Stories of Europe: A return to Europe, by Timothy Garton Ash [1991, and 2019] Back

Stories of Europe: A return to Europe, by Timothy Garton Ash [1991, and 2019]

In 2019, the European Cultural Foundation celebrated its 65th anniversary. We did so with hosting a special edition of our Princess Margriet Award ceremony and by publishing a bookazine on how events in Europe shaped us and how we helped shape events in Europe. We publish a few excerpts from the book – which is available as a free download.

Timothy Garton Ash (third from right) with Václav Havel during the Velvet Revolution in 1989

On 12-14 April 1991, the European Cultural Foundation organised a conference at the Palais Pallavicini in Vienna focused on ‘The Future of Cultural Collaborations between the Countries of Western, Central and Eastern Europe: The Role of Foundations’. The conference followed a gathering in Leningrad in September 1989, initiated in cooperation with the Cultural Foundation of the USSR, in which representatives of 22 Western and seven Eastern European foundations discussed potential future cooperation. The European Cultural Foundation was keen on playing a role in the transition from a divided to a united Europe before as well as after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But what were the right steps to take, to cross the border without overstepping some critical boundaries? In this context, Professor Timothy Garton Ash delivered a keynote speech that critically addresses the role of cultural cooperation in the emerging and enlarged European context.

The following is an excerpt of the 1991 speech, which is followed by a contemporary response by the same author.

A return to Europe
As you know it used to be said that under Communism the future was certain, it was the past that was unpredictable. This has all changed now. Now we can, as a Hungarian populist once urged a colleague of mine, be more optimistic about the past, but the future is indeed open. Moreover the first freedom which the countries of Eastern and Central Europe have quite rightly taken is the freedom to be different, not only different from each other but also the individual parts of East European countries to be different from each other.

The first rather obvious generalisation I’d like to make is that if a year ago we were in a state of euphoria about Central and Eastern Europe, we are now in a state of dismay. From the exaggerated optimism of a year ago we have moved to the exaggerated pessimism of today. Yesterday ‘Himmelhoch jauchzend’ and today ‘Zum Töde betrübt’.

I heard recently on Austrian radio a Slovenian aphorism: “Forty years ago we were at the beginning of socialism. Today we are the beginning of capitalism. Perhaps forty years from now we shall be at the beginning of feudalism.”

Not all the countries of Central and Eastern European have even achieved freedom. We think particularly of the countries inside the Soviet Union, of the constituent parts of Yugoslavia, to some extent of Romania. Even in those countries which have achieved freedom, neither democracy, nor pluralism nor the rule of law, nor the market economy nor civil society are firmly or irrevocably established and the lack of one or more of those things can itself threaten the freedom achieved. There has been a similar swing in Western perceptions of the region – from enthusiasm to weariness, from wonder to consternation, from admiration to something which at times almost borders on contempt.

There are I think perhaps two dangers inherent in Western approaches and attitudes to this region: that of false humility and that of false arrogance. The false arrogance is well characterised in the German term the Besserwessis for those West Germans who have come across to East Germany as know-alls, knowing better about everything. But Besserwessis do not only exist in West Germany.

It would be for example a false humility to think that we could learn something from 40 years of socialist economies, that perhaps in workers’ self-government there is a model. A false arrogance is to come in with the assumption that we ourselves have pure free market economies and that the only solution for these countries is to go straight for 100% market. Pin-striped know-alls from No. 10 Downing Street march into Warsaw to explain how they succeeded with Mrs. Thatcher in privatising 5% of British industry in ten years – to people who have to privatise 50% of Polish industry in one year. In much of Eastern Europe there is what has nicely been called ‘advice fatigue’. Lech Wałęsa remarked to a banker friend of mine, “Please, we need help of every kind from you, but one thing we want no more of – please do not send us any more economists.”

False humility in politics was to see in a figure like Vâclav Havel or Tadeus Mazowiecki or Adam Michnik a model of a new kind of politician for democracy. Havel is in the castle, could we not have Harold Pinter in No. 10 Downing Street, Günter Grass in the Bundeskanzleramt, perhaps Thomas Bernhard in the Hofburg? I am not sure that we would then be better governed. A false arrogance is to speak as if we have the perfect patent model democracy, which has only to be copied wholesale. Let us not forget that not just in Spain or Greece or Portugal, but in one of the Motherlands of democracy, France, there was only 30 years ago something like approaching an attempted coup d’état and a president with very considerable powers.

When we speak of the danger of nationalism in Eastern Europe, let us not forget that whereas Vâclav Havel may be slightly manhandled by Slovak nationalists on the streets of Bratislava, on the streets of Belfast for 20 years people have been killing each other in a nationalist conflict. In other words, let us keep a certain sense of proportion and let us make a few important distinctions, between say a country like Yugoslavia, where nationality conflicts could indeed lead to civil war; a country like Czechoslovakia, where they produce an acute constitutional conflict; and one like Poland, where it is rather a problem of political culture.

Culture is one of the words in the title of the conference and to that I would like now to turn. In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, T.S. Eliot in 1948, gave a famously broad definition of culture. He said, “It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley regatta, Cowes, the 12th August, a cup Final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th century gothic churches, and the music of Elgar.” “The reader,” he said generously, “can make his own list.”

If we think of the culture of Central and Eastern Europe and of its individual countries, perhaps each of us could make his own list. One might for example say, “Demonstrations, scandal, coffee, chain-smoking, irony, stuffed cabbage, flirtation and being invaded by more powerful neighbours.”

But more seriously, somewhere on that list would also feature poetry, books, arguments about ideas. I think it is the case that in East/Central Europe, culture has or has had an extraordinary significance. The great Central European poet Paul Celan once said of Czernowitz, before the holocaust that “it was a place where people and books lived.” I think that is something one could say about Central Europe under Communism. It was an area where people and books lived, books and writers.

This was partly because, with the imposition of a totalitarian system, writers, intellectuals and artists were one of the few groups who could retain a certain independence, and partly because this system was built as much on organised lying as on the secret police or the armed forces and therefore the uncensored word had a special significance. “You have wronged the simple man, do not feel safe, the poet remembers,” said Czesław Miłosz. And Miłosz’s ‘the poet remembers, Solzhenitshyn’s ‘one word of truth’, Havel’s ‘the power of the powerless’ were not only an extraordinary contribution to European culture as such, they were also a contribution of the first order to the political development of these countries.

As a result, one had once again Western misunderstanding. A false humility was perfectly exemplified with Jean-Paul Sartre coming to Prague and saying to Czech writers in the early 1960s, “How lucky you are. We in the West no longer have real subjects, you have real subjects. We write and no-one locks us up in prison, if only someone would lock us up.” I have christened this curious attitude Verfolgungsneid (envy of the persecuted). In a more moderate version this attitude is nicely reflected in Philip Roth’s splendid comment that, “In the West everything goes and nothing matters, and in the East nothing goes and everything matters.”

Now in this world in which culture had this extraordinary, abnormal significance, there was also an extraordinary and abnormal significance for efforts of cultural cooperation between East and West and there are of course very many people in this room who have done an enormous amount over nearly 30 years in this field. I would like, if you will permit me and she will forgive me, to mention only one, and that is Annette Laborey of the Fondation pour une Entraide Intellectuelle Européenne, who really is I think the unsung heroine of this particular field.

We also in Oxford, in the Central and East European Publishing Project, have tried to make our own modest contribution, sometimes also in unconventional ways. I remember one memorable application from an East European journal, which produced a very impressive budget with editorial expenses, translation expenses, administration expenses and then a laconic item Schmuggel [smuggling]. We then had a serious discussion, as other foundations discuss what is a reasonable percentage for administration costs, about what would be a reasonable percentage for Schmuggel. Would it be 20% or 25%?

And of course a few of us also indulged in a little Schmuggel ourselves, taking the latest volume by Friedrich von Hayek, Karl Popper or Hannah Arendt (it was almost always one of those three) under our coat we passed with trepidation through the GDR and so moved on to Warsaw and to Prague where, taking care not to telephone beforehand to make an appointment, one would visit a friend known only as Fidelius in his cellar where he was stoking his boiler and have an earnest discussion about the philosophy of Friedrich von Hayek. Or again, sitting in a corner of the park in Poznan, a discreet corner, with a lady reading out to me from a cigarette paper a series of requests for cultural cooperation and then popping the cigarette paper into her mouth and swallowing it, as a precaution. I have seen many people metaphorically eat their words, but this was the first time I have someone do it literally. Yet whether this was support for samizdat or translations, I have never been so certain that money was well spent.

Now, after the revolution, after the liberation, we are of course in a quite different situation, one in which the overall strategic goal of East/Central European politics is culturally defined. The return to Europe is a cultural goal, but its achievement depends on politics, on economics and law, and even the definition of the goal.

One may talk of a return to Europe, but already in political life it is only up to a point, only in some areas and in economic life perhaps only in Bohemia, Silesia, a few great cities. If Europe means Western modernity, then we are not necessarily talking about a return. We are talking rather of the latest in a long series of attempts by East Central Europe and Eastern Europe to catch up with the modernity of the West; a series of attempts of which, in a perverted way, Communism was also one. This is therefore an extraordinary historic chance, the chances have become greater, but so have the risks. As an experienced observer, Misha Glenny, wrote laconically in a recent book “War is still quite likely in the Balkans.”

What is the role of cultural cooperation in this area? I think that we must be careful not to exaggerate the possibilities of cultural cooperation. One might for example say that cultural cooperation is an obvious field in which to work against the tendencies towards national misunderstanding and national conflict, as has been done in the famous example of Franco-German cooperation.

The first danger in East/Central Europe at the moment is that culture, from having had an abnormal importance, threatens to fall into an abnormal insignificance, for a number of reasons. Firstly, at a stroke, culture loses all its Ersatz functions, novels no longer need to perform the function of newspapers, theatres no longer need to perform the function of parliaments. Secondly, because most of the intellectuals are now in politics, the Czech philosopher who last year was a stoker has not again become a philosopher, he has become an ambassador; the poet who last year was a window cleaner has not become a poet he has become a minister. Thirdly, and most importantly, because of the impact of the market. There is, it seems to me, a real danger that what 40 years of Communism did not succeed in destroying, four years of capitalism may yet destroy.

Whether one looks at publishing, academic life, theatre, museums painting, wherever one looks, there is in cultural life a picture of crisis. An over-used word but applicable in this case. This is partly of course because state budgets have been slashed. Secondly, publishers have to adjust as producers to a market reckoning in real prices. Thirdly, there is a real change it seems to me on the demand side as well as the supply side. There are other priorities, one is more interested in an electric shaver by Braun than in a play by Folker Braun, in a Miele rather than a Miłosz. And at the same time the main consumers and producers of that culture, this particular East European intelligentsia, is itself in a deep material crisis and a crisis of identity. In this area, as in other areas of economic and social life, Schumpeter’s so-called entrepreneurial creative gale of destruction, threatens to destroy almost all the trees in the forest, leaving only a desert strewn with a few cook books and a little soft pornography.

It may seem a paradox that the arrival of the free market makes subsidies more not less necessary in this period of transition. In this field as in others the need paradoxically is for even more state intervention, so that at the end there should be less intervention. And this raises quite interesting questions about the role of the state and attitudes to the state, which seem to me at the moment curiously ambiguous. On the one hand there is a continued expectation of the state as a provider, on the other hand a deep mistrust of the state as an intervener.

That whereas up to 1989 Western initiatives had to go through the party state was in some sense an unfortunate necessity – one should ask the question whether now, after 1989 with a different state, it could not actually be a useful function of a Western cultural policy to go through the state, to use the state, to give it a positive function, particularly in the case where the existing structure of support and subsidy are basically state ones and state budgets have been cut by 50%. This would have some of the functions that the Marshall Plan had in Western Europe in encouraging cooperation within states. It is a sad truth that often Ministers and certainly officials from Ministries in East European capitals meet more often in Vienna or Paris than they do in Prague or Warsaw. Such structures could encourage cooperation between different regions of individual states (Länder in the German sense) and between the states of this region.

Now we shall, no doubt, have in the course of this conference a great many eloquent accounts of particular needs of the region. Let me mention very briefly before concluding just three that lie close to my heart. The first is that of higher education as it relates particularly to the new political elites. If one looks around the East European landscape it seems to me the nearest thing one comes to a normal political party is a Hungarian party called Fidesz. I mean by a normal political party a group of people who are in politics because they want to be in politics, who think a party is a party and not a church, a civic movement or a philosophical seminar. It is a party that is there to compete by fair means or relatively foul (but the foul is within limits) by a systematic use of half truths for power through the democratic process. Such a party is Fidesz. It is abnormal only in one respect, certainly none of its members are older than about 23. This is perhaps a slight exaggeration, but they are very young indeed.

But the one point I wanted to make about these people was that virtually all of them as far as I could see, or certainly their outstanding figures, were all scholars funded by George Soros, at universities in the West in the mid to late 1980s. We could not have a discussion about cultural cooperation between East and Western Europe without at least once mentioning the name of George Soros. It seems to me the case that the concentration on a particular elite paid off very directly in the new post-Communist politics of Hungary.

The second field which is close to my heart is that of journalism. This is of course a field that was systematically poisoned and destroyed under Communism. As I mentioned earlier, through the occupation of language, the system of new-speak and organised lying, the general quality of journalism and newspapers in Eastern Europe is very low. There is much to be done in this field. ·

There is one other medium that is even more important and that is, of course, television. Television has an importance without parallel. The revolutions in East/Central Europe could almost be christened tele-revolutions. It was no accident that the revolution in Romania happened around the central television station and Jacek Kuron recounted an encounter at the Polish round table where the Interior Minister said to him, “Mr. Kuron, I must tell you, we would rather give you the Secret Police than the television.” And he was right. I don’t know exactly how Western assistance can be meaningfully applied in this field, but of all the media, this one medium has a capital importance.

Finally, the third field very close to my heart is that of history. We are experiencing in this part of Europe, the return of history, both in the sense of the return of historical conflicts and scenes from before 1945 and in the sense of the return of great debates about history. If one looks at the reconstruction of Western Germany after 1945, one of the great elements of that reconstruction was Zeitgeschichte (the study of contemporary history) and that was very substantially facilitated by the possibilities given to scholars at an early point to study in the West.

I think it is true to say that as before 1989 in the great days of Schmuggel, we shall have to look again for unconventional means and unconventional solutions in cultural exchange. Then as now we shall find that relatively small sums of money can go a long way, that then as now it will be in the first instance a matter of finding the right individual rather than the right institutions, and then as now it will be true that he who helps fast helps twice.

The great difference of course is in the scale of the historical opportunity that opens up before us. At the very end of his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, published as I said in 1948, T.S. Eliot produced a very moving plea for the contribution of men of letters throughout Europe to preserving and recreating the cultural unity of Europe. It is a sad fact that over the last 40 years, with Europe under the sign of Yalta, the best we have been able to do is to defend fragments of that cultural unity. But now today, it seems to me we have the chance not only to restore the cultural unity of Europe, as Eliot pleaded in 1948, but to go beyond that, to create a social, a political and an economic unity of Europe to a degree that has never before been seen in European history. Nothing less is the task before us.