Why did the Wall fall, 30 years ago?

Bad history makes for bad public policy.

(Blake Guidry | Unsplash.com)

November 9 marked the 30th anniversary of the peaceful breach of the Berlin Wall — the symbolic high point of the Revolution of 1989, which would be completed seven weeks later by the fall of the Czechoslovak communist regime and Vaclav Havel’s election as that country’s president. A few days before the actual anniversary, German foreign minister Haiko Maas penned a brief essay on the reasons why the Wall came down, which was striking for what Mr. Mass didn’t mention.

He did not mention NATO steadfastness against a vast Soviet campaign of agitation and propaganda over western military modernization in the 1980s.

He did not mention President Ronald Reagan or Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — he didn’t even mention West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

From my point of view, however, the most glaring omission in Mr. Maas’s essay was his complete lack of attention to the pivotal figure in the Revolution of 1989, Pope St. John Paul II. Just as oddly, the foreign minister neglected to mention the moral revolution — the revolution of conscience — that John Paul II helped ignite and that gave the Revolution of 1989 its unique human texture. This is bad history. And bad history always raises warning flags about the future.

Professor John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University is America’s most distinguished historian of the Cold War. He is not a Catholic, so he could not be accused of special pleading or sectarian bias in writing that “when John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw Airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland — and ultimately everywhere — would come to an end.” My friendly amendment would be to note (as the Polish pope did) that a lot had been happening in east central Europe before John Paul’s June 1979 pilgrimage to Poland; so the Pope did not so much begin, as he did accelerate, the process of dismantling European communism through an effective nonviolent resistance based on the assertion of basic human rights. And he did that in part by giving the Catholic components of the resistance new courage, rooted in the conviction that “Rome” now had their backs (as it hadn’t in the 1970s).

But I will happily accept Professor Gaddis’s citation of June 2, 1979, as a signal moment in this process. What happened that day? Unbelievably, after more than 30 years of communist repression, a pope from behind the iron curtain celebrated Mass in Warsaw’s Victory Square. And during that hitherto unimaginable event, a vast crowd chanted, “We want God! We want God!”

That dramatic scene was the curtain-raiser on nine days of national renewal in which John Paul, in dozens of speeches and addresses, never mentioned politics or economics once and ignored the Polish communist government completely. Rather, he played numerous variations on one great theme: “You are not who they say you are. Remember who you are — reclaim the truth about yourselves as a nation formed by a Christian history and a vital faith — and you will eventually discover tools of resistance that communism cannot match.” The demand for religious freedom, in other words, was at the center of the John Paul II-inspired Solidarity movement in Poland, even as it became an increasingly prominent part of the human rights resistance to communism in Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, and what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Getting this history straight is important, not just as a matter of intellectual hygiene but for the future. Public officials who do not grasp the centrality of religious freedom to the collapse of European communism and the emergence of new democracies in central and eastern Europe are unlikely to appreciate the centrality of religious freedom to free and virtuous 21st-century societies and to 21st-century democracy. It is a sadness to note that Foreign Minister Maas is not alone in his ignorance, and in what one fears may be his insouciance about the first freedom.

A few days before the 30th anniversary of the Wall coming down, former Irish president Mary McAleese gave a lecture at Trinity College in Dublin. Did she celebrate her Church’s role in liberating a continent? No. Instead, she made the bizarre claim that infant baptism and the consequent obligation of parents to raise their baptized children in the faith may violate the U.N.’s Covenant on the Rights of the Child.

Hard to believe, but true — and an urgent reminder that bad history makes for bad public policy.

Related at CWR: “Freedom, Including Religious Freedom, Is Never Free” (Nov 11, 2019) by George Weigel

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About George Weigel 420 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).


  1. I was wondering if there exists in one place a collection of the speeches Pope St. John Paul II gave during that 1979 trip (and perhaps his later trips too) to his native Poland. It might prove instructive to rally the West out of it somnolence.

  2. “when John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw Airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland — and ultimately everywhere — would come to an end.”

    This sounds really weird. I think that such kind of reasoning was quit common not only at Yale but also among Asian leaders, who prosecuted Christians in the 90’s.

  3. Pope St. John Paul’s courageous stand against Communism was surely one of the strong points of his Papacy. It is proof that, contrary to what you sometimes hear from tradionalists, it differed in kind, not degree, from that with which we are afflicted today.

  4. The likes of the German Foreign Minister reflect the German bishops. Nevertheless, Germany and most of the Western Europe countries are doomed. Demographics rule, always, and in this critical area Europe has reached the point of no return. Germany will bow to its muslim masters very soon. Bet on it.
    Very good article, though.

    • They’ll more likely grovel, and bask in the exquisite superiority they feel from being so “inclusive,” and “tolerant.”

  5. Lets see, 1) the Protestant Reformation started in Germany; 2) even before that German princes were know to kill and persecute Jews; 3) Germany started WW1 and WW2; and 3) killed millions of Jews. Now in today’s world the Catholic Church in Germany has rapidly declined, with German bishops out in front in trying to reshape the Church to their world view. So while Germans are known to be industrious and resourceful, beyond that they do not get much right, except for killing people. So is it really a surprise a German foreign minister would not give credit to JP11, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

    • And don’t forget Rhine flowing into the Tiber.
      And spiritual background? Spiritual background is kept constant: Body on the cross is deconstructed into the Spirit of Vatican II in the same way as was bodies transformed into smoke under the rule of Nationalsozialismus. And all of this was worked out by good old Hegel.

      But it is necessary to distinguish between German nation and idealistic gnosis loved by Germans. Nations have its origin in God.

  6. It was another Victory of Mary, the Mother of God, as over 1 million Rosary Crusaders headquartered in Vienna prayed the rosary every day for many years, together with the totus tuos Pope, Saint John Paul II. There are so many shrines in Europe, the Blessed Virgin will always defend the cradle of Christianity. The Rosary is indeed a weapon.

  7. Don’t worry. Catholic American neoconservatives like our author and his peers rock and can still lead us to a better Church and world. Don’t loose faith in them and remember that being respected by liberals who are more influential than you is important to keep in mind when you wake up in the morning–we need them for TV and things like that after all. Not convinced? Just look how well things have worked out after the Soviet empire fell, after the evil Hussein was toppled in Iraq, after we reformed Afghanistan, after all the color revolutions in the Middle East, after we helped a coup in Ukraine, after so much liberty and virtue have been secured in our country to enjoy! Hello?

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