Witness

The Uses of Adversity: Essays on the Fate of Central Europe

by Timothy Garton Ash
Random House, 335 pp., $19.95

In the course of the 1980s the small coterie of Anglo-American writers who had been addressing themselves to the movement of life in Eastern Europe in the years since 1948 found itself somewhat abruptly enhanced by the accession to its ranks of a remarkable young English scholar, Mr. Timothy Garton Ash. Issuing, in the late 1970s, from that formidable stronghold of interest and sympathy for all things “dissident” in the Communist world, St. Antony’s College at Oxford, Mr. Garton Ash traveled extensively in eastern Germany, lived for some months as a humble postgraduate scholar in East Berlin, and capped these experiences by writing, in the German language, a book about the German Democratic Republic, which he published in western Germany. This last seems to have deprived him, not surprisingly, of the privilege of access to eastern Germany for some time into the future. It did not, however, put an end to his intense interest in Eastern Europe, generally, and particularly in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. In the first two of those countries, he evidently formed close personal connections; he learned enough of the respective languages to allow him to communicate effectively with those who particularly engaged his interest and attention; and he cultivated to good effect the attendant associations.

The literary results of this preoccupation have been considerable. First, there was a book of nearly four hundred pages, published in 1984, about the struggle of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the period immediately preceding the imposition of martial law upon that country in 1981—a book which, for a number of its qualities, deserved a much more prominent and enduring circulation than it received.

The bulk of this output could be said to have lain in that small and rarely visited field of literary effort where journalism, history, and literature (in the sense of belles lettres) come together. Garton Ash is, in the most literal sense of that term, a contemporary historian. He writes primarily as a witness to the events he is treating, and not just as an outside witness but often as an inside one as well; for his own involvement in these events, intellectual and emotional, is of such intensity that he can speak, in a sense, from the inside as well as from the outside. Yet the sense of the historic dimension of the events in question is never lost. And the quality of the …

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