Timothy Garton Ash Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Intellectual Odyssey: Conversation with Timothy Garton Ash, 4/4/96 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by L. Carper

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The Writer without Blinders

One of the things that marks your work as a chronicler of events is the beauty of your writing, if I may say so.

What do you see as the key ingredients in the making of a good writer like yourself?

That's one of those questions that sends one back to a creative writing course -- "the key to good writing is to write well." Certainly, I was deeply influenced, for example, by George Orwell, or by the more literary British historians like Macaulay, and pay enormous attention to style, and I do believe that good historical or political writing is a branch of literature. I certainly regard it as an art. And I also believe that as Stendhal once said, "all the truth and all the pleasure lie in the detail." It's terribly important to relate colorful detail, human detail, individual detail to the larger patterns, to have both elements. Much journalism lacks the latter and much scholarship lacks the former.

So when you set out to do a piece of scholarship and found your way blocked by lack of access to the documents, you began listening to people in the environment you found yourself in -- in Central Europe.

I traveled all over East Germany and I talked to everyone I met; I went home and made notes on those conversations, read voraciously, went to the theater; I collected all the material I could. But at the same time, unlike a classic newspaperman on a deadline for whom, once a story is written, it's over, it's done, I was very consciously looking for the larger historical significance of what I was writing about. And I remained with Central Europe throughout the 1980s, looking for the larger historical development.

And who turned out to be your best sources? Was it just talking to people, to intellectuals, to government officials?

All of the above. All of the above, but I do think it was very important that one got into the pubs and the cafes and the factories and onto the farms, that one did talk to ordinary people because where many Sovietologists and academics and policy specialists on Eastern Europe went wrong was precisely by concentrating too much on a political elite, broadly conceived, which had an agenda, and part of that agenda was -- disinformation is probably rather a crude word, but -- to sell a particular view of the country. By the way, East Germany, curiously enough, was very good at this. Whole West German institutes were devoted to failing to understand the East German economy.

Is it fair to say that the theories that the academics were using actually were blinders to the reality that they were supposedly addressing?

Garton Ash Well, I'm not your classic English empiricist who is hostile to all theory. I think theory can be extremely useful. But I think that political science, and specifically political science writing about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, has to ask itself some very hard questions in the light of what happened in 1989. Not just the question, "Why didn't we predict it, if our claim was to have some predictive capacity?" but also, the simpler question, "Why didn't we describe it?" Because I will never claim that I predicted the end of communism in any accurate way, certainly not the timing of the ending of communism, although I did write an article for the New York Review of Books entitled "The Decline of the Soviet Empire" in 1988. But what I would claim is that I described accurately. If you go down the shelves of academic political science or Sovietological writing, most of those volumes really could do with recycling. They don't hold up, even on the criteria of simple description.

And what was the key to making you feel in your heart that you were on to something? Was it the response that your pieces received as you published, or was it the reaction of the people you were describing? Or none of the above?

Both of the above. Both of the above, but much more so the latter. That is to say, that if I was an ichthyologist, my fish could speak. They told me I had a tremendously gratifying response from readers in Central Europe, who said, "Here is someone who understands what we are talking about, what our concerns are." And in the West, even in the mid-1980s, one was plowing a pretty lonely furrow -- we've forgotten now just how much the Yalta order of divided Europe was accepted as normal and virtually perpetual, not just in the United States but, above all, in Germany.

So the events that you were describing were a threat to stability of the divided Europe -- what the people were actually doing as the revolt began to develop?

That's right. György Konrád, the Hungarian writer, said that West Europeans had come to live very comfortably with their backs to the Berlin Wall. And that's perfectly true and not least the West Germans, let alone the British or the French. In December 1989, as the Wall had just come down, I asked Douglas Hurd, the British Foreign Secretary, how he would respond, and he begins his answer by saying "Well, we've had this system under which we've lived quite happily for forty years." And I said, "You may have lived quite happily under it but an awful lot of people didn't." But that was a very accurate reflection of what people in the West felt.

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