Thirty years ago this week, the Bishop of Rome returned to Poland for the first time since his recent election to the papacy. America’s premier Cold War historian, John Lewis Gaddis of Yale, is not ambiguous in his judgment of what happened next: “When John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland — and ultimately everywhere — would come to an end.” Professor Gaddis is right: the Nine Days of John Paul II, June 2-10, 1979, were an epic moment on which the history of the twentieth century pivoted, and in a more humane direction.
What did John Paul talk about during the Nine Days? He didn’t talk about politics; indeed, beyond the ritual exchanges of formalities with government officials at the arrival ceremony in Warsaw on June 2 and the departure ceremony from Cracow on June 10, the Pope acted as if the Polish communist regime did not exist. Rather, he spoke over, around, and beyond the regime directly to the people of Poland, not about what the world usually understands as power, but about people power — the power of culture and spiritual identity. “You are not who ‘they’ say you are,” the Pope proposed, in a number of variations on the same theme; “let me remind you who you really are.”
During the Nine Days of June 1979, John Paul II gave back to his people their history, their culture, and their identity. In doing so, he gave Poles spiritual tools of resistance that communism could not match. And he did all that by reminding his people that “Poland” began with its 10th century baptism — with its incorporation into the Christian world. That reminder created a moral revolution that eventually brought down the communist god that failed. For on June 4, 1989, Solidarity swept the first reasonably free elections in post-war Polish history and set in motion an unstoppable chain of events across east central Europe. The Iron Curtain collapsed in Poland, five months before the Berlin Wall fell in Germany.
What can we learn from the Nine Days, three decades later? Several important things, I’d suggest.
The first thing the Nine Days and the subsequent Solidarity revolution teach us is that history doesn’t work through politics and economics alone. The power of the human spirit can ignite world-historical change.
The second lesson from the Nine Days is that tradition can be as powerful a force for dramatic social and political change as a revolutionary rupture with the past. “Revolution,” in the Solidarity experience, meant the recovery of lost values and cultural truths and their creative re-application to new situations. Tradition, according to an old theological maxim, is the living faith of the dead — a lively faith that can move history forward rather than dragging it backwards.
The third thing we ought to learn from the Nine Days and what followed in Poland is that moral conviction can be the lever once sought by Archimedes — the lever with which to move the world. There is nothing more potent in history, for good or ill, than ideas. The history of the twentieth century prior to 1979 had been unspeakably bloody because of the power of false ideas and lies. The Solidarity revolution proved that the opposite could also be true, with its insistence on truth-telling amidst the communist culture of prevarication (or, as one famous slogan of the day had it, “For Poland to be Poland, 2+2 must always = 4”).
The fourth thing we learn from the Nine Days and the moral revolution they ignited is that “public life” and “politics,” “civil society” and “politics” are not the same. Rather, the health of politics depends on the moral health of civil society.
And the fifth thing we learn about from the Nine Days of John Paul II is what the Pope later came to call “the subjectivity of society.” Free associations of men and women who are citizens, not subjects, are where democrats are made, for it’s in those free associations that we learn the habits of heart and mind that make it possible for us to be self-governing.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.