Timothy Garton Ash

Timothy Garton Ash

Timothy Garton Ash, an internationally acclaimed contemporary historian whose work has focused on Europe since 1945, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Garton Ash is in residence at Hoover on a part-year basis; at the same time he continues to hold his appointments as professor of European studies, director of the European Studies Centre, and the Gerd Bucerius Senior Research Fellow in Contemporary History, all at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. Among the topics his work covers are the emancipation and eventual liberation of Central Europe from communism, the eastern policy of Germany and its reunification, how countries deal with a difficult past, the role of intellectuals in politics, and the relationship between the European Union and the larger Europe. His recent research has focused on relations between Europe and America, as both are faced with the global challenges of the early twenty-first century. This is the subject of his latest book, Free World: America, Europe and the Surprising Future of the West (2004). (See also www.freeworldweb.net.)

Wikipedia is 10 years old this Saturday. It is the fifth most visited site on the internet. Some 400 million people use it every month. I bet most readers of this column are among them. You want to check something, you Google it; as often as not, you Choose the Wikipedia link as the best way in.

What is extraordinary about this free encyclopedia, which mow contains more than 17m articles in more than 270 languages, Is that it is almost entirely written, edited, and self-regulated entirely by volunteers.

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Name me the country in which more than 50 new members of parliament have just been appointed for life. Most of them have been nominated by a political party, without any vote. No secret is made of the fact that for several of the appointees, as has long been the custom in that country, this life membership of the legislature is a reward for their generous financial contributions to one or other party. And, unlike for prisoners, "life" means until they die. As a result, one in three members of the existing chamber is over 75 years old.

Turkmenistan? Zimbabwe? Transnistria? No, that country is Britain, one of the oldest parliamentary democracies in the world. For all its talk of a "new politics", the coalition government last month announced the appointment of more than 50 new members of the Lords. The Conservatives’ list included such luminaries as Robert Edmiston, described in a BBC report as "a multimillionaire car salesman, who gave £2m to the party before the 2005 election". According to BBC research, the donors now being paid back with Conservative peerages have helped the party to electoral success with a total of £4,678,636.

Continue reading Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian

It is the historian’s dream. It is the diplomat’s nightmare. Here, for all to see, are the confidences of friends, allies and rivals, garnished with American diplomats’ frank, sometimes excoriating assessments of them. Over the next couple of weeks, you, the readers of the Guardian, will enjoy a multi-course banquet from the history of the present.

The historian usually has to wait 20 or 30 years to find such treasures. Here, the most recent dispatches are little more than 30 weeks old. And what a trove this is. It contains more than 250,000 documents. Most of those I have seen, on my dives into a vast ocean, are well over 1,000 words long. If my sample is at all representative, there must be a total at least 250m words – and perhaps up to half a billion. As all archival researchers know, there is a special quality of understanding that comes from exposure to a large body of sources, be it a novelist’s letters, a ministry’s papers or diplomatic traffic – even though much of the material is routine. With prolonged immersion, you get a deep sense of priorities, character, thought patterns.

Continue reading Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian

Step up, India

The world’s largest democracy and Asian regional power must put aside short-term interests and embrace its principles to help a nonviolent, democratic movement succeed in Burma.

If we want to help pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the cause of freedom in Myanmar (also known as Burma), we must hope that India rediscovers the spirit of its better self. The world’s largest democracy needs urgently to review its approach to one of the world’s worst tyrannies, which squats like a toad on its very doorstep. Otherwise, it seems highly unlikely that the weak, divided opposition forces inside Burma and Western support outside can generate the leverage needed to help to success the nonviolent, negotiated revolution that the liberated heroine has again evoked. So long as Burma’s generals can rely on China’s strategic and commercial realpolitik, and on the trade and energy-hungry equivocation of Thailand and other ASEAN countries, the only external power that can change the balance of forces in and around Burma is India.

Continue reading Timothy Garton Ash in the Los Angeles Times

(photo credit: Andrew Becraft)

‘Zweimal Hitler bitte," I requested at the ticket desk for the Hitler exhibition at the German Historical Museum, meaning "two tickets please" but saying literally (and, I confess, as a little experiment) "two times Hitler please". The middle-aged lady on the desk neither batted an eyelid nor missed a beat. "Den gab’s aber nur einmal," she replied, in the characteristic Berlin accent: "but he only existed once" or "there was only one of him".

Quite right too. And Gott sei dank. For decades, probably centuries to come, the name of Hitler will remain a worldwide synonym for evil. In a secularised Europe, he is a more frequently encountered personification of evil than the devil. In a Californian swimming pool this summer, I saw an American dad offer himself as the "bad guy" to be shot at by the kids with water-pistols. "Hitler!" they shrieked, as they squirted him with water, "Hitler!"

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Returning to Britain after three months in the United States, it is nice to come back to a country where a democratically elected government, representing the majority of those who voted at the last election, can get on with doing what it has promised to do. But what if it is doing the wrong thing?

Since Wednesday 20 October, the British are not just living in Britain; we are living the British experiment. This experiment consists in setting out to cut public spending by nearly one fifth over five years, with the probable loss of half a million jobs in the public sector – and hoping that the private sector will take up the slack. Unlike Greece or Ireland, Britain did not absolutely have to make such drastic cuts.

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Last Friday, in New York, I discovered a strip club near the site of the planned Islamic centre, described by its opponents as "the mosque at Ground Zero". As pole dancers gyrated with all the sizzling eroticism of a weary Wal-Mart checkout assistant at the end of a long shift, I asked the burly front-of-house man – Scott, from Brooklyn – whether they had faced any protests about this profanation of hallowed ground. Had any Fox News commentators, for example, been beating an angry path to their door? Well, he replied, one or two passers-by had raised objections since the controversy erupted about the Islamic centre. "People are entitled to their opinions," said Scott, but the "New York Dolls" Gentlemen’s Club had been here for 30 years and the folks working in it had to make a living.

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U.S. Politics needs to change

Timothy Garton Ash is interviewed on the BBC about American politics and its relationship with China.

Post-Peace Prize

Norway’s Nobel Peace Prize committee has done the right thing in awarding this year’s prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The furious reaction of the Chinese state shows just how complicated doing the right thing will become as we advance into an increasingly post-Western world.

Liu is exactly the kind of person who deserves this prize, alongside Andrei Sakharov, Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. For more than 20 years, he has consistently advocated nonviolent change in China, always in the direction of more respect for human rights, the rule of law and democracy. He has paid for this peaceful advocacy with years of imprisonment and harassment. Unlike last year’s winner, Barack Obama, who got the prize just for what he had promised to do, Liu gets it for what he has actually done.

Continue reading Timothy Garton Ash in the Los Angeles Times