Timothy Garton Ash, History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, Random House, 2000.
Imagine what Timothy Garton Ash would have done in 1997, if he had had a smart phone, Wi-Fi, and Facebook or Twitter? (The time was very close but not yet.) He might have tweeted on an afternoon in 1997: A photo of a young guy with dark hair and an exhausted face, standing in front of other students in a very crowded room, with a caption,
He said: ‘I just want to live in a normal country.’ #104thDay #BelgardIsTheWorld #GiveMeInternet
Then thousands of youths, from West Europe to the Middle East to the Borneo Peninsula, retweeted it. Several days later, CNN and BBC might name it the “Together Revolution”; several months later, Indonesian students who claim that they themselves are inspired by the student movement in Belgrade start to protest against Suharto’s autocracy; several years later, one journalist paces this picture into a published memoirs with a title like Last Days in Balkans, and sociologists and political scientists start to widely discuss how the internet affects the spread of student movements; several decades later, perhaps 30 years, a historian might finally sit in front of a pile of research materials and consider if she/he should take this picture and words into account regarding the political transition in Serbia. More likely, after thinking about questions like “is this picture fake?”; “did he really say that?”; and “who is this young guy?”, the historian will decide that this tweeted line is not qualified enough for academic historical research.
On the other hand, no one will remember or care about this young man’s name, Momcilo Radulovic, as well as millions of other names involved in those political and social events following the fall of Berlin Wall. If Garton Ash had not recorded his name in his pocket notebook when they met, Momcilo would not be included in the history of the 1996-1997 Serbian protests, even though he did in fact influence the “present” of the protests.
There are more names in Garton Ash’s History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s. Some of them became very important; but some were just ordinary people who experienced the constraints of communist parties, the surveillance by secret police, and/or the violence of genocide. They met Garton Ash in his journey and vocalized their opinion and beliefs about new Europe. Through Garton Ash’s narrative, I heard the voice of the people who were living at the time rather than just names that existed on some document or archive in contemporary history scholarship. That is the value of History of the Present – in this book, Garton Ash did not present history by selecting certain materials, which historians usually do in order to prove their methodology. Rather, Garton Ash sees and hears the history on the ground.
Garton Ash’s journey in the former Yugoslavia is my favorite part, perhaps because I myself have stood at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial not too long ago. At the memorial, helpless civilians, scattered bons, and ruthless troops all have all been rationally dated and placed into archives, which highlights the cruel nature of the gendercide. However, they all once had a real life in Serbrenica, Tuzla, or Sarajevo.
Senada Kreso, one of Garton Ash’s friends, says that she and her friends “forced themselves to walk to work, although often there was no work to do, risking death by sniper fire at every crossroads” (150). No historians, including Garton Ash himself, could narrate the Siege of Sarajevo more accurately by collecting so-call “first-hand material” after decades had passed. Initial documents can be tampered with, as well as people’s memories. The numbers of dead are merely evidence which will be employed for Serbian’s crimes, but not enough to truly describe what happened in those 1,429 days in Sarajevo. But Garton Ash wrote down those few survivors’ oral histories, which they told Garton Ash in the bar or café when the siege was still ongoing. Their fear, anger, confusion, sadness, and the struggles of daily life were the real, unmodified “present” – the closest to what actually happened there.
Garton Ash maintains that he needed a visa to enter into Croatia (141). That reminds me of how European national boundaries and border checks suddenly changed over the past three decades. Although there was a turning point where Europeans believed they would ultimately embrace peace, liberalism, and unification, Garton Ash reminds us that de-unification is often rooted in the conduct of post-communist politicians, making manipulative use of nationalist agendas to gain or maintain power for themselves (245). Looking ahead, Ash’s work begs the question: nationalism already caused an indelible tragedy during 21th century, but shall European allow it to destroy Europe again?