From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitols of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow. – Winston Churchill
Before World War II was over in Europe, the Allied leaders had met at Yalta in February of 1945 to make a plan for reorganizing the territories occupied by the Nazis. Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt sat down to redraw the maps of Europe. Central and Eastern Europe were left under the control of Russia, as were sections of the capitols, Berlin and Vienna. Winston Churchill saw the danger of that division and in his address of March 6, 1946 he gave it the name it would retain: The Iron Curtain.
Of course, when the Russian promises vaporized, along with the sovereignty of these citizens, the dividing line between countries and the West became a more literal curtain of iron, barbed wire and explosives. When the Berlin Wall went up in the night between August 12 and 13, 1961, to keep East bloc subjects from fleeing to freedom via West Berlin, the Western nations stood by, unable to prevent it. Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old boy, tried to sprint to the other side one year later, and as he clambered over the barbed wire after his friend, he was shot by East German border guards who let him bleed to death, tangled in the barbs before horrified onlookers from both sides. He was the first of hundreds to die in the attempt. I know the East German conscript who soon after that incident was given the assignment to stand guard at that very spot, under orders to shoot any other countrymen trying to escape to freedom in the West. When Rüdiger Knechtel refused to shoot and convinced other soldiers to do the same, he was imprisoned for more than two years.
The Berlin Wall stood unchallenged so long that people on both sides in Europe had come to think of it as a permanent fact of life. East German 8th grade textbooks stated that the Wall had been built for protection against invasion from the West on an unspecified “Day X.” Parents who dared to tell their children the truth knew it was like handing them a stick of lit dynamite. Not much worked efficiently under communism, except the informants of the secret police. Most people on eastern side of the Iron Curtain eventually lost hope that their fate could ever be anything other than subjugation, and it seemed that no one in the West dared to challenge the Soviet empire, other than Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher.
I know these things because I had a ring-side seat as these events unfolded, having served President Reagan in The White House, then moving to Germany, where I was an international television correspondent covering Europe, while living among families with members on both sides of the Berlin Wall.
An Evil Empire
President Ronald Reagan met with Pope John Paul II in 1982 and they both reflected on the chilling near-brush with death they had both experienced in 1981. The attempt on the Pope’s life at the hand of the Bulgarian assassin was most likely sanctioned by the highest communist officials to decapitate the moral leadership of what they perceived to be one of their biggest threats: the Church. Both Reagan and the Pope believed they had been granted more years in life to fulfill a destiny ordained by God. Reagan listened carefully to the Pope’s words on the deep sources of purpose that transcend the political realm. When President Reagan spoke on March 8, 1983, he reflected on the spiritual nature of the conflict with communism:
I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
When Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet regime as an “evil empire,” he voiced what Russian dissident and political prisoner Alexander Solzhenitsyn would confirm in his 1986 speech, in which he called the USSR “the concentration of world evil.” Reagan was outraged when President Ford snubbed Solzhenitsyn and refused to meet with him. Solzhenitsyn and Reagan admired each other, and in 1981 the Russian wrote to the President saying: “I rejoice that the United States at last has a president such as you and I unceasingly thank God that you were not killed by that villainous bullet.” When Reagan spoke of the “evil empire,” he was stating a metaphysical truth that every dissident in Stasi, Securitate or KGB prison cells knew to be true. They cheered when they heard what he said. I know this because more than 150 of these dissidents later told me their own stories from the “evil empire.” Although the sophisticated Europeans, and pundits in America, ridiculed him, President Reagan understood that the conflict with communism had a spiritual dimension, as well as military, political and economic ramifications.
President Reagan responded quickly to the flicker of movement in Poland as Solidarnosz solidified, and his administration equipped their leaders with the means to communicate with each other—FAX machines, which in that pre-internet time offered a breakthrough means of free communication in a lock-down regime. Quiet moves were made to strengthen the roots of civil society in the countries where citizens were finding their own conscience and courage.
Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down this Wall
When Ronald Reagan stood at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in 1987 and boldly proclaimed, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” it took our breath away. Germans had been separated from their relatives since 1961 by the jagged barbed wire of the wall, built in an act of desperation to keep East Germans from fleeing to freedom, and both sides had come to accept this monstrosity as unchanging. I had crossed the border into the East and listened to their stories of despair in 1983. (I was tailed and they were later interrogated.) The willingness of communists to shoot and imprison their own citizens rather than let them escape was justifiable cause for their subjects’ gloomy resignation. Totalitarian regimes killed 169 million of thier own people. Not everyone is born to be a martyr.
President Reagan knew that more than strong rhetoric was necessary to back down the Soviets. He was convinced that by strengthening the West’s military might, the Soviets would have to loosen their grip. The Reykjavik Summit in 1986 was criticized as a failure, but Reagan’s resolve pushed Gorbachev on arms reduction and human rights violations. Reagan left no doubt in Gorbachev’s mind of America’s fortitude in defending freedom. President Reagan also managed to secure the release of one of Russia’s political prisoners on the eve of that summit: Irina Ratushinskaya, a poet whose crime had been to write verse that alluded to God. For her “dissemination of anti-Soviet agitation in poetic form” she had been sentenced to seven years in a hard labor camp, where she was desperately ill with ailments of the heart, liver and kidneys. She was stripped and beaten, suffered two concussions, spent 39 days in an unheated cell and contracted pneumonia. When President Reagan secured her release from the Soviets, it was a whiff of oxygen to other imprisoned dissidents, I learned in later interviews with them.
Meanwhile, Reagan stood unflinchingly in his military resistance, while quietly working back channels to secure freedom for political prisoners and encourage the pockets of resistance throughout the East Bloc. Small cells of leaders in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic states were committed to seeking a peaceful resistance to communism, growing in influence as they nurtured the seeds of a “second culture” in civil society, in the church, and in the realm of the mind. The spiritual leadership of Pope John Paul II spoke straight to their hearts with his clarion call, “Be not afraid!” The Pope reminded people, first in Poland and later throughout the entire Soviet empire, that each of them had eternal value and dignity as children of God, with an identity that transcends the state. This spiritual revolution that rippled across the entire East Bloc preceded, and in important ways made possible, the political revolution that followed. Pastor Christian Führer assembled people to pray each week in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, and his church was a spiritual sparkplug for the peaceful revolution in East Germany. Citizens with nothing but small candles walked out of his church and faced down armed troops under orders to shoot them. Christian leaders who emerged throughout Eastern Europe and the entire Soviet Union at the critical junctures of these events were a major factor in keeping the resistance peaceful. This is not the usual course of revolutions.
The Polish theologian, Josef Tischner, described Solidarnosc as “a forest of awakened consciences.” When one person finds the courage to stand in the light, another is inspired by his courage. At the same time a moral awakening was beginning to ignite Czechoslovakia through the plays of Vaclav Havel, Russians and many others were reading the novels of Solzhenitsyn. Both authors had been imprisoned for their literary works. Just owning one of Solzhenitsyn’s books could earn you one year in an East German prison, I learned from one man who suffered that fate. Both Solzhenitsyn and Havel excoriated the “culture of the lie” that all subjects of communism lived in, where everyone thought one thing and said another, as a matter of survival. Philosophers who dared to challenge communist ideology in Czechoslovakia ended up shoveling coal into the furnaces of hotels on the night shift. But a few courageous souls still dared to stand and speak the truth, even if the price was losing their job or even going to prison. They stood straight and unbowed behind the Wall, like candles on a darkened landscape. And as the darkness receded from the light they bore, a few more people dared to stand with them.
But the willingness of the communists to crack the heads of demonstrators or imprison them continued. Soviet President Gorbachev wanted changes, but he had no intention of turning the Soviet Union into a western style republic or a free market economy. He only wanted enough internal reform – perestroika — to get the failing economy moving, while continuing to feed the military machine.
President Reagan’s resolve eventually backed the Russians down. I interviewed one of Gorbachev’s top economic advisers, Alexander Zaichenko. In 1986, as an adviser to Gorbachev’s Council of Ministers, Zaichenko co-authored with two other analysts a 13-page report that laid out the state of the flagging economy in Russia and her satellites. The Soviet Union was already spending 20 percent of its GNP on military research and materials, compared to 6 percent in the US. Zaichenko’s report concluded that further Soviet expenditures to counter western strength, particularly SDI (the Strategic Defense Initiative) would bankrupt them by the year 2000. Gorbachev read the report somberly, according to Zaichenko, then called his closest advisers together and told them in so many words ‘We have to put an end to the Cold War and especially the arms race. There is no way out.’
As the subjects of communism found their conscience and their voice, they stood up one at a time and faced down troops under orders to shoot them in Leipzig, Berlin, Prague and Warsaw. During the attempted coup of 1991 in Moscow, Shirinai Dossova, a Muslim convert to Christianity, walked up to the tanks rolling into the streets and knocked on the side until one of the drivers popped open the top to see what the ruckus was. She held up a Bible and handed it to one of the drivers saying, “It says here not to kill. Are you going to kill me?” She stood in front of his tank, overcoming his will to obey orders to roll over her. Her courage was contagious, and it galvanized the wills of others who put their bodies between the tanks and the newly elected members of the Duma inside.
The long fuse was lit in Poland in 1979 when newly elected Pope John Paul II visited his homeland. His message was not a political one. He reminded the millions of people who flooded the streets to see him that they had rights and responsibilities that transcended the political order. He reminded them who they were, as faithful Poles. And they responded spontaneously, “We want God! We want God in our families! We want God in our schools! We want God!” That long-burning fuse detonated ten years later, ultimately toppling the Berlin Wall. What took ten years in Poland took ten months in Hungary, ten weeks in East Germany, ten days in Czechoslovakia, and ten hours in Romania. The aftershocks of the spiritual and political earthquake toppled the rest of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Ash-Heap of Communism
There were multiple causes and numerous players in bringing about the end of communism. I interviewed 150 people who resisted in far-flung corners of the entire Soviet Union. But it became clear to me, as I wrote Candles Behind the Wall (and it has since been validated by many others) that President Reagan and Pope John Paul II were crucial in shaping the events that led up to the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union. In the end, one of the greatest powers on earth groaned, staggered, and collapsed. Nearly 400 million people were freed and scarcely a shot was fired. Reagan deserves accolades for his irreplaceable role in this remarkable chapter of history.
When President Reagan called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire, sophisticated Europeans sniffed that he was being melodramatic, and that he had watched too many Star Wars movies. But President Reagan was one of the few people who grasped that the conflict was not only a military one, although stationing the Pershing Missile to counter the Soviet SS-20’s was crucial. And it was not only an economic conflict, although outspending the Soviets eventually forced Gorbachev to admit he could not continue. Ronald Reagan understood that at its heart, the conflict with communism had a moral and even a spiritual component. The ideology of Marxism-Leninism was a false religion that demanded a response in the realm of the spirit. And President Reagan was not afraid to call evil by its name.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a leader not known for his public piety, said in a speech shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, “When empires topple, they usually do so with a bang and not with a whimper. That this did not happen with a bang is practically a miracle.” He went on to quote Otto von Bismarck, who remarked that there are moments when you “grasp the cloak of God, as he strides through history.”
Ronald Reagan was truly a great president who led our nation through a critical period in our history, demonstrating tenacity, courage, and faith. He faced down an enemy and never blinked. He inspired us as Americans to look to our better angels beyond the merely political realm, and reminded us that we hold the potential within us to do great things with God’s help. I miss him.
Books on this topic this essay are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.