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Historians Assess Pope's Role in Bringing Down Communism

Pope John Paul II

As Roman Catholic cardinals prepare to elect a new pope, historians and analysts are looking more deeply at the legacy of Pope John Paul II.

On October 16, 1978, Roman Catholic cardinals elected 58-year-old Karol Wojtyla as the new pope. The decision stunned the world: the first non-Italian pope in 4.5 centuries came from Poland, a communist country under the control of the Soviet Union. Karol Wojtyla took the name of John Paul II.

Malcolm Byrne is an expert on the cold war at the [Washington-based] National Security Archive, a non-governmental research institute on international affairs. He says Moscow understood the importance of Cardinal Wojtyla's election right away.

"There are some documents that are available that show the Soviets reacting to it and realizing immediately the impact," said Malcolm Byrne. "And your listeners remember well Stalin's quote about the pope and sort of scoffing at him because he didn't have any troops at his command. But more modern Soviet leadership understood very well the potential impact the election of [Cardinal] Wojtyla would have."

That impact was felt vividly eight months after the election of John Paul II, when the pontiff visited his native Poland in June 1979. For nine days, millions of Poles came out to greet him as he celebrated open-air masses, challenging the communist authorities while not directly attacking the government.

One of those who witnessed the pope's return to his native land was Radek Sikorski, former Polish deputy foreign minister. He was 16 at the time.

"So there we were, a million of us in Gniezno [about 250 kilometers west of Warsaw], which is the cradle of Polish Christianity - and the power of the crowd and the regime was nowhere to be seen. And suddenly we felt we are so numerous, how come the country is not ruled by our consent and instead is being ruled by a small clique of apparatchiks [communist bureaucrats]," said Radek Sikorski. "In the evening, when we went home, we saw television reports in the official, state-controlled media, of just a few nuns and a few old ladies attending the pope, without the crowds - and I think that made everyone realize how duplicitous the regime was."

Experts say the pope's 1979 visit gave Poles a great sense of national revival and a realization that they could stand up to the communist regime. A year later, workers, led by Lech Walesa, struck the Gdansk shipyards and founded the "Solidarity" free trade movement.

But the Polish government reacted strongly by imposing martial law [1981], outlawing "Solidarity" and jailing thousands of its supporters. Mr. Sikorski says the Polish Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II, continued to help.

"When 'Solidarity' was underground in the 1980s, it was in churches, in the basement of churches that you could buy or get underground newspapers, have free discussions, meet artists who were not approved by the government," he said. "So that was all happening with the knowledge of the pope and he must have blessed that. And there was a little bit of assistance, via church channels, to 'Solidarity' activists, financial assistance, to take care of them, for example, of families of people who were interned or in prison."

The pontiff visited Poland for a second time in June 1983. Again, millions of Poles came out to greet him. He met with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and Polish Communist party leader Wojciech Jaruzelski. A month later, martial law was lifted, but many Solidarity activists remained in prison for years.

While Pope John Paul II played a key role in helping the pro-democracy movement in Poland, experts say two other events in the 1980s were key in helping bring down communism.

The first was the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as U.S. president and his subsequent strong anti-communist views and policies. The second was the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader - a man whose 'glasnost and perestroika' policies, of openness and restructuring, changed the Soviet Union.

Hope Harrison is an expert on communism and the cold war at George Washington University. She says there is no doubt that Pope John Paul the Second and President Reagan played key roles in the demise of communism.

"But again, if you ask most people in the countries of eastern Europe what brought down communism, they would say: 'Gorbachev', " said Hope Harrison. "It was Gorbachev who started the reforms and it was Gorbachev who said that in contrast to previous Soviet leaders such as Stalin, Khruschev and Brezhnev, who sent tanks into eastern European countries when they sought to move away from communism, Gorbachev said: 'I am not going to interfere in the domestic affairs of our allies'."

Mikhail Gorbachev did not send tanks to quell the "Solidarity" movement in Poland. Eventually, in January 1989 the ban on "Solidarity" was lifted. Later in the year, after free elections, a key "Solidarity" leader, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, became prime minister. Unchallenged communist rule in Poland came to an end.

And in November 1989, in neighboring East Germany, the Berlin Wall came down.