Who Lifted the Iron Curtain

Friday, April 08, 2005

Who Lifted the Iron Curtain

In this Slate column, the Washington Post's Marc Fisher recalls his days as the newspaper's Berlin bureau chief from 1989 to 1993, and he challenges an assumption that is making the rounds this week as Pope John Paul II is laid to rest:
... (In Nov. 1989) a couple of journalist colleagues and I [were] heading to Leipzig, where thousands of ordinary East Germans [were] about to walk their city's circle road in silent protest against the totalitarian state ... 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.

... most of the tributes to the pope (during this week declare) 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 ... 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? ... 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.

... 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 ... 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.

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