The pope didn't end communism.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
April 7 2005 7:21 PM

The Pope Didn't End Communism

He may have accomplished a lot, but not that.

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

160 Countries Host Marches to Demand Action on Climate Change

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.