St. John Paul II Brought Us Hope and Communism Collapsed

Poland’s Ambassador to the Holy See Speaks on Fall of the Berlin Wall

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The Berlin Wall collapsed on Nov. 9, 1989; it was the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire.

Twenty-five years after this historic event, ZENIT spoke with Piotr Nowina Kokopka, Poland’s ambassador to the Holy See. The ambassador talked about how he lived this event, and how St. John Paul II was a key figure in giving back hope to the Polish people.

ZENIT: How did you receive and live the news of the collapse of the Berlin Wall?

Ambassador Nowina: This happened in the first weeks of the non-Communist government of Poland, which only began on September 12, 1989. At that time, I was a Minister of State and the first visit to Poland from a world leader, Chancellor Helmut Kohl [from Germany] was taking place.

ZENIT: Were you part of Solidarnosc?

Ambassador Nowina: Yes, certainly, and I was [Lech] Walesa’s spokesman during the period of marshal law. Then, in June of that year, there were elections where, for the first time after World War II, a non-Communist Prime Minister won. There were still all the resentments after the War between Poles and Germans, and a process of pacification began between the two countries.

The border between Poland and the GDR was practically closed. There were two passports: those that allowed one to circulate in the Communist area and one for the whole world, and it was almost impossible to get the latter.

ZENIT: Was there some particular event before the fall of the Wall?

Ambassador Nowina: Still earlier, there was a lessening of the impenetrability on the Polish side of the border with East Germany (GDR), and thousands of people fled to our country, requesting asylum, and they were received by the Poles. I remember very well. I was at the Chancellery for International Affairs. We told Kohl we didn’t know what to do, because there was not enough housing, but the population received them. I remember that many of these Germans returned later to Poland to express their gratitude for the hospitality they received. The first door to open was between Hungary and Austria, but the Berlin Wall border was impenetrable. One could arrive in Hungary from Poland through Czechoslovakia or by plane.

ZENIT: At the time, did you receive any news on the fall of the Wall?

Ambassador Nowina: The answer is: categorically no. No one, not even Chancellor Kohl, who was on an official visit to Poland. He had to suspend his trip to return to Germany. “Mister Minister, my duty is to be there. I’m sorry, but I must return,” he said to me.

ZENIT: Why did they allow the Wall to be torn down?

Ambassador Nowina: The government and the authority didn’t know what to say. The messages were contradictory. The impression was that there no longer was any authority.

ZENIT: So, was it a popular movement that brought it down?

Ambassador Nowina: Without a doubt, without a doubt. However, it wasn’t an organized movement like ours. On our side, after the papal trip of 1979, the democratic opposition was structured. Then there was the strike at the naval dockyards of Danzig. It was followed by martial law and repression, until the Round Table was held and they authorized participation in the elections. At that time we won 99% of the votes for the Senate and for the Assembly all that they allowed us to have, that is, 36%.

ZENIT: What role did John Paul II have in the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Ambassador Nowina: It is a story that begins even before John Paul II’s arrival, because after World War II, the Catholic Church had moral authority in Poland: it defended man’s freedom, it supported small groups of opposition that weren’t visible who were under the pressure of communism. Then, with the Conclave, things changed; the point is hope, the hope that he gave us.

ZENIT: And at this point?

Ambassador Nowina: John Paul II came to Poland in 1979. The Communists were furious, but it was very difficult to impede Poles from arriving from all over the country. They did the impossible to diminish the visit, with censure, with every artifice, but one million or more than one million people came on foot to Warsaw for the Mass. The famous address took place there: “May the Holy Spirit descend on the earth and change it”; it wasn’t rhetoric. And the people realized that like them there were thousands of others, because the strategy of the Communist regime was based on destroying their opponents. And in Poland, believers had the hope that things would change.

ZENIT: What happened after John Paul II’s visit?

Ambassador Nowina: In 1980, the strikes began for economic reasons, but afterwards for the dignity of the person. I’m convinced that it was a miracle, because, technically, we didn’t have a chance. And in the end the Communists accepted the labor unions, which in a short time had 10 million affiliated. Then the government introduced marshal law in 1981 to avoid a Soviet invasion, the dialogue between the government and the labor unions was broken until 1988 and, despite the regime’s efforts, there was a drastic fall in production and, unable to put right the economic situation, they took up again the dialogue with the labor unions, a situation that ended with the Round Table. At this point, they allowed the elections. However, the main point from which everything else followed was hope.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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Sergio Mora

Buenos Aires, Argentina Estudios de periodismo en el Istituto Superiore di Comunicazione de Roma y examen superior de italiano para extranjeros en el Instituto Dante Alighieri de Roma. Periodista profesional de la Associazione Stampa Estera en Italia, y publicista de la Orden de periodistas de Italia. Fue corresponsal adjunto del diario español El País de 2000 a 2004, colaborador de los programas en español de la BBC y de Radio Vaticano. Fue director del mensual Expreso Latino, realizó 41 programas en Sky con Babel TV. Actualmente además de ser redactor de ZENIT colabora con diversos medios latinoamericanos.

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