The continent turned upside down. Bosnia, Kosovo, the fall of communism - this has been Europe's most turbulent decade since the forties. And it has shown up the EU's aim of political integration as sheer hubris

History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Despatches from Europe in the 1990s

Timothy Garton A

No gift of insight or hindsight is needed to see that the past ten years form the most important decade in European history since the f9orties. They saw the end of the cold war and the fall of Soviet Russia and east European communism; while west of Russia, the continent was dominated by the unification of Europe, the reunification of Germany and the disunification of Yugoslavia.

Even at "one minute past midnight on 1 January 1990", Timothy Garton Ash writes, we "knew that this would be a formative decade in Europe". In fact, we knew this because the decade had already unmistakably begun. Just as the thirties began late, with the suspension of the gold standard in London and the Japanese attack on Manchuria in September 1931, so the nineties began early: 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin wall (the momentousness of which everyone recognised) and the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje (the implications of which few grasped), when Slobodan Milosevic gave a rabble-rousing speech to a million Serb nationalists at the Field of Blackbirds.

In his new book, Garton Ash disarmingly reminds us that in January 1989 he dismissed, in print, the idea that the Berlin wall would soon fall. And in 1990, even as Franjo Tudjman became president of Croatia, Milosevic rose to lead Serbia's ruling party and Kosovar nationalists demanded independence, who could have imagined the Balkan horrors to come? As recently as ten years ago, most observers, if asked which former communist country had the best chance of making a successful transition to democracy and prosperity, would have said Yugoslavia. The 1990s have not been friendly to received ideas.

A writer as good at examining received ideas as Garton Ash didn't really need to dress up his New York Review of Books cuttings file with a solemn title, a pompous subtitle and an excessively self-conscious introduction. Admittedly, that esteemed organ does seem to encourage self-consciousness (or self-importance) in its contributors - more, perhaps, than any self-critical faculty. It takes a brave (or humourless) essayist to include the sentence "Milan: so rich; so beautiful its women; so stylish its men; so glorious its food," in one of his sketches, or to end another despatch: "The folly of it, Europe, the folly of it!"

This elaborate camouflage is anyway unnecessary. There is nothing artificial about this collection, whose constituent pieces were written consecutively. Now published with a linking chronology, they combine as a genuine, if idiosyncratic, history of the 1990s from the inside. It is written by someone who is a friend of Vaclav Havel, who visited Erich Honecker in prison and who bumped into Julie Christie, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff and Susan Sontag in Tuzla in 1995. (In the bar, Susan was saying to Michael, "I can't believe that this is your first time here".)

Some of the subjects Garton Ash discusses aren't novel to the 1990s but have taken on a fresh and often excruciating meaning in this decade. One is the question of truth and oblivion. He has written in The File about his own experience of locating his Stasi dossier in the former East Germany, and then locating those who, as the file showed, had delated him. As he points out, others had far grimmer experiences than he in that repulsive country, where an enormous part of the population turns out to have been police spies: the peace activist Vera Wollenberger discovered that her husband had been informing on her throughout their married life. (And people say that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a lurid anti- communist fantasy.)

This left Frau Wollenberger with an unusually painful case of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung: coming to terms with the past. As the term suggests, there is a ring of psychobabble about the notion, and what much of Europe has been through makes most sense in therapeutic terms of denial and self-discovery. Should the police archives of the former "people's democracies" be entirely open, when so much of what they contain is like the record at the end of Brighton Rock, a hideous, post-dated hymn of hate? How much reality can mankind bear? Might not Goethe's phrase, that if he knew himself he'd run away, apply to nations? Or Pascal's saying, that if we could read each others' thoughts, friendship would not exist? Isn't some degree of oblivion necessary if life is to go on at all?

As they emerged into the sunshine - or at least the steady drizzle - of democracy, the former communist countries had a difficult task balancing the claims of justice and orderliness, and on the whole they have coped rather well. As Garton Ash says, you can't punish every railwayman or postman who served the system. And the most important thing was that the Poles and Czechs themselves were left to strike that balance - a precedent that may hold lessons for the Balkans, or even Chile.

As the 1990s wear on, Garton Ash also becomes palpably more wary of "the European idea", at least as it is understood in Brussels. He is a Eurosceptic in the best sense of the word "sceptical". In June 1991 Jacques Poos, the foreign minister of gallant little Luxembourg, came to bring peace to a disintegrating Yugoslavia with the words: "The hour of Europe has dawned." The past eight years have seen the nemesis of that ludicrous hubris.

In one respect only is Garton Ash's perspective seriously distorted by a deformation professionelle: his absorption with eastern Europe. This absorption isn't unique, nor is the resulting deformation. It seemed to me bizarre that people such as Neal Ascherson and Anne Applebaum should have admired Norman Davies's cranky, if not downright odious, history of Europe, until I remembered that they all have a bad dose of Polish flu. That book tried to redress the "western" bias of most European historiography. It did this by idiotically printing the map of Europe sideways to make the east look more important, and by asking why we had heard so much about Burke's reflections on the French revolution and so little about his reflections on the Polish constitution of 1791.

The answer to that, as Noel Malcolm has said, is that the French revolution changed history and the Polish constitution didn't. And the larger truth is that eastern Europe doesn't matter. This is not said in a contemptuous or quasi-racist spirit: Poland and Moldova matter to those who live there, but then so do Niger, Nepal and Nauru (the Pacific island, population 11,000, which, as you doubtless recall, has just become the 186th member state of the United Nations). But the idea that they matter in the same political, economic or even cultural way as France or Japan is absurd.

As the Balkan conflagration grew, we were told that Bosnia was in "the heart of Europe" or, latterly by Tony Blair, that Kosovo is on the "doorstep of Europe". Some cynics quoted back Bismarck's "healthy bones of a Pomeranian grenadier". More cynically still, I thought of Metternich: "Asia begins at the Landstrasse" (the district of Vienna to the east of the Inner City). This is not an excuse for indifference or inactivity. There is a case to be made for taking responsibility for the benighted south-east corner of our continent, although, as I wrote in an NS essay (5 July), this looks more and more like an old-fashioned, imperial "civilising mission". There is also a strong case for expanding the European Union rapidly eastward, as long as we know what we are doing.

However beguiling the cafe life of Budapest and Cracow, or even the once and future Belgrade, the real "heart of Europe" is what Eric Hobsbawm calls "the main mountain-range or crest of European economic and cultural dynamism", which ran from north Italy, across the Alps, to northern France and the Low Countries, and was prolonged across the Channel into England. That was the heart of Europe in the heyday of medieval trade and Gothic architecture and is still the heart of the EU.

Whatever else the 1990s have done, they have taught us to be more humble about "the hour of Europe" or the natural unity of the whole continent; and they have indefinitely postponed the concept of a United States of Europe. I recommend this book to vainglorious politicians, in Brussels and Berlin, as well as London.