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One of the best books for me this year was Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, by Timothy Garton Ash. It sums up a life’s work by the longtime journalist and scholar, initially writing from behind the lines, in furtive meetings in communist-ruled Central Europe. Later, he switched to the frontlines, as many of the dissidents he had once had to meet with in secret became presidents and ministers in new democratic governments. “I survived 40 years of communism; I am not sure I will survive one year of capitalism,” one confides in him. The arc of Garton Ash’s reporting life doesn’t bend towards justice, or at least his version of it. His account of Brexit is understandably rueful and a touch bitter. He feels the lash of being lambasted as one of the losing, out-of-touch elites. After decades of working to bring Polish friends into Europe and the United Kingdom, they turn around to tell him that they were convinced that it was the Brits who shouldn’t be part of the continent. “We had become Them, to be gotten rid of.” Many writers write in the first person, gratingly and gratuitously putting themselves at the centre of larger stories. Garton Ash writes himself into the narrative lightly, in a way that lifts the story.
My other favourite book was also about recent European communist history – Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949–1990, by Katja Hoyer. It didn’t entirely meet the author’s aim – of bringing alive real life in East Germany, although there is some of that. But it was an enthralling read, nonetheless. You get a vivid sense of the country beyond the stereotypes that reduced it to tales of the Stasi and bearded women sprinters. It is especially terrific about the politics – East Germany’s leaders were mostly extreme Stalinists. Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker really jump off the page. In their own dark way, they did a remarkable job in building a country in a short time. More than three decades after unification, much of the old East still lives in a resentful parallel universe from the richer and dominant West.
To make a broader point, if, like me, you are paid to track the Chinese Communist Party, it is always worth your time to read about how communist parties operate in other countries.
For podcasts, I recommend Fever: The Hunt for Covid’s Origin. One of the most irritating aspects of the debate over the origin of the Covid-19 virus is that most of the news stories are usually written from a position of advocacy. In other words, if a particular journalist supports the Wuhan lab leak theory, they tend to cherry-pick any information that comes their way and present news stories that confirm it. I guess another way of describing it is confirmation bias. John Sudworth, who did great reporting in China for the BBC before being forced out of the country, gives full and fair vent to both of the dominant theories about the virus’ origin – the Wuhan wet markets and the lab leak and so forth. More than that, he tries to unpick the scientific politics of the individuals and camps pushing those competing theories, including those in China itself. It is illuminating, in the way that most news about the leak these days is not. Highly recommended.