Within hours of taking over the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk in August 1980, an action that opened the way for the collapse of communism, Polish workers decorated the gate with a large photograph of Pope John Paul II. The portrait was both symbol and talisman -- a rejection of the godless ideology of Marxism and protection from the fury of the communist regime.
The first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years, and the first pope from Eastern Europe, Karol Wojtyla helped inspire a workers' rebellion in his native Poland that became a model for anti-communist upheavals in the rest of Eastern Europe. Historians and participants alike credit the pope with playing a key role in making the revolution possible and keeping it peaceful.
Pope John Paul II granted Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, a private audience at the Vatican in November 2000. Some historians draw a connection between the election of a Polish pontiff and the events that led to Gorbachev's decision to permit the Soviet bloc to fall apart peacefully.
(Luciano Mellace -- Reuters)
The workers who occupied the shipyard, making a mockery of the communist boast of a "workers' state," identified the pope and the Catholic church with a decades-long struggle against a totalitarian system imposed on Poland by the Soviet Union. Wearing grimy overalls and hard hats, the strikers attended Mass, waved the yellow-and-white Vatican flag, and quoted from sermons delivered by the pope during his pilgrimage to Poland the previous year.
When their leader, Lech Walesa, ended the strike by signing an agreement with the authorities to establish the first free trade unions in a communist country, he used a huge souvenir pen from the papal visit, emblazoned with a portrait of pope. A portrait of Poland's most revered religious symbol, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, adorned his lapel.
As Walesa later recalled, dissidents and free trade union activists accounted for a minuscule percentage of Poland's 35 million people in October 1978, when Wojtyla was elected pope. "A year after the visit, I had 10 million supporters," Walesa marveled, a "miracle of multiplication" that he compared to the New Testament story of the bread and the fishes.
Some 20 million Poles turned out to greet the pope during his nine-day homecoming. It was an extraordinary demonstration of the depth of feeling against the one-party dictatorship that exercised almost total control over parliament, the trade unions, the judiciary and the media.
"The regime's sense of invincibility was suddenly shattered," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Polish-born official who served at the time as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. "After that visit, nothing was the same again."
The pope's election and subsequent visit to Poland gave Poles "a tremendous sense of being together," said Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a leader of the Solidarity trade union created by the 1980 Gdansk agreement. "When we Poles talked about the political situation in those days, we talked in terms of 'us' and 'them,' meaning the communist rulers. After the pope's visit, we realized that 'they,' not 'us,' were the dissidents."
In many ways, said Onyszkiewicz, the papal visit was a "dress rehearsal" for the Solidarity revolution. "It was our first major exercise in self-organization," he said, noting that tens of thousands of volunteers took charge of logistics and security arrangements for the visit as the communist authorities withdrew to the shadows.
Some historians credit the pope with initiating the extraordinary sequence of events that culminated a decade later in the fall of the Berlin Wall, the overthrow of communist governments from Warsaw to Prague to Bucharest, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. They draw a direct connection between the election of a Polish pontiff and the decision by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to permit the Soviet bloc to fall apart peacefully.
"Without the pope, there probably would have been no peaceful end of communism as we saw it in 1989," said Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford University historian who witnessed many of the revolutions that swept through Eastern Europe. "Without the pope, there would have been no Solidarity movement; without Solidarity, there would have been no Gorbachev; without Gorbachev, there would have been no 1989. The pope was crucial at every stage."
Garton Ash said the election of a Polish pope made it much more difficult for the communist authorities in Warsaw and Moscow to use force to break up the strikes at the Lenin shipyard and other Polish factories in August 1980. The pope's moral authority also made it impossible for Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski to completely crush the opposition in December 1981 after he declared martial law and imprisoned thousands of Solidarity activists.
Some participants say that Garton Ash and others overstate the case in crediting the pope for the peaceful collapse of communism. "That's going a bit too far," said Onyszkiewicz. "Something would have happened anyway, but the pope was certainly a catalyst."
Brzezinski sees the pope as a spiritual leader rather than "a political actor," albeit someone who was very aware that his words and actions had enormous political consequences. During their conversations after the imposition of martial law in Poland, Brzezinski said, he was struck by the pope's "total and serene confidence" that the communist system would eventually collapse, "that it was evil and stupid at the same time."
"We were operating on very different time spans," said Brzezinski. "He took the long view."
Before he became pope, communist leaders regarded Wojtyla as less political and more malleable than his mentor, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the fiercely anti-communist primate of Poland. "He has not so far engaged in open anti-state activity," a Polish secret police report said of the former archbishop of Krakow in 1967, after he was promoted to the rank of cardinal. "He lacks organizing and leadership qualities."
That assessment changed as Wojtyla became involved in a struggle to build a church in the suburban city of Nowa Huta, which was conceived as a proletarian paradise. When the archbishop finally consecrated a church in Nowa Huta in 1977, he blasted the communist authorities for attempting to build "a city without God."
The futility of trying to exclude the Catholic Church from Polish life was a theme that Wojtyla returned to again and again as pope. "Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe," he thundered on his return to Poland in June 1978, triggering rhythmic chants of "We want God, We want God."
Returning to Krakow in 1983, after the imposition of martial law, the pope was greeted with dozens of banners with slogans such as "Solidarity lives" and "There is no freedom without Solidarity." Once again, he directly challenged the communist authorities by repeatedly invoking the spirit of the banned Solidarity movement and meeting with Walesa, described by government spokesmen as "a former leader" of "a former trade union."
The Kremlin was furious. "The Polish communist party isn't putting much effort into the struggle with the church," Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko complained to his Politburo colleagues, according to a Kremlin memorandum. "Things have reached the point where thousands upon thousands of people are crawling on their knees before the Roman pope."
Ten years later, after the collapse of communism in both Poland and the Soviet Union, Gorbachev met with Italian journalists and paid a more generous tribute to Moscow's ideological rival: "What has happened in Eastern Europe in recent years would not have been possible without the presence of this pope."