By Kirsten Evans
VIENNA, Austria, DEC. 25, 2009 (Zenit.org).- There are good ideas, and there are bad ideas. For the director of an educational foundation that seeks to create a new intellectual culture in post-communist countries, communism was a bad idea.
Father Marcel Guarnizo is founder and chairman of the Vienna-based organization Educational Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe (EICEE), which hosted a conference earlier this month to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and to reflect on lessons learned from the rise and fall of communism.
EICEE hosted its conference in Zagreb, Croatia, and featured speakers included Robin Harris, former advisor to Margaret Thatcher, and John O’Sullivan, executive editor of Radio Free Europe in Prague.
The keynote speaker was Noble Peace Prize Laureate Lech Walesa, former leader of the Polish Solidarity Movement and former president of Poland. Walesa’s address was titled “1989-2009: Lessons Learned from the Fall of Communism.”
ZENIT recently caught up with Father Guarnizo at the foundation’s headquarters in the Castle Neuwaldegg in Vienna, to talk about the conference, the role of the Church in the demise of communism in Europe, as well as the biggest challenges facing EICEE in its efforts to rebuild the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, which were shackled under communist regimes only one generation ago.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Thursday.
ZENIT: Did Lech Walesa mention the role of the Catholic Church in the demise of the communist regime of the Soviet Union in Russia and Europe?
Guarnizo: Yes, Walesa absolutely spoke of the role of the Catholic Church in the ruin of the Soviet Union. This is something that was universally recognized by all historians of the time, yet was not mentioned by any of the speakers at the 20th anniversary celebrations in Berlin earlier this year. Walsea insisted that without the Catholic Church it would have been impossible for Solidarity to survive, which of course became one of the central social impetuses that eroded the authority of the communist regime.
Walesa also emphasized his personal faith, and his strong conviction that divine providence played a tremendous role in the fall of communist Europe in the 20th century.
ZENIT: As the founder and chairman of EICEE, what have been the biggest challenges you have run into while pursuing the mission to promote principles of free, just and democratic societies in post-communist Europe?
Guarnizo: I think the biggest challenge was that nobody was really doing this before us. So it was a pioneering effort, and it was unique because we were trying to create the largest network in Central and Eastern Europe that would be concerned with creating intellectual and cultural foundations for the new generation.The second challenge was that communism had destroyed pretty much everything. It had destroyed the intellectual class, the cultural foundations, the morals, the economics, and the politics of these nations.
Thirdly, it is such a vast territory; so many different languages, so many different cultures. In the beginning we were just trying to figure out how we would create the necessary network to promote this kind of education.
ZENIT: Could you describe some of the landmark events in these first nine years of EICEE’s mission?
Guarnizo: Establishing a network which currently has eight offices operating in different countries: Austria, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Croatia, and Washington DC, has been a landmark in itself.
The second landmark would be training and working with leaders in the political, economic, and cultural order. It is not easy to establish a serious intellectual position, making yourself a voice of reason in many of the debates taking place in Central and Eastern Europe. We are grateful we have been able to accomplish this.
We are also grateful to count on the support of so many people who are vital to that part of the world. Former heads of state, like President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, Former Prime Minister Mart Laar who was the first prime minister after the fall of communism in Estonia, and former Slovak Prime Minister Jan Carnogursky, and other political and cultural leaders.
It is wonderful to have so many people behind us in an effort that is so needed, and which answers the call of Benedict XVI to drive these principles back into the cultures of nations.
ZENIT: You mentioned Benedict XVI. What is the relationship between the organization and the Church itself?
Guarnizo: The organization is non-denominational, but it is the role of the Church to be involved in helping to establish and promote principles that can sustain free democracies.
Benedict XVI has pointed out on many occasions that it is the role of the Church to safeguard right reason. This is true not only of religion, but also of all sciences, including the sciences that are fundamental to democracy: namely, economics, politics, and the cultural blocks of democracy.
We desperately need to do this in Central and Eastern Europe because while many of these countries have transitioned toward free societies, the problems and legacy of communism have continued.
If we do not educate the next generations of these nations, they will never understand what exactly made communism so destructive, and what needs to be done to do to secure free, just and democratic societies.
ZENIT: In your experience, what was at the core of the communist doctrine in Central and Eastern Europe that proved to be so destructive in the 20th century?
Guarnizo: There is a great part of the West that believes that the notion of instituting democracy and establishing free societies has only to do with free market economics and perhaps free elections or political freedom.
But the reality is that the problem of communist atheism was actually a philosophical anthropological problem, as Pope John Paul II said. It was an anthropological error — the materialist vision of man that allowed them to treat man as raw material and therefore socially engineer societies. The economic disaster that followed was simply the consequence of the wrong vision of mankind.
This problem is what leads to totalitarian regimes in other parts of the world. The lack of respect for the dignity of the human person, a lack of understanding of who the human person is, and false understandings as to why he needs political, cultural, and economic freedom.
But this can also happen in a democracy. It is good to remember that Hitler was elected democratically. Hamas was elected democratically in Palestine, as well. As Benedict XVI has many times said, even a democracy without values can easily slide into tyranny. Democracy without philosophically sound principles runs the risk of becoming dangerous and enslaving.
Our foundation is absolutely convinced that ideas have consequences. Bad ideas in the 20th century killed more people than in the first 1,900 years of Christianity, and we had more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than all other centuries combined. This is because bad ideas have consequences, just like good ones do.
I have argued for many years that the goal of bringing down the Wall was not simply the goal of bringing down the Soviet Union, but to actually convert hearts and minds to a new society, a free society, and a just society.
After attaining freedom at such a cost, we have a moral duty to do something to help new generations maintain and prosper in their freedom.
We are fighting to create a new intellectual generation who understand this, so that when they act, they act in accordance with right reason and sound principles.
But for us, one generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this is the only way I think we will be able to secure a future for these nations for generations to come.
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