Book Review - Homelands: A Personal History of Europe

A BRITISH historian and journalist, Timothy Garton Ash’s latest book, Homelands, is an illuminating and accessible work on a mammoth subject: Europe.

It’s a stunning combination of memoir, reportage and history in which he examines the continent, past and present. He traces the periods of progress over the past century and interrogates what went wrong. I recently interviewed him about Homelands at Daunts, Marylebone, and it proved a fascinating and far-reaching discussion.

Garton Ash is pro-Europe, hence the book’s title. He’s widely travelled, speaks several languages and his wife is Polish. He feels as at home in Europe as he does in the UK. He was 17 when Britain joined the European Community and 64 when we left it. In the intervening years he has witnessed and written about pivotal moments in its history and rubbed shoulders with several key players who helped shape the union, including prime ministers, chancellors and presidents.

Homelands is intensely readable, a page-turner full of vivid experiences from his own life as well as the recollections of others.

Recalling his father’s wartime service, the anecdotes he told and what remained unsaid, Garton Ash suggests: “Personal memories, starting with those from the hell that Europeans made for themselves on earth, are among the strongest drivers of everything that Europe has done and become since 1945.” He calls this “the memory engine”.

Garton Ash traces a trajectory between various revolutionary moments in the 20th century, starting with 1914, and including 1939, 1968 and 1989, taking us to the present day. He sees Europe as a “kaleidotapestry”; a work of art created “by millions of hands over thousands of years, [that is] constantly being remade”. Building on a quote from Thomas Mann, he likens the European Union to Hamlet “whose characteristic approach to many big decisions is to dither for a long time and then settle on neither approach. In short, to Hamlet”.

In 1980, he witnessed the shipyard strike in Gdansk led by Lech Walesa, with workers calling for an independent trade union – “something unprecedented in the entire communist world”.

He believes their success initiated a period of political transformation culminating in the end of communist rule across central Europe. He concludes gleefully: “My Europe was – and still is – about the struggle for freedom.”

Garton Ash writes about his own surveillance at the hands of the Stasi, interviews Albanian guerrillas in the mountains of Kosovo and angry teenagers in the poorest quarters of Paris.

Hope, he suggests, inevitably breaks down, when respect for equal rights and opportunities disintegrates. The monetary union, he concludes, was rushed: “The project was based on a huge gamble: that economic integration would catalyse political integration.”

In his chapter “Muslims in Europe” he suggests that 9/11, the Islamist terrorist attacks on America, were partly made in Europe: they illuminated “the radicalisation of a small minority of the more than 15 million Muslims of immigrant origin who were now living in western Europe.” These people had “multifaceted identities” but, for a few, being caught between two worlds “induced a kind of cultural schizophrenia” and left them “not fully at home in either”.

This, Garton Ash argues, made them vulnerable to radicalisation.

Garton Ash deplores the 2015 murder of journalists from the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, and argues passionately that the fight for freedom and progress has to be won with “pen and voice” in “defiance of the “assassin’s veto”.

A memorable chapter is his analysis of what he calls “A new Iron Curtain”; the walls being built to keep immigrants out of Europe and the “weapon of mass migration” which refers to the influence of certain countries – Belarus, Hungary, Morocco and Turkey – regarding the treatment of refugees.

Clearly, Garton Ash is against Brexit. Poignantly, he explores the negative impact Britain’s vote will have on the EU as well as the UK.

Although Homelands is predominantly concerned with the past, in “Delphi” Garton Ash suggests that “recurrent phenomena such as wars, revolutions, empires and indeed pandemics” can help us to anticipate the future, to “detect typical patterns and make careful statements about probabilities”.

In 2020, Garton Ash describes sitting around a table with fellow Europeans and naming his European hero. He chose Vaclav Havel, former dissident, playwright, Czech statesman, and the first president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.

At the end of our interview, I ask who he would choose today. He smiles. “Vaclav Havel”.  

Originally published by Camden New Journal