Next month, the Catholic world’s eyes will for one week focus on Poland, as millions of pilgrims will celebrate World Youth Day with Pope Francis. This is the perfect time to get to know the country’s Catholic heritage. The many contributions of Poland and its native son Pope St. John Paul II include unleashing a revolution of the spirit that showed that the Soviet empire was based on an anthropological lie. This story is excellently told in David Naglieri’s new documentary Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism, a subtly provocative refutation of what our secularized elites believe about what truly drives history and how Christianity impacts the world.
Bertrand Russell, one of the most influential atheist philosophers of the twentieth century, wrote that “the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.” The overwhelmingly post-Christian intellectual elites in the West mostly share Russell’s opinion.
Additionally, much of the study of history in the West has become dominated by the Marxist view. History is driven by economic power and by who has better guns and tanks. This view is taken for granted even by many thinkers who officially disavow Marxism. How many neoconservatives, for example, believe that the Cold War ended solely because of military and economic factors, ignoring the revolution of conscience that Pope St. John Paul II inspired in his native Poland?
David Naglieri’s Liberating a Continent, which is currently airing on local PBS stations across the country and is available for purchase on DVD and Blu-ray, deals with this episode in history, demonstrating that, contrary to Bertrand Russell’s assertion, the Catholic Church did contribute to moral progress by overthrowing an oppressive Evil Empire. The human spirit can truly change history.
The film features an overview of modern Polish history providing context for St. John Paul II’s successful facing down of communism. The documentary notes, for example, the Battle of Warsaw, which took place in 1920 (coincidentally, the same year the future pope was born) in which the Polish Army decisively defeated Bolsheviks who tried to push westwards and bring communist revolution to Europe. The British diplomat Edgar Vincent, 1st Viscount D’Abernon considered the Polish victory to be the 18th most important battle in human history, yet unfortunately it is relatively little known outside Eastern Europe. The viewer also learns of the infamous Katyn massacre, during which the Soviets killed 22,000 Polish POWs in 1940 and blamed the Germans for the crime (the USSR didn’t admit its guilt until the late Gorbachev days).
This survey of Poland’s historic experience with communism is an answer to those who accused John Paul II of being a reactionary Polish anticommunist who didn’t understand Marxism. Leftist intellectual and cultural elites in Western Europe and North America as well as Latin American liberation theologians like Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua or Leonardo Boff in Brazil, who wanted to transform their respective countries into replicas of Castro’s Cuba, believed that John Paul didn’t understand Marxism. The Battle of Warsaw or Katyn massacre, which took place in Wojtyła’s country during his lifetime, beg the question of who truly understood the ideology: someone who saw its evils firsthand, or those who were privileged to not experience the application of the teachings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin?
We see that while Western Europe enjoyed prosperity and democracy in the post-war era, Poland—which had the fourth largest Allied army and suffered more than any other country under Nazi occupation—became a Soviet vassal state after Roosevelt and Churchill sold it to Stalin for thirty pieces of silver at Yalta. However, the communists couldn’t quench the Polish people’s faith. On the contrary, the nation’s heroic primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, made the Poles’ faith stronger.
Papal biographer George Weigel explains that before the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyła as pope in 1978, the Polish dissident movement was timid after having been violently crushed in 1956 and 1970 as well as divided among various ideological fractions and between the working class and intelligentsia. Yet John Paul II’s nine-day pilgrimage to his home country in 1979 changed that. People suddenly saw that there were millions of those like them: Poles whose souls weren’t conquered by Marxism-Leninism and who wanted genuine liberation.
After the 1979 visit, it was impossible for Poland remain the same. The following year, the Solidarity trade union was founded at the Gdansk shipyard, eventually spreading across the whole country and claiming 10 million members, one-third of the Polish work force. In all likelihood, Solidarity was the largest nonviolent protest movement in history. Even though non-believers and religious minorities were prominent in Solidarity’s leadership, the Catholic nature of the labor union was unmistakable. The striking workers didn’t simply want material or political gains. They wanted the government to respect their God-given dignity. During Solidarity protests, the workers prayed and priests celebrated Mass. Images of John Paul II and the Black Madonna of Czestochowa were ubiquitous. Outspoken priests like Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, who was brutally murdered by the regime, attracted tens of thousands of workers and (often secular) intellectual dissidents to their Masses.
Liberating a Continent convincingly conveys that the collapse of the Soviet Union was not solely based on material factors. Certainly, political factors helped make Solidarity successful. If the Soviets had invaded Poland in 1980 (they failed to do so not out of humanitarian reasons but because they were already preoccupied with a war in Afghanistan), then the Solidarity carnival would have likely shared the tragic fate of the courageous yet ill-fated 1956 Hungarian Revolution. That Ronald Reagan and not someone who was naïve about Soviet intentions lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue at the time also made a difference. Yet everything started with Solidarity, which busted the first bricks out of the Berlin Wall.
Many of the interviewees acknowledge this fact. Weigel, for instance, notes that during the several dozen public addresses John Paul II gave during his 1979 visit to Poland, not one mentioned economics or politics. As Oxford University’s Norman Davies, widely regarded as the world’s foremost authority on Polish history, later says in the film, the fact that John Paul didn’t discuss political matters but cultural and spiritual ones that made him so devastating to the regime. Yet the political consequences of the visit were tremendous. Meanwhile, Polish historian Jan Żaryn notes that the sites of images of Our Lady of Czestochowa and the pope at the fences of the Gdansk shipyard were puzzling to West European unions. For them, Marx and Trotsky were inspirations. This important observation by Żaryn shows that Solidarity wasn’t any labor union. Its greatest concerns weren’t working hours, job security, or safety in the workplace (although they certainly fought for all these), but anthropological and metaphysical truths. Although they had more years of formal education than these protesting Polish workers, most Western academics who studied Solidarity couldn’t grasp this.
Because of how entrenched the Marxist ethos has become in the Western intelligentsia, few have successfully explained that the revolution that John Paul II ignited in Poland was above all spiritual. Those who did, like Weigel and Davies, are exceptions. For instance, the 1996 book His Holiness by Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame and Marco Politi of La Repubblica, Italy’s leading leftist daily, speculated that John Paul II and Reagan had entered into a “holy alliance” intended to overthrow the USSR. By contrast, Liberating a Continent demonstrates that while Reagan and John Paul respected each other and both were inspired by Solidarity, their contributions to the fall of communism were very different. Even a book like The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister by conservative British journalist John O’Sullivan (who is interviewed in the documentary) gives credence to this “holy alliance” myth and incorrectly claims that the Vatican helped finance Solidarity.
The impact of the Solidarity revolution wasn’t limited to Poland or even to the 1980s. In the final half-hour of Liberating a Continent, the viewer sees that the Catholic Church in Lithuania (where Christianity was brought to by Poland; the two countries were in a dynastic union for several centuries) and Czechoslovakia was emboldened by John Paul II, a spokesman for the underground Church (the persecution that the Church suffered in those two countries was much more severe than in Poland). We also see interviews with bishops from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church who discuss how John Paul II inspires the Ukrainian people today to fight for dignity in a country suffering from poverty, corruption, and war.
Naturally, the John Paul II effect wasn’t limited to Eastern Europe. In the Philippines, the people succeeded in peacefully ousting the corrupt and oppressive dictator Fernando Marcos; the Church played a leading role, especially then-archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jaime Sin, who openly acknowledged that Solidarity and John Paul II were his main inspirations. A 1983 visit to Haiti ruled by “Baby Doc” Duvalier, during which the Polish pope gave the dictator of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere an earful on human dignity, is widely linked to triggering a mass protest that ultimately deprived Duvalier of power. There were many more examples, from John Paul’s emboldening of anti-Pinochet dissidents in Chile to inspiring priests in southern Italy to fight against the mafia, yet the documentary doesn’t mention them. Just a brief discussion would have made the film even better.
Many of the interviewees in Liberating a Continent are Poles in their thirties—mostly academics and leaders in the non-profit sector—showing that St. John Paul II’s message of human dignity is still relevant, even to those who were children when the events described in the film took place. Interspersed throughout the documentary are contemporary scenes of young Poles taking part in pilgrimages and processions or praying in churches. This shows that even eleven years after his death St. John Paul II has left an indelible mark on his countrymen.
A review of Liberating a Continent inevitably invites comparison with the 2010 documentary Nine Days That Changed the World, produced by former Speaker of the House and Catholic convert Newt Gingrich along with his wife Callista. The latter film deals with the political repercussions of St. John Paul II’s nine-day pilgrimage to Poland in 1979. Regardless of what one thinks of Gingrich as a politician, Nine Days is a masterpiece, and so the standard for Liberating a Continent has been set very high.
From an aesthetic perspective, Nine Days That Changed the World is the better of the two. The cinematography is fantastic and the score by Emmy-nominated Michael Josephs is absolutely beautiful. The film also features more archival footage of the 1979 pilgrimage and includes more participants of the events in question, including former Solidarity leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Wałęsa, who is oddly absent from Liberating a Continent.
David Naglieri’s film could have also utilized its interviews better. The DVD and Blu-ray feature half-hour interviews with Norman Davies and Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, the current archbishop of Krakow and John Paul II’s personal secretary of 39 years, as extras. Many of the most apt things that both say appear in the extra extended interviews, such as Dziwisz’s explanation that St. John Paul II opposed Marxism because it failed to see the God-given dignity in each human being, instead reducing man to impersonal, abstract categories of class. More excerpts of these two interviews should have made it to the documentary.
Nonetheless, Liberating a Continent is mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to understand the twentieth century. St. John Paul II didn’t conquer communism with guns, tanks, or economic sanctions. He had the courage to speak out about the basic anthropological truths that make us human; such a weapon was much deadlier to the materialistic Marxist-Leninist hegemon than any human weapon. This inspiring true story is one of many examples that conclusively prove that humanity is better off with Christianity.