Paul Anderson, review of We the People by Timothy Garton Ash (Penguin, £4.99), Tribune, 16 March 1990

For more than a decade, Timothy Garton Ash has been writing journalism about the part of Europe that most of us call “Eastern” but which he, not altogether pedantically, prefers to describe as “Central”. As well as articles for the Spectator and, latterly, the New York Review of Books, he has produced several books, notably The Polish Revolution, an exhilarating history-from-below of Poland in 1980-81, and The Uses of Adversity, a collection of essays on “the fate of central Europe” published last year.

We the People is a sequel to The Uses of Adversity, consisting largely of Garton Ash’s eye-witness accounts of the revolutionary changes last year in central Europe, with chapters on the elections in Warsaw in June, the reburial of Imre Nagy in Budapest the same month, the breaching of the Berlin Wall in November, and two weeks of the “velvet revolution” in Prague.

Much of this material has appeared before in articles, but it deserves to be collected: Garton Ash writes superb colour pieces, and his contacts with the intellectuals who played such a major role in the upheavals are unmatched among British journalists.

Garton Ash was in the right place with the right people at the right time.

Where Garton Ash is disappointing is in his prognosis, mostly because of his almost unquestioned assumption that western Europe is the best of all possible worlds, but also because he has a tendency to dismiss complex questions with expansive gestures.

When, for example, he writes that, after the collapse of “real existing socialism”, the basic model for central Europe’s future, “in the three essentials of politics, law and economics, is something between the real existing Switzerland and the real existing Sweden”, he blithely rules out not only the slim possibility of some sort of democratic socialism but also the rather likely scenario of central Europe following a “model” of capitalism far less benign than Sweden or Switzerland.

In similar vein, when he states that the key to avoiding a collapse of central Europe into poverty and virulent nationalist conflicts is “Germany remaining western”, it’s as if no one could possibly be of sound mind and believe that a neutral Germany is desirable.

For all his undoubted talents, Garton Ash can be as glib and as pompous as William Rees-Mogg. If his reportage will be read for years to come, his opinions are often the stuff of fish-and-chip wrappings.

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