The Pope Who Helped Bring Down Communism

"I have no doubt," Polish President Lech Wałęsa once said, that without John Paul II "the birth of Solidarity would not have been possible."


Reason's December special issue marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This story is part of our exploration of the global legacy of that evil empire, and our effort to be certain that the dire consequences of communism are not forgotten.

In 1979, less than a year after ascending to the Catholic Church's highest office, Pope John Paul II returned to his home country, then under communist rule. He disembarked at the airport, knelt, and kissed the Polish ground. That moment was arguably the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.

In an officially atheist country, millions of people—more than a third of the population of Poland—showed up to see the first ever Slavic pope during his nine-day trip. "John Paul was walking among vast, enthusiastic crowds," writes John O'Sullivan in his 2006 book The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister. "The pope proclaimed not only religious but also patriotic and political hope."

While celebrating Mass at Warsaw's Victory Square, John Paul drew the crowd's attention to the nearby tomb of the unknown soldier. "In how many places has he cried with his death," he said, "that there can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland marked on its map!" It was an astonishing political rebuke to the Soviets, who following World War II had installed communist governments across Eastern Europe that were "independent" in name only.

A few minutes earlier, in a rebuke of a different kind, John Paul had declared that "at any longitude or latitude of geography, the exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man." In response, the crowd had begun to sing, "We want God….We want God."

On the other side of the world, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan was gripped by these events. "I have had a feeling," he later wrote, "particularly in the pope's visit to Poland, that religion may turn out to be the Soviets' Achilles' heel."

The following year, a trade union called Solidarity burst into being in the city of Gdańsk. It would soon span the country, representing millions of Poles from every industrial sector and becoming the locus of the nation's anti-communist resistance. Under a banner frequently accompanied by John Paul's face, members battled for the right to organize, liberalize, and democratize.

Within a decade, despite a brutal crackdown, they succeeded. And the rest of the Soviet bloc hastily did the same.

As the labor organizer and future Polish president Lech Wałęsa put it, John Paul's pilgrimage "awakened in us, the Poles, the hope for change….I have no doubt that without the pope's words, without his presence, the birth of Solidarity would not have been possible."

'To Praise the Mother of God and To Spite Those Bastards'

Remember that the Soviets had been determined to replace religion—the "opium of the masses"—with their own "scientific atheism."

In 1919, writes Paul Kengor in his 2017 book A Pope and a President, "Lenin issued a stern order: to kill anyone who dared to observe Christmas." The Soviet leader demanded that "the entire Cheka must be on alert to see to it that those who do not show up for work because of [the religious holiday] are shot."

In the Soviet Union, thousands of churches and monasteries were destroyed, their bells melted down and recast into more "useful" things. Priests and bishops who did not cooperate with the regime were imprisoned or disappeared. "The Bolsheviks forbade religious instruction to anyone under eighteen years of age," Kengor writes, "and children were encouraged to turn in parents who taught anything about God."

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, would eventually acknowledge that the USSR had engaged in a "war on religion."

These efforts were perhaps least successful in Poland, a majority Catholic country where the regime couldn't seem to persuade people to abandon their religious attachments. In 1949, it created Nowa Huta, a "utopian" workers community that conspicuously lacked space for a church. So John Paul, then a bishop in Kraków named Karol Wojtyła, held equally conspicuous outdoor Masses nearby, attracting large crowds, until the authorities finally permitted a church to be built.

Needless to say, when that same bishop was elected pope in 1978, the Soviets knew they had a problem on their hands. But unlike with his immediate predecessors, who had all been Italians, they could not keep this one out of Eastern Europe.

Through his visits, John Paul modeled a form of nonviolent but unapologetically religious "cultural resistance" that Poland's Christians would use against the regime for the next 10 years. "They demonstrated their hostility to Communism not by riots but by openly showing their allegiance to God, Our Lady, the Church, and John Paul," O'Sullivan writes. Or as one Polish miner put it when asked why anyone would wish to be a Christian in a Communist state: "To praise the Mother of God and to spite those bastards."

'I Saw Neighbors Taken From Their Homes'

In summer 1979, millions of Poles poured into the streets in hopes of a glimpse of John Paul. A year later, that energy began to be channeled into more organized opposition.

Faced with skyrocketing food prices alongside ongoing political repression, workers at the state-owned railroads and steel mills grew restless. In August, Wałęsa—then an unemployed electrician in Gdańsk—led his colleagues at the Lenin Shipyard in calling a strike, an effort that soon morphed into the establishment of the nationwide Solidarity union.

With John Paul's encouragement from Rome, the Polish Catholic Church blessed the laborers' demands for "independence" and "self-government." Within just a few months, Kengor writes, "the membership of Solidarity exploded from zero to ten million."

Given its overwhelming popularity, the Polish regime thought it had no choice but to recognize the union, which it initially did. But the victory was not to last.

Moscow, operating under the rigid insistence that the Communist Party was the only legitimate representative of a country's workers, threatened a full-scale invasion unless the Polish government brought the union in line. "A military plan was already prepared," writes O'Sullivan. "The leadership of Solidarity was to be rounded up, court-martialed, and shot."

Recalling the way Soviet troops had brutally put down uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the '50s and '60s, the Polish regime reversed course. "At three minutes to midnight on December 12, 1981, all private telephones in Poland were cut off," O'Sullivan explains. Wałęsa was arrested along with thousands of others. Striking was banned. "Tanks emerged from military camps and drove to strategic points on the streets of Warsaw. Martial law had been declared."

The "temporary emergency measures" were lifted two years later—just after John Paul's second trip to Poland as pontiff, perhaps not coincidentally—but the persecution of the union continued until 1989.

"My parents belonged to Solidarity, and they would get underground papers," says Warsaw resident Wojciech Bogdan, who grew up in northern Poland during this period. "They were never arrested, although they came close. It was illegal to have anything connected with Solidarity….I saw neighbors taken from their homes."

In May 1981, during an audience in St. Peter's Square in Rome, John Paul was shot at close range by a Turkish assassin in the employ of Bulgaria's communist government. He survived. Not all of his brother priests were as lucky.

'Priests, Couriers, Labor Organizers and Intelligence Operatives'

After martial law was imposed, the pope showed his continued support for Solidarity via radio addresses broadcast over the Iron Curtain. But he did more than offer moral consolation to his suffering homeland—he set out to help keep the now-underground union going.

In this, he had some curious bedfellows.

The least surprising was probably Ronald Reagan, a fierce anti-communist, who by this point was president of the United States. But he wasn't alone.

"​​Tons of equipment—fax machines (the first in Poland), printing presses, transmitters, telephones, shortwave radios, video cameras, photocopiers, telex machines, computers, word processors—were smuggled into Poland," wrote Carl Bernstein in a 2001 Time cover story. "The Solidarity office in Brussels became an international clearinghouse: for representatives of the Vatican, for CIA operatives, for the AFL-CIO, for representatives of the Socialist International, for the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy….Priests, couriers, labor organizers and intelligence operatives moved in and out of Poland with requests for aid and with detailed information on the situation inside the government and the underground."

Western resistance to communism scrambles the simple left-right binary that 21st century Americans have been conditioned to expect. Reagan, the great supposed champion of free market capitalism, had no qualms about working with America's labor unions to funnel support to Polish dissidents. (As a onetime head of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan was a former union man himself.) Meanwhile, Lane Kirkland, president of the progressive AFL-CIO for 16 years during this period, had no trouble aligning with the Catholic Church and its socially conservative leader.

In Eastern Europe, the emergence of Solidarity scrambled political assumptions as well. There, however, the results were more destabilizing.

The Soviets thought they had established a "dictatorship of the proletariat." Yet as Kengor puts it, with the Polish regime's declaration of martial law in 1981, "the communists were smashing the proletariat." Since Poland's Communist Party was officially called the Polish United Workers' Party, conflicts with the Solidarity labor union could be said to pit lowercase-labor against uppercase-Workers. Most onlookers could tell which side actually represented the people.

The Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski wrote years later that Solidarity was the closest thing the 20th century saw to the kind of working-class revolution predicted by Karl Marx. How ironic for communism that it "was directed against a socialist state, and carried out under the sign of the cross, with the blessing of the Pope."

'At This Moment, I Am Participating in a Miracle'

In 1984, Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, Solidarity's 37-year-old Catholic chaplain, who often used his homilies to exhort the faithful to peaceful resistance, was kidnapped by three agents of the Polish secret police. They bound him, threw him in the trunk of their car, beat him to death, and sank his body in the river.

When the priest went missing, Kengor writes, Wałęsa hurried to his church "and pleaded with Poles not to react with violence." After the body was recovered, a quarter of a million people reportedly attended the funeral.

"I remember very well the feelings after Fr. Popiełuszko was killed, although I was just a child," Bogdan says. "People were just fed up. That was the end. There was no fury, but it was, 'They just can't stop themselves from barbary. How much more do we have to suffer? We have to stop it some way.'"

In 1987, Pope John Paul II made his third pilgrimage to Poland. Independent unions were still outlawed at the time, but that did not stop supporters from hoisting Solidarity banners during a papal Mass attended by some 800,000 people.

That same week, Reagan, during a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, intoned: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Two years later, the Berlin Wall would indeed come down. We often think of that as the first domino to fall in Eastern Europe. But in fact, it occurred a few months after Poland held its first semi-free parliamentary elections. Solidarity claimed 99 percent of the open seats. Wałęsa was on his way to becoming the president of a democratic Poland.

One Soviet bloc country after another would follow. So eventually would the Soviet republics, culminating in the formal dissolution of the USSR 30 years ago next month. In many of these places, a resumption of religious services was among the milestones used to mark the end of the communist era.

In December 1989, the long-persecuted dissident Václav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia. A few months later, John Paul visited his country.

"I am not sure that I know what a miracle is," Havel told the pope. "In spite of this, I dare say that, at this moment, I am participating in a miracle: the man who six months ago was arrested as an enemy of the state stands here today as the president of the state, and bids welcome to the first pontiff in the history of the Catholic Church to set foot in this land."

The events of the period were a triumph for individual liberty. After four decades under a system hellbent on eradicating Christianity, Eastern Europe was safe for religious believers again. The opposition movement had helped bring down one of modernity's great experiments in tyranny, restoring basic political rights to hundreds of millions of people. And it had done so while showcasing the power of nonviolent action and nongovernmental institutions to utterly remake the world.

"I am the son of a nation," John Paul, who died in 2005 and was canonized by the Church in 2014, once said—a nation that has "kept its identity…not by relying on the resources of physical power but solely by relying on its culture. This culture revealed itself to be a power greater than all other forces."