Timothy Garton Ash delivers the President’s Lecture at Central European University, 2017 (Daniel Vegel/Wikimedia Commons)

It is a window and a mirror. Through it, we observe the growth of the European Union from its humble beginnings in 1952 as the six-member European Coal and Steel Community to the sprawling twenty-seven-member EU with its own currency and virtually without internal borders. Despite significant setbacks and challenges—autocratic Hungary, marginally democratic Poland, and Brexit—the EU is nevertheless an astounding, if fragile, success story. Both in terms of population and GDP, and despite the loss of Britain, it rivals the size and scope of the economies of both the United States and China. That is the panorama provided by Timothy Garton Ash’s beautiful new book, Homelands: A Personal History of Europe. But when the light changes just a bit, the book becomes a mirror, reflecting an increasingly unflattering image of the United States.

Garton Ash is fully aware of the key role played by the United States in promoting the EU’s success. He tells that story particularly well with respect to German unification in 1989–90, where he is remarkably gracious both to Margaret Thatcher (who, after leaving office, became a pronounced Euroskeptic) and to Ronald Reagan. “Do we want the European Union to succeed?” he recalls George W. Bush asking as they stood together on the Truman balcony of the White House. The president insists he was kidding, but Garton Ash takes him quite seriously and earnestly affirms the importance of Europe to the United States.

But when the United States shows up in this narrative, it is more often as an antagonist—at best an erratic actor—than as a benefactor. While this is a bit of a distortion when one takes a longer view of the postwar period—the roughly seventy-five years since World War Two that Garton Ash treats here—it constitutes a bracing European critique that Americans should take seriously. The great divide in the post-Wall period is traceable to the disagreement over the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the war that not only drove a wedge between Europe and the United States, but one that divided Europe against itself. This led Donald Rumsfeld, famously, to dismiss “old Europe,” by which he meant the European countries that refused to join the “coalition of the willing” against Iraq. Garton Ash doesn’t seem to know—or doesn’t register the fact—that most Americans appeared not to grasp Rumsfeld’s distinction. For them—for us?—Europe itself was just “old,” less relevant, which frankly was not far from the Bush administration’s fundamental view.

In Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, the break with the United States went deeper. In campaign speeches of the time, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (now infamous for cozying up to Putin and serving on the board of the Russian Gazprom) painted the divide not in terms of a policy disagreement with a cherished ally, but rather as a fundamental rejection of the “American way of life” that leaves so many destitute, marginalized, and without health care. This is not a view that one hears at state dinners or in official pronouncements, but it is a deep and indelible vein that exists cheek by jowl with Europeans’ equally authentic fascination with American culture and politics.

The real divide, one that appears intermittently throughout this study, is traceable to Donald Trump. For some reason not fully articulated (perhaps Garton Ash thought that would necessitate another book), it shows up in the oddest of places. In explaining the five wars of Yugoslav succession during the 1990s, which he does with great economy and virtuosity, Garton Ash writes, “West Europeans and North Americans would often say ‘it couldn’t happen here.’ But after the storming of the Capitol in Washington on 6 January 2021 by Americans who were convinced that Donald Trump had won the presidential election, are we so absolutely sure?” Later, in the context of Brexit (also an admirably sovereign, even-handed account), Garton Ash summarizes the danger to democracy in this way: “But the threat was less severe than in Hungary, Poland or the United States. There was no British equivalent of the 6 January 2021 mob invasion of the Capitol in Washington.” What great company to be part of—grouped with the two least democratic countries in the EU, one actually fully autocratic. American readers should understand this as serious analysis, not polemic or hyperbole.

Though he follows European politics up to the present, with special attention to the last several years of war in Ukraine, there is no mention of Joe Biden’s repair work with NATO and the EU during the same period. This, I surmise, is due to a broader European anxiety about America’s future. Trump sowed lasting distrust, which may account for Garton Ash’s final, melancholic musings: “Europeans must hope that the United States recovers as it did after Watergate and Vietnam, but we will not be able to rely on it as much as we could, for the most part, in the post-war and post-Wall periods.” We should take a moment to drink this in, to digest the enduring wariness about the U.S. commitment to Europe and to democracy.

He is the Forrest Gump of Europe, except smart.

But we needn’t fully agree with the analysis, because one cannot, for the foreseeable future at least, imagine a Europe without the United States. Garton Ash rightly observes that “most European countries took a handsome ‘peace dividend’ after the end of the Cold War, cut their defence spending to below NATO’s target of two per cent of GDP, [and] ran down their supplies of weapons.” But to the chagrin of many progressives, the United States never did, and ended up “carrying” European allies—in many cases indirectly subsidizing their relatively generous welfare states. Despite French efforts to found a credible European military force and Germany’s recent commitment to dramatically increased defense spending, the EU still has nothing that could rival or replace NATO. The way in which NATO undergirds the EU, and has done so since its inception, receives no serious attention here. If we find, when we look back on that long postwar journey, just a single set of “footprints in the sand,” it is surely because NATO, and the United States as its lead member, was carrying the EU.

But there is much more. Garton Ash rightly, and I think brilliantly, decrees the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 to constitute the true “end” of both the post-war and the post-Wall periods. That which was deeply feared in 1989–91 but surprisingly did not occur—a violent attempt to keep the Soviet/Russian empire from crumbling—finally came to pass with the invasion of Ukraine. Quoting Wolf Biermann, he writes “Now, thirty years later, comes the reckoning.” It is quite true that this brought about the German “Zeitenwende,” the watershed moment in which the EU’s strongest member finally embraced—or at least began to accept—its peacekeeping role in Europe. It also occasioned impressive European concerted action, giving concrete expression to its aspirational motto in varietate concordia. And none of this would have been possible, of course, without Ukrainians’ remarkable bravery and determination. But left unmentioned is that no country’s support of Ukraine comes anywhere near that of the United States. This support has ensured that the post-war and post-Wall periods end not with doom and uncontested Russian domination, but with hope for a Europe that may yet fully include Ukraine in its key bodies. For all its faults, the United States remains the sine qua non of European unity and the bedrock upon which the grand EU edifice stands. And that is why Europeans look with such anxiety to the 2024 U.S. elections.

Now, it might fairly be objected, this is a book about Europe; must we make it, once again, all about the United States? Garton Ash’s principal readership is, after all, European. Fair enough. But the Yale University Press edition—published simultaneously with the one from British Penguin Random House—marks it as a book meant also for American and other readers worldwide. And Garton Ash is well aware of Europeans’ indissoluble connection to America. “National politics,” he astutely observes, “is theatre, and nowhere more so than in Washington. Europeans follow the soap opera of American politics more closely than they do our supposedly all-European politics in Brussels, let alone the national politics of other European countries. In fact, America remains one of the few things that all Europeans have in common.” What he doesn’t say, however, is how lastingly unsettling this “soap opera” is. In fact, this lighthearted formulation effectively trivializes what is in fact an existential fear: that Trump—who is facing unprecedented federal charges for defrauding U.S. citizens of their right to vote, yet riding high in opinion polls—may in fact return to tear down the house of Europe that has been cobbled together with such effort and determination in the years since the Second World War.


No one is better positioned to give this fascinating account of Europe than Garton Ash, who appears to have been almost everywhere and in contact with virtually every one of the book’s protagonists. As a young man he sat in on the trial of the Red Army Faction terrorists in Germany; he was friend and confidant to Lech Wałęsa (acting at times illegally as a courier for Solidarity); he advised Thatcher, Reagan, George W. Bush; interviewed Gorbachev and Honecker; met secretly (and at some personal peril) with Václav Havel; dined with Pope John Paul II; got to know Helmut Schmidt, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and even Vladimir Kryuchkov; chatted with Tony Blair about Brexit; attended the exclusive Davos conclave, and knew Viktor Orbán “when he was a fiery twenty-five-year-old student leader” of an anti-Communist group. Fluent in French, German, and Polish, Garton Ash has, in addition, a “newspaper reading knowledge” of Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Czech, and Slovak. In chapter after chapter he turns up not only as a shrewd observer but quite often as a participant. He is the Forrest Gump of Europe, except smart. He combines advocacy, activism, and intervention with intellectual rigor, reflecting thoughtfully on the occasional tensions between these two roles. And he is a gifted stylist. Only the late Peter Gay comes close in concision and memorable formulations, many of which are ripe for quotation. This is a book that will live on, in line with the intentions of the wistful, elegiac tone of the final chapter, “Delphi.” This prophetic chapter, in which reminiscence blends seamlessly into musings on the future, reads in part as if written from the grave.

It may be that his own star-studded biography predisposes him to believe in the great role of individuals in history, which is one of the themes of this book. His principal witnesses, perhaps predictably, are Gorbachev, Wałęsa, Havel, and Zelensky. But there are also less obvious candidates, like Günter Schabowski, the “bungling Politburo member” who on November 9, 1989, prematurely announced the opening of the German border and thus inaugurated the fall of the Wall.

Homelands is a synthetic, personal retrospective, not a work of original research driven by a single overarching thesis. Yet it is far more than a compendium of illustrative vignettes and well-told stories. In a series of compact, short chapters, and with a focus on the post-Wall period (that roughly corresponds with the author’s adult life), it provides essential analytical overviews of all the salient events of European unity and division. If, for example, you seek a concise, reliable, and convincing account of NATO expansion—the issue currently being used by both the Far Right and Far Left to oppose the defense of Ukraine—look no further.

Garton Ash looks back on a lifetime of experiences, generously confessing errors of judgment but also reprising things he thinks he got right that now deserve reiteration. “Fool, me,” he admits, for supporting a referendum on Brexit. In hindsight, he assesses his response to the Charlie Hebdo murders—he had advocated in editorials across the world for a republication of the offensive caricatures—as having “failed comprehensively.”

He really blew it, he says, when he called the writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali a “slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist.” This was his “first serious wrestling with the complex issues around the growing number of Muslims in Europe,” and he deems it “the worst mistake of my life as a political writer…[the] one sentence I wish I had never written.” Why, then, repeat it? It is not so much about retraction, it turns out, as justification. In explaining his grievous “error,” Garton Ash actually reaffirms his fundamental point, namely, that a “frontal, atheist critique of Islam…[is] not the best way to win over European Muslims to accepting the values of a free European society, including free speech.” He is as right today as he was then. Ditto his warning in a prominent Foreign Affairs article about the premature introduction of the euro as the single currency. If the language of self-deprecation is sometimes an elaborate “humble brag,” one has to admit that Homelands, and the life of learning and advocacy that so richly informs it, is indeed something to brag about.

A Personal History of Europe

Timothy Garton Ash
Yale University Press
$28 | 384 pp.

Published in the November 2023 issue: View Contents

William Collins Donahue is director of the Initiative for Global Europe in the Keough School of Global Affairs and the Cavanaugh Professor of Humanities in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame.

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