By Russell Shaw
On Nov. 9, 1989, the impossible happened.
As armed East German border guards stood by and watched, tens of thousands of East Berliners flooded onto and over the infamous Berlin Wall. Some rushed into West Berlin while others set about dismantling this monument to terror and oppression, where over the previous 28 years some 200 people had been killed while attempting to escape from the workers’ paradise.
The wall had fallen.
More than anything that came before it or was to happen after it, the fall of the Berlin Wall is the pre-eminent symbol of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War. Less than two years later, the “captive nations” of the now-vanished Soviet empire were free, and the Soviet Union itself had peacefully dissolved.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall this month, Berlin will celebrate a “festival of freedom.” Other observances in other cities and countries will recall the triumph of what Pope John Paul II called “a struggle born of prayer.”
But when the last speech has been given and the festivities have ended, a basic question will remain: Why did these things happen? How could the seemingly iron grip of totalitarian regimes backed by the Red Army be broken in so short a time and with hardly any bloodshed?
It would be an exercise in religious triumphalism to say, or even to imply, that the events of late 1989 had exclusively spiritual causes. But it would be triumphalism of a secularist variety to deny or ignore their spiritual roots and cite only political, economic and military explanations.
As matters stand, the secularist triumphalism is common. It’s easy to find secular accounts of the fall of communism that have much to say about secular politicians and secular issues such as Soviet economic decline and growing anger in reaction to repressive policies, but scarcely mention or even entirely ignore the religious factor in these historic events.
Not everyone suffers from secularist tunnel vision, though. In his 2007 study “Sacred Causes” (HarperCollins, $27.95), on the interaction of politics and religion in Europe during the past century, British historian Michael Burleigh writes of Pope John Paul II: “Some people like to downplay his contribution to communism’s collapse. The KGB [Soviet secret police] and Bulgarian secret service did not agree since in 1981 they recruited a fanatic Turk [Mehmet Ali Agca] to kill him.” The pope was seriously wounded in that attack in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981.
There was a time, not so long before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when communism in Eastern Europe seemed impregnable and the global expansion of communism leading to its eventual victory in the struggle with the West appeared inevitable to many people.
Whittaker Chambers, an ex-communist and writer for Time magazine, was one.
In 1948 Chambers blew the whistle on his old friend Alger Hiss, identifying him as a longtime Soviet spy. Hiss, a member of America’s liberal establishment, had held high government posts in which he regularly channeled information to his Soviet masters. For his pains, Chambers was excoriated by the establishment, and his story about Hiss was widely questioned for years. Now, based on information from the Soviet archives, it is beyond doubt that he was telling the truth — Hiss was a committed communist and a spy.
But Chambers’ vindication was a long time coming. And, as he was later to recall in his autobiography, “Witness,” when he quit the Communist Party in 1937 he told his wife: “You know, we are leaving the winning world for the losing world.”
Then and later, many others shared the view that communism was sure to win and freedom as embodied in the seemingly weak-willed and confused liberal democracies of the West was sure to lose. This scenario seemed even more probable when the Soviet Union, following World War II, installed communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe, thereby incorporating formerly independent countries into a loose-knit communist empire behind what Winston Churchill named the Iron Curtain.
Even in the darkest Cold War days that followed, however, that curtain had chinks here and there. Certain fundamental weaknesses of the Marxist monolith were laid bare in a classic of that era — a volume of autobiographical essays by six prominent intellectuals explaining why they had joined the Communist Party and then left. The book, published in 1950, carried the provocative and prescient title “The God That Failed.” Among the contributors were well-known writers like the Hungarian Arthur Koestler, the Italian Ignazio Silone and the American Richard Wright.
The religious overtones of the book’s title were no accident. British Labour Party politician Richard Crossman, who edited the volume, remarked that the contributors originally had seen in Marxism “a vision of the kingdom of God on earth” so that joining the Communist Party was for them something like an act of religious commitment.
But Josef Stalin disabused them of that. Time and again, what spelled the end of allegiance to communism for formerly dedicated adherents like these were the Moscow show trials of the 1930s. For those with eyes to see, the Moscow trials were judicial farces staged to bring about the disgrace and execution of former party officials whose only offense was annoying the brutal dictator perched at the peak of the Soviet pyramid.
Eventually, Koestler wrote, he and others like him were sickened by the “dialectical tight-rope acts of self-deception” required to justify what they saw happening, and they quit. “Each discovered the gap between his own vision of God and the reality of the communist state — and the conflict of conscience reached [a] breaking point,” Crossman commented.
The Berlin Wall also fits this pattern. One certainty about the events of 1989 was that the wall was from the start a symbol of communism’s failure rather than its success. When the wall went up in 1961, its builders’ aim wasn’t to keep people out, but to keep them in — to stop East Germans from fleeing their own country. For even by then, as Burleigh remarks, the Soviet empire was well on its way to becoming “a slum of continental proportions” in which the slumlords busied themselves, turning it into a spiritual wasteland as well.
Numbers spotlight one of the unanticipated results of this project. In 1950, the number of people escaping from East Germany into West Germany was 197,000; in 1951, 165,000; in 1952, 182,000; in 1953, 331,000. Thereafter, the border between the two Germanies was closed and a barbed-wire fence was built.
The exception was Berlin, where the border between the Western and Eastern sectors remained open. As a result, the city became a magnet for people fleeing to the West. By 1961, when the communist authorities, desperate to halt this exodus, finally ordered the construction of the wall, some 3.5 million East Germans had left — 20 percent of the entire East German population. Overrepresented among them were engineers, technicians, physicians, teachers, lawyers and skilled workers seeking economic opportunity along with liberty in the West.
In the long run, nevertheless, events in heavily Catholic Poland were to prove even more significant for the collapse of communism.
For Poland, the aftermath of World War II brought a communist government propped up by the military might of the country’s traditional Russian foe. It was no surprise then that Polish nationalism and Polish religion intertwined to become the basis of a stubborn resistance.
Persecution of religion, sometimes to the point of bloodshed, was a continuing feature of communist rule.
For leftist intellectuals with utopian visions like those represented in “The God That Failed,” Marxism was a kind of surrogate religion, and splitting with the Communist Party was something like abandoning religious faith. But for millions of ordinary people in Eastern Europe, the issue was communism’s hostility to genuine religion and its persistent assault on the freedom to believe and practice one’s faith.
By the early 1980s, like a long, hard winter drawing to an end, signs of a thaw had set in. Religion was crucial to it. But three secular political figures also stand out: U.S. President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Reagan and Thatcher, staunch anti-communists, rejected the policy of détente, which dominated Western thinking about the Soviet Union during the 1970s, and pressed the Soviets hard. Reagan’s “Star Wars” plan for a high-tech missile defense system helped convince Soviet rulers — already struggling with a crumbling economy worsened by war in Afghanistan — that they couldn’t compete in the area of increasingly expensive military technology.
The American president also operated on the level of ideology. Reagan famously called the Soviet system an “evil empire” and, standing at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987, he issued a ringing challenge: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Gorbachev, who became the Soviet leader in March 1985, emerged as a reformer who saw the folly of trying to maintain the Soviet empire at all costs and found distasteful the violence and corruption of the system he’d inherited. Denouncing Stalin and Stalinism, he introduced policies of economic and social reform (“glasnost” and “perestroika”), and encouraged the liberalization of Soviet society, including the release of prominent dissidents like the physicist Andrei Sakharov. In 1987 he negotiated an arms-control agreement to reduce nuclear forces in Europe.
To a marked degree, though, it was Pope John Paul, the first Polish pope in history, who was catalyst for the momentous events of 1989. Elected to head the Church on Oct. 16, 1978, he set aside the previous decade’s policy of “ostpolitik” — a Vatican equivalent of détente that promised Catholic acceptance of communist regimes in exchange for breathing room for the Church — and adopted a confrontational approach.
What this meant in practice became clear during nine extraordinary days the next year. From June 2 to 10, 1979, the former archbishop of Kraków made his first visit home to his native country. Despite ineffectual attempts by the regime to hold down the crowds and reduce the pope’s impact, an estimated 13 million Poles turned out to greet him.
“We want God!” a huge crowd shouted in Warsaw’s Victory Square. It was true — along with political freedom and a better life, people unquestionably did want God, and they looked to Pope John Paul II as his vicar. Many Poles also had scores to settle with the communists. Asked why he came to hear the pope, a Polish miner replied, “To praise the Mother of God and to spite those bastards.”
In the decade that followed, the road to freedom was not easy, but the Poles persevered, and the pope backed them. In parliamentary elections in 1989, candidates of Solidarity, the independent trade union movement headed by a canny electrician-turned-Nobel Peace Prize winner named Lech Walesa, won 99 percent of the contested seats. Communist domination of Poland had come to an end. The country was free for the first time since World War II.
Poland was the first nation to break away from the Soviet empire. What happened there was the beginning of the end for communism in Eastern Europe. November brought the fall of the Berlin Wall. Soon other countries staged largely peaceful revolutions of their own and established demo-cratic systems. Two years later the Soviet Union dissolved.
Whittaker Chambers was wrong. He was on the winning side after all.
Many attempts have been made to explain these astonishing events. Pope John Paul provided his own analysis in May 1991 in the encyclical Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”), marking the centenary of the publication of Pope Leo XIII’s pioneering social encyclical Rerum Novarum. Pope John Paul singled out three causes in particular.
The “decisive factor,” he said, was the violation of workers’ rights by communist regimes. He wrote: “It cannot be forgotten that the fundamental crisis of systems claiming to express the rule and indeed the dictatorship of the working class began with the great upheavals which took place in Poland in the name of solidarity. It was the throngs of working people who foreswore the ideology which presumed to speak in their name.”
The second factor was the ineffiency of the economy under Marxism. More than just a technical problem, Pope John Paul held, this was “a consequence of the violation of the human rights to private initiative, to ownership of property, and to freedom in the economic sector.”
The third factor noted by the pope was for him the most important one. “The true cause of the new developments,” he wrote, “was the spiritual void brought about by atheism.” The ideology of godlessness imposed by communism deprived people of a sense of meaning and direction in life, with predictable consequences: “Marxism had promised to uproot the need for God from the human heart, but the results have shown that it is not possible to succeed in this without throwing the heart into turmoil.”
And now? Pope John Paul was no Pollyanna. “The crisis of Marxism,” he said, “does not rid the world of the situations of injustice and oppression which Marxism itself exploited and which it fed on.” Twenty years after the Berlin Wall came down, what sane person doubts that?
With the threat of atheism in its Marxist form largely removed, moreover, Christianity today finds itself challenged by Western secularism and resurgent Islamic fundamentalism. Pope Benedict XVI cited these as twin problems for the West in his famously provocative address on Sept. 12, 2006, at the University of Regensburg.
Like the Berlin Wall that was its symbol, communism in Eastern Europe has fallen, but the great spiritual struggle of modern times continues. As it does, it seems natural to recall what Reinhold Niebuhr, a distinguished Lutheran theologian, said about the United States and the West during the depths of the Cold War in 1952:
“If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”
The United States today is said to have the world’s most permissive official policy on abortion. In attempting to draft a European constitution a few years ago, the Continent’s secular political leaders refused to acknowledge the historical fact of Europe’s Christian roots. Today, as we debate the reasons for the fall of communism, there appears to be still another unanswered question: Communism is gone, along with the wall — but how much else has changed?
After the May 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul’s life, it was assumed by many people, including those at the Vatican, that gunman Mehmet Ali Agca was acting on behalf of the Soviet KGB, possibly with the Bulgarian intelligence service acting as intermediary. But as papal biographer George Weigel noted in his book “Witness to Hope,” the Soviets tersely denied the allegations, instead blaming the attempt on the United States. And the three Bulgarians that Ali Agca named as his connections were tried and acquitted in an Italian court. In recent years, Agca, who was released from prison in 2006, has claimed he acted alone.
Writing about the assassination attempt in “Memory and Identity: Conversations Between Millenniums,” the late pontiff wrote that he did not think that Agca acted alone, and while he didn’t name who he thought was behind the shooting, he described it as an episode in the “last convulsions of 20th-century ideologies of force.”
Weigel writes that the full truth of Acga’s sponsorship may never be known, given that many of the principle players are dead and that relevant Russian archives remain closed to researchers: “Barring an unforeseen documentary breakthrough, the debate over why and at whose bequest Mehmet Ali Agca shot the pope will continue. The simplest, most compelling answer to the question, Who benefited? will keep alive the intuition that the Soviet Union was not an innocent in this business.”
Sources: Catholic News Service, “Witness to Hope”
Last month, during a concert marking the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, Pope Benedict XVI called the fall of the Berlin Wall “an eloquent symbol” of Eastern Europe’s communist regimes. “Europe and the whole world are thirsting for freedom and peace! It is necessary to build together a true civilization which is not based on force but is ‘the fruit of a victory over ourselves, over the powers of injustice, selfishness and hatred which can go so far as to disfigure man himself!’” the pontiff continued, quoting from Pope John Paul II’s 1989 apostolic letter on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.
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