How the Pope ‘Defeated Communism’

If you’ve been watching television or reading newspapers at all over the past week, it would have been difficult not to learn that the late Pope John Paul II helped “defeat” communism. The pope has been said to have “sparked the fall of communism,” to have “stared down communism” or to have “championed communism’s collapse.” Some give him only partial credit: “Pope, Reagan collaborated to halt communism,” read one headline. Others make it sound as if he actually manned the barricades, describing him as the pope who “helped overthrow communism.”

Most of the time, these descriptions of the pope’s role in the collapse of communism are vague, and perhaps as a result much confusion has crept into the conversation. An acquaintance this week had a telephone call from a reporter who wanted to talk about how the pope secretly negotiated the end of communism with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In real life, the pope’s role in the end of the communist regime was far less conspiratorial, but no less significant — which is why it might be worth remembering what it was, actually, that he did.

In essence, the pope made two contributions to the defeat of totalitarian communism, a system in which the state claimed ownership of all or most physical property — factories, farms, houses — and also held a monopoly on intellectual life. No one was allowed to own a private business, in other words, and no one was allowed to express belief in any philosophy besides Marxism. The church, first in Poland and then elsewhere, broke these two monopolies, offering people a safe place to meet and intellectually offering them an alternative way of thinking about the world.

Here’s how it worked: When I lived in Poland in the late 1980s, I was told that if I wanted to know what was going on, I’d have to go every week to a particular Warsaw church and pick up a copy of the city’s weekly underground newspaper. Equally, if I wanted to see an exhibition of paintings that were not the work of the regime’s artists, or a play that was not approved by the regime’s censors, I could go to an exhibition or a performance in a church basement. The priests didn’t write the newspapers, or paint the paintings, or act in the plays — none of which were necessarily religious — but they made their space and resources available for the people who did. And in helping to create what we now call “civil society,” these priests were following the example of the pope who, as a young man in Nazi-occupied Poland, secretly studied for the priesthood and also founded an underground theater.

Odd though it sounds, the Polish church’s “alternative thinking” wasn’t an entirely religious phenomenon either. Marxism, as it was practiced in Eastern Europe, was a cult of progress. We are destroying the past in order to build the future, the communist leaders explained: We are razing the buildings, eradicating the traditions and collectivizing the land to make a new kind of society and to shape a new kind of citizen. But when the pope came to Poland, he talked not just of God but also of history. During his trips, he commemorated the 1,000th anniversary of the death of Saint Adalbert, the 600th anniversary of Poland’s oldest university or the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. I once heard him speak at length on the life of Sister Kinga, a 13th-century nun. This was deliberate. “Fidelity to roots does not mean a mechanical copying of the patterns of the past,” he said in one of his Polish speeches: “Fidelity to roots is always creative, ready to descend into the depths, open to new challenges.”

I don’t mean here to play down the pope’s spirituality. But it so happens that John Paul’s particular way of expressing his faith — publicly, openly, and with many cultural and historical references — was explosive in countries whose regimes tried to control both culture and history, along with everything else.

Finally, this pope also made an impact thanks to his unusual ability — derived from charisma and celebrity as well as faith — to get people out on the streets. As Natan Sharansky and others have written, communist regimes achieved their greatest successes when they were able to atomize people, to keep them apart and keep them afraid. But when the pope first visited Poland in 1979, he was greeted not by a handful of little old ladies, as the country’s leaders predicted, but by millions of people of all ages. My husband, 16 years old at the time, remembers climbing a tree on the outskirts of an airfield near Gniezno where the pope was saying Mass and seeing an endless crowd, “three kilometers in every direction.” The regime — its leaders, its police — were nowhere visible: “There were so many of us, and so few of them.” That was also the trip in which the pope kept repeating, “Don’t be afraid.”

It wasn’t a coincidence that Poles found the courage, a year later, to organize Solidarity, the first mass anticommunist political movement. It wasn’t a coincidence that “civil society” began to organize itself in other communist countries as well: If it could happen in Poland, it could happen in Hungary or East Germany. Nor was it necessary, in 1989, for the pope to do deals with Gorbachev, since in 1979 he had already demonstrated the hollowness of the Soviet Union’s claims to moral superiority. He didn’t need to conduct secret negotiations, because he’d already shown that the most important things could be said in public. He didn’t need to man the barricades, in other words, because he had already shown people that they could walk right through them.

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