history | International Politics

Remembering 1989: an interview with Timothy Garton Ash


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414032670Timothy Garton Ash is the author of ten books of political writing or ‘history of the present’ which have charted the transformation of Europe over the last half century. He is Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His essays appear regularly in the New York Review of Books and he writes a column on international affairs in the Guardian which is widely syndicated in Europe, Asia and the Americas. For CEEL, Timothy Garton Ash talks about his book ‘The Magic Lantern – The revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague’ with CEEL contributor Alison Miller.

CEEL: I really enjoyed your book.  What particularly intrigued me was how the historian in you informed your experience as a witness.  In the opening chapter you state ‘the witness can only be in one place at one time’ and might ‘attach an exaggerated importance’ to what they’ve seen and heard.  Whereas the ‘historian can gather all witnessed accounts and is generally un-swayed by that first-hand experience’. I’m interested in your experience in writing and observing.

TGA: It was actually George Kennan who coined the term ‘historian of the present’ in a review of my book the Uses of Adversity. From the time of Thucydides to the eighteenth century, most people thought the history of one’s own time was the best history, because you know more about it. It’s only since the early nineteenth century that we’ve had the idea that it’s better to wait thirty years, to have the distance and all the documents.

I think it was a unique experience to be there, directly in the room with Havel and the leaders of the Civic Forum, or with the Solidarity leaders in Poland on the evening of the historic election of 4 June 1989. You have something which no historian can have thirty years later: the sense of what it felt like to be there. It’s really difficult for historians to re-capture a sense of what people didn’t know at the time. Every new development, particularly in the second half of 1989, was a complete surprise – we just couldn’t believe it was going so well, even when things were changing in Poland and Hungary. I went to East Germany and talked to a small group of East German dissidents and they said, ‘of course, the Berlin Wall isn’t going to happen here’.  That’s the great advantage of the eye witness. Of course, the disadvantage is that you don’t know the long-term consequences.

CEEL:  You identified a danger in 1990 of ‘regarding the free market as a cure for all ills’ as well as highlighting the Czech academic interest in  Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Looking back now, what has been the outcome?

TGA: First of all, the people I was writing about in Prague, namely Václav Klaus, who  played an absolutely  central role in the transition in the Czech Republic, and Tomáš Ježek, were exceptional – they had really read Hayek and Friedman and ideological neo-liberals – that was very unusual.

Most of my dissident friends knew nothing about economics and were faced suddenly with taking the responsibility of transforming the economy. They reached for whoever they thought knew about it.  There was, of course, the Washington economic orthodoxy.  Sometimes people speak today as if they were all neo-liberals in the way that people in 1917 who took power were communists – and that wasn’t the case at all.  They were just reaching for the conventional wisdom of the time, about how you transform into a market economy.

That said, I think that the mistake we made was twofold.  First of all, in this region in particular and also more widely, liberalism was reduced to the one dimension of economic liberalism, the very word liberał/ liberální/ liberálne, if you use it in Polish, Czech or Slovak today means hard-nosed economic neoliberalism. That was mistake number one, because a liberalism reduced to the one dimension of economics is no liberalism at all.

Within economic liberalism, the mistake was to allow it to become an ideology – in the negative sense of a closed system, which is internally coherent but increasingly at odds with reality. Of course that’s also a mistake the West made after 1989, which led to the economic crisis of 2008/09.

CEEL: You also talk about your ‘own moment of liberal overreach’ in the early 2000s. What did you mean by this and how did you recognise your own personal moment?

TGA: I’m glad you picked up on that, because I think it’s really important for liberals to be self-critical. Somewhere in the early 2000s when things had gone so well in Central Europe, the countries I was closest to, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – not to mention East Germany – had become members of NATO, the EU and looked like consolidated democracies. I turned my attention to the wider world in a book called Free World, then a book called Free Speech trying to both examine and promote liberal values beyond the West.

While my back was, so to speak, the forces of populism and nationalism were growing stronger and stronger in Eastern and Central Europe, like Fidesz in Hungary.  Also, of course, in Britain the same forces led to the Brexit vote. In a way, my personal mistake was representative of the mistake liberal internationalists made more widely: in paying attention to the other half of the world – which hasn’t benefitted from globalisation – we neglected the other half of our own society.

The populists, be they in Britain, Poland or Hungary, are very astute political entrepreneurs.  We’ve just seen that in the British election. They recognise the discontents of the other half of our society and offer easy solutions, which seem appealing, although they’re not really solutions at all.

CEEL: In your final chapter you say ‘the roots of today’s problems are often found in the soil of yesterday’s triumphs’. You pointed to some of those issues, would you like to elaborate?

TGA: I think in the specific case of these countries in East Central Europe there were a number of things.  1989 established a new model of peaceful revolution, which was a negotiated transition – the Velvet Revolution – and as I described in the book, there is what Ernest Gellner called the ‘Price of Velvet’.  You can’t turn around the next day and throw all the people you’ve just negotiated with into prison, let alone hang them from lamp posts, as happened in the French Revolution in 1789.  Therefore, there was already a sense of a lack of a revolutionary catharsis, a lack of a clear line between the past and the present.

Then, in the process of one of the largest privatisations in history, these former members of the communist ruling class – the nomenclature – benefitted disproportionately from the privatisations.  A sense of historical injustice thus came on top of the pre-existing sense of the lack of a catharsis.

The perception of inequality, which is common in most populist countries at the moment, has a particular edge to it – a sense of historical injustice.  The worker in the former Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, who went on strike in August 1980 and started the whole changes probably was interned for it, is now unemployed on a very inadequate pension, sitting in a tiny two-bedroom flat in some decaying tower block. Meanwhile, General Jaruzelski’s spokesperson Jerzy Urbanhad been living it up with extravagant parties in his wonderful villa.  I think those are particular ways in which the nature of the triumph in 1989 and the problems it posed have come home to haunt us thirty years on.

CEEL: You mention Ivan Krastner and Stephen Holmes’ recent analysis of the rise of nationalist populism in Central and Eastern Europe as part-fuelled by a resentment of an imitation complex – as inferiors having to imitate Western European democracy.  And you quote Viktor Orbán saying ‘We thought that in 1989 Europe was our future; today we are Europe’s future.’ Could you elaborate?

TGA: While Ivan Krastner and Stephen Holmes’ Age of Imitation is fascinating and immensely stimulating, I think the book indicates, as does my own analysis, that there wasn’t just one cause, there are many.  So it’s not just a complex of imitation although there’s some truth in this. Central and Eastern Europe did something that was brilliantly original in 1989. Many people now feel they’ve just become a cheap copy of Western consumer society, so they’re looking to see what they can be proud of and they reach back to, for example, the heroism of the Polish struggles for freedom against both fascism and communism, the church and so on. There are real truths there.

The other part is that people like Orbán – the most salient example –  see these needs and come with a very aggressive message; ‘People in the West criticise us as being anti-European, when we’re standing up for a better Europe, a traditional Conservative Europe’.  So the ‘traditional’ meets its demographic challenges – not by having lots of Muslim immigrants of course, which, people like Orbán claim, will dilute European culture. This is quite wrong in my view, as such immigration would actually be enriching. The answer is a different one. As Orbán puts it – ‘we’ll have lots of Hungarian children’.  So they’re actually turning around and promoting an alternative idea of Europe. This, by the way, has a lot in common with Vladimir Putin – ideologically, not geo-politically.

CEEL: My final question – how will Britain’s General Election result be seen in Central Europe?

TGA:  If you had told me forty years ago, when I started travelling to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Poland behind the Iron Curtain, that forty years hence Poland would be a member of the European Union and Britain would be leaving it – I just wouldn’t have believed it. It illustrates how history is full of surprises and no-one is more surprised by them than historians.

The reaction in Central Europe is two-fold. On the one hand, they share with everyone else in the EU an impatience to get the bloody thing done after three and a half years. We have lots of other challenges; the budget to solve, Putin, immigration and all the rest of it. Let’s just get on with it.  So there’ll be some relief.  On the other hand – and I heard this again and again on my recent trips back to Central Europe – they don’t particularly want to be left alone in a European Union in which France and Germany are always calling all the shots.  People were telling me that they were always glad to have Britain, because if France and Germany had an initiative which they didn’t like, they had another major power inside the European Union with whom they could ally. I think this illustrates how Brexit has upset all the delicate balances inside the whole of the EU. If, against all the odds, Brexit ‘goes well’, and Britain, or maybe just England and Wales, in ten years’ time are doing quite OK, it becomes an alternative model and people like Orbán or Kaczyński – if he’s still around – might well say, in the immortal words from Harry met Sally, ‘I’ll have what she’s having’.

Timothy Garton Ash. (Photo: Henning Kaiser/dpa)

Timothy Garton Ash. (Photo: Henning Kaiser/dpa)

Further information:


Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague, London: Atlantic Books, 2019 (1990)

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