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Lunch with BS: Timothy Garton Ash

Peaceful revolutions have become the 'default model', says this popular commentator on contemporary Europe

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

have become the 'default model', says this popular commentator on contemporary Europe

Mr Groton Osh, the staff at the Taj Mahal Hotel’s top storey Grill Room say, had called to say he would be 15 minutes late. I have a giggle at the mispronunciation of a complex name but thought Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European studies at Oxford, wouldn’t have been unamused, writes Kanika Datta. His name had been mangled in surveillance files the Stasi had kept on him during his time in Berlin in the seventies. When East Germany partially opened the Stasi archives to victims and researchers, Garton Ash returned to examine his and wrote a book about it called The File, which compellingly captures the atmosphere of mistrust in the former (GDR) where citizens were encouraged to spy.

Now a widely-read columnist in The Guardian, he has written extensively on the Communist dictatorships of the (then) Iron Curtain countries. But it is as head of a research project at St Antony’s, called Free Speech Debate, that has made this trip to India. The Grill Room, open only to hotel residents and Chambers members, does not offer an extensive menu. There’s: Indian. Chinese. Continental. We go with Continental, broccoli soup, grilled jumbo prawns for him and tenderloin steak for me. I ask him to choose the wine, and he selects an Italian Merlot, Girolamo Rosso Di Toscana Castello Di Bossi.

Our window-side table offered the sumptuous Lutyens’-Baker Raisina Hill panorama, and we’re discussing the anti-rape protests that occurred there a month ago. Much of it was mobilised through social media, I tell him, and he confesses to being a convert to Twitter.

“It’s a bit like a Haiku, where you try to formulate a clear, simple thought in a few words,” he says, “Plus the power of linking is fantastic.” He modestly declines to number his Twitter followers but, interestingly, he’s registered on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, where he has many more.

The wine arrives for tasting in an open bottle and, given the dense red colour, it is no surprise that Garton Ash grimaces when he tastes it. A fresh bottle is opened and pronounced acceptable – it is eminently so, not too dry nor too sweet – though my guest fastidiously suggests I leave it for a minute to “open up”.

Sina Weibo, he continues, offers some fascinating discoveries about Chinese censorship. For instance, he wrote a column on the two big leadership elections of 2012: Obama and Xi Jinping. The short text on read something to the effect “Obama and Xi, the two men who would change the world”. “This was blocked. Why? Because the name Xi was blocked on for the period of the party congress — about two weeks!” As it turned out, all he had to do was omit Xi’s name and repost it, this time successfully.

The soup is served as we’re discussing the Great Firewall of China. He says the shape of the public rhetoric on this is misplaced. “It’s not the same as ‘the West’ trying to bring down the Berlin Wall. The real battle is inside with young Chinese fighting for greater freedom of expression and using to report stories that the official media don’t report.”

In any case, he adds, “the West” did not bring down the Wall, nor did Ronald Reagan’s 1987 “Tear Down this Wall” speech at the Brandenburg Gate — “that is a ludicrous analysis”. It was a combination of East European social movements — and Mikhail Gorbachev, movements from below complemented by leadership from the top.

The interesting example of this, he adds as we start on a tepid and passable soup, is Burma, his next port of call. He’d visited in 2000 and spoken with Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League of Democracy. After that, he was blacklisted. Then, this summer, the president’s office “produced a very sweet communiqué. It said, they are delighted to announce that the following people are no long on the blacklist. And my name is there! It was nice of them to tell me.”

Garton Ash’s point is that the world now has a new model of revolution — the peaceful revolution. “The earlier model used to be guillotine and violence — 1789 [French Revolution] and 1917 [Russian Revolution]. The peaceful revolution actually started before 1989, in Portugal where the Carnation Revolution got rid of the dictator Antonio Salazar [1974] and in the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines [1986]. Now, it has almost become a default model.”

Where did the Arab Spring fit in? That is “more amazing,” because, “in Eastern you had lots of movements and civil society and the church. In Egypt, you had the Muslim Brotherhood and not much else. Someone once said the only thing we learn from history is that nobody ever learns history’s lessons. It’s not true. Occasionally, people do and this seems an example of where people have worked out that you should start as you mean to go on.”

The caveat is that “the means you choose will determine where you will end up, which Gandhi probably understood”. But it “took Europeans a long time to work that out”. He’s referring to the failures — in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). “Then you got Solidarity and gradually people tried to work out how to do it.”

Our soup is removed – his almost untouched – and the main courses served. The chef has kept his promise and the steak is succulently medium rare, and the prawns on my guest’s plate lived up to their “jumbo” description.

The mention of East reminds me that he has just published an updated edition of The File. This edition incorporates his conversations with everyone who had spied on him and was still alive, “except for one guy called Lieutenant Wendt, who was about my age and was the junior officer on my case.”

Why did they spy? Brainwashed? “They were human, all too human,” he replies. “Some of them thought it was fun. Some of them maybe believed in the system and that an Englishman was bound to be a spy. Some of them did it for career reasons.”

The most moving example was an “elderly Jewish communist lady, very cultured and sophisticated”. She became Communist in Berlin in the 1930s, “which took a fair amount of courage”, then fled to the Soviet Union where her husband was put into a Gulag.

After the war, she returned to the GDR, remained a Communist and she and her husband had a child. Later, her husband escaped to the west where he died and she hadn’t seen her son in years. “Then the Stasi came to her and said, ‘You’re a good comrade and well informed on cultural matters and maybe you would like to talk to us in very general terms and, by the way, you might be able to go and see your son.’ It was blackmail of the most horrible kind, and in the end she was informing on people like me.”

We’ve been chatting for well over an hour – he’s full of anecdotes and his views on alone would take up an article – when I ask about his name, double barrelled but not hyphenated (which usually indicates nobility). The answer is prosaic but interesting. At the end of the 19th century, five brothers came down from Yorkshire to London and they doubled up their names, something that happened quite a lot in that period. “There was a Hopewell Ash, Garton Ash and one of them was Cromwell Ash so I grew up with this strange figure who was called Uncle Crommie.”

Garton was a place name, but it’s a source of endless confusion. “You can decide whether you want to be at the front of the queue with A or at the back with G.” Then he remembers he has more sightseeing to do. A quick call to his Polish wife, a gulp of his ristretto shot and he’s off before I get to tell him the Indianised version of his name.

First Published: Sat, February 02 2013. 00:49 IST