25 Years Ago Today

by Roger Alford

Twenty-five years ago today, on May 13, 1981, an assassination attempt was made on the life of John Paul II. Days like today make me think of the counterfactual. Can you possibly imagine what the world would be like today without John Paul II? Peggy Noonan in her recent book, John Paul The Great, eloquently summarizes the impact of this great man on the fall of communism. Here is her take on his famous trip to Poland in 1979:
[I]t was the Blonie Field, in Kraków… that provided the great transcendent moment of the pope’s trip. It was the moment when, for those looking back, the new world opened. It was the moment, some said later, that Soviet communism’s long fall began. It was a week into the trip, June 10, 1979…. The pope was to hold a public Mass. The Communist government had not allowed it to be publicized, but it was the end of the trip and Poles had spread the word. The government braced itself, because now they knew a lot of people might come, as they had to John Paul’s first Mass. But that was a week before. Since then, maybe people had seen enough of him. Maybe they were tiring of his message. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. But something happened in the Blonie Field. At least two million people came, maybe more, maybe three million. For a Mass in the muddy field. It was the biggest gathering of human beings in the entire history of Poland. And it was there, at the end of his trip, in the Blonie Field, that John Paul took on communism directly, by focusing on its attempt to kill the religious heritage of a country that had for a thousand years believed in Christ….
The people who had been at the Mass at the field could compare the reality they had witnessed with their own eyes with the propaganda the state-run media reported. They could see the discrepancy. This left the people of Poland able to say at once and together, definitively, with no room for argument: It’s all lies. Everything this government says is a lie. Everything it is is a lie…. One by one the people of Poland said to themselves, or for themselves within themselves: It is over. And when ten million Poles said that to themselves, it was over in Poland. And when it was over in Poland, it was over in Eastern Europe. And when it was over in Eastern Europe, it was over in the Soviet Union. And when it was over in the Soviet Union, well, it was over…. All of this was summed up by the Polish publisher and intellectual Jerzy Turowicz… “Historians say World War II ended in 1945. Maybe in the rest of the world, but not in Poland. They say communism fell in 1989. Not in Poland. World War II and communism both ended in Poland at the same time: when John Paul II came home.”

One Response

  1. I’ll take nothing away from John Paul II, but it might be said he was the right person, in the right place and at the right time. His impact would have been far less were it not for the peculiar historical and sociological role of the Catholic Church in Poland (e.g., the virtual fusion of Polish nationalist identity and Catholicism).

    Party-State Socialism in the Soviet Union was imploding in any case (read Rudolf Bahro’s masterpiece that got him locked up in the GDR as well as the work of Boris Kagarlitsky), and Gorbachev wisely initiated glasnost and perestroika from above in the hopes of lessening the impact of the imminent collapse of the system: glasnost helped, but perestroika, in the words of Meghnad Desai, ‘was a dismal failure.’ Despite its vast military apparatus, the Soviet economy was no match for the capitalist West. The hopes for any market socialism were dashed, assuming as it does, the presence of a mature capitalist economy, something conspicuous by its absence in the Soviet and East-Central European economies under ‘Party-State Socialism’ (a mongrel political-economic behemoth that was neither democratic nor socialist, let alone ‘communist’).

    Solidarity and the democratic opposition in Poland knew the Soviet Union was looking more and more like the dying Ottoman Empire at the turn of the century. That, together with the ‘free space’ in civil society carved out by the Church in Poland, helped set in motion this particular Velvet Revolution. Read the writings of Adam Michnik, Jan Josef Lipski, Jacek Kuron and other East-Central European intellectuals (Benda, Konrad, Havel, etc.) from this period and you’ll discover how best to distribute the credit for the fall of the Party-State regimes in Eastern and Central Europe. At best, John Paul II helped hasten the demise of the Communist government in Poland by adding his enormous religious and moral prestige to forces already set in motion (not a negligible contribution to be sure, particularly when one appreciates the role of proper leadership in times of social upheaval and momentous change). But the emergence of the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) and Solidarity itself would be unthinkable without taking into account Poland’s long and fascinating history of under- and above-ground opposition (for instance, the Flying University, the ‘Letter of 34,’ the Club of the Seekers of Contradiction, the Walterites, and the Club of the Crooked Circle), which did not always work well with the Church, however much it welcomed its role as the institutional guardian of a fragile civil society. There’s much more to this story, but this will have to suffice.

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