Stalin is reported to have mocked the Catholic Church with his famous remark, “The Pope—how many divisions has the Pope?” Stalin’s successors found out the hard way. The Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg wrote during the dark years of Stalinism: “If the whole world were to be covered with asphalt, one day a crack would appear in that asphalt; and in that crack, grass would grow.” The selection of Pope John Paul II in 1978 was more than a crack in the asphalt; it was a veritable rending of the Iron Curtain, suggestive of the Savior’s rending of the curtain in the temple in the gospel accounts.
For all of his theological importance—which is immense all by itself—Pope John Paul II will be recalled by historians centuries from now as one of the key figures in bringing down what his famous collaborator Ronald Reagan rightly called “the Evil Empire.” That such an unlikely gnome of a man as Karol Wojtyla—Pope John Paul II’s given name—would turn out to be the irresistible force that turned the tide against the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe is testament to the inscrutable ways of God.
The first non-Italian Pope in 455 years set off alarm bells in the Kremlin the moment he was selected in October 1978. The new Pope’s headline proclamation upon being selected was “Be not afraid!” Be not afraid of what? The indirect meaning was clear.
The uncertainty and worry in ruling Communist circles could be seen in the first moments of John Paul’s selection; while the news spread instantly across Poland by word of mouth, the state-controlled Polish TV and radio network delayed announcing the news for several hours while the ruling Communist Party worked out its position. A hastily prepared CIA analysis concluded with typical understatement of the obvious that a Polish Pope “will undoubtedly prove extremely worrisome to Moscow.” An Italian journalist with good access to the Soviets remarked that “the Soviets would rather have Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as Secretary-General of the UN than a Pole as Pope.” The head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, called the KGB’s Warsaw station chief demanding to know “How could you possibly allow the election of a citizen of a socialist country as Pope?” The Polish ambassador to the USSR was called in for “consultations” in Kiev the day after Wojtyla’s selection; one can only speculate what undiplomatic epithets were exchanged. Surely, some Soviets thought, the United States must be behind this.
How ironic that Poland, the flash point for the outbreak of World War II, the crucible of the Cold War (at Yalta), and the keystone of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, would be the point of slippage that signaled the beginning of the end. Over 80 percent of the Polish population was Roman Catholic, and the church had long been the one significant focal point of resistance to the Communist regime. “Going to Mass,” Time magazine noted, “became not only a religious act but a quiet sign of rebellion against the state.”
The multi-lingual John Paul was a firm anti-Communist; he used to urge parishioners to read samizdat copies of George Orwell’s 1984. He was much more threatening to the Soviet Union than any liberal Eastern bloc politician; he was an intellectual, but had maintained a studied distance from day-to-day politics for much of his life. As such he had successfully resisted the attempts of the Polish Communist Party to suborn him with the usual blandishments of privileges and favors. His frequent preaching about universal human rights, though always carefully worded so as not to attack the state directly, made the government uncomfortable.
For a long time, the Polish government had been worried that Wojtyla would succeed Cardinal Wyszynski as primate of the Polish Catholic Church. In 1974 a Polish Communist Party official, Andrzej Werblan, had singled out Wojtyla as “the only real ideological threat in Poland.” Now he was Pope. His most authoritative biographer, George Weigel, notes that “John Paul II’s refusal to accept the Yalta division of Europe as a fact of life was a frontal challenge to postwar Soviet strategy… A Slavic Pope, capable of addressing the restive people of the external and internal Soviets empires in their own languages, was a nightmare beyond the worst dreams of the masters of the Kremlin.”
The nightmare was not long in coming. Just months after moving into the Vatican the new Pope announced his intent to make a visit to his home country the following summer; it would be the first-ever visit by a Pope to Eastern Europe. Brezhnev wanted Poland to disallow the Pope’s trip entirely, but the Polish government knew this was impossible. The Polish government hoped to limit the impact of his visit, haggling over dates and cities to visit, and censoring media coverage of the trip. But the Pope got the better of them.
John Paul originally proposed a two-day visit to Krakow and Warsaw to celebrate the Feast of St. Stanislaw on the 900th anniversary of his death on May 8, 1979. But this feast day, according to George Weigel, had “unmistakable overtones of resistance to state power, [and] was simply too much for the regime to contemplate.” The Polish government was relieved when the Pope agreed to come in June instead, but instead of two days and two cities, he would be coming for nine days and visiting six cities. “The regime may have convinced itself,” Weigel reflected, “that, by deflecting the visit from the traditional date of Stanislaw’s feast, it had won a considerable victory. In fact, the communists had lost a great deal. John Paul happily traded two days for nine, two cities for six.”
Millions turned out to see the Pope celebrate what were probably the largest outdoor masses in the history of the church. In Warsaw’s Victory Square, the crowd began chanting, “We want God, we want God, we want God in the family circle, we want God in books, we want God in government orders, we want God, we want God…” Two million turned out for his final mass in Krakow. The government ham-handedly tried to undermine the Pope’s visit by circulating a flyer in the public schools that declared “The Pope is our enemy… Due to his uncommon skills and great sense of humor he is dangerous, because he charms everyone, especially journalists.” (One almost wonders whether such a crude broadside wasn’t the work of the CIA or secret Catholic sympathizers within the Polish government.) Polish television was careful to focus its camera tightly on the Pope, deliberately avoiding any views of the massive crowds that turned out to see him. These attempts to contain the Pope were hopeless. Timothy Garton Ash wrote: “For nine days the state virtually ceased to exist… Everyone saw that Poland is not a communist country—just a communist state… It is impossible to place an exact value on the transformation of consciousness wrought by the Polish Pope.”
There was little doubt about where the real power now lay. The regime cowered. The Soviet ambassador to Poland left the country for the whole week, and the 40,000 Soviet troops based in Poland were confined to quarters, lest any inadvertent provocation occur. The Pope’s carefully worded spiritual messages took direct aim at Poland’s Communist government and by implication its patrons in Moscow: “The exclusion of Christ from human history is an act against man… There can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland marked on its map.” A Polish bishop told Time magazine: “The Polish people broke the barrier of fear. They were hurling a challenge to their Marxist rulers.” George Will tersely noted: “No Communist leader in Eastern Europe or the USSR will ever hear such cheers.” The Hungarian-born historian John Lukacs concurred: “In Poland the monopoly of the Communist Party is broken beyond repair.”
The Soviet leadership in Moscow didn’t want to sit back and passively watch events unfold. In November, the Politburo passed a six-point policy statement entitled “Decision to Work Against the Policies of the Vatican in Relation with Socialist States.” It directed the Communist Parties of the Soviet states bordering Poland to step up propaganda against the Catholic Church. Outside the Soviet bloc, the KGB was ordered to “improve the quality of the struggle against the new Eastern European policy of the Vatican,” and above all “to show that the leadership of the new pope… is dangerous to the Catholic Church.”
It was as though a sorcerer’s spell had been broken. A few months later, the Solidarity trade union movement began—another crack in the asphalt. In another irony that seems worthy of being attributed to providence, the Gdansk shipyard where the first authentic workers revolt in the Communist world began was named after Lenin. As rumors of a Soviet invasion or a Polish military crackdown grew, the scene at the Lenin shipyard riveted the world’s attention. The power of the new Pope was evident. Pictures of the Polish Pope (who had sent a message supporting the strikers in the first week of their action) hung on the shipyard fence, and the scene of hundreds of shipyard workers going to confession and taking communion on the shipyard grounds, not only symbolizing the rival power but defiling the atheist legacy of the shipyard’s namesake, Lenin. Polish poet Stanislaw Baranczak said it was like coming up for air after living for years under water. There were actually some tangible measures to these grand words: according to official statistics, in the months after Solidarity’s founding, suicides in Poland fell by a third, and alcohol consumption also dropped by a quarter.
Signs pointed to a crackdown, with either a rerun of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, or at the very least the imposition of martial law by the Polish government itself. Then for the first time, the Soviet Union lost its nerve. Twice the Soviets contemplated invasion. Twice they backed down, in part out of fear of the Pope’s influence. Declassified Politburo minutes show that the Soviets in 1981 considered whether to abandon Poland altogether. Although Poland did eventually declare martial law in 1981 as the behest of the Soviets, in hindsight it is clear that this was the beginning of the death spiral for Communist rule.
How many divisions has the Pope? We now know the answer to that question. Pope John Paul II wielded the power that comes with the idea of freedom. His memory will live as long as the idea of freedom itself.
Steven Hayward is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and an adjunct fellow at the John Ashbrook Center. This as adapted from his work-in-progress, The Age of Reagan: Lion at the Gate, 1980-1989.