Cornycornguy (cornycornguy) wrote in scholarly_reads,

History of the Present, Pt. 1

For Christmas I received from my grandmother-in-law History of the Present : Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s by Timothy Garton Ash. I will probably finish it tonight.

I gather that Ash's name is familiar to anyone who has studied Eastern or Central Europe. I have not (formally) studied this region, although it is an area of considerable personal interest. A professor of history at Oxford, Ash's previous books The Polish Revolution: Solidarity and The Magic Lantern : The Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague have become the canonical accounts of those two events in the English speaking world, I gather.

Ash primarily moves in high level diplomatic and political circles. His writing thus offers great insight into the minds of leaders like Vaclav Havel and Helmut Kohl and reads, as the title suggests, primarily like a history of recent world events. Offsetting this, it lacks some of the immediacy and street level observations that you find in traditional international journalism such the reporting of Robert Kaplan.

As Ash points out, writing a history of the recent past presents a challenge:

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 sources should be available before anything written about this immediate past qualifies as history.

He tackles this assumption by pointing out that:

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 writer of 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: the person who wasn't there knows better than the person who was.

Historiography 101, perhaps, but something I have not thought about recently and found rather interesting to keep in mind while reading Ash's attempt at a first draft of late 20th century Central European history.

Something else to note, before I get back to work: Ash made repeated comments that he disagreed with Samuel Huntington's assertion that that "clash of civilizations" between the Islamic and Western world was looming. It appears Huntington's predictions were more accurate that Ash's, but I don't find that makes Ash's work any less compelling. A catastrophic event like 9-11 not only changes the direction of future events but also requires us to scrap our early drafts of history and start over. But those drafts are themselves valuable historical documents that offer the reader greater insight into the minds of people at that point in history than knowledge of external events alone.
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