Paul Kengor: Recalling Poland’s quest for freedom |
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Paul Kengor

The media loves anniversaries. As someone who writes on history, I appreciate that. But it’s funny, and often frustrating, which anniversaries get missed.

The world marked important anniversaries over the past week and a half. There was the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, where hundreds if not thousands of Chinese youth were killed in the name of freedom from tyranny. There was also the 75th anniversary of D-Day, where many thousands more were killed in the name of freedom from tyranny.

Overlooked, however, were two other crucial anniversaries, both this time 30 and 40 years ago. Perhaps they were overlooked because they related to Poland, a nation not always on our radar — even as World War II started in Poland. The two anniversaries I have in mind related keenly to that human quest for freedom.

On June 4, 1989 — coincidentally, the same date that marks Tiananmen Square — the people of Poland held free and fair elections. A second round would follow on June 18. The communists, which had squashed elections ever since they had been promised at Yalta in February 1945, didn’t win a single seat. If you want to know why communists don’t hold free and fair elections, whether under Stalin or Mao or the Castros and the Kims, there’s your answer.

Poland’s communists immediately regretted their mistake, as did their string-pullers in the Kremlin. With those stunning elections, the first in the Soviet camp, the Communist Bloc began its rapid meltdown. The Berlin Wall would collapse just a few months later.

One person not surprised by the catalyst of those elections was history’s first Polish pope, its first non-Italian pope in 4½ centuries: Karol Wojtyla. That brings me to the other key anniversary this June 2019.

It was in June 1979 that John Paul II returned to his native land as Bishop of Rome. There he would commence a nine-day visit that truly changed the course of history.

For his opening platform on June 2, 1979, the pontiff chose Warsaw’s historic Victory Square. The choice could not have been more perfect. As the secret police pressed in from all around the perimeter of the massive crowd, the Polish pope told his people to “Be not afraid,” an exhortation omnipresent throughout Scripture. The flock responded with courage, whereas communist officials, all the way to Kremlin, were terrified at what was being peacefully unleashed in Warsaw that day. They were especially rattled by the pope’s unflinching pronouncement that a “just Europe” must include “the independence of Poland.”

Inspired, the people of Poland, who had been told by communists that there was no God, began chanting “We want God! We want God!”

And it was that, John Paul II would later say, that toppled communism. Communists could not contain the inherent yearning in the human heart for faith and freedom.

Alas, that brings me to another anniversary, one that the world will soon be acknowledging: this fall 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. This, too, was a great step forward for humanity in its quest for freedom from tyranny, and it was precipitated by elections in Poland in June 1989 and the visit of Pope John Paul II in June 1979. Two great events that we should remember.

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