Fifteen years ago this month, the world witnessed the downfall of Communism’s greatest symbol. As guards stood by, Berliners gathered before the Wall that had scarred their city since the 1960s and, taking Ronald Reagan’s advice to Mikhail Gorbachev, began tearing it down.
In the span of centuries, 15 years is not a long time. It is extraordinary, however, how quickly awareness of Marxist regimes has faded from public memory. Millions of people know about the Nazis’ atrocities. Relatively few have heard of the millions imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by Communist systems. Even fewer know about the faithful Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic Christians who suffered at the hands of Marxist oppression.
What people do know is that Communism was an economic disaster. As early as the 1920s, wiser economists argued that command economies could never work. It was simply impossible, they noted, for a group of planners to know all the information about supply and demand conveyed in free economies through the price mechanism.
Still, despite its economic deficiencies, Communism lumbered along, held in place by corruption, apathy, and, above all, fear. Though often unable to access even basic material essentials, millions remained cowed by the terrorist methods employed by Communist regimes – methods that define them as being as criminal as the Nazis.
It’s tempting to believe that Communism’s economic woes were responsible for its collapse. Communism’s persistence in North Korea and Cuba, however, suggests that an economic system mired in stagnation is no guarantee that tyrants will lose power.
In this light, we begin to understand that 1989 represented not simply admission of Communism’s economic bankruptcy. More fundamentally, Communism’s collapse throughout Central-East Europe was the result of a moral revolution – an insurrection wrought by Christianity and its non-negotiable demand that all governments affirm the human person’s intrinsic dignity.
The roots of this upheaval may be found in the struggle of the Catholic Church in Poland to maintain its liberty and proclaim a vision of man rather different from that articulated by Marxism. It is little wonder that the gray, cold men in the Kremlin are reported to have gone white with shock upon hearing that a Pole had been elected to the Chair of Peter.
From then on, Central-East Europe was relentlessly subjected to a call to liberty – a liberty that has nothing in common with the hedonistic autonomy so assiduously promoted in Western Europe since the 1960s. This was a call, rather, to a freedom grounded in the truth about the person as the very image of God.
It was a message that gave people courage to raise their heads and cease feeling humiliated; that reminded them of their dignity and that the state existed for them, and not they for the state. It was a message that told them that religious liberty was owed to them by the state;that they possessed what John Paul II called “the right to economic initiative;” and that Communist political structures – be they of the Leninist, Maoist, Latin American, or African variety – were utterly incompatible with authentic human freedom.
No one is going to die willingly for utility or efficiency. People will, however, give their lives for love or liberty. There was no greater witness to this willingness to reject evil than the millions of Christians who flocked to see Pope John Paul II when he visited Poland in 1979. In the end, the only way the Communists could cope with the ensuing desire of Poles to live in truth was to declare “a state of war” and order the army to invade its own country in December 1981. Yet within eight years, one of those individuals imprisoned by the Communists became Poland’s first non-Communist prime minister since World War II. Such was the impact of Central-East Europe’s moral revolution.
Fifteen years later, freedom in Europe is again under siege. Western Europe’s economic decline surely reflects many European governments’ unwillingness to take economic liberty seriously. Political liberty is also under attack from what is nothing less than a secularist-fundamentalism that permits former Communist officials to become European Union commissioners, while treating Christians who politely but firmly refuse to disguise their faith as if they are the equivalent of Osama bin Laden.
Clearly, while the EU is a long way from degenerating into the Communist systems of yesteryear, totalitarian tendencies remain alive and well throughout Europe. But if Communism’s demise teaches us anything, it is that people of hope have reason to believe that liberty, grounded in the truth about man, consistently overcomes its opponents – be they of the Marxist, Nazi, or secularist-fundamentalist variety. For authentic liberty gives rise to life, while totalitarianism is the path to death. And life enables us to flourish as we ought. A culture of death, by contrast, carries the seeds of its self-destruction.