NYT: Did the Pope Win the Cold War? The Answer Is YES in Poland

Roundup: Talking About History

Richard Bernstein, in the NYT (4-6-05):

From the president of the country on down, just about everybody in Poland who has offered a historical assessment of Pope John Paul II says more or less the same thing: that without him a free Poland would not exist today. And beyond that, this appraisal goes, there would have been no collapse of Communism throughout Eastern Europe.

Is that true?

Perhaps some day revisionist historians will find some reason to dispute that assessment and to minimize the role of the pope in the great events that led up to the miracle year of 1989 when the Soviet satellite governments in the East fell one by one in a series of mostly peaceful political upheavals.

For now, however, the weight of the evidence is strongly on the side of the Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, who put the matter very simply the night John Paul died:"We wouldn't have had a free Poland without him," he said on Polish television.

Even Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former Polish leader who declared martial law in 1981 and tried to crush the freedom movement, credited the pope with a crucial role in ending Communism in Poland.

In the complicated politics of cold war history, there is and always will be a debate about the relative importance of various figures. Ronald Reagan, the Helsinski accords and the economic crisis throughout the Soviet bloc played their roles. Nobody is arguing that the pope felled Communism all by himself.

But John Paul was, in the view of historians and historical leaders alike, crucial to the creation of the Solidarity labor movement in 1980. That, after a long and often tragic course, led to the collapse of Communism in Poland in the summer of 1989. And that, in turn, initiated the collapses of the other Communist governments of Eastern Europe from East Germany to Bulgaria.

"The Communist regime had to collapse, and it would have happened without John Paul II," said Bronislaw Geremek, who is both a former Solidarity activist and a former foreign minister of Poland."But I do believe that the time matters in human life, and we could have had the continuation of the Communist regime for one more generation, without John Paul II."

For Mr. Geremek and for most analysts, the crucial event was John Paul's visit to Poland in 1979, the year after Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became the first Polish pope.

"When the pope came in 1979, he brought a very simple message," Mr. Geremek said."He said, 'Don't be afraid.'"

"One could say that Poles tried not to be afraid before, in 1970 and 1976," he continued, referring to earlier democracy uprisings in Poland that were violently crushed by the Communist authorities."But in 1979, the pope's message was that a Communist regime cannot work without social approval, and he was saying, 'Don't approve.'"

When, the next year, Solidarity was formed in Gdansk and organized a strike at the Lenin Shipyards there, one of the movement's first gestures was to hang a picture of the pope at the shipyard's gates.


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