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.
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.
Sixteen years later, we are already losing the collective memory of the enormous leaps that mothers and fathers took that fall. They stepped out of their apartments and walked into the city centers in Leipzig and Dresden and Prague and smaller towns in one country after another, and in many cases, before they left home, they said what they thought was a last goodbye to their children or parents. I looked back at my notes from those demonstrations and found page after page chronicling the certainty that many demonstrators felt that they would be shot at that night, that they would be seen by their neighbors who were snitches and that they would lose their jobs, that their children would be removed from good schools, that their lives would never again be the same.
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.
The Communists did a good job of detaching the people of Eastern and Central Europe from their religious traditions. But before we weep too much over that loss, we ought to cast our eyes across to Western Europe, which achieved pretty much the same thing without any official atheism or overt state antagonism to religion. In West Germany, for example, the churches ran the public schools, yet those schools produced generations of children whose connection to Christianity is limited pretty much to Christmas sentimentality.
Even in Catholic churches at the time, the pope’s name did not come up. The priests who created sanctuaries for political rebellion specifically said that they had neither intent nor desire to convert their neighbors into people of faith. They spoke of freedom and of choice, and they went out of their way to note that this was not about religion. One priest in Leipzig, Father Christian Fuehrer, who turned his Nikolai Church into a clubhouse for demonstration organizers, told me that he never discussed any of his actions with his superiors in the church hierarchy because they would have told him to desist. If Father Fuehrer preached any religion in those weeks, it was that of nonviolence and peace. He drew from Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he cited liberally in those days, not from Pope John Paul the Great, whom he never saw any call to mention.
Almost from the first moments after the Berlin Wall fell, the campaigns to give credit to politicians and leaders began. But the story of the revolutions of ‘89 belongs far more to the people who sensed a weakening of their oppressors and who took advantage of the moment for themselves.