In his New History of the Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis of Yale writes that the beginning of the end of European communism came on the morning of June 2nd, 1979, when Pope John Paul II stepped off his plane at Warsaw Airport. That’s an interesting statement from a historian who’s not a Catholic, who has no particular denominational dog in the fight.
Now Professor Gaddis is a sophisticated student of the Cold War, who knows that the end game was a very complicated story. It made a great difference, for example, that Ronald Reagan – not Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale – was president of the United States in the 1980s, just as it made a great deal of difference that Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister of Great Britain and that Helmut Kohl, not Helmut Schmidt, was the chancellor of West Germany. But if we ask, why did 1989 happen when it did, rather than in 1999 or 2009 or 2019, we admit the inevitability of the collapse of communism, and why it did (without, in the main, mass violence then I think Professor Gaddis’s attribution of a key role to Pope John Paul II ought to be taken quite seriously.
But it’s important to underscore what was unique about the Pope’s unique role. And for that we have to go back to the Nine Days of June 2-10, 1979, days on which the history of the world really pivoted in a more humane direction.
It is instructive to note that during the Nine Days, his first pilgrimage back to his Polish homeland, John Paul II did not speak once – in over fifty sermons, lectures, offhand remarks, meetings with various groups – about politics or economics. Rather, in a virtual infinity of variations on one great theme, he said to the people he knew so well, in a language he spoke so beautifully, “You are not who they say you are. Let me remind you who you really are. And if you own the truth about yourselves, in your identity and the culture that has formed it, you will find new forms of resistance that your current rulers cannot match.”
This was moral revolution, a revolution of conscience rooted in cultural reclamation, and it resonated through the region because it was entirely congruent with what the human rights resistance in Central and Eastern Europe had been saying since the 1976 Helsinki Final Act, when “Helsinki Watch” groups had sprung up all over Central and Eastern Europe and inside the Soviet Union itself. Those Helsinki groups developed the strategy that Vaclav Havel called “living in the truth,” in forms of cultural resistance whose moral strength could not be bested by merely material power. As Havel put it in that extraordinary essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” the idea was to live as if you were free, to live as if this whole wretched system around you was not compelling you to acquiesce in its falsification of the nature of the human person, of human origins, human destiny, human community.
This business of living in the truth, living as if one were free, produced something that communism simply couldn’t handle: solidarity, the virtue. Communist social control depended on the fragmentation of society. One great symbol of that was the arrangement of apartment blocks in Nowa Huta, a steel milling town built on the outskirts of Cracow in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In these massive blocks, it was impossible to walk down the long axis of the building, from one apartment to another. If you wanted to visit the neighbor next door, you had to go down five floors, walk outside, go into the next entrance, and come upstairs to see your neighbor. And while this made things easier for the secret police, it also embodied the communist atomization of society, the systematic destruction of the sinews of civil society.
Living in the truth, living as if one were free rebuilds the sinews of solidarity ands makes possible the reconstruction of civil society. Why? Because it enabled people to live as John Paul II he did, in resistance to the tyranny of the possible – the notion that things just are the way they are and there’s nothing you can do about it. President Reagan lived against the tyranny of the possible. John Paul II certainly lived that way, and inspired others to do so.
By 2016, you’re going to have to be over forty years old to have any existential sense – of what the Soviet Union was like and what the Cold War was about. And with the international security architecture of the post-Cold War world crumbling, we’re going to have to square one, in the United States, in our thinking about the world. Going back to square one means understanding what my friend Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, said to me recently about the drama of his country: “This is not only about us, this is about you.”
America understood that in the Cold War. America hasn’t understood that very well in recent years. The indispensability of American leadership in the world has been demonstrated along a very bloody via negativa of America “leading from behind.” That isolationism in any of its variant forms is ultimately dangerous to the United States because it’s dangerous to the world, and that a world without American leadership is a chaotic world, has been borne home to us time and again, across the globe.
So in the years ahead, what I hope we take from this anniversary is a sense of purpose embodied in the title of a book I wrote some years ago about U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War: idealism without illusions – idealism in the sense that things don’t have to be the way they are and the tyranny of the possible is always to be resisted; but an idealism tempered by a realistic assessment of human nature and the wickedness of which it is capable, and a realistic calculus of both the possibilities and the limits of American leadership in the world. President Reagan and Pope John Paul II were idealists without illusions. And it’s from their example that we can take encouragement about the future on this 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
* This post is excerpted from an address delivered on November 7, 2014, commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. The event was co-hosted by the Heritage Foundation and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. See the whole event here.