The Pope and Communism

Pope Helped Overthrow Communism in Europe

Lech Walesa, founder of the Solidarity movement that toppled communism in Poland in 1989-90, recalled the power of John Paul’s visit to Warsaw in 1979. It was the first to his homeland after becoming pope a year earlier, and he ended Mass with a prayer for the Holy Spirit to “renew the face of the Earth,” words that became a rallying cry.

“We know what the pope has achieved. Fifty percent of the collapse of communism is his doing,” Walesa told The Associated Press on Friday. “More than one year after he spoke these words, we were able to organize 10 million people for strikes, protests and negotiations.

“Earlier we tried, I tried, and we couldn’t do it. These are facts. Of course, communism would have fallen, but much later and in a bloody way. He was a gift from the heavens to us.”

The pope’s role in the fight against communism was largely symbolic and moral.

It seems to me that Walesa and others completely overstate the Pope’s impact on the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. In fact, it has been my position that the Pope (and the Church in general) has been extraordinarily weak in the face of tyranny, always counselling the United States against using military force but never calling the Soviets or other dictatorial regimes to account for their persistent violations of natural law.

The most recent example of this one-sided pacifism occurred when the Pope admonished President Bush not to invade Iraq, but never called on Saddam Hussein to stop murdering his own people. To constantly call for the good to stand down in the face of evil, in the name of allowing peace to come in God’s time, seems a contradiction that I can’t get over.

I’m not trying to pick a fight with this man and his supporters as he lies on his deathbed, but I don’t see the need to rewrite history either.

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Leopold Stotch
About Leopold Stotch
“Dr. Leopold Stotch” was the pseudonym of political science professor then at a major research university inside the beltway. He has a PhD in International Relations. He contributed 165 pieces to OTB between November 2004 and February 2006.


  1. DC Loser says:

    I think you misjudge what the Pope did with the cards he had to play. As a man of the cloth I don’t think he was in a position to advocate the use of force. Like Gandhi, what he could do was to inspire his followers to organize and openly defy the Communists. He came of age under this system so he understood its strengths and weaknesses. The Catholic church was always a force to be reckoned with in Poland, and with his encouragement Solidarity was able to organize and openly defy the state. When martial law was declared, the church was the only institution that was able to openly defy the government. Remember that they Polish government killed a priest during this period, and that led to a more determined stance by the church opposing the state. Walesa is a first hand witness to what John Paul II accomplished and I think his observations are supported by the results.

  2. Seems to me that the rewriting of history that you are participating in is the implicit suggestion that the United States killed off Soviet communism (if I’m misreading this, my apologies). Scholars of the Soviet Union and in fact most of academia holds that internal problems had placed the Soviets on the road to decay and collapse by the early 1970s.

    I realize that the answer to this historical problem is important for Republican politics, but that political requirement hardly creates a historical truth.

  3. xavras says:

    sure, the Pope had nothing to do with the fall of communism. The KGB tried to kill him just for the kick of it, as every other Pope… I had the privilege to grow up in Poland in these years. The popular / massive opposition movement (free trade unions, then Solidarity, as opposed to small dissident groups of intelectuals that became visible in 1976 – KOR) started after the first JPII visit to Poland in 1979 (when he said the famous “Be not afraid!”). Without going too much in detail, the opposition movement would have not survived the repression years of 1981-1988 without the protection of the church, and Poles would surely not had enough dedication to oppose communism without support from JPII, our Pope. One of my most vivid recollections from childhood, the mass in Gdansk during the Pope’s visit in 1987 turned into a mass demonstration (the theme of the Pope’s sermon was the need for a new human solidarity, you can imagine the effect on th audience…).

    Godspeed, Papa.

  4. bryan says:

    I think you are confusing the Pope’s integral inspiration of the solidarity movement in Poland with the fall of the rest of the Eastern bloc countries. As Zbigniew Brezinski said on NPR tonight, the communist leaders in Poland had clashed with Wojtyla before he became pope. when it was announced in a meeting that he had become pope, one general communist party secretary said to the other: “Oh, no, now we will have to kiss his ass.” to which the other replied, “only if he will let us.”

    I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the impact of having the first non-Italian pope in 500 years come from Poland on the Polish people. What that impact was on the rest of the Soviet empire is a different matter (recalling that Poland was not part of the U.S.S.R., but a puppet regime a la East Germany).

  5. Jim Henley says:

    It’s always fun to guess blogger’s ages. We can now get some idea of just how young Stotch must be. There could be no other excuse for a political blogger to be ignorant of just how central John-Paul was to the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

  6. reliapundit says:

    YEAH SURE! And Reagan had nothing to do with the Fall of the Wall or the collapse of the USSR!


    Sharansky and Walesa KNOW BEST! They were there. Their words mean more than all the armchair rantings of Left-wing academics and APPEASERS who were so so so SO VERY WRONG.They RIGHLY praise the men who boldly reinspired the West and inspired the victory of the Human Spirit of the terror of tyranny.

    I will NEVER forget the shaking knees of General Jaruzelski as stood before PJPII, or the crowds who cheered Reagan as he heroically DARED Gorbachev to “TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!”

    These were two great men who made history, and made the world more free than most people had imagined possible.

    Bless them both. GIANTS.

  7. Jim: I’m open to change my mind, and yes, I was a bit young for all this. Yet my master’s thesis was essentially a history of the Cold War and there is not a single mention of the role of the Pope. I believe that papal influence is totally overstated, as I said in the post, but I’m always open to changing that if the evidence is there. So far all I have is a few bloggers telling me I’m wrong because they’re right.

    If you (or others) want to say that the fall of the USSR was all Reagan, I can go along with that (to an extent). But I’m unconvinced that the Church’s weak stance in the face of this abomination made very much of a difference.

  8. bryan says:


    I’m curious about your response to my rebuttal, which was that the situation in Poland was directly related to the ascension of the Polish Cardinal to the papacy. Indeed, reports were that Pope John Paul’s trips to his native land scared the bejeesus out of the communist heirarchy.

    I’ll grant you that his impact on the U.S.S.R. was minimal, but considering that the U.S.S.R. was really the home of the Russian Orthodox church, not the Catholic church, I’d say that was understandable.

  9. Bryan: thanks for the comments. It seems that the Pope visited Poland in 1979 and then in 1989 communism falls. What did he do when he was there? Why didn’t he, instead of Reagan, condemn the Soviets as evil and demand they tear the Berlin Wall down? How many people died at the hands of the Soviets between 1979-1989? Could it be that the difference was US foreign policy rather than the role of the Vatican?

    I honestly don’t want to turn this into some Pope-bashing/defending forum, but I simply don’t see his role in defeating the tyranny of communism — in fact, I see the Church placating dictators even today.

  10. bryan says:


    What part of Walesa’s words did you not understand. A year after JP2’s visit, Solidarity began massive protests, strikes, etc. It took another 9 years before communism fell, but it had lost its power over the people in part because of the Pontiff’s identification with Solidarity.

    compare your analysis with this one:

    It was Gorbachev himself who acknowledged publicly the role of John Paul II in the fall of Communism. “What has happened in Eastern Europe in recent years would not have been possible without the presence of this Pope, without the great role even political that he has played on the world scene” (quoted in La Stampa, March 3, 1992).

    And the NPR “Frontline” report [] (not a program known for producing hagiographies) summarizes Wojtyla’s papal impact with these paragraphs:

    From the first day of his election, John Paul II’s pontificate raised concern in Central Committee headquarters. The Canadian reporter, Eric Margolis, described it this way: “I was the first Western journalist inside the KGB headquarters in 1990. The generals told me that the Vatican and the Pope above all was regarded as their number one, most dangerous enemy in the world.” Soon enough, people of all sorts–world leaders, clandestine dissidents and ordinary Catholics–sensed the Communists were impotent before the Polish Pope. In 1979, when John Paul II’s plane landed at Okecie Airport, church bells ran throughout the country. He criss-crossed his beloved Poland, deluged by adoring crowds. He preached thirty-two sermons in nine days. Bogdan Szajkowski said it was, “A psychological earthquake, an opportunity for mass political catharsis…” The Poles who turned out by the millions looked around and saw they were not alone. They were a powerful multitude. The Pope spoke of human dignity, the right to religious freedom and a revolution of the spirit–not insurrection. The people listened. As George Wiegel observed, “It was a lesson in dignity, a national plebiscite, Poland’s second baptism.”

    Again and again, people told us that it was. John Paul II’s 1979 trip was the fulcrum of revolution which led to the collapse of Communism. Timothy Garton Ash put it this way, “Without the Pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of Communism.” (In fact, Gorbachev himself gave the Kremlin’s long-term enemy this due, “It would have been impossible without the Pope.”) It was not just the Pope’s hagiographers who told us that his first pilgrimage was the turning point. Skeptics who felt Wojtyla was never a part of the resistance said everything changed as John Paul II brought his message across country to the Poles. And revolutionaries, jealous of their own, also look to the trip as the beginning of the end of Soviet rule.

    It took time; it took the Pope’s support from Rome–some of it financial; it took several more trips in 1983 and 1987. But the flame was lit. It would smolder and flicker before it burned from one end of Poland to the other. Millions of people spread the revolution, but it began with the Pope’s trip home in 1979. As General Jaruzelski said, “That was the detonator.”

    I find it interesting that you overlooked the other two visits (1983 and 1987).

    I also want to reiterate that I’m not putting JP2 as the lone actor in all this. It took lots of people lots of effort – some losing their lives – before Polish communism fell before Solidarity, but to deny that the Polish pope had a significant part in it is to look askance at a lot of contradictory evidence.

  11. bryan says:

    Clarification: Two of those paragraphs above are from the Frontline episode. The blockquote tag didn’t flow from paragraph to paragraph.

  12. Neo says:

    It is obvious that the Soviets on the road to decay and collapse by the early 1970s, so credit for the fall of communism should go to the dynamic duo of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

    Yes, success has many fathers.

    To spread it around a bit more, don’t forget the efforts of the AFL-CIO who supported the efforts of Solidarity, with the backing of multiple administrations.

  13. DC Loser says:

    I recall reading an article in the early 90s (I believe it was a Heritage Foundation publication) that credited the success of Solidarity to Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and George Meaney.

  14. bryan says:

    Hey, don’t forget Bono. I’m sure he was in on this somehow.

  15. bryan says:

    Yet my master’s thesis was essentially a history of the Cold War and there is not a single mention of the role of the Pope.

    Perhaps that’s a problem with your thesis, not the prevailing opinion.

  16. Jim Henley says:

    bryan: succinctly put.

    Reliapundit, habit made you hit the ressentiment button by mistake. The PJPII skeptic here is one of your fellow conservative hawks, not a “leftist” or “appeaser.”

    Having lived through those days and followed the news intently, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact was due to a trio of remarkable leaders – Reagan, Thatcher, John Paul II – and some magnificent citizens of their respective countries, Lane Kirkland of AFL-CIO and Walesa chief among them. The collapse of the Soviet Union itself is down to yet another lucky constellation of actors – GHW Bush, who knew exactly when to back off and let things take their course; Yeltsin, whose later failings must not obscure the perfection of 1991; and Havel, who knew when he had a strong hand and playyed it out. (When the commander of Soviet forces Czechoslovakia averred that his men’s departure from the country faced “transportation problems,” the new President of Chechoslovakia quipped, “We’ll give them a lift to the train station.”)

    I am temperamentally reluctant to give Gorbachev, him o fthe black beret raids on various Baltic republics and hamhanded incursions into Armenia and Azerbaijan, much credit, but one should probably acknowledge that he at least had the wit to imagine a future in which the nomenklatura could lose power and still make out better than they would in a nuclear confrontation.

    I suppose Gorbachev had the skill of knowing how to lose gracefully. This was also clearly the best thing that could have happened to the people of the Soviet republics. Must mean something.

  17. Bryan: no, it’s not a problem of my thesis. Prevailing opinion within academe is that the internal contradictions of the Soviet system, a massive American arms build up, plus the effects of the Reagan doctrine were the major factors that led to the collapse of the USSR. The Pope’s words, while perhaps inspiring to some, simply seem coincidental.

  18. Bill Hermes says:

    Geez, all this talk about communism and who ended it; Reagan, Thathcher, The Pope. Get real students. Communism was financed funded and fought for by the so called “Greatest Generation” albeit, they were of course fighting for that true democracy and freedom bla bla bla. Communism isn’t dead it just sucked Russia and it’s sister states out of it’s money and know lives in the good ole USA.