By Kirsten Evans
VIENNA, Austria, DEC. 24, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The fall of the Berlin Wall is arguably the most significant event of the 20th century, says the director of an educational foundation that seeks to create a new intellectual culture in post-communist countries.
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.
Cities the world over celebrated the Nov. 9 anniversary, including Berlin who marked the event with open air concerts, fireworks, and a chain of enormous dominos toppling along the wall’s original path.
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 significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the work of EICEE to rebuild the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, which were shackled under communist regimes only one generation ago.
Part 2 of this interview will appear Friday
ZENIT: Father Guarnizo, you are a native of Columbia, but were raised in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. In 2001, as a young priest, you felt called to found the Educational Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe. Could you explain the mission of the organization, and the experiences that inspired you to found it?
Guarnizo: In 1993, I went to Russia. The Berlin Wall, of course, had fallen four years earlier. The Soviet Union had only been officially dissolved two years earlier, on Dec. 25, 1991. I experienced a strong call to help rebuild the Church in the post-communist world.
I began with another organization, Aid to the Church in Russia, which dedicated itself to rebuilding churches in Russia that had been desecrated during the regime. We were able to rebuild quite a few Catholic churches in Russia. But after about 10 years, I began to realize that rebuilding churches was not going to be enough.
What was needed was a movement to create a new intellectual culture in the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
So we expanded our mission beyond Russia to include all of the countries of the former Soviet Union, to begin educating them in principles of what we call “strengthening and promoting free, just, and democratic societies.”
For us that means economic freedom, political freedom, and cultural freedom. The inspiration was that if you do not have a sustainable culture that understands the principles of democracy, you would never be able to build a free and just society.
At Educational Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe we do this largely through educational and public policy initiatives, conferences, publications, humanitarian relief, and networking youth, intellectuals, and political leaders throughout the region.
ZENIT: EICEE recently hosted a conference in Zagreb, Croatia, which gained media attention in Europe. Perhaps the most celebrated moment of the conference was Lech Walesa’s personal reflections on lessons learned 20 years after the downfall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. Could you summarize the main ideas that were shared?
Guarnizo: I want to begin by saying that at EICEE we felt it was important to clearly mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which symbolized the liberation of so many people enslaved by communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. It was perhaps the most important historical event of the 20th century.
Yet surprisingly, the anniversary went largely unnoticed in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe, and this is very pre-occupying.
Unfortunately, today many of the young people in these nations remain unaware of what actually happened. Because they are too young to have lived under communism, they do not understand its dimensions. And older generations, with the determination to move on, do not like to talk about it.
We invited people who played a role in the fall of communism to discuss the lessons learned from a historical perspective. We wanted to shed light both on what happened, as well as on lessons that can be learned for the future. We were pleased we got such a strong response and attendance.
I would say that having Lech Walesa there was a great privilege and I am grateful that he accepted our invitation.
He emphasized the role of creative minorities. In other words, what a few determined people can do to create substantial change. In his case, it was the downfall of the Soviet Union. The cumulative efforts of key players in different parts of the world, namely Reagan, Thatcher, Lech Walesa’s Solidarity Movement, and a Polish Pope, changed world history. This just goes to show that you never know how great the impact a creative minority can have.
This is a sign of great hope for future generations, reminding them that they have to be involved, that they have to be active. There is a lot of despair today about the political order in Central and Eastern Europe and we are trying to inspire young people to be involved and stay involved.
ZENIT: You mentioned the role of the youth in the future of these nations. Did Lech Walesa articulate any “lessons learned” that would be particularly important for the younger generations of these nations?
Guarnizo: All of the lessons of communism are important for the youth of these nations to take to heart. But if one thing were to come to mind, he spoke of the incredible courage needed for a few people to stand up for what they know to be true and right, even if it means going against adversity and deeply entrenched systems and cultures. This is kind of moral courage is not easy to come by.
And it is something needed not only in central and eastern Europe, but also in the west — the moral courage to lead and to defend the culture of the west. I think the West is committing intellectual and cultural suicide at present. We are terribly afraid of recognizing the importance of preserving our own Western civilization, of acknowledging our Christian roots, which is a undeniable fact of history. Walesa emphasized the importance of moral courage in order to defend culture.
He also emphasized the importance of ideas, such as the idea that man was created free and it is impossible to enslave man forever.
There has been a great rewriting of history as to why the Berlin Wall fell and why communism was overcome in Europe, reducing the course of events to merely the failure of an economic system. It is important to realize that communism was not overthrown simply because of a need for economic reform.
For instance, people standing in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square do not do so because of a simple desire for economic reforms. These are men and women who believe in justice and in their own right to freedom and the rights of their children, and they are willing to pay a very high price in pursuit of these rights.
The religious, political, and cultural freedom that the youth of these countries enjoy today was won by the generations that went before them, and at a very high price. This is a very important lesson to never lose sight of.[Part 2 of this interview will appear Friday]