2005 April 08 Friday
Too Much Credit Given To John Paul II For Collapse Of Communism

Marc Fisher, who served as the Washington Post Berlin bureau chief from 1989 to 1993 says Pope John Paul II's role in bringing down communism is being greatly exaggerated and the Eastern Europeans really wanted higher living standards and more freedom to travel and live as they chose.

So I always asked: Why are you doing this? And the answers came in a torrent, as if decades of silence had been unplugged. Especially in East Germany, where almost everyone could watch West German TV (though they had to keep the volume way down because it was strictly verboten to watch, and if the neighbor heard, there could be trouble), people talked about their jealousy for the material goods that Westerners enjoyed—the clothes, the shoes, the cars, the food. They talked about their dreams of traveling outside the Soviet Bloc and about the hopes—mainly for a particular career or area of study—they'd had when they were young. And they talked about the freedom to say what they wanted or to teach their children about realities other than what the socialist state had ordained.

Even when I sat in churches for hours on end, talking to ministers, priests, and the generally nonreligious people who came there because of the more open atmosphere, the talk was of political freedom and consumer goods, not of faith.

Fisher's argument strikes me as correct. The Pope had some influence in Poland. But most of the people in late communist era Eastern Europe were not Christians of any sort, let alone Catholics. Russia and the Ukraine were formerly Orthodox but few believers remained. What caused communism's collapse? The material differences between the communist East and relatively more capitalistic West became too large and glaring. The communist economies were stagnating and even in decline. The greater exposure to Westerners that came as a result of Nixon and Kissinger's negotiations with Moscow heightened the awareness of Eastern Europeans and Russians that they were falling hopelessly behind.

In the Soviet Union it was the KGB itself that helped initiate reforms that eventually spun out of control. Why? The KGB had many people who had spent time in the West and they knew how far behind they were falling. Reagan's Star Wars initiative, while widely criticised in the United States as unachievable, worried the Soviet leaders who feared US technological advantages might be usable to develop weapons that would neutralize much of Russia's nuclear arsenal. Capitalism's triumph over communism motivated the reformers to try to find ways to keep up. The communist reformers set in motion changes that they failed to control. Widespread desires for a better life and a loss of faith in communism led to the collapse of the USSR and the freeing of Eastern Europe. Gorbachev's inept leadership undermined efforts to control the reforms. The Pope played a relatively small role by comparsion.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 April 08 02:01 PM  Socialism, Capitalism

Derek Copold said at April 8, 2005 2:47 PM:

While I agree that the case has been at times wildly overstated, one can be too dismissive as well. The intelligence gathered by the Catholic Church was invaluable. Also, JPII's squashing of "liberation theology" was instrumental in setting back Latin American Marxism.

While the Pope did not cause the tectonic shift alone, he was instrumental in kicking it off and helping to steer events afterwards so that they would fall to the West's advantage.

PacRim Jim said at April 8, 2005 2:58 PM:

Don't forget, JPII opposed the liberations of Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Must have been a religious thing.

Derek Copold said at April 8, 2005 3:21 PM:

While JPII did oppose both Gulf Wars (he was definitely in the right about GWII), he did acknowledge that the war against the Taliban was necessary.

Jim said at April 8, 2005 3:46 PM:

yup, he'll be missed. it's easy to overstate his influence while mourning his passing, but he did play a role. he might have had a bigger role for post-communism poland as a spritual leader and source of pride.

gcochran said at April 8, 2005 4:09 PM:

Marc Fisher is wrong.

John Paul II had a lot to do with Solidarity: just ask Lech Walesa. Solidarity won the Polish elections in 1989 and the Soviets didn't use force to stop it. That made the point, and it was then obvious that every puppet governemnt in Eastern Europe would fall rapidly (obvious to me, anyhow). Solidarity was the pin that popped the balloon.

Crummier refrigerators was a reason to dump Communism in 1935: somehow it didn't happen. The Hungarians didn't like the system in 1956 - hell, none of the satellite countries did: how did that play out?

The Communist party had to lose faith in itself first, lose the will to power, and the source of that fundamental change is not so simple.

Randall Parker said at April 8, 2005 5:02 PM:


But why didn't the communists stop Solidarity? They could have in 1981. The writing was on the wall in 1981 when the Soviets let Polish General Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski take over rather than send in the Red Army. Why didn't the Soviets repeat Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 with Soviet tanks? The Pope didn't make 1981 go differently in Poland. The geriatric leadership in the Kremlin saw Soviet intervention as too expensive.

Yes, the communists had to lose faith in themselves. But the bulk of that loss of faith wasn't caused by the Pope. You might as well as put Yeltsin up there as a towering figure. After all, he stood on the tanks at a crucial moment and probably ensured that the last attempt to save the Soviet regime would fail.

Pico said at April 8, 2005 5:16 PM:

There will be a lot of resistance from the materialists, sexual deviants, hedonists, atheists and secularists to the notion of Pope John Paul's role in hastening the demise of the Soviet union.

Pico said at April 8, 2005 5:23 PM:

Somebody forgot to give the KGB and Mehmet Agca the news.

Randall Parker said at April 8, 2005 6:17 PM:


JP II played a role. But most people behind the Iron Curtain were not religious. So he couldn't exactly rally all the faithful to get a majority to reject communism.

asdf said at April 9, 2005 9:51 AM:

there has been a huge reawakening of religion behind the iron curtain since the fall of communism

consider the source - fisher is likely from the same ethnic group who denounced the passion. their animus for catholicism and christianity in general is well known. No poll of poles will show religion to be unimportant.

Mik said at April 9, 2005 11:26 AM:

JPII played a huge role, perhaps not as big as MSM hypes right now, but much larger than Randall Parker thinks.
I know a little bit about it because my living in xSU partially overlapped with the period in question.

1. As a religious leader he had approximately zero impact on non-believer urban intelligencia and working classes. But as a symbol of Western freedom he had influenced intelligencia quite a bit. It promonently included many jewish (or rather ethnically jewish as very few were religious) intellectuals.

2. His influence in catholic regions, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Baltic republics, Western Ukraine was significant in religious way also but especially in political way among intellectuals and peasants alike. Catholic church in those regions always acted as a quiet escape from totalitarian paradise.

3. From known documents we can conclude that in 1981 Soviet Politburo thought that Poles will resist and it will be too bloody. They thought so because they have seen something like half of all adult Poles come out to pray with JPII during his visit(s).

Randall Parker said at April 9, 2005 11:32 AM:


I certainly do not deny that a lot of Jews are hostile to Christianity and find ways to denigrate it while pretending not to. However, I have come across a number of reports arguing that church attendance in Poland is declining dramatically. For example from a Christian missionary:

The Catholic Church was long the custodian of Polish culture and nationalism in the face of Russian imperialism and Soviet Communism. It successfully blocked all efforts by the Communists to deprive it of its independence and foist atheism on the nation. It is theologically conservative with a strong emphasis on the Virgin Mary and the saints. Its popularity, however, drops with every flex of its political muscles. Regular church attendance dropped from 58% in 1989 to 23% in 1999.

I don't know where these figures came from.

By contrast, a 1999 report on religious freedom says Poland still has much higher church attendance.

According to a recent poll, some 58 percent of citizens actively participate in religious ceremonies; 8 percent declare that they have no contact with the Catholic Church. The same survey found women to be more religious than men, with 63 percent of the former attending church regularly compared with 51 percent of the latter. Farmers are the most religious group: 70 percent are regular churchgoers, while only 2 percent do not go to church at all. No figures are available on the number of atheists in the country, although one recent poll found that 4 percent of respondents said that they did not believe in God.

But I find indicators that religious belief really declined a lot in most Eastern European countries during communist rule. Here is an article on decline in religious belief in Eastern Europe during the era of communist rule. Note that the Orthodox countries like Romania and Bulgaria experienced far smaller declines in religious faith than the Catholic and Protestant countries. What's with that?

If you are right that there has been a great reawakening since the fall of communism that alone is not inconsistent with the argument that Christian belief played only a small role in the fall of communism. After all, the reawakening you speak of came after the fall.

Cutler said at April 9, 2005 6:25 PM:

Attending Church was a way for Poles to express their displeasure with Soviet occupation. It isn't surprising that it is decling now that the Soviet are gone, and Poland is increasingly involved with post-modern Western Europe.

Randall Parker said at April 9, 2005 9:36 PM:


Certainly the existence of the Catholic Church in Poland created a space for a form of civil society and exchange of ideas and development of groups that would not have happened as much without the Church. However, in my view that function of the Catholic Church was not dependent on JPII. He probably encouraged it. But the Poles had to have held on to their Catholicism for decades under communism before he became Pope in order for the Church to matter in the first place.

Invisible Scientist said at April 10, 2005 1:00 AM:

It seems to me that one reason the Americans work harder than the Europeans,
is that being poor in the US is worse than being poor in Europe, and that
the separation between the rich and poor is greater in the United States
than in Europe. Although lower taxes are always good for both the rich and the
poor individuals, as a nation, in 1980 the top 1 % richest families owned only 20 % of the
wealth in the United States, bt in 2000 the top 1 % richest families owned close to
45 % of the wealth in the United States. In March 2000, the top 10 % owned about 90 % of the wealth in
the United States. Some of the latter statistics were distorted by the stock market gains of the
upper class during the previous decade, but even without stocks, most of the economic
growth accumulated in the upper class. Most of the newly created jobs in the United States
during the "recovery" of 2003 and 2004, were low paying service jobs, while the total compensation
of well paying jobs actually increased. This stratification, combined with tax cuts, does not
make a big difference for the lower 75 % of the population, because there is labor arbitrage
where even higher paying jobs are given to foreign countries. This forces Americans to work
longer hours for less.

So Very Bitter said at April 10, 2005 10:21 AM:

John Paul II's role in the fall of European Communism, as one perceives it, is dependent on one's perspective of the "Great Man" in history. Many of history's great figures did not necessarily effect great changes themselves but rather had a great sense of their times, coupled with a driving vision of the future, and finally a will to steer the present toward that vision --just a steering, not as an agent. Similarly, Reagan was surely not the only man who could see that the Eastern Bloc was on the wane, but he was one of a few who decided to act upon the sense he had of the times, rather than simpl trust events to play themselves in course. If freedom is a good worth seeing out years in the future, why wait when transcendent words or deeds may hasten history's course?

John Ziemba said at April 12, 2005 2:57 AM:

Mr/Ms Bitters comments appeal right on the money to me. And along those lines...

Why do desire for political freedom and consumer goods on the one hand and spiritual freedom on the other have to be mutually exclusive? Perhaps the latter, galvanized by the prestige of a Polish pope, gave the Poles the courage to hope for the former.

But then again, as for the biggest factor in the fall of communism, isn't it communism itself?

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