November, 1989. I'm charging down one of Hitler's autobahns at well more than twice the speed limit, not to mention in total violation of the day visa the East German Communists issued me. But a couple of journalist colleagues and I are heading to Leipzig, where thousands of ordinary East Germans are about to walk their city's circle road in silent protest against the totalitarian state that determines where they live, where they work, and what they may read and say.
An East German People's Police officer—a pathetic sight in his lawnmower-motor-equipped Trabant, especially when it pulls up next to our gleaming black West German Audi—nails us. A quick review of our papers and he's hit the jackpot: foreigners, capitalists, journalists, and plenty enough wrongdoing to haul us in. Which he promptly threatens to do.
And then he asks where we're headed, and we take a chance: We tell him the truth. We're covering a revolution in his country, against the authority he represents.
After a considerable wait, he steps over, hands back our documents, and wishes us well. Go on, he says. It's important that you be there.
Flabbergasted, I ask: "Are you on the demonstrators' side?"
"It's complicated," he replies. And he explains that the regime is finished, that his relatives in the West have big televisions and big cars and fresh fruit and long vacations to exotic places, that it's time for the East Germans to get their share.
The officer said not a word about Pope John Paul II, or, as he is now suddenly better known—somehow I missed the news release on this change—Pope John Paul the Great.
No one I spoke to in Leipzig that night mentioned the pope. Nor did any other demonstrators, protest leaders, renegade clergy, or rebellious academics there or anywhere else I visited on my rounds during that dramatic autumn. In East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union, the talk was all about Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of openness, about how it was suddenly possible to get copies of some of the more daring Russian journals, and about how a few adventurous souls in the pulpits and on official state television and radio were making ever-more-pointed comments about a system that treated its people like incompetent children.
This week, it's been a given in most of the tributes to the pope that he was fully or at least largely responsible for the fall of communism and the collapse of the Soviet empire. And surely, this pope's firm and insistently communicated stand for freedom inspired his fellow Poles to rise up against the regime that controlled their country.
But elsewhere in the old Eastern Bloc, the pope's impact was at least a couple of steps removed from the courageous decisions that ordinary people made to head out onto the streets and march in protests that they fully expected would be met with absolute resistance from the Soviet forces and their local puppets.
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