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History of the Present

History of the Present

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Add This - History of the Present

Written by Timothy Garton AshAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Timothy Garton Ash

  • Format: Trade Paperback, 496 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • On Sale: September 11, 2001
  • Price: $15.95
  • ISBN: 978-0-375-72762-7 (0-375-72762-0)
Also available as an eBook.
EXCERPT

Introduction


Even at one minute past midnight on 1 January 1990, we already knew that this would be a formative decade in Europe. A forty-year-old European order had just collapsed with the Berlin Wall. Everything seemed possible. Everyone was hailing a "new Europe." But no one knew what it would look like.

Now we know: in Western Europe, in Germany, in Central Europe, and in the Balkans. Of course, in all these parts, the future will be full of surprises. It always is. But at the end of the decade we can see the broad outline of the new European order that we have already ceased to call new. Only in the vast, ethnically checkered territory of the former Soviet Union is even the basic direction of states such as Russia and Ukraine still hidden in the fog. And perhaps also, at Europe's other end, that of the decreasingly United Kingdom.


This book does not pretend to be a comprehensive account of the 1990s in Europe. It is a collection of what are rightly called pieces-in other words, fragments-that reflect my own interests, expertise, and travels. However, a chronology running through the book not only supplies missing links between the pieces but also records significant European developments not covered in any of them. Into this time line I have inserted some short, diarylike sketches, drawn mainly from my own notebooks and recollections. There are also several longer sketches in the main text. The largest part of the book consists of analytical reportages, mostly published in The New York Review of Books, after the skilled attentions of the editor to whom this book is dedicated. Finally, there are a few essays in which I attempt an interim synthesis on a larger subject, such as the development of the European Union, Britain's troubled relationship with Europe, or the way countries deal with the legacy of a dictatorship.

As befits "history of the present," everything in the main text was written at or shortly after the time it describes. The pieces have been edited lightly, mainly to eliminate repetition, but nothing of substance has been added or changed. I compiled the chronology and short sketches more recently. Occasionally, I have also added a comment at the end of a piece.


Here I want to reflect on writing "history of the present." The phrase is not mine. It was, so far as I know, coined by the veteran American diplomat and historian George Kennan in a review of my book about Central Europe in the 1980s, The Uses of Adversity. It is, for me, the best possible description of what I have been trying to write for twenty years, combining the crafts of historian and journalist.

Yet it immediately invites dissent. History of the present? Surely that's a contradiction in terms. Surely history is by definition about the past. History is books on Caesar, the Thirty Years War, or the Russian Revolution. It is discoveries and new interpretations based on years of studying documents in the archives.

Let's put aside straightaway the objection that "the present" is but a line, scarcely a millisecond wide, between past and future. We know what we mean here by "the present," even if the chronological boundaries are always disputed. Call it "the very recent past" or "current affairs" if you would rather. The important point is this: Not just professional historians but most arbiters of our intellectual life feel that a certain minimum period of time needs to have passed and that certain canonical kinds of archival source should be available before anything written about this immediate past qualifies as history.

It was not ever thus. As the formidably learned German intellectual historian Reinhart Koselleck has observed, from the time of Thucydides until well into the eighteenth century, to have been an eyewitness to the events described or, even better, to have been a participant in them was considered a major advantage for a winter of history. Contemporary history was thought to be the best history. It is only since the emergence of the idea of progress, the growth of critical philology, and the work of Leopold von Ranke that historians have come to believe that you understand events better if you are farther away from them. If you stop to think about it, this is actually a very odd idea: that the person who wasn't there knows better than the person who was.

Even the most ascetic neo-Rankean depends upon the witnesses who make the first record of the past. If they do not make a record, there is no history. If they do it badly or in pursuit of a quite different agenda (religious, say, or astrological or scatological), the historian will not find answers to the questions he wants to ask. It's therefore best to have a witness who is himself interested in finding answers to the historian's questions about sources and causes, structure and process, the individual and the mass. Hence, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville's personal account of the 1848 revolution in France is worth twenty other memoirs of that time.

This need for the historically minded witness has become more acute in recent times for a simple reason. In Ranke's day, politics was put on paper. Diplomacy was conducted or noted immediately in correspondence. Politicians, generals, and diplomats wrote extensive diaries, letters, and memorandums. Even then, of course, much that was vital was not written down-murmured private understandings in the corridors of the Congress of Vienna, the pillow talk of queens. Then, as now, most of human experience was never recorded at all. But most of politics was.

Today, however, high politics is more and more pursued in personal meetings (thanks to the jet airplane) or by telephone (increasingly by mobile phone) or by other forms of electronic communication. Certainly, minutes of meetings are made afterward and, at the highest levels, so are transcripts of phone conversations. But the proportion of important business actually put on paper has diminished. And who writes narrative letters or detailed diaries any more? A dwindling minority.

To be sure, researchers can watch television footage. Sometimes, they can listen to the telephone tapes-or taps-of those conversations. Perhaps in future they will also read the e-mails. The point is not that there are fewer sources than there were. Quite the reverse. Where the ancient historian has to reconstruct a whole epoch from a single papyrus, the contemporary historian has a roomful of sources for a single day. It is the ratio of quantity to quality that has changed for the worse.

On the other hand, politicians, diplomats, soldiers, and businesspeople have never been so eager to give their own version of what has just happened. Iraqi crises famously unfold in "real time" on CNN. European ministers tumble out of EU meetings to brief journalists from their own countries. Naturally, each gives his own twist and spin. But if you put the different versions together, you have a pretty good instant picture of what occurred.

In short, what you can know soon after the event has increased, and what you can know long after the event has diminished. This is particularly the case with extraordinary events. During some of the dramatic debates between the leaders of Czechoslovakia's "velvet revolution," in the Magic Lantern theater in Prague in November 1989, I was the only person present taking notes. I remember thinking, "If I don't write this down, nobody will. It will be gone for ever, like bathwater down the drain." So much recent history has disappeared like that, never to be recovered, for want of a recorder.

Two objections remain strong. First, since those things governments and individuals try to keep secret are often the most important things, the eventual release of new sources will change pictures substantially. This is not a conclusive argument for waiting-in the meantime, other equally important things, well understood at the moment, may be forgotten-but it is a major hazard of the genre. In the preface to my first "history of the present," an account of the Solidarity revolution in Poland, I observed that I would not have attempted to write the book had it seemed likely that the official papers of the Soviet and Polish communist regimes would become available in the foreseeable future. That, I continued blithely, seemed "as probable as the restoration of the monarchy in Warsaw or Moscow." Eight years later, the Soviet bloc had collapsed and many of those papers were available. Fortunately, I also quoted Walter Raleigh's warning, in the preface to his History of the World, that "who-so-euer in writing a modern Historie shall follow truth too neare the heeles, it may happily strike out his teeth."

The second strong objection is that we don't know the consequences of current developments, so our understanding of their historical significance is much more speculative and liable to revision. Again, this is patently true. Every high-school senior studying ancient history knows that the Roman empire declined and fell. Writing about the Soviet empire in the 1980s, none of us knew the end of the story. In 1988, I published an essay entitled "The Empire in Decay", but I still thought the empire's fall was a long way off. In January 1989, I wrote an article pooh-poohing suggestions that the Berlin Wall might soon be breached.

Yet there is also an advantage here. You record what people did not know at the time-for instance, that the Wall was about to come down. You dwell on developments that seemed terribly important then but would otherwise be quite forgotten now because they led nowhere. You thus avoid perhaps the most powerful of all the optical illusions of historical writing.

One of the real pleasures of immersing yourself in the archives of a closed period is that you gradually, over months and years, see a pattern slowly emerging through the vast piles of paper, like a message written in invisible ink. But then you start wondering, Is this pattern really in the past itself? Or is it just in your own head? Or perhaps it is a pattern from the fabric of your own times. Each generation has its own Cromwell, its own French Revolution, its own Napoleon. Where contemporaries saw only a darkling plain, you discern a tidy park, a well-lit square, or most often a road leading to the next historical milestone. The French philosopher Henri Bergson talks of the "illusions of retrospective determinism."

American journalists writing books of recent history sometimes modestly refer to them as "the first draft of history." This implies that the scholar's second or third draft will always be an improvement. Well, in some ways it may be, having more sources and a longer perspective. But in others it may not be, because the scholar will not know, and therefore will find it more difficult to re-create, what it was really like at the time; how places looked and smelled, how people felt, what they didn't know. Writers work in different ways, but I can sum up my own experience in a doggerel line: There is nothing to compare with being there.
Kennan observed that history of the present lies "in that small and rarely visited field of literary effort where journalism, history and literature ... come together." Again, this seems to me exactly right. The corner of Europe where Germany, France, and Switzerland meet is known in German as the Dreiländereck, or Three Country Corner. "History of the present" lies in a Three Country Corner between journalism, history, and literature. Such frontier areas are always interesting but often tense. Sometimes working in this one feels like walking in a no-man's-land.

The shortest and best-marked frontier is that between history and journalism on the one side and literature on the other. Both good journalism and good history have some of the qualities of good fiction: imaginative sympathy with the characters involved, literary powers of selection, description, and evocation. Reportage or historical narrative is always an individual writer's story, shaped by his or her unique perception and arrangement of words on the page. It requires an effort not just of research but of imagination to get inside the experience of the people you are writing about. To this extent, the historian or journalist does work like a novelist. We acknowledge this implicitly when we talk of "Michelet's Napoleon" as opposed to "Taine's Napoleon" or "Carlyle's Napoleon."

Yet there is a sharp and fundamental difference, which concerns the kind of truth being sought. The novelist Jerzy Kosinski, who played fast and loose with all facts, including those about his own life, defended himself aggressively. "I'm interested in truth not facts," he said, "and I'm old enough to know the difference." In a sense, every novelist can say that. No journalist or historian should. In this, we also differ from the father of contemporary history. Thucydides felt free to put words into Pericles' mouth, as a novelist world. We do not. Our "characters" are real people, and the larger truths we seek have to be made from the bricks and mortar of facts. What did the prime minister say exactly? Was it before or after the explosion in the Sarajevo marketplace, and whose mortar actually fired the fatal shell?

Some postmodernists disagree. They suggest that the work of historians should be judged like that of fiction writers, for its rhetorical power and capacity of imaginative conviction, not for some illusory factual truth. Eric Hobsbawm's given a finely measured response: "It is essential" he writes, "for historians to defend the foundation of their discipline: the supremacy of evidence. If their texts are fictions, as in some sense they are, being literary compositions, the raw material of those fictions is verifiable fact."

That applies equally to journalism. We all know about fabrications at the bottom end of journalism, in the gutter press. Unfortunately, the frontier with fiction is also violated at the top end of journalism, especially in reportage that aspires to be literature. Any reportage worth reading involves rearranging material, highlighting, and, to some extent, turning real people into characters in a drama. But the line is crossed when quotations are invented or the order of events is changed. There is one genre of modern journalism, the "dramadocumentary" or "faction," which does this avowedly. Faction is, so to speak, honestly dishonest. But more often this is done behind a mask of spare authenticity.

The precedents are distinguished. John Reed's account of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, is probably one of the most influential pieces of reportage ever written. Yet he spoke virtually no Russian, regularly made up dialogue, offered secondhand accounts as firsthand, mixed up dates, and added imaginative detail. As Neal Ascherson observes, in a fine essay on his work, Reed "gives a thrilling account of Lenin's appearance at a closed Bolshevik meeting in Smolny on 3 November, allegedly communicated to him outside the door by Volodarsky as the meeting went on. No such meeting took place. "

To save us from Reed's disease and to spoil our best stories, great American journals such as The New Yorker employ fact-checkers. As they drag their fine combs through your text, it is horrible to find how many small errors of fact have slipped into your notebook or intruded on the path from notebook to text. But sooner or later you come to the passages, often the most important ones, that they annotate in the margin, "On author." This means you are the only source for the fact (if fact it be) that, for example, a church door in the Krajina was stained with blood, or a Kosovo rebel leader said what your notebook records that he said. Then you are alone with your notebook and your conscience. Did he really say that?

Ideally, I suppose, one should be permanently wired for sound, like a superspy. Or, even better, have a miniature video camera implanted in one's skull. And certainly some of the very best contemporary history has been done on television. I think of documentary series such as The Death of Yugoslavia. Although the television camera can also be made to lie by tendentious selection and manipulative editing, at best it brings you closer than any other medium to how things really were.

For the writer, however, the conventional, handheld, visible tape recorder and television camera have major disadvantages. They are cumbersome, even in their latest, slimmed-down, high-tech versions. Try using one at the same time as taking notes during a fast-moving demonstration. It is, in practice, very difficult to see simultaneously with both the camera's and the writer's eye. You're always liable to miss the telling detail that is vital to good reportage because you're fiddling with a tape or lens. And then you keep worrying about whether and what they are recording. Tape recorders and cameras put people off. Politicians and so-called ordinary people speak less naturally and freely as soon as the machines come out. Worse still, cameras and microphones also turn people on. Demonstrators or soldiers strike heroic poses and make portentous statements they would not otherwise make. So these apparently neutral, mindless recorders of reality actually change it by their mere presence. Yet even the visible notebook does that.

I occasionally use a tape recorder for an important conversation, but my inseparable companion is a pocket notebook. The notebook is often open when the person is speaking, but sometimes, when I think they will talk more freely or simply when walking or eating or whatever, it is not. Then I write the conversation down as soon as possible afterward. I am obsessed with accuracy and, after twenty years, rather well practiced in this kind of remembering. But as I look back through my notebooks there is always this nagging concern: Did he really say that?

Take the opening passage of my reportage from Serbia in March 1997: the student named Momcˆilo exclaiming "I just want to live in a normal country," and so on. Now Momcˆilo said this, in his imperfect English, as we hurried through the streets of Belgrade toward a students' meeting. I wrote it down as soon as we got there. If I had a tape recording of what he actually told me, it would probably be slightly different-a bit more awkward and less sharp. But I don't have a tape recording. The verifiable historical truth of that fragment of the past is gone for good. You just have to trust me. A little later, I relate excited exchanges at the student meeting. These I scribbled down as they happened. But I don't speak Serbian, so what you read is my interpreter's version and we both have to trust her.

Altogether, the business of language is crucial. Most of what is quoted in this book was said or written in languages I understand. But some, especially from Albanian and the southern Slav languages now called Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Macedonian, was translated for me by an interpreter, with the inevitable loss of accuracy and nuance. The first thing to ask of anyone writing about anywhere is, Does he or she know the language?

Finally, it seems to me, the key to trust is not the technical apparatus of audiovisual recording and sourcing and fact-checking, invaluable though that is. It is a quality that may best be described as veracity. No one will ever be completely accurate. There is a margin of unavoidable error and, so to speak, necessary license if cacophonous, Babel-like reality is to be turned into readable prose. But the reader must be convinced that an author has a habit of accuracy, that he is genuinely trying to get at all the relevant facts, and that he will nor play fast and loose with them for literary effect. The reader should feel that while the author may not actually have a video recording of what he is describing, he would always like to.

George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is a model of this kind of veracity. The book is a piece of literature. It is inaccurate in many details, not least because Orwell's notebooks were stolen by the communist goons who came to arrest him as a Trotskyist. Yet you don't doubt for a single moment that he is striving for the greatest possible accuracy, for the fact-based truth that must always set apart the plains of history and journalism from the magic mountains of fiction.


The frontier between journalism and history is the longest in our Three Country Corner. It is also the least well marked and therefore the most tense and disputed. I can testify to this, having lived on both sides and in between. In journalism, to describe a piece as "rather academic"-meaning jargon heavy, boring, unreadable-is the surest path to the spike. In academe, it's a put-down to say that somebody's work is "journalistic," meaning superficial, racy, and generally not serious. "Contemporary history?" sniffed an elderly don when I returned to my Oxford college from a job in journalism at the end of the 1980s. "You mean journalism with footnotes?"

I think it's important to understand that the reasons why so much is made of the differences between journalism and academic or professional history have at least as much to do with the practical exigencies, self-images, and neuroses of the two professions as they have with the real intellectual substance of the two crafts. Granted, the qualities of bad journalism and bad history are very different: sensationalist, intrusive, populist tosh with millions of readers on the one side; overspecialized, badly argued, ill-written doctorates with no readers on the other. But the virtues of good journalism and good history are very similar: exhaustive, scrupulous research; a sophisticated, critical approach to the sources; a strong sense of time and place; imaginative sympathy with all sides; logical argument; clear and vivid prose. Was Macaulay, in his essays for the Edinburgh Review, a historian or a journalist? Both, of course.

Yet, in modern Western societies, profession is a defining feature of personal identity, and the professions that are closest together take most pains to distinguish themselves. I say modern Western societies, incidentally, because this was not so true in the communist world, where the most important social identification was with a broad class: intelligentsia, workers, or peasants. One of the interesting experiences of the last decade in formerly communist parts of Europe has been to see friends rapidly becoming differentiated by profession, Western style. Where once they were all fellow members of the intelligentsia, now they are academics, lawyers, publishers, journalists, doctors, and bankers, with diverging ways of life, styles of dress, homes, incomes, and attitudes.

Now, because of the ways in which the professions of journalism and history have developed and because of the edginess between them, the writing of "history of the present" has tended to fall between the two. That no-man's-land is perhaps wider and more tense than it was when Lewis Namier put aside eighteenth-century English politics to chart the European diplomatic history of his own times and Hugh Trevor-Roper turned from Archbishop Laud to write The Last Days of Hitler

Every profession has its characteristic fault. If I had to summarize in a word, I would say that the characteristic fault of journalistic writing is superficiality and that of academic writing is unreality. Journalists have to write so much, and they are so pressed for time. Sometimes they are "parachuted" into countries or situations about which they know nothing and expected to report on them within hours. Hence the famous, horrible line 'Anyone here been raped and speak English?" Then their copy is cut and rewritten by editors and subeditors who are working to even tighter deadlines. And, anyway, tomorrow is another day, another piece.

Academics, by contrast, can take years to finish a single article. They can (and sometimes do) take infinite pains to check facts, names, quotations, texts, and contexts, to consider and reconsider the validity of an interpretation. But they can also spend a life describing war without ever seeing a shot fired in anger. Witnessing real life is not what they are supposed—-or funded-to do. Methodology, footnotes, and positioning in some ongoing academic debate can seem as important as working out what really happened and why. Participants in the worlds they describe sometimes throw up their hands in laughter and despair at the unreality of what comes out.

Of course, I could equally dwell on the characteristic virtue of each side, which is the opposite of the other's characteristic fault: depth in scholarship, realism in journalism. The interesting question is, Has it gotten worse or better? Well, some things have improved. If you read what passed for contemporary history in Britain in the 1920s, you find a bluff amateurism unthinkable today. In journalism, the growth of world television-news services such as CNN, Reuters, and BBC World Television and that of documentation on the Internet offers wonderfully rich new sources for present history. But, on the whole, I think it has gotten worse.

There is still a handful of great international newspapers of record. Top of my personal short list would be The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, Le Monde in France, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in the German-speaking world. You can generally believe what you read in these papers. Yet even with this select group, it is astonishing how many discrepancies you find if you buy them all and compare their accounts of the same event. By and large, they do still separate fact and opinion, although there are exceptions. For example, the coverage of the wars of the Yugoslav succession in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was for years distorted by the pro-Croat views of one of that paper's publishers.

In my view, the foreign reporting in the leading American newspapers is the best in the world. Senior, highly educated American journalists are proud to describe themselves as a "reporter," whereas in Britain every twenty-three-year-old fresh out of college wants to be a "columnist" or "commentator. " Standards of editorial accuracy and fact-checking are second to none, and corrections are published when errors are made. Moreover, extensive space is given to foreign coverage. You have a definite sense that what happens almost anywhere in the world matters, because the country in which the paper appears is a world power. What was true of The Times of London a hundred years ago is true of The New York Times today. For an Englishman, the contrast in quality of foreign coverage between the New York and the London Times is now painful to observe.

Outside this small group, the value as historical record of most other newspapers in most other countries is slight, and diminishing. This is particularly true in Britain, where the fierce commercial competition for readers-above all between the groups headed by the Australian-American owner of The Times, Rupert Murdoch, and the Canadian proprietor of the Daily Telegraph, Conrad Black-has resulted in a further erosion of the journalism of record. I'm talking not just about the quite astonishing levels of routine inaccuracy and distortion, for reasons of both sensationalism and ideology-although in Britain this is especially apparent in anything to do with the European Union. As important are two other traits: featurism and futurism.

A large part of newspapers is now taken up not, as their name would suggest, with news, but with features: lifestyle, beauty, fashion, medicine, food, holidays, etc. This is what readers are said to want. Meanwhile, in what remains of the news pages, there is the more subtle disease of futurism. More and more space is devoted to speculating about what may happen tomorrow rather than describing what happened yesterday-the original mission of journalism. When read any time after today, this stuff is useless, except as an illustration of what people did not know at the time. Reading my own pieces for this book, I am again reminded that nothing ages more quickly than prophecy-even when it was prescient.

For all these reasons, the history of the present gets written less in its first natural home, the newspapers. But there are also problems on the academic side of the frontier. Some professional historians do tackle subjects in recent history. Even the Oxford history faculty; long accounted conservative (with a small c), now has a history syllabus that is open-ended toward the present. Nonetheless, in my experience, most academic historians are still reluctant to venture much closer to the present than the canonical thirty years after which official papers are released in most democracies. They still incline to leave this territory to colleagues who have made it their own in subjects such as International Relations, Political Science, Security Studies, European Studies, or Refugee Studies.

Yet these relatively new specialisms often feel the need to establish their academic credentials, their claim to the high name of Science (in the German sense of Wissenschaft), by a heavy dose of theory, jargon, abstraction, or quantification. Otherwise-horror of horrors-their products might be confused with journalism. Even when those involved have been trained to write history, the results often suffer from overspecialization, unreadable prose, and that characteristic fault: unreality. At the same time, the pressures of American-style "publish or perish" mean that a huge amount of academic work in progress is hastily thrown into book form. Here, too, the ratio of quantity to quality has surely changed for the worse.


So I maintain that, for all its pitfalls, the literary enterprise of writing "history of the present" has always been worth attempting. It is even more so now because of the way history is made and recorded in our time. Sadly, it has suffered from developments in the professions of journalism and academic history.

Yet you can soon have enough of such methodological self-examination. Altogether, the habit of compulsive labeling, pigeonholing, and compartmentalizing seems to me a disease of modern intellectual life. Let the work speak for itself, In the end, only one thing matters: Is the result true, important, interesting, or moving? If it is, never mind the label. If it isn't, then it's not worth reading anyway.

T.G.A., Oxford-Stanford, March 2000


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from History of the Present by Timothy Garton Ash. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.