he political face of Europe changed more between 1989 and 1999 than in any other decade since the period between 1939 and 1949. With the end of the Cold War and the fall of Communism, new opportunities arose in Europe for freedom and democracy. But these were often accompanied by difficult economic challenges and sensitive political problems such as what role the former Communist leaders should play. In the former Yugoslavia there was the ultimate nightmare of war, ethnic cleansing, and thousands of refugees. How can we in the West understand what has happened in that part of the world?For many of us, the most authoritative and readable guide has been Timothy Garton Ash. For the last 20 years his incisive reporting and insightful analysis in The New York Review of Books and such books as The Uses of Adversity and The Magic Lantern have illuminated complex issues and introduced us to a broad range of diverse personalities. Ash is both an Oxford historian and a sharp-eyed journalist with a passion for accuracy. His magnificent new collection, History of the Present, offers an abundance of riches. There are reflective analytical pieces that help the reader understand events in historical perspective. He notes, for example, that if a diplomatic observer had gone to sleep after the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and awoke now, there would be a few surprises, but much would be familiar. "In the so-called Contact Group, he would see representatives of the same powers France, Britain, Germany, and Russia pursuing their national interests through their national diplomats and national armies. . . ." He continues, "It begins to look almost as if the whole twentieth-century European story of postimperial federations and communist multinational states was merely an interruption of a longer, underlying process of separating and molding peoples into nation-states."Other pieces offer the immediacy of encounters with individuals whose lives have been transformed by events. One particularly memorable person is Ash's friend Helena Luczywo in Warsaw. When he first met her in 1980 she was deeply involved in preparing a samizdat (underground) magazine allied with Solidarity and the workers' revolution. "Today she is the key figure behind the most successful newspaper in the whole of postcommunist Europe," the author writes. Why did she initially get involved as a political activist in the 1970s? "Oh, I don't know. Just a sense of decency," she told Ash.
In 1992, Ash visited former East German Communist Party leader Erich Honecker in prison. Honecker relates that he had often spoken on the phone with West German chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl. "A quarter century of divided Germany's tragic, complex history," Ash writes, "is, it seems to me, concentrated in this one pathetic moment: the defiant, mortally sick old man in his prison pajamas, the dog-eared card with the direct number to Chancellor Kohl."Ash, who describes himself as "an agnostic liberal," has lavish praise for Pope John Paul II, whom he describes as "simply the greatest world leader of our times." None of the other credible candidates for this designation Gorbachev, Kohl, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Margaret Thatcher matches the pope's "unique combination of concentrated strength, intellectual consistency, human warmth, and simple goodness." By emphasizing the inalienable rights of each human being, the pope has supported the cause of those without economic, political, or cultural power.
Anyone who wants to better understand the last decade in Central Europe will benefit from reading this stimulating and perceptive book.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.