The end of the Revolution: 20 years after the fall of communism

06 May 2009

By The Record

Record columnist Hal Colebatch begins a special four-part series looking back on the collapse of what once seemed to be a monolithic and genocidal threat to democratic societies everywhere.


Historic moment: West Germans give their fellow countrymen a hand up to climb over the Berlin Wall that had separated their country since 1961. The Wall formalised, in a way, the division of Germany – and Europe – that had prevailed since the end of the Second World War in 1945.


It is just 20 years since the Cold War began to end in a series of astonishing events that it is right to call miraculous.
Rejoicing crowds danced on the wreckage of the Berlin Wall and others, in tens of thousands, hailed the return of Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek in Prague. Hungary tore down the death-strip border with the West and restored the crown of St Stephen to its national crest. The body of its great Cardinal Mindzenty would be brought home for burial, carried in triumph along a route lined with peeling church-bells.  In Poland, where the final systemic collapse began, an electrician who prayed daily to the Black Madonna as Queen of Poland would assume state power.
The red stars and the statues of Lenin and of secret-police terror chief Felix Dzerzhinsky fell in Moscow from the Baltic States the panoply of red terror was swept away. The death-strip of barbed-wire and searchlights across the heart of Europe vanished. The spectre of a nuclear war between the superpowers lifted and nuclear missiles were destroyed in tens of thousands. For the first time in the history of the world, the majority of Mankind was living under at least partly democratic governments. Except in the case of Romania, the great convulsion was remarkably peaceful and bloodless.
Watching the end of an ideology responsible for about 100 million deaths and ruined and deformed lives beyond count, it was easy to recall the “eucatastrophic” climax of The Lord of The Rings when the evil Ring was destroyed: “The power of Mordor was scattering like dust in the wind.” A friend of mine suggested what had happened was that: “God said ‘Enough!’.”
For those of an older generation, those 20 years often seem to have passed very quickly. It is strange for them to realise people now in their thirties can have no adult memories of the Cold War or those amazing times. It is largely for them that I write this brief and inevitably simplified account.
In 1975 I was selected to go on the “Young Asians Study and Recreation Tour” to Taiwan. History, and indeed a sense of doom, hung heavily in the minds of some of us. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia had fallen to Communist military attack a few weeks earlier. The Vietnamese in our group had become homeless refugees. They were a spectre at the feast and in their presence our, and our hosts’, official optimism about the future of freedom and democracy seemed a hopeless farce that fooled no-one.
The ratchet had turned remorselessly – in no nation, once a Communist Government was established, had it ever been rolled back. The very term “roll-back” was associated with the hopelessly impractical dreams of off-the-planet reactionaries.
Every year or so, it seemed, a few more countries were being lost to Communism, and lost forever. It was the time of what historian Andrew Roberts has since called “the long, dismal, drawling tides.” In The Lord of The Rings Galadrial had spoken of “fighting the long defeat.”
Largely sponsored by various Soviet instrumentalities, Communism had also made inroads into a number of churches, some of whose international organisations and associations were little more than Soviet fronts – it is salutary to look back at some of the many books, pamphlets and other pieces of literature they produced and be reminded of how nakedly pro-Soviet they felt able to be.
In the mid-1970s Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, was an Opposition MP in Britain and for a time Minister for Education in the Heath Conservative government, a government firm and unshakable in its commitment to nothing in particular. No-one predicted any great future for her. Ronald Reagan, former lifeguard, B-grade actor and union organiser, was in the twilight of his political career of Governor of California and on the verge of receiving his first old-age pension cheque.
Karol Wojtyla was the Cardinal-archbishop of Cracow, Poland’s Second City. In the world scheme of things all might be described as middle-mamagement and nearing the end of their careers. All three were later to escape assassination by a hair’s breadth.  
Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek were prisoners lost in the hopeless blackness of Communist Czechoslovakia. Who had heard of the middle-ranking Soviet apparachiks Gorbachev and Yeltsin or the Polish shipyard electrician Lech Walesa? And in California there was an ex-street kid, hippie Bohemian coffee-shop manager who would turn to science-fiction publishing named Jim Baen. Hardly even in The Lord of The Rings had there been so ill-assorted and apparently hopeless a crew to set against the power of world-threatening evil.
But as in The Lord of The Rings, not all the powers in play were obvious. Writing in 1948, Winston Churchill had recorded in The Gathering Storm a comment made by Stalin in 1935 to the French politician Pierre Laval, who had asked him: “Can’t you do something to encourage religion and the Catholics in Russia? It would help me so much with the Pope.” Stalin responded: “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” Churchill remarked of this: “Laval’s answer was not reported to me; but he might certainly have mentioned a number of legions not always visible on parade.” There can have been few more prophetic remarks.
Then came a great sea-change.
Pope John Paul was elected in 1978, following the death of the kindly and gentle John Paul I after only 33 days in office. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger asked the shocked and saddened members of the re-assembled Conclave the question that was already in all their hearts; “What is God’s will for us at this moment … God has something to say to us.” His statement opened the way to “the possibility of doing something new.”
For the first time in centuries, a non-Italian Pope was elected. Karol Wojtyla and Cardinal Wyszynski understood that at this moment in history, Poland, where the confrontation between Communism and Christianity was now more spiritually and intellectually fierce than anywhere on Earth, had become, not for the first time, the hinge of Mankind’s fate. “You must accept. For Poland.” Wyszynski told Wojtyla. Neither needed to add the unspoken: “And for the World.”
Standing on the Vatican balcony, speaking in fluent Italian, John Paul II told the crowd in St Peter’s Square: “We are all still grieved after the death of our most beloved John Paul I. And now the eminent cardinals have called a new bishop to Rome. They have called him from a far country, far, but always near through the communion of faith and in the Christian tradition.”
In his magnificent recounting of those times, The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister: Three who Changed the World (Regnery, Washington, 2006), a book which all who would learn more must read, John O’Sullivan has written:
“Poland did not suffer the very worst brutalities like those imposed on the Soviet Union and Hungary, but the harassment was relentless and inventive nonetheless. Priests were taxed excessively, and often followed and beaten up; students were denied admission to universities if their parents were churchgoers, permits for the building of churches were withheld when new towns were developed; the state abolished old religious holidays and invented ersatz national ones; and there was a constant ideological campaign of lies in the media designed to weaken religion and reduce it to an expression of patriotic nostalgia.
“Wojtyla [had] resisted all these pressures by evading them inventively as much as challenging them boldly …”
“In that far country, the news [of John Paul II’s election] was not officially released for some hours while the communist authorities worked out a proper Marxist response. It spread rapidly anyway through the ringing of church bells and the joyous shouts of believers and Polish patriots. Even the First Secretary of the Communist Party, Stanislaw Kania, one of the first to hear the news, emitted a remarkably non-communist ejaculation: ‘Holy Mother of God!’
“It may not have been a pious ejaculation.”
Soviet KGB boss Yuri Andropov, who would succeed Brezhnev as head of the CPSU in 1982, grasped the risk immediately. He telephoned the KGB head in Warsaw demanding to know how he could have allowed such a thing to happen. The KGB man blamed the KGB resident in Rome. Desperately rationalising, Polish Communist Party leader Edward Gierek tried to persuade himself and others that: “It is good that Wojtyla has left for Rome. Here, in Poland, he would be a disaster. He would create great difficulties for us. In Rome, he is less dangerous. Moreover, to some extent he can even be useful there. After all, he has ‘exported’ a lot of ideas and considerations inspired by socialism.”
But visiting Assissi only a month into his Papacy, Pope John Paul II declared of the Church behind what was still the Iron Curtin: “It is not a church of silence any more because it speaks with my voice.”
The Pope spoke with great emphasis on questions of human rights, which did not directly challenge the communist bloc by name and also applied to anti-Communist dictatorships but which, as Communism was by far the greatest violator of human rights, placed in under more and more moral pressure.
When it became clear that the Pope intended to visit Poland in 1979, the Polish Communist leadership felt itself powerless to stop him. Even the Soviet leadership, now also beginning to feel the pangs of terminal decay, could not veto the visit as it would have done in the past. Brezhnev, who in 1968 had sent tanks in to crush the reforms in Czechoslovakia, could now do no more than say: “Well, do as you wish. But be careful you don’t regret it later.” The nine days of the Pope’s visit to Poland in June 1979 shook not only the government of that country but the whole Communist bloc to its foundations. His speeches to the vast cheering and weeping crowds could not possibly be called seditious, but were always of spiritual and cultural renewal.
To be continued