In the course of collecting material for a personal project, I’ve discovered the amazing and unique bulwark against atheistic communism that Poland represented during the Cold War. Despite having been fought over (and through) for centuries, the Church and the Polish state were completely intertwined for the first one thousand years after its conversion in A.D. 966. The post-WWI Polish constitution exerted religious freedom for all, but nonetheless proclaimed Catholicism as the favorite due to its demographic advantage. During World War II, the Church was attacked and devastated by the Nazis. Three million Polish Jews were killed in the six notorious concentration camps set up by Hitler in Poland. As a cruel irony that I believe became a mechanism for the ultimate destruction of the Soviet Empire, this meant that at the close of WWII Poland’s population was 96 % Catholic.
Of course, once the Allies defeated Nazi Germany, the Soviets moved in as the new overlords of the nation. The Cold War had begun. But throughout the Cold War Poland remained in a unique position among all of the Soviet satellites, by virtue of the strength of the Church there. The Polish Church, although persecuted and even intentionally infiltrated with communists to be sure, exercised a level of influence unheard of behind the iron curtain. The communist government of Poland, and that of her master the Soviet Union, realized that Catholic homogeneity was a powerful lever with which to resist them, and they didn’t have an answer for it. The Polish episcopate, which included the Bishop of Krakow Karol Wojtyla, was allowed to attend the Second Vatican Council, whose fourth and final session in 1965 included the promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae, the Council’s declaration of religious freedom.
Is it any wonder that the nation that held out against the sweep of atheistic communism in Europe, as no other could, would produce the pope whose charisma and power would lead to the fall of the Soviet Union? Cruel irony or Divine Providence? Krakow was spared the destruction of Nazi bombing because the evil German regime wanted to set up the local Nazi government there, and did. If a Nazi bomb had killed Karol Wojtyla, there would be no Saint John Paul II; there would have been no papal visit to Warsaw in 1979 with millions of peaceful Poles chanting “We want God!” before the helpless, defused communist government; and there would likely have been no galvanized solidarity movement in Poland. The first and heaviest domino to fall in the dismantling of the Soviet Empire might never have been tipped over.
Saint Casimir, pray for us.