A woman celebrates as she awaits the release of balloons into the sky along the former path of the Berlin Wall in Berlin Nov. 9. Commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Pope Francis said the sudden end to the division of Europe was prepared by the prayers and sacrifice of many people, including St. John Paul II. CNS photo/Roman Pilipey, EPA

John Paul II opened gates to fall of European communism

  • November 13, 2014

The 25th anniversary of the defeat of European communism, dramatically punctuated by the smashing of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, was a historical moment of biblical proportions. The peaceful dismantling of the Soviet empire — so much so that the Soviet Union ceased to exist altogether in 1991 — was never thought to be possible, let alone to be accomplished by the very workers and ordinary people in whose name communism ostensibly ruled. Rarely is it possible to see in history the finger of God so clearly at work.

This past summer I had the opportunity to interview Lech Wałesa, the leader of the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland in the 1980s. It was Solidarity that brought the Polish communist regime to its knees, and the “roundtable” negotiations in early 1989 set the stage for the first free elections behind the Iron Curtain in June of that year. Solidarity swept the elections and the first “domino” among the Warsaw Pact countries fell. By year end, all the dominos had fallen and eastern Europe was free.

“When I asked presidents, prime ministers and kings of that time whether there was a chance for freedom in Poland, they all said that there was no chance — only a nuclear war could change the reality of that world. Then see what happened,” Wałesa told me in July in his home city of Gdansk, where he is now retired after serving as the first freely elected president of Poland, from 1990-95. (The complete interview can be found in the October/November issue of Convivium at conviviummagazine. ca.) 

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