, in which the pope warned against the elevation of democracy and capitalism—and of the state more broadly—as the solution to every human problem and as the path to salvation.

Garton Ash's discontent arises in part out of the expectation that shared opposition to the Communist thugs meant agreement on the future. In a small but telling example, he places two Polish opponents to the Communist regime shoulder to shoulder: Barbara Labuda and Father Jerzy Popiełuszko. Yes, both were vocal critics of Communism, in a sense putting them on the same side. But the former is a vocal supporter of abortion on demand, calling it a "great civilizational victory." The latter was assassinated in 1984 by three agents of the Communist secret service, but would certainly be arguing now for a society defending life from conception to natural death. Both opposed Communist totalitarianism, but they had very different, indeed opposing, views of what freedom entails. The fact that, say, somebody like Adam Michnik or Barbara Labuda could speak in churches during the Communist years does not mean that now the Catholic Church has to speak in unison with Michnik or Labuda.

After all, under Communism people were singing, "We want God!" and not surprisingly many continued to do so even after 1989, rejecting the atheism of Marx and Lenin but also of the latest version of liberalism. The Oxford intellectual, however, seems dismayed that not everyone is on board with the most progressive liberal views.

The book ends with an approving quote of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist: "My mind is pessimistic, but my will is optimistic." Undoubtedly there is great value in steeling oneself against the slings and arrows of political difficulties. Standum est in acie, as Coluccio Salutati, a Florentine humanist and political leader suggested already in the 14th century. But fight for what? What should we optimistically will?

Garton Ash wants a European liberal empire with a central authority keeping away from power those not fully on board with the will of the liberal elites. But in Europe, and more broadly in the wider Western world including the United States, there is growing resistance to the increasingly more progressive and niche interpretation of "rights" and "freedom"—and to an ideological uniformity—to be prescribed by a bureaucratic elite. It is entirely plausible that the current opponents to a "full speed ahead" liberal internationalism reflect deeply held and benign beliefs, aligned with an idea of a European civilization capable of unity and springing from a Christian foundation. And they, for example the current Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, are neither Putin stooges nor destructive enemies of ordered liberty.

If these modern conservatives, as well as John Paul II, are outside of the legitimate opposition to the progressive march, then what opposition is allowable? Europe after all is not just the land of abstract concepts to be implemented through a strong will. Joseph Roth, a great 20th century Central European writer, put it best in the novella The Bust of the Emperor (1935): "The sound commonsense of the Jewish publicans, of the Polish and Ruthenian peasants, resisted the incomprehensible caprices of world history. Those caprices are abstract; the inclinations and disinclinations of the people are grounded in reality." Timothy Garton Ash's hope is that Europe expands, a progressive empire in constant pursuit of greater freedom. But let's hope that this abstract entity does not disregard the commonsense and the inclinations of the publicans and the peasants.

Homelands: A Personal History of Europe
by Timothy Garton Ash
Yale University Press, 384 pp., $28

Jakub Grygiel is a professor at The Catholic University of America, visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and senior adviser at The Marathon Initiative.