25 years ago, the Berlin Wall fell.
Well, it didn’t so much “fall” as it was pushed over, broken through and destroyed by the people it was supposed to keep apart. But why did the Berlin Wall fall? How did Communism itself fall so dramatically? In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope St John Paul II reflected on that momentous year 1989, singling out three key factors.
Why did Communism Fall?
1. The Violation of the Rights of Workers
It cannot be forgotten that the fundamental crisis of systems claiming to express the rule and indeed the dictatorship of the working class began with the great upheavals which took place in Poland in the name of solidarity. It was the throngs of working people which foreswore the ideology which presumed to speak in their name.
2. The Inefficiency of the Economic System
The second factor in the crisis was certainly the inefficiency of the economic system, which is not to be considered simply as a technical problem, but rather a consequence of the violation of the human rights to private initiative, to ownership of property and to freedom in the economic sector.
3. The Abandonment of God
But the true cause of the new developments was the spiritual void brought about by atheism, which deprived the younger generations of a sense of direction and in many cases led them, in the irrepressible search for personal identity and for the meaning of life, to rediscover the religious roots of their national cultures, and to rediscover the person of Christ himself as the existentially adequate response to the desire in every human heart for goodness, truth and life.
What Can the Events of 1989 Teach Us?
Do the events of 1989 teach us anything? Unsurprisingly, for Pope John Paul II, the answer was a resounding YES.
The events of 1989 are an example of the success of willingness to negotiate and of the Gospel spirit in the face of an adversary determined not to be bound by moral principles. These events are a warning to those who, in the name of political realism, wish to banish law and morality from the political arena.
They also teach us the danger of oppressing the poor and denying man the dignity of work, of reducing man to an economic cog in wheel of class warfare, and above all, of abandoning the reality of God who alone can make sense of man.
They teach us too of the danger of forgetting original sin. Original sin isn’t a dusty doctrine, it is the key to understanding the human condition. “Man”, wrote John Paul, “tends towards good, but he is also capable of evil.”
Any political order which denies the reality of original sin leaves us open to most horrifying expressions.
John Paul II continued in Centesimus Annus,
When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. Politics then becomes a “secular religion” which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world.
But no political ideology, order or society can bring about the Kingdom of God. Only at the end, the true end of history, will Christ return in judgement and establish the new heavens and new earth — “but as long as time lasts the struggle between good and evil continues even in the human heart itself.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, like Pope John Paul II, was a victim of Communist oppression, imprisoned in the Russian gulags for eleven years. After his release and escape to the West, he echoed the pope’s words in his book, The Gulag Archipelago:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts… If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty-five years ago, pray for peace today: peace in our world, in our social and economic structures, in our families, and above all, in our hearts — for that is where the real walls lie undisturbed.