A journalist since 1992, Tomasz Pompowski has worked as the deputy chief of the opinion sections of the Polish dailies Polska and Dziennik. He is the co-founder of the prestigious weekly Europa, the author of dozens of original articles about the history of the Cold War, and co-producer of the film Nine Days that Changed the World about the role of Pope John Paul II and Solidarity in the fall of communism. In 2012, he published his book Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Solidarity: A Spiritual History of the Collapse of Communism. He is presently engaged in talks regarding publishing the book in English.
As a Vatican correspondent for the Polish media, Pompowski covered the last months of Pope John Paul II’s life, and met and interviewed many of his closest friends, including Cardinal Andrzej Maria Deskur. In 1983, he participated in the pope’s second visit to Poland.
Pompowski grew up in the Communist People’s Republic of Poland, where his parents collaborated with the Solidarity underground. He came of age listening to clandestine broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and Vatican Radio and reading illegally published samizdat books, including those authored by John Paul II himself.
Filip Mazurczak: Prominent historians as diverse as John Lewis Gaddis and Eamon Duffy believe that Pope John Paul II played an instrumental role in the collapse of communism. How significant was his impact, in your opinion?
Tomasz Pompowski: Without John Paul II, communism would not have fallen, at least not in 1989 in such a short span of time. I would like to use an analogy that may seem exaggerated to some. If the author of the liberation of East Europeans from the yoke of the Iron Curtain was the Holy Spirit, then John Paul II was akin to John the Baptist. He recognized that this was the moment and he preached freedom from the beginning. But we are only beginning to understand the role that the Polish pope played in the collapse of communism. George Weigel has written of John Paul II’s “cultural offensive” that defeated communism, while Marco Politi has written about his diplomatic actions.
The breaking point according to many historians was not the election of John Paul II—which was undoubtedly important—but his pilgrimage to Poland in 1979. The primary focus of that visit was freedom. In Warsaw’s Victory Square the pope asked that the Holy Spirit descend on this earth, and in Krakow’s Bonie he spoke of the right of man to choose, presenting the history of Poland and Europe in such a way that God was its mover. Then he says that we have freedom to reject Christ. But should we? Why can man tell God no?
Later, throughout all of Europe the pope preached about freedom, claiming in Gdansk that it is not the license to do whatever one wants but to demand much of oneself. The pope had for years confronted the Moscow-imposed civilization based on lies and on materialism. However, the pope did not explicitly aim to overthrow communism. He spoke of human rights and religious liberty, not of ending communism, but looking from today’s perspective we know that the effect could not have been different.
John Paul II’s pontificate was different from that of any other pope in that he not only understood communism, but he also knew how to effectively oppose it. He acted as a diplomat who supported the positive anti-Soviet policies of the West, particularly the administration of President Ronald Reagan. He wrote letters to Brezhnev and Jaruzelski in defense of Solidarity and asking for the pardon of political prisoners. He mobilized Christians who were high-ranking government officials in the West and inspired the Polish working class to form Solidarity. John Paul II developed the notion of solidarity in the encyclicals Redemptor Hominis and Laborens Excercens.
Much has been written about John Paul II’s role in the formation of Solidarity in Poland. However, was he an inspiration to dissidents in other communist countries, not necessarily Catholic ones? John Paul II inspired Vaclav Havel, yet he by no means could be described as an orthodox Catholic.
Pope John Paul II inspired more than just Christians, and he showed that the truth could be professed on the international stage. I’ve spoken with the former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar, who said that when he watched John Paul II’s visit to Poland on Finnish television and saw the crowds in Warsaw’s Victory Square, he became convinced that communism’s days were counted. The Polish pope likewise impressed many Protestant dissidents in East Germany and Orthodox ones in Romania.
In the 1980s, dissidents from across the Communist Bloc sent tens of thousands of letters to the Vatican thanking the Holy Father. This was because many knew that this pope did not accept the post-Yalta map of Europe. We also have the testimony of the churchman Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek, who despite his age became an active supporter of the Czechoslovak opposition.
What were relations between Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan like? The two men met eight times, and both were anti-communists who admired Solidarity.
His Holiness John Paul II and Ronald Reagan were both Christians, which absolutely linked them. They both survived assassination attempts and both experienced communism. Reagan fought communists in Hollywood and in the military as the producer of educational films. Towards the end of the 1940s, the first American film about the Katyn massacre was produced thanks to Reagan. Before becoming the governor of California, Reagan devoted an entire radio broadcast to the unveiling of a monument to the victims of Katyn in London, which was ignored by most diplomats.
Furthermore, living in California, Reagan met many refugees from communist countries. He was a friend of George Clark, who in the late 1940s and 1950s met with refugees from communist countries who wanted to escape to the West. Reagan knew that the only thing that communists were good at was lying, and Pope John Paul II knew this as well as a man who survived both the Nazi and Soviet occupations and saw the persecution of Poland’s Home Army veterans by the regime.
A principle they shared was religious liberty. Before meeting with John Paul II, Reagan frequently watched a film produced by the American embassy about the pope’s 1979 visit to Poland. Reagan knew Polish history well and believed in Solidarity. This is why he resisted repealing his economic sanctions against Poland after General Jaruzelski introduced martial law in 1981. With regards to the War in Grenada and other military actions of the United States, the pope wanted the West’s assurance that no civilians would be harmed.
But there was no secret cabal between Reagan and John Paul II, as some have written. They did not have an explicit goal of overthrowing communism but wanted to improve the situation of the people in the countries separated from Western Europe because of Yalta.
There was an undoubtedly religious aspect to the formation of Solidarity in 1980: Lech Walesa had a pin with the Black Madonna of Czstochowa in the lapel of his jacket, while pictures of the pope hung in the Gdansk shipyards. On the other hand, the Polish workers above all had economic demands, such as Saturdays free from work and longer maternity leave. What was more important in the formation of Solidarity, religious faith or a failing economy and price increases on meat and bread?
I do not deny that economic factors and the material conditions of the striking workers’ families were important, but Solidarity above all formed in opposition to the communist regime’s lies. Anna Walentynowicz, Andrzej Koodziej, Zenon Kwoka, and Kazimierz wito, who were involved in the Polish opposition, underline that Solidarity was formed for this reason. During their meeting with Pope John Paul II in 1979 they saw that they were numerous, and that the Polish nation was behind them.
As Zenon Kwoka, Lech Walesa’s closest collaborator, has said, all the striking workers aware that they were faced with a decision between life and death. When they first asked a priest to say Mass for them at the Gdansk shipyards, they asked for the rite of the anointing of the sick. They knew that they were fighting for their dignity. They were tired of what they saw on television and of the dishonesty of the party. They wanted to govern themselves, and the Solidarity leaders spoke of Christianity. For the first time, there formed a community.
The communists tried to create divisions and animosity among the opposition, because their very ideology was based on the principle of class warfare. But in Gdansk there were workers, intellectuals, and even party members who saw that they were deceived and wanted to create an entirely new system. Nobody knew what would become of Solidarity. They demanded of the government that it register their union—although I must emphasize to the Western reader that it had little in common with the labor unions popular in their countries, because Solidarity fought for the holistic dignity of the human person. It believed that without God one cannot create a civilization or any sort of order. The members of Solidarity were opposed to atheism and wanted to create something different for their children.
Filip Mazurczak is a graduate student at the George Washington University studying international affairs.
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