April 7, 2005


How the Pope 'Defeated Communism' (Anne Applebaum, April 6, 2005, Washington Post)

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.

That one realization, that you so overwhelmingly outnumber the regime, is the key too to the revolutions rolling across the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe these days.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 7, 2005 12:00 AM

The main problem with Communism in the 20th century is that it became dictatorships in almost all the countries where it was supposed to allow freedoms of expression for all. The theory of Communism, all for one and one for all, each working to his fullest for the benefit of all...is a great theory.... but totally out of touch with reality. Consequently, all the Communist states deteriorated to dictatorships or rule my the elite, more equal, few. The pope just helped point out some of numerous weaknesses and fallacies of a Communist state.

Posted by: Oldkayaker at April 7, 2005 2:28 AM