The Priest, the Prophet, and the King
. . . And the walls came tumbling down.
Bradley J. Birzer
On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, that great and horrific symbol of the inhumane and brutal ideologies of the modern world, three men deserve special recognition: Alexandr Solzhenitsyn; Pope John Paul II; and President Ronald Reagan. A Russian Orthodox, a Roman Catholic; and a Protestant respectively, each fought not with weapons and aggressive violence, but rather with the convictions that history, a transcendent morality, and True Love will eventually conquer all evils. A prophet, a priest, and a king, the three represented the sublime offices of Christ.
A former Communist, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn witnessed first hand the brutality of the Gulag state. Though faced with severe reprisals from the state, the betrayal of his wife to the Soviet government, eventual exile from his beloved though tortured homeland, he recorded the tyranny perpetuated by the Soviet ideologues in a number of deeply meaningful works, including the one frequently cited above, The Gulag Archipelago. More than any other work, the Gulag forced western journalists and academics to confront the monstrous realities of the Soviet Union—not just under Stalin’s Cult of Personality dictatorship, but the wretched evil that pervades the entire system. The system ran on the blood of those who deviated. From the very beginning of the Soviet takeover of Russia, the revolutionaries established the ideologically-driven police, militia, army, courts, and jails. Even the labor camps—the Gulag—began in embryo form only a month into the revolution. The parasitic Soviets craved blood from 1917 to 1991; such bloodletting was an inherent part of the system. Solzhenitsyn claims that the Gulag state murdered 66 million just between 1917 and 1956.
No mere anti-communist, Solzhenitsyn has attacked not just the ideological regimes of Russia and its former communist allies in Eastern Europe, but he has attacked all of modernity—in the East and the West. Western consumerism, he warns, will destroy the West by mechanizing its citizens in a more efficient and attractive manner than communism could. “Dragged along the whole of the Western bourgeois-industrial and Marxist path,” Solzhenitsyn warned,
“A dozen maggots can’t go on and on gnawing the same apple forever; that if the earth is a finite object, then its expanses and resources are finite also, and the endless, infinite progress dinned into our heads by the dreamers of the Enlightenment cannot be accomplished on it . . . All that ‘endless progress’ turned out to be an insane, ill-considered, furious dash into a blind alley. A civilization greedy for ‘perpetual progress’ has now choked and is on its last legs.”
Only by embracing a transcendent order and the Creator, Solzhenitsyn has argued, can mankind save itself from the follies and murders of the ideologues. In his 1983 Templeton address, he took his arguments against modernity even further.
“Our life consists not in the pursuit of material success but in the quest of worthy spiritual growth. Our entire earthly existence is but a transition stage in the movement toward something higher, and we must not stumble or fall, nor must be linger fruitless on one rung of the ladder . . . The laws of physics and physiology will never reveal the indisputable manner in which the Creator constantly, day in and day out, participates in the life of each of us, unfailingly granting us the energy of existence; when the assistance leaves us, we die. In the life of our entire planet, the Divine Spirit moves with no less force: this we must grasp in our dark and terrible hour.“
In his commentary on Solzhenitsyn’s address, the cultural critic and man of letters Russell Amos Kirk argued that the above passage “expressed with high feeling [ ] the conservative impulse.” Certainly, Kirk and Solzhenitsyn were kindred spirits. One should never underestimate the importance of Solzhenitsyn’s moral imagination. As one of the leading Solzhenitsyn scholars, Edward E. Ericson, Jr., has argued: “I would say that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich put the first crack into the Berlin Wall and The Gulag Archipelago was an irresistible blow to the very foundations of the Soviet edifice.”
Equally devout in his religion and equally well educated, Karol Wojtyla was also raised under ideological systems, first National Socialism and then communism. Instrumental in the underground movements against each, Wojtyla was an accomplished poet, moral philosopher, priest, and theologian. He devoted his life as a bishop in Poland and as the Patriarch of the West to defeating the various ideologies of the last 100 years. His first Christmas letter to the people of Poland upheld the example of St. Stanislaw. The Pope labeled him the “patron of moral order in our country” who “did not hesitate to confront the ruler when defense of the moral order called for it.” For his peaceful efforts, St. Stanislaw had been murdered, becoming a martyr. To anyone listening—and everyone in the eastern bloc was—the message was clear. In 1979, returning to his home in Poland, he spoke earth-shattering words, words that reshaped the Iron Bloc and became the beginning of the end of Soviet tyranny. Quoting Christ, John Paul II urged the Poles: “Be not afraid.” Act as Christ would, and know that Truth is constant. Stand for truth, and you stand for the winning side. John Paul’s words marked “the first hour of the revolution,” Barbara Eliot argues in her stunningly powerful history of the Velvet Revolution, Candles Behind the Wall, as John Paul II’s words gave rise to Solidarity, the trade union that fought on Christian principles.
John Paul used his trip to Poland as the beginning of a full-fledged campaign against ideological terror. Not only had he praised St. Stanislaw’s martyrdom as an act against unjust state, and quoted Christ, demanding that the forthcoming fight be one based on Christian principles of truth and love, but he also praised the twentieth-century martyr who best exemplified these Christian virtues. While visiting Auschwitz, John Paul prayed in the cell where this martyr had been injected with carbolic acid on August 14, 1941, only two weeks after being placed there. When innocent prisoner #5659 was about to be placed in Cell Block #13, the worst of all tortures prior to the invention of the gas chambers, prisoner #16670 volunteered to take his place. Stunned at the unprecedented request, the commandant acquiesced. The man who volunteered was a Roman Catholic priest, Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe and ten others went to cell block #13. The Nazis denied the prisoners water and food, and they forced them to stand, hunched over, naked, in the dark. Their captors hoped to induce the prisoners to madness. Instead, Kolbe talked of hope to the men, and, rather than madness, joy ensued. Infuriated, the commandant ordered the men injected with carbolic acid on August 14, 1941. When the first doctor approached Kolbe to inject him, Kolbe simply lifted his arm and continued to pray. Severely rattled by Kolbe’s faith and composure, the translator fled. When he returned after the injection to remove Kolbe’s body, he was stunned at what he found: “When I opened the iron door, Father Kolbe was no longer alive. His face had an unusual radiance about it. The eyes were wide open and focused on some definite point. His entire person seemed to have been in a state of ecstasy. I will never forget that scene as long as I live.” John Paul II called Auschwitz the “Golgotha of the modern world. . . . built for the negation of faith—faith in God and faith in man. . . . [meant] to trample radically not only on love but on all signs of human dignity, of humanity . . . . built on hatred and contempt for man in the name of a crazed ideology.” Further, the Pope instructed the crowd gathered around him, Kolbe’s actions pointed the way, “victory through faith and love.”
John Paul II served as more than an inspiring vocal counterpart to ideological terror regimes. He appointed anti-communist bishops in the eastern bloc, condemned liberation theology movements in Latin America, and condoned the non-violent actions of Catholics to thwart the schemes of the various communist regimes. Kirk called the ascendancy of John Paul II one of the ten most important world events since the French Revolution. With such a man as pope, Dr. Kirk argued, the Christians of all stripes have temporarily staved off “the Antichrist,” for he, “with few to help him, has faced down the vanguard of the world.” The vanguard, the communists, especially feared John Paul II, even issuing one statement to Polish school teachers that read: “The Pope is our enemy . . . . Due to the uncommon skills and great sense of humor he is dangerous, because he charms everyone, especially journalists. Besides, he goes for cheap gestures in his relations with the crowd, for instance, puts on a highlander’s hat, shakes all hands, kisses children, etc. . . . It is modeled on American presidential campaigns.” This was mild compared to many of the published propaganda from the frightened communists. Another pamphlet claimed the pope hoped to unite all Catholics around the world in a neo-fascist front to destroy the paradise of communism. Though maliciously mislabeling the pope a neo-fascist, their fears were not unwarranted. In the spring of 1981, John Paul II miraculously survived the bullet of a KGB-hired assassin. The attempt on the pope’s life came only weeks after the first Vatican meeting with then-CIA director Bill Casey. Clearly, the Soviets were getting worried.
The words, message, and charisma of the pope greatly affected the third person, Ronald Reagan. After watching the televised return and speech of the pope to Poland in 1979, Reagan “said then and there that the pope was the key figure in determining the fate of Poland,” his advisor Richard Allen recalls. “He was overcome by the outpouring of emotion that emanated from the millions who came to see him. There were tears in his [Reagan’s] eyes.” Three years later, in June 1982, the president met with the Pope and confided in him that though each had almost been assassinated in the spring of 1981, “each had been spared by God, for a purpose.” Together, they were to free Poland. Reagan attacked the Soviet empire on a number of fronts: politically, economically, and militarily (through the arms buildup). His most effective attack, however, was rhetorical. Ronald Reagan argued for a transcendent morality, backing it up with force, understanding the ideological thugs well. In 1981, his first public appearance after the failed assassination attempt, he told the graduating class at the University of Notre Dame: “The West won’t contain communism. It will transcend communism. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” In 1983, Reagan upped the ante before a group of American evangelicals: The cold war is “a struggle between right and wrong, good and evil. . . . pray for the salvation of all those who live in totalitarian darkness [that] they will discover the joy of knowing God.” He labeled the Soviet regime an “evil empire,” and the press had a field day, labeling Reagan a moron. But Reagan’s greatest challenge came in 1987, standing before the Brandenburg Gate: “General Secretary Gorbachev. . . . Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Reagan, the eternal optimist, almost alone among westerners believed the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. Even his own advisors strongly disagreed with his views, and especially his rhetoric—which they considered a bizarre combination of strength and naivety. But Reagan was sure, knowing truth was truth, and that lies ultimately destroy themselves.
Inspired the by truths and convictions professed by Solzhenitsyn, John Paul II, and Reagan, Eastern Europeans launched one of the most successful and quiet revolutions in world history, exactly two hundred years after the French Revolution began. With John Paul II’s 1979 trip to Poland, the anti-communist underground grew in numbers and purpose. Its members would fight communism, but, like Maximilian Kolbe, peacefully, armed only with the truth. As John Paul the II wrote after the collapse: “The fall of this kind of ‘bloc’ or empire was accomplished almost everywhere by means of peaceful protest, using only the weapons of truth and justice” and sought “to reawaken” in the ideologue “a sense of shared human dignity.” Truth is truth—it can be obscured, hidden, or misplaced, but it cannot be destroyed. It only awaits to be called upon and recovered.
Coupled with Reagan’s rhetoric and economic and military pressure, the Soviet economy and will slowly collapsed throughout the 1980s, thus greatly aiding the anti-communist movements. The end, though, came like a whirlwind. Poland announced free elections in early 1989. On May 2nd of that year, Hungary opened its borders to the West. It was the first break in the Iron Curtain in decades, and thousands of refuges poured through the gaps, escaping the tyranny of the ideologues. That October, the Hungarian Communist party disbanded. After a relatively quiet summer, massive peaceful demonstrations in East Germany shook the communists mightily between November 4 and November 9th. In early November, a Protestant-led demonstration in Leipzig began circling the still extant medieval walls. On the seventh march in Leipzig, on November 9th, thousands from the free west and communist east became mere Germans that night, and jointly tore town the Berlin Wall. A Lutheran minister who had been imprisoned and tortured by East German communist leader Honecker, allowed his former persecutor to seek shelter in his home. When a mob attempted to lynch Honecker, the Lutheran minister refused to give him up, and declared that they would treat Honecker as a man created in the image of God. Fallen, needing to repent, but only breaths away from true redemption.
Of all the anti-communist revolutions in 1989, only Romania experienced any serious violence. The leader of Romania, Ceausescu, thought he could weather the revolutions. He had his own private military and security forces, and protective fortresses throughout the country. When Ceausescu arrested a prominent Calvinist minister, Laszlo Tokes of Timisoara, he believed he was preventing any type of real uprising. But, on December 15th, a combined group of Catholics, Baptists, and Orthodox rallied around Tokes, demanding his freedom. Increasing his own folly, Ceausescu had them gunned down at Timisoara. On December 22nd, enraged by the massacre at Timisoara, violent crowds began to form around the country. At one of the largest and potentially most violent, a Baptist minister by the name of Peter Dugulescu immediately took charge of the unruly crowd, chanting “God exists!” After a while, the crowd was with him. He convinced them to kneel, and the crowd said the “Lord’s Prayer.” Six days after the massacre and with protests rising throughout Romania, Ceausescu created a pro-Ceausescu rally, hoping to calm down his people, but the tide had clearly turned, and even his handpicked staged crowd turned on him, chanting “Timisoara,” the name of the village where the massacre had just occurred. Finally realizing the depths of his failure, Ceausescu and his wife tried to flee the palace but were caught by a crowd on Christmas Eve. They were tried in a military court (in one day), and promptly executed. Christmas day witnessed church bells ringing all over Romania—for the first time in 45 years—and the Romanians celebrated the death of the “Anti-Christ.”
We’ve recently witnessed a powerful re-emergence of collectivist thought in America and as well as a nostalgic longing for communist ideology in Russia, China, and Latin America. Let us not forget the three men–a prophet, a priest, and a king–who gave those of us who love the West a respite from the troubles of the world. And, let us begin to reclaim the inheritance they left us. Let us not forsake the City of Man as we sojourn toward the City of God.
 Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag, vol. 2, 9-10.
 Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag, vols. 2, 10.
 Quoted in Joseph Pearce’s excellent biography, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker House, 2001), 204-5. See also, Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and Daniel J. Mahoney, The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005 (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2006).
 For Solzhenitsyn’s vital role in the fall of communism, see Pearce, Solzhenitsyn; and Ericson, “The Gulag Archipelago a Generation Later,” Modern Age 44 (Spring 2002): 147-61.
 Quoted in Russell Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, 40-41.
 Quoted in Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, 40.
 Ericson, “Solzhenitsyn, The Moral Imagination, and the Collapse of Communism,” unpublished paper in possession of the author, delivered September 20, 2003, at the Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, Mecosta, Michigan. I offer my deep appreciation to Dr. Ericson for sharing his wisdom with me.
 Quoted in George Weigel, Witness to Hope, 297.
 Barbara [Von der Heydt] Elliott, Candles Behind the Wall: Heroes of the Peaceful Revolution That Shattered Communism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s, 1993), 120. It would be hard exaggerate the beauty or importance of this work (or its author). Elliott has painstakingly detailed the humane challenge to the evil of 20th century communism. Justice demands that this work be reprinted and expanded.
Quoted in Robert Royal, Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century (New York: Crossroad, 2000), 192-215.
 Quoted in Weigel, Witness to Hope, 315.
 Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, 41.
 Quoted in Weigel, Witness to Hope, 304.
 Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994), 36-7.
 Quoted in Schweizer, Victory, 35-6.
 Schweizer, Victory, 107.
 The three previous quotes are from Dinesh D’Souza’s biography, Ronald Reagan. Father Bill Miscamble has also edited and commented on Reagan’s Notre Dame address in his wonderful Go Forth and Do Good: Memorable Notre Dame Commencement Address (U. of Notre Dame Press, 2003).
 John Paul II, On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum (Paulist Press), 35.
 Elliott, Candles Behind the Wall, chapter 8.
 Elliott, Candles Behind the Wall, 194-95.