Political Transformation of Poland: The Role of John Paul II


Many of the political, social, and economic processes of the twentieth century are still relevant today. This period is rich of a number of interesting, important and varied research topics. Particular attention is paid to the historical, social and legacy issues of post-soviet and post-socialist bloc countries that still remains as a woe for many states. It is also important to note that often, big political upheaval do not happen only with the participation of politicians just like in Poland during the late Soviet-dominated era. This article is about the role of John Paul II and his contribution into the transformation of one of the most successful countries in Eastern Europe – Poland, which began the process of complete decommunization in 1989; In 1999 achieved NATO integration and in 2004 became a member of the European Union.

In the socialist bloc, Poland was the country that achieved great success through mass public disobedience, “Solidarity” movement and the support of the Catholic Church – one of the first to escape from the “Iron Curtain” and take the path to systemic transformation, which in fact meant moving towards the European Union and NATO.

As far back as a few centuries ago, religion was a major factor in the emergence and resolution of conflicts in the development of international systems. From 1648, after the Treaty of Westphalia, when the formation of nation-states began, competition between religion and politics entered a new phase. After the French Revolution, the process of separation and secularization of the state and the church started in Europe.

Secularization is defined differently. According to Kazanova, secularization in modern society is a reduction in religious beliefs and practices, and according to Giga Zedania, it is a process in which religion loses its influence in other areas of society. Simply put, a secular state means the complete separation of religion and politics.

Two weeks prior to June 4, 1989, historic election, before the political system could be formally changed, a law was passed that made the Republic of Poland a secular state – neutral in matters of religion and worldview.

It is also important to note that religion can often even be a determinant of national identity, and its elimination can do great harm for a nation. This is especially important when the church can act as a unifier and convey the threat for the authoritarian and totalitarian regimes just it had in Poland. This Soviet Red Terror aimed to reduce the positive role of the Church in Poland.In the countries that underwent communist rule, the influence of the churches has almost disappeared. Socialism, at first glance, respected and recognized all denominations, but in fact, by its totalitarian nature, completely absorbed the moral-material reality of man. Ideology itself organized celebrations, secular demonstrations, parades, and pseudo-religious gatherings. The leaders called on the people to take part in the process of “development” of the society and the events they had invented. Icons and religious literature were replaced by posters of the leaders.

Today, communism is seen as a political religion that, in its views and dogmas, has defined the purpose and significance of existence. It created a new political cult that focused on the sacramentality and sort of myths of the communist state. Such an approach by the communists has led to the deaths or even better displacement of many catholic and orthodox clergy.

In Poland, during the first years of communism, the Catholic Church formally obeyed the rules imposed by the regime, but gained nominal freedom in 1956, agreeing that the Church would recognize the socialist establishment and not interfere in political affairs. Despite this agreement, catholic clergymen were anti-communist and, thanks to the high level of public trust, still held liturgies, spoke about democracy, and human rights.

Then a very important issue occurred: in October 1978, the Vatican Council violated the law, according to which the head of the catholic world should be an Italian bishop by nationality. For the first time in history, a Polish Bishop Karol Wojtyła of Krakow was chosen as a Pope – a man from behind the “Iron Curtain” and without “permission from the Soviet Union.” Paweł Skibinski, a professor at the University of Warsaw, described the event as a kind of “shock” to both the Soviet Union and the international community. “If not for Polish Pope – as a spiritual authority who contributed to the collapse of communism, and if not for his sermons, there would be no “Solidarity” movement in Poland.

It was fundamentally important for the Polish community at the time to have an influential supporter beyond the “Iron Curtain”. During his tenure, John Paul II visited his homeland nine times. But the most important one was his first visit in Warsaw, which took place on June 2, 1979. It was there that he delivered one of his most famous speeches calling on Poles to uphold national, religious traditions and fight for freedom. The pope held public services for eight days (according to unofficial data, 13 million Poles attended his public speeches). One year later, the “Solidarity” movement was born. It was due to the church efforts that the movement survived, although in December 1981, the Polish communist government outlawed the “Solidarity“ and arrested its leader, Lech Wałęsa.

Later, in 1989, the Catholic Church participated in the Round Table negotiations (between the Communist government and Solidarity). These talks turned out to be one of the most important steps towards the defeat of the totalitarian regime.

In addition to gaining freedom for Poland, John Paul II made other contributions to the country’s progress. During the period of transformation, when the economic or social difficulties of Poland began, the population was skeptical of the European Union. At that time, the leader of the catholic world was actively calling on the Polish society to support European values, to preach the benefits that European family membership could bring.

The struggle for the independence of the Republic of Poland was followed by a chain reaction: the Berlin Wall collapsed, the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, and it became clear to other communist countries that the struggle always makes sense and that the end of the regime was not close. Poland and John Paul II became symbols of Europe’s recent history and struggle for freedom. Thankfully to them, the direct or indirect liquidation of the “Iron Curtain” has accelerated even more. Numerous democracies have emerged on the rubble.

Tamar Taralashvili

The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tbilisi or The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

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