Europe at war – And how the world reacts to it

Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies, University of Oxford
14th March 2024
13:30 - 14:30

The speaker

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and one of the founders of the Reuters Institute. As a reporter and a historian, he’s covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, the post-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe and the many changes in Europe in the last 50 years. 

Garton Ash has published 11 books, now translated into 21 languages. The most recent one is Homelands, a moving account of some of the most crucial events in the continent's history. As an illustration on the key themes of the book, he remembered how he had walked through the Berlin wall on the day after it had come down, across what used to be the death strip at Potsdamer Platz. Then he met a very excited young East Berliner who had just seen a hand-written poster saying ‘Only today is the war really over.’ 

“That's not just an anecdote, because I would argue that for the whole of Europe behind the Iron Curtain, the whole of Eastern Europe, the war was only over in 1989,” said Garton Ash, who explained that it took him 50 years of travelling around Europe to write this book, a perfect blend of history, memoir and reportage with so many stories that illustrate the history of the continent he loves.

Watch the video

Six takeaways from Timothy’s talk 

1. 2008 was a defining year in European history (and so was 2022). Garton Ash argued that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were not as much of a turning point in European history as they were in the history of the United States or the Middle East. He argued the defining year for Europe was 2008. 

“Within a month or two of each other we saw the beginning of the global financial crisis and Vladimir Putin seizing two big chunks of Georgia in his first major act of aggression,” he said, “starting a cascade of crises that marked a downward turn.” From then on, Europe saw the Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, Viktor Orbán demolishing democracy in Hungary, Putin invading Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Britain voting for Brexit, Donald Trump being elected and then the beginning of the largest war in Europe since 1945. 

Garton Ash believes Europeans are at the dawn of a new period of European history and what they do now is really important. “Beginnings in history, as in romance, really matter,” he said. “The first months and years really matter. In the first few years after 1945, the international order was created with many institutions we are living with today. So that makes this moment a particularly important one. What we do now is more important than what we do in five years in the same way that what Europe did in 1948 was more important than what it did in 1958 or in 1998. That's where we are.”

2. The world today resembles Europe at the end of the 19th century (and that’s bad news). Three decades after the end of the Cold War, the world has entered a different period, marked by the rise of a few emerging powers such as China, India or Turkey. Garton Ash thinks this is transforming the international stage in a fundamental way. 

“Many of these countries see themselves as great civilisations and as empires in many cases and behave very much like late 19th century European great powers,” he said. “[British Foreign Secretary] Lord Palmerston famously said that Great Britain had no eternal friends, only eternal and others are like Palmerston. They say that quite clearly. So this world more resembles late 19th century Europe, a Europe of great powers pursuing their national interests without paying so much attention to values.”

Does this mean we are on the verge of the Third World War, as Niall Ferguson and others have suggested? Garton Ash doesn’t think so. “The axis of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea is anything like the axis of Germany, Japan and Italy in the Second World War. All these powers are very transactional. When their interests shift, they will shift again.”

3. The war in Ukraine is a colonial war (and should be viewed as such). Garton Ash said the full-scale invasion of Ukraine was a desperate move from a decrepit empire, and not the result of any kind of humiliation of Russia by the West.

“Putin never once raised an objection to the eastward enlargement of NATO: this is a myth,” he said. “It wasn't the eastward enlargement of NATO that was the cause of the invasion of Ukraine. The cause of the invasion of Ukraine was Putin's desire to make Russia great again, and his fear of democracy and Ukraine.”

Garton Ash presented Russia’s full-scale invasion in the context of colonial history in Europe and beyond. “Let me tell you something about declining empires: they don’t like it,” he said. “Ask the British, the French and the Portuguese. European empires spent decades fighting brutal wars to defend their empires. So when the largest remaining empire in Europe, namely the Soviet Russian Empire, softly and suddenly vanished away with hardly a shot fired in anger, we shouldn't have assumed it was the end of the story. We should have said, ‘we recognize this from history. This is what declining empires do. They try to get their empires back.’ I would argue if we'd had a much stronger reaction after 2014 we might not be in the mess we're in.”

4. The war in Ukraine won’t end anytime soon (and Europe should prepare for it). Garton Ash, who’s travelled to Ukraine four times since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, stressed that the West should prepare for a long war as neither Russians or Ukrainians are prepared to give up anytime soon. 

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves that it’s a stalemate, or that we are somehow near a negotiated settlement,” he said. “We are in the middle of a long war. Neither side is prepared to negotiate. Both sides still think they can win. And from the Ukrainian point of view, some things have actually gone quite well.”

Ukraine stopped Russia’s blitzkrieg, retook territory around Kherson and Kharkiv. The counteroffensive didn’t go according to plan, but it still managed to drive the Black Sea Fleet out of Crimea, which had been a Russian naval base for more than a century.

Despite their courage, Ukrainians are now in a precarious position as Republicans in Congress refuse to pass the military aid they need to fight Putin. What will happen if Trump wins in November? “Viktor Orbán came back from Mar-a-Lago and said Trump had told him that pretty much overnight he would stop supporting Ukraine,” Garton Ash said. “That would be catastrophic for Ukraine. If we do the maximum we can do in Europe this year, we could probably help Ukrainians to hold the line, but not much more than that.”

5. Germany drew the wrong lessons from the Holocaust (and it’s time it draws the right ones). Garton Ash acknowledged the war in Gaza has had a negative impact on how people in Africa and the Middle East perceive Russia’s invasion. “The West was just beginning to get a little traction in its criticism of Russia's war on the grounds of the violation of international humanitarian law, the killing of civilians, the kidnapping of children… and then the Israel-Hamas war happened and the credibility of the West was blown out of the water because everyone said these are absurd double standards,” he said.

After spending so many years in Germany, Garton Ash spoke against the position taken by the current government on the war in Gaza. “Germany is drawing the wrong conclusion from its Nazi past,” he said. “The right conclusion would be that Germany should stand for human rights for international humanitarian law, for the respect for civilian populations, for opposing anything that could potentially begin even to look like genocide wherever it happens. So I regret very much [its position] and this lack of European unity.”

6. Original on-the-ground reporting matters (and not just in Gaza and Ukraine). In a world where authoritarian leaders spread false narratives so easily through state-owned outlets and social media platforms, the work of journalists and independent news organisations is essential to fight corruption, cover human rights abuses and explain an increasingly complex world. 

“The heart of journalism is reporting and we need it more than ever in a world where disinformation isas much part of the war as tanks and guns,” Garton Ash said. “At the Guardian, their greatest slogan is ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred.’ The new version of this should be ‘Comment is free, but facts are expensive.’ Supporting good journalism, particularly in war zones, is very expensive.”  

Garton Ash believes journalists covering Ukraine are grappling with a problem similar to the one they faced during the war in Bosnia: “After two years they have done every story: the school story, the hospital story, the underground story, the front line story, the leadership story, you name it. And so Ukraine is slipping down the news agenda and slipping off the front page. So finding ways to make an old, familiar, long story still compelling and motivating is a great challenge for us as journalists.”

The bottom line 

Timothy Garton Ash stressed that Europe is now at the dawn of a new historical period and should make crucial decisions that will impact the future for the decades to come. With Trump’s victory increasingly likely European leaders should step up their support for Ukraine and be aware that this is likely to be a long war, as neither side is willing to negotiate a settlement in the short term. In this frightening environment, original reporting is more important than ever, and news organisations should put so many resources as possible into telling these stories with nuance and historical context. Facts might be expensive, but pursuing them will pay off in the long term. 

Upcoming Events