Timothy Garton Ash: 1989 changed the world. But where now for Europe?





[Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist]

Nineteen eighty-nine was the biggest year in world history since 1945. In international politics, 1989 changed everything. It led to the end of communism in Europe, of the Soviet Union, the cold war and the short 20th century. It opened the door to German unification, a historically unprecedented European Union stretching from Lisbon to Tallinn, the enlargement of Nato, two decades of American supremacy, globalisation, and the rise of Asia. The one thing it did not change was human nature.

In 1989, Europeans proposed a new model of non-violent, velvet revolution, challenging the violent example of 1789, which for two centuries had been what most people thought of as "revolution". Instead of Jacobins and the guillotine, they offered people power and negotiations at a round table.

With Mikhail Gorbachev's breathtaking renunciation of the use of force (a luminous example of the importance of the individual in history), a nuclear-armed empire that had seemed to many Europeans as enduring and impregnable as the Alps, not least because it possessed those weapons of total annihilation, just softly and suddenly vanished. But then, as if this were all somehow too good to be true, 1989 also brought us Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa on Salman Rushdie – firing the starting gun for another long struggle in Europe, even before the last one was really over.

Such years come only once or twice in a long lifetime. 2001, the year of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was another big one, of course, above all because it transformed the priorities of the US in the world, but it did not change as much as 1989 did. As the cold war had affected even the smallest African state, making it a potential pawn in the great chess game between east and west, so the end of the cold war affected everyone too. And places like Afghanistan were forgotten, neglected by Washington since they no longer mattered in a global contest with the now ex-Soviet Union. The mujahid had done his work; the mujahid could go. Except that a mujahid called Osama bin Laden had other ideas.

The epicentre of 1989 was Europe between the Rhine and the Urals, and it's there that most has changed. Every single one of Poland's neighbours today is new, different from what it was in 1989. In fact, many of the states and quite a few of the frontiers in eastern Europe are now more recent than those in Africa. And the lived experience of every man, woman and child has been transformed out of all recognition: nowhere more so than in the former German Democratic Republic, whose death warrant was written 20 years ago next Monday night, with the breaching of the Berlin wall...

... And then there is us: old Europe, where it all began. I have suggested before that 1989 was the best year in European history. That's a bold claim, and readers are invited to point to a better year. But two decades later, and in my darker moments, 1989 sometimes seems to me like the last, late flowering of a very aged rose. To be sure, we have done some big things since. We have enlarged the EU. We (or at least, some of us) have a single European currency. We have the largest economy in the world. On paper, Europe looks good. But the political reality is very different.

This is not the big-hearted Europe of which visionaries like Vaclav Havel dreamed in 1989. It is the Europe of the other Vaclav – Vaclav Klaus – signing the Lisbon treaty with gnashing teeth, after exacting some small, provincial concessions. It is the Europe of David Cameron, who, in the defensive, national narrowness of his European vision, is actually a rather representative contemporary European. (Churchill! Thou shouldst be living at this hour: Europe hath need of thee.) Sunk in the narcissism of minor difference, only half awake to the world of giants emerging around them, your average politician in France, Germany or Poland is little better...


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