The Pope's Legacy John Paul II and Europe's Revolution of Freedom

Without Karol Wojtyla the statesman, the freedom revolution of 1989 and 1990 would probably not have been as non-violent. With his Eastern Bloc politics and his moral authority, Pope John Paul II played a decisive role in bringing about the fall of the Iron Curtain.

By Hans-Dietrich Genscher

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989

When we think of the sweeping changes that took place in Europe and Germany in 1989 and 1990, one name should not be absent from the list of those celebrated for helping to bring down the Iron Curtain: that of Poland's Karol Wojtyla, the man who, as John Paul II, presided as head of the Catholic Church for more than 26 years.

At the time of his death, John Paul II was the last of the protagonists of the great historic changes characterizing the end of the 20th century who was still in office. By advocating on behalf of peaceful coexistence for the world's cultures and religions, he recognized, far more clearly than most people involved in the globalization discussion, the intellectual dimension of this revolution we call globalization, a revolution that is far more than just an economic process.

I am not in a position to speak to and assess his impact in and on behalf of the Catholic Church. As a Protestant and liberal, this is certainly an issue about which I could have plenty to say. But this pope's impact went well beyond the Catholic Church, making him one of the most important personalities of the 20th century.

In our first meeting at the Vatican on April 16, 1982, it was already clear to both of us that we would disagree on many issues. After all, one would never expect a Polish-born leader of the Catholic Church and a Protestant liberal from the country that produced Martin Luther to agree on all questions of religion and social policy. When we met, I initiated the conversation, deliberately acknowledging and accepting our differences. The Pope smiled and nodded, obviously pleased to see me taking the first step.

But this recognition of our differences also allowed us to speak uninhibitedly about issues that were equally important to the head of the Catholic Church and the German foreign minister. When we met again at a later date, we recalled our first conversation and concluded that one of the reasons we got along so well was that we were the only two political figures in the West who not only bore considerable public and political responsibility, but had also experienced first-hand, though under completely different conditions, both the Nazi dictatorship and the "healing principles" of socialism.

The fact that John Paul II was elected pope, on Oct. 16, 1978, was an important sign of a new way of thinking in the Catholic Church. A non-Italian pope was already certain to garner a great deal of attention. Commentary at the time focused mainly on this aspect of the remarkable decision. But the true significance lay in the election of a pope from Poland, that is, a man from the Soviet sphere of influence who, as was to become evident later on when he became the leader of the world's Catholics, never forgot his Polish roots and the plight of his people.

Indeed, the election of Karol Wojtyla was to produce far-reaching consequences. But it also highlighted the connections between Germany's and Poland's histories. The concept of freedom for both the German and Polish people was raised as early as the Hambach Festival in 1832, and on the morning of Nov. 10, 1989, Bronislav Geremek, Lech Walesa's foreign policy advisor for many years and later Poland's foreign minister, mentioned the relationship between the two countries again when he said to me, just a few hours after the fall of the Berlin Wall: "The fall of the Wall means unification for Germany. That's why this is also an important day for Poland, because when Germany is unified, Poland will be a neighbor to both NATO and the European Community." Today Poland is a member of NATO and the European Union.

The election of John Paul II was a signal that reemphasized the importance of the Catholic Church for the Polish people. The church's unique position in Poland became especially obvious after 1939. But even earlier, on the several occasions when the country was carved up, it helped provide a sense of national identification for Poles.

The fact that it was wedged between the Russian Orthodox Church in the East and Protestant Prussia in the West placed a different emphasis on the Catholic Church in Poland than in the Czech Republic, for example, where the Counter-Reformation was linked to the Hapsburg dynasty and where Jan Hus remains unforgotten. Poland's situation is also unlike Hungary's, where the Catholic and Protestant churches coexist. Of course, the personal authority of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski and later that of John Paul II played an important role in Poland after World War II, especially when one considers the close connections between Solidarnosc and the deeply religious Lech Walesa and the Polish Catholic Church.

The pope's visit to Poland in 1979 was triumphant, despite the fact that he was by no means confrontational with the country's then communist government. On the contrary, he emphasized cooperation between the church and the state, but not under the conditions dictated by the state.

During this visit, the pope also revived the Vatican's Eastern Bloc policies which began to take shape under his predecessor, Paul VI, but were mainly formulated and developed by the Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Agostino Casaroli, who later became Cardinal Secretary of State. Casaroli had pushed for Vatican involvement in the politics of multilateral détente and was responsible, for example, for the Vatican's signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He cleverly utilized the process introduced by the CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) to help improve the treatment of churches and the faithful in the Soviet bloc countries. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko even visited the Vatican.

The pope used his first trip to Poland to introduce Casaroli, in a speech on June 4, 1979 to hundreds of thousands of worshipers in (the southern Polish city of) Czestochowa, as a man who "knows the way to Poland, the way to Rome and to the entire European east," and who "has performed and continues to perform this great and difficult task on behalf of the Holy See." In 1979, he appointed Casaroli to the position of cardinal and, in the same year, to that of secretary of state. During my conversations with the pope, I learned that he clearly supported the policies of détente designed to a considerable extent by Germany. And when it came to the key issues on this front, he was never at a loss for words.

The West largely underestimated the letter the pope wrote to then Polish Prime Minister General Wojciech Jaruzelski after the imposition of martial law in Poland on Dec. 18, 1981. He spoke of his fellow Poles who been killed and wounded in the government's crackdown on the Solidarity movement, and appealed to Jaruzelski to put an end to activities "that result in the shedding of Polish blood."

He also wrote these words: "During the course of the past two centuries, in particular, Poland has experienced much injustice and a great deal of Polish blood has been shed while others have attempted to extend their influence over our fatherland." Elsewhere in the letter, he wrote: "In light of this historical background, Polish blood may no longer be shed. This blood may not burden the conscience and stain the hands of fellow Poles. The general human desire for freedom speaks for not continuing martial law in Poland, and the Church supports this desire."

To make it absolutely clear who he felt his allies were, the pope wrote, in a postscript: "I am sending this same appeal to Mr. Lech Walesa, the chairman of Solidarnosc, and also to Józef Glemp, the archbishop of Warsaw and primate of Poland, who represents the entire Polish episcopacy, as well as to Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, the Archbishop of Krakow. I will also inform the representatives of governments of this intervention."

In those difficult months in which I was the only foreign minister of a Western country who, at a major, open-air public demonstration, spoke out against martial law and in support of Solidarnosc, I felt a special bond to this Polish pope. In retrospect, I think we can safely say that the Solidarnosc movement, strengthened by the pope and protected as a result of his responsible and clear stance, had a major impact on the entire Soviet sphere of influence.

As far as the politics of detente were concerned, beginning with the new policies toward Eastern Europe introduced by the administration of former Chancellor Willy Brandt, but especially after the CSCE Final Act was ratified in 1975, we could count on our stance being in line with the Vatican's policies toward Eastern Europe. But there were also significant differences before John Paul II came into office, especially when it came to the Vatican's position on issues specific to Germany. One was Berlin's connection to the federal republic, in keeping with the Four Powers Agreement for Berlin, especially the fact that the federal government was responsible for representing Berlin to the outside world.

Even more critical was the issue of delineation of dioceses. East Germany tried to convince the Vatican to use the border between East and West German as a dividing line between Germany's dioceses. This would have signified recognition of German partition, which was unacceptable to us. The East German leadership was so intent on getting its way that it even held out the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with the Vatican. This would have meant that a papal nuncio would have joined the diplomatic corps in East Berlin. One can assume that this move was coordinated with Moscow. Casaroli, at least, seriously considered changing the Vatican policies toward Germany to fulfill the East German request, hoping that it would improve the situation of the Catholic Church in East Germany.

In the coalition government of the time, my objections to a redrawing of diocese boundaries were not uncontroversial. Some of the Social Democrats (SPD) were willing to accommodate East Germany's demands and what was probably Casaroli's inclination. But I was able to garner the unqualified support of my own party, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), of then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, of the opposition parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), and of both the Fulda Conference of Bishops and the East German bishops.

The East German bishops, incidentally, rejected the idea of establishing a separate East German conference of bishops. At the suggestion of Berlin's Cardinal Alfred Bengsch, they called themselves the Berlin Conference of Bishops. Church officials also managed to ensure that the East German bishops retained both their seats and votes on the Fulda Conference of Bishops, even though they were barred from attending meetings in person and were thus represented by their West German counterparts.

All of these issues were resolved when Karol Wojtyla was elected pope. It speaks to the human dimension of Casaroli that he said the following words to me, just before my first visit with the new pope: "Mr. Foreign Minister, although we have disagreed in the past over certain issues, they will no longer be a point of contention in the future. This pope will always be on your side." And that's exactly the way it turned out. From then on, the Vatican fully supported our legal positions when it came to the relationship between the two Germanys. When Mikhail Gorbachev came into power, the gestures of rapprochement between Moscow and the Vatican became more apparent. In a conversation I had with John Paul II at the time, he expressed his complete support for my having called upon the West, in February 1987 in Davos, Switzerland, to take Gorbachev at his word and not to squander an historic opportunity.

On Feb. 20, 1988, a Red Army choir performed a rendition of Ave Maria before the pope at the Vatican. In the same year, at Gorbachev's instigation, Moscow marked the thousand-year anniversary of Christianity in Russia and Ukraine. In taking this position, Gorbachev, in a move that was also underestimated by many in the West, demonstrated just how dramatic the new way of thinking he espoused was. Just before the Malta Summit between US President George H.W. Bush and President Gorbachev in December 1989 -- a meeting that marked a turning point for Germans -- Gorbachev met with the pope at the Vatican. They have met on several occasions since then, and have always referred to one another with the greatest respect and admiration.

What happened in Europe in 1989 and 1990 will go down in history as a European revolution for freedom. It was not limited to any one country. It was brought about by people living within the Soviet bloc, and it also depended in large part on the shining examples set by remarkable individuals, individuals like Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. Also worthy of mention are the civil rights movements in all socialist countries as well as the reform communist leadership in Hungary. But one thing that all of these movements had in common was that Pope John Paul II became a symbol of hope, and not just for Catholic Christians.

While taking advantage of the opportunities created by the CSCE, John Paul II drew on his immense charisma, his considerable moral authority, the power he enjoyed as leader of the Catholic Church, his special bond to his Polish homeland and, last but not least, his great empathy for the Germans' desire for unification, ultimately playing an historic and unmistakable role for Poland, for Germany and for Europe. This accomplishment will also contribute to history's treatment of this exceptional personality.

It is also important to recognize that John Paul II, in choosing to foster dialogue with the world's other religions and in recognizing and drawing upon the strength of his own faith, emphatically rejected the notion of conflict among the world's cultures and religion and, in doing so, assumed global responsibility for himself and his church at the beginning of the 21st century.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission

Die Homepage wurde aktualisiert. Jetzt aufrufen.
Hinweis nicht mehr anzeigen.