Karol Wojtyla’s war


The victory of freedom is won not only by the warriors in battle, but by heroes at home.

As we remember our fallen soldiers in the cause of freedom on Remembrance Day, my own thoughts have been turning this week to the end of the Cold War – it was on Nov. 9, 1990, that the Berlin Wall came down – rather than just the end of the Great War on Nov. 11th, 1918. The victory of freedom is won not only by the warriors in battle, but by heroes at home.

A splendid new book has brought all this to mind: The End and the Beginning: John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy. This volume completes the magisterial biography of John Paul II published in 1999 by my friend George Weigel, Witness to Hope. I had expected him to complete the tale of the final years – the Great Jubilee of 2000, the epic pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the years of final illness and finally the last great act of teaching the world how to die. That story is marvelously told in the limpid style that made the first book a work not only of historical biography, but of spiritual reading.

Yet it is "the beginning" that makes this second volume worthy of reflection on Remembrance Day. The "beginning" tells the story of Karol Wojtyla before he was elected pope in 1978 – his youth marked by the Nazi occupation of Poland, and his adult life under Soviet communism. The Polish military forces were defeated by the Nazi blitzkrieg and the Red Army; it would fall to the creative resistance of Polish culture to carry on the battle.

The story can now be told because access to the secret police – the "SB" in Poland – files of the communist era. These files have revealed collaborators both low and high, including those in the universities, the Church, and even in dissident groups themselves. But the real story is how intense was the pressure on civil leaders throughout the Soviet empire to collaborate with the regime, and how many resisted. Murders and imprisonment were part of the SB operation, but insidious, too, was the daily surveillance and constant harassment.

From 1945 onwards, Weigel reports, Wojtyla was under secret police surveillance. His closest friends and collaborators were constantly targeted to betray him. Especially as Archbishop of Krakow, he had to be constantly wary of even his colleagues and household staff, in case infiltrators had been successful. When he arrived in Rome, knowing that there were spies afoot and that the Vatican had no counter-intelligence capability, John Paul handled the communist file within the papal apartment, not trusting sensitive documents to his own bureaucracy.

"It was us against them – all the time," confided John Paul's longtime secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz. Indeed, the battle for freedom in the Soviet empire was total, for the totalitarian state claimed control over all aspects of life, even the family and the Church.

Nazism – the thousand-year Reich that fell 988 years short – was defeated by force of arms. Communism proved a more enduring tyranny that could be contained by armed force, but not defeated. For that, soldiers were not needed but priests and professors, intellectuals and artists, teachers and trade unionists. The creative cultural resistance they offered produced the victory of 1989 and the sacrifices they made, though not in battle, called for heroic sacrifice.

The End and the Beginning
by George Weigel

As we remember our own war dead, our thoughts turn naturally enough to those recently dead in Afghanistan, a fiendish war far from the trenches and armies and agreed ceasefires that marked the First World War. And the enemies we fight today – particularly the phenomenon of homicidal Islamism – will likely require not more soldiers, but those creative cultural warriors that won the Cold War.

The battle for freedom can never be only about remembering past heroism. It requires something more than paying tribute to the armed forces of the present. It demands the vigilance and courage of citizens who refuse to make compromises with tyranny, and who refuse to collaborate in the lies that sustain it.

Weigel's new book opens the curtain on that drama as it was lived for decades behind the Iron Curtain. It is the story of one man to be sure, but also of more than one. The SB would have crushed Karol Wojtyla if he had been truly alone. That he was not alone, but inspired an ever growing number to join him, was the secret to the victory. That victory too bears remembering this Remembrance Day.




Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Karol Wojtyla's war." National Post, (Canada) November 11, 2010.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2010 National Post

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