In a small front room, amid the unfamiliar smells of Gauloise tobacco smoke and strong black coffee, I sit with my French host family staring at a small black-and-white television screen. I am fourteen years old, on a school exchange, and helping to translate. ‘Armstrong il dit: un petit pas pour moi, un grand pas pour l’humanité!’ Soon a shadowy figure in a spacesuit is taking weightless leaps across the surface of the moon, a scene entirely familiar to me from the Tintin book Explorers on the Moon.
It’s hard to recover a sense of just how remote continental Europe was to an English schoolboy in 1969. I won’t say that France seemed as far away as the moon, but it was everything the English have traditionally packed into the word ‘foreign’. Over there they eat frogs, ride scooters and have oodles of sex. Whatever you do, don’t drink the water. Reaching the town of La Rochelle, on the Atlantic coast, had involved a seemingly endless journey by bus, tube, train, ferry (violently seasick), train and bus again. My brand-new, stiff-backed, very dark blue British passport had been closely examined and stamped at the frontier post. In my pocket, I nervously fingered some crisp, enormous French franc notes. To telephone home was a complicated procedure that involved wrestling with an operator down a crackling landline in bad French (‘Peut on reverser les charges?’).
Twenty years later, I was at a dissident rally in Budapest, signing copies of a Hungarian-language edition of my essays about central Europe. It was that year of wonders, 1989. Freedom and Europe—the two political causes closest to my heart—were marching forward arm in arm, to the music of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, heralding a peaceful revolution that would open a new chapter of European and world history. No part of the continent was ‘foreign’ to me anymore. Living the paradox that encapsulates what it is to be a contemporary European, I was at home abroad.
So much at home, in fact, that one of my Hungarian friends turned to me, as we walked back through the warm, sensual streets of Budapest, and exclaimed, ‘You must be descended from Scholem Asch!’
‘No,’ I replied, slightly taken aback.
‘Then how come you’re so interested in central Europe?’
As if a genetic explanation were somehow required for being emotionally involved in another part of Europe.
Our identities are given but also made. We can’t choose our parents, but we can choose who we become. ‘Basically I’m Chinese,’ Franz Kafka wrote in a postcard to his fiancée. If I say ‘basically I’m a central European’ I’m not literally claiming descent from the central European Yiddish writer Asch, but declaring an elective affinity.
Since my birthplace is Wimbledon, England, I was indubitably born in Europe and therefore, in that rudimentary sense, born a European. Mapmakers, all the way back to Eratosthenes some 2,200 years ago, have always placed Britain in Europe, a region counterposed to Asia and Africa in what is probably the oldest continuous mental subdivision of the world. So long as there has been a geographical notion of Europe, our vaguely triangular islands have been part of it. But I was not ‘born a European’ in the stronger sense of being brought up to think of myself as one.
The only time my mother referred to herself as a European was when she reminisced about her youth in British-ruled India, where she was born a daughter of the Raj. ‘As a European,’ she told me, happily recalling some romantic months spent as a young woman in New Delhi at the end of the Second World War, ‘one went out riding early in the morning.’ In India, the English called themselves Europeans. Only back home do they still often like to deny a truth that seems self-evident to anyone looking at them from Washington, Beijing, Siberia or Tasmania.
I never heard my father talk of himself as a European, even though his formative experience had been landing on a Normandy beach with the first wave of British troops on D-Day and fighting with the liberation armies all the way across northern Europe, until he quietly, exhaustedly welcomed VE (Victory in Europe) Day in a tank somewhere on the north German plain. One of his favoured Conservative prime ministers, Harold Macmillan, supposedly remarked of the legendary French president Charles de Gaulle that ‘he says Europe and means France’. But that was equally true of Englishmen of my father’s ilk. When they said Europe they meant in the first place France, as the English had done for at least six centuries, since the Hundred Years’ War shaped the national identities of France and England, each against the other.
For my father, Europe was definitely foreign and the European Union was one of those ‘knavish tricks’ that our national anthem calls upon patriotic Brits to frustrate. I once gave him a large chocolate euro for Christmas and he promptly devoured it, gnashing his teeth with theatrical delight. A lifelong, active Conservative, in his old age he briefly, to my horror, defected to UKIP, the UK Independence Party. Had he still been alive in 2016, he would undoubtedly have voted for Brexit.
I feel myself blessed by historical luck to have grown up in England, a land that I love; but that geographical fact did not make me a European. I became a conscious European some time between that first school-boy inhalation of Gauloise tobacco smoke in 1969 and signing books in revolutionary Budapest in 1989. My diary for Friday 12 August 1977 records an evening spent in a West Berlin pizzeria with Karl, an Austrian ‘electrician, film guide and taxi driver’, whom my toffee-nosed twenty-two-year-old Oxford graduate self describes as ‘a recognisably civilised fellow European’. (Wouldn’t do to have an uncivilised pizza companion, would it?) Still and all, a fellow European.
This book is a personal history of Europe. It’s not an autobiography. Rather, this is history illustrated by memoir. I draw on my own journals, notebooks, photographs, memories, reading, watching and listening over the last half-century, but also on the recollections of others. So when I say ‘personal’ history, I don’t just mean ‘my own’; I mean history as experienced by individual people and exemplified by their stories. I quote from my conversations with European leaders where this helps to illuminate the story but also from many encounters with so-called ordinary people, who are often more remarkable human beings than their leaders.
I have visited or revisited some places to see for myself, as journalists do. I have also drawn on the best primary sources and most recent scholarship, as historians do. Unlike in the reportage and commentaries I wrote as things happened, here I make full use of the benefit of hind-sight. Hindsight, they say, is 20:20, and although the view from the early 2020s is far from perfect, some things have become clearer.
I always strive to be accurate, truthful and fair, but I make no claim to be comprehensive, impartial or objective. A young Greek writer would paint a different Europe, as would an elderly Finn, a Scottish nationalist, a Swiss environmentalist or a Portuguese feminist. Europeans can have multiple homelands, but no one is equally at home in all parts of Europe.
If our places are different, so are our times. Some of my Polish friends, for example, were operating ‘underground’ during a period of intense repression in the early 1980s, using assumed names, furtively changing apartments at night and sending coded messages, for all the world like members of the Polish underground resistance to Nazi occupation during the Second World War. On one trip to visit them, I noted in my diary: ‘departure from Heathrow: 1984, arrival: 1945’. Different generations may inhabit different times even when they live in the same place. My 2023 is not my students’ 2023. Everyone has their own ‘our time’.
Thus, if there are today some 850 million Europeans—using a broad geographical definition of Europe, including Russia, Turkey and the Caucasus—then there are 850 million individual Europes. Tell me your Europe and I will tell you who you are. But even that framing is not wide enough. Identity is a mix of the cards we are dealt and what we make of them. It’s also a mix of how we view ourselves and how others view us. Europeans, who have a strong tendency to self-congratulation, need also to see themselves through the eyes of non-Europeans, especially in the very large portion of the world that has experienced European colonial rule.
Yet while we all have our own personal eras and our own Europes, they are located within shared timeframes and spaces. Today’s Europe cannot be understood without going back to the period that Tony Judt encapsulated in the title of his history of Europe since 1945: Postwar. But overlapping and in some important ways superseding that post-war framing is post-Wall Europe—the one that emerged following the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, the demise of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the end of the Cold War division of our continent into two hostile blocs. In what follows, I offer both a personal account and an interpretation of Europe’s history in these overlapping timeframes of post-war and post-Wall.
Europe’s post-Wall period was not one of uninterrupted peace. It was punctuated by the bloody disintegration of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, terrorist atrocities in many European cities, Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008, its seizure of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent, ongoing armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Nonetheless, for the majority of Europeans this period could also be described as the Thirty Years’ Peace. That came to an end with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, starting a war on a scale and of a horror not seen in Europe since 1945. And 1945 is where our story must begin.
From Homelands:A Personal History of Europe by Timothy Garton Ash. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.
Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at the University of Oxford and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His books include The Magic Lantern, his eyewitness account of the revolutions of 1989; The File: A Personal History, based on reading his own Stasi file; and History of the Present. He lives in Oxford, England.