It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of studying twentieth-century totalitarianism. The late Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once stated that, though the return of barbarism seems unlikely today, it is not entirely unthinkable. Though the totalitarian temptation seems less a threat today than it was throughout most of the twentieth century, the temptation is still there, and it always will be.

Therefore, we must continue to study totalitarianism in all its facets. Dissidents, in particular, provide us with insightful information about a totalitarian system. Those who dissented from totalitarian regimes knew what was at stake, but they possessed the conviction and courage to step up and work for change.

The study of totalitarianism and dissidence does not merely help us to understand what was bad about the past. It also helps us to understand what is good about the present, and what must be better in the future. By studying these phenomena, we not only gain historical knowledge. We can also gain insights into who we are as human beings, insights into our basic human needs, and insights into specific human traits, such as dignity, love, and freedom.

Dignity, Love, and Freedom

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Dignity, love, and freedom: these three words, which are intimately linked to each other, lie at the heart of the dissident movement whose role in combating communism I wish to reflect upon here: that of the Polish Catholic Church. The Polish Catholic Church was arguably the largest and most powerful organized form of dissidence in Central and Eastern Europe. It played a crucial role in combating communism by means of a weapon to which the communists had no response: hope.

Thanks to messengers of hope such as Pope Saint John Paul II and the blessed martyr Jerzy Popieluszko, the Polish Catholic Church contributed significantly to the collapse of communism. The deficit of communist rule and ideology—as of all totalitarian systems—is the blatant neglect and disrespect of human dignity, love, and freedom.

This neglect and disrespect dehumanizes persons who live under communist and totalitarian regimes. Such a view and critique was expressed by many of the most important Catholic intellectuals of the twentieth century, including personalist philosophers Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand. This view also lies at the very heart of the philosophy and work of John Paul II, who defended, like Maritain and von Hildebrand, a personalist ethics and worldview.

John Paul II is the embodiment of the resistance of the Polish Catholic Church against communism, the embodiment of the fight against the depersonalization of the human being and of the fight for human dignity, love, and freedom. These are all pivotal concepts in the philosophical writings of John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) from the sixties and seventies, of which The Acting Person (Osoba i czyn) is undeniably the magnum opus.

Although dignity, love, and freedom form the core of the Catholic perspective and critique of communism, they are of course not the exclusive trademarks of Catholicism. There is a universal call to defend these salient human features and values, a call to which all people can respond independent of their metaphysical beliefs or faith. It also proved to be a call to which indeed many people responded many decades ago, when such a response was most needed.

Leszek Kolakowski, for example, though not a Catholic, was one of the main intellectual dissidents in Poland. He was once a member of the communist party, but from the early fifties onward he began to criticize communist ideology in such a sharp manner that he was exiled from Poland in the sixties, together with many other critical thinkers. In the seventies Kolakowski wrote his famous Main Currents of Marxism, his intellectual deconstruction of Marxism. Kolakowski’s intellectual resistance against communism too was inspired by the values of human dignity, love, and freedom. So the fight against communism in Poland, the fight for dignity and freedom was a joint venture of Catholics and non-Catholics, precisely because of the universal appeal of these values.

Wojtyla and the Renaissance of Hope

Although the Polish Catholic Church did not possess an exclusive patent on these values, it did play a most crucial role in awakening the willingness of the Polish people, believers and non-believers alike, to fight for these values. The election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in October 1978 was definitely a turning point.

There are no scientific tools to measure hope. There is no equipment to assess a Zeitgeist or to register a collective change of heart. But this event proved to be a catalyst in the collapse of communism.

When John Paul II visited Poland in 1979, a wave of hope rushed through the country and the hearts of the Poles. When he addressed millions of people at Victory Square in Warsaw and toured through the country for several days, he urged the Poles not to be afraid and not to forget that they did not stand alone. That specific moment, John Paul II’s first visit to Poland as pope, and the event of his election, were turning points in history.

Michail Gorbachev once stated that, without Pope John Paul II, communism wouldn’t have collapsed at the end of the eighties. This is not merely because of John Paul II’s secret diplomacy—think about his meetings with Thatcher, Reagan, and many other world leaders—but because of the hope he implanted in the hearts of the hopeless. Again, such a thing is impossible to measure scientifically. And yet, if you speak to those who lived through those ages, they will confirm that this renaissance of hope in Poland was as real as can be. I think that herein lies the very merit of John Paul II in combating communism: he brought about the return and renaissance of hope. And his merit in this regard is perhaps even greater than in the secret diplomacy—the so-called “political papacy”—he pursued.

Underground Truth

That John Paul II in particular, and the Catholic Church in general, played such an inspirational and motivational role in the fight against communism, is expressed by Roger Scruton in his recent novel Notes from Underground. Scruton draws from his own experiences and contacts with the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia in the late seventies and eighties, and his novel is an attempt to show how the fight against Czechoslovakian communism reveals a “phenomenology of love.”

Father Pavel, one of the novel’s main characters, plays a crucial role in awakening others’ awareness, inspiring them to oppose what must be opposed, and to fight for the things worth fighting for. In Czechoslovakia—a country perhaps as atheist as Poland was Catholic—the dissidents too fought for dignity, love, and freedom. In Scruton’s novel, however, the current of religious feeling runs underground.

Father Pavel is an underground priest, imprisoned for criticizing the Pacem in Terris movement that absorbed the Czech priesthood into the communist system of lies and deception. The knowledge that Father Pavel reveals to the novel’s hero is an underground knowledge: a forbidden truth, that communism is the life of the lie and not of love. To quote Scruton’s Father Pavel:

We learn to distrust each other, and every call to love enshrines a summons to betrayal. The precious element from which the soul itself is built, the element of sacrifice, which caused one person once to lay down his life for the rest of us, this precious element is extracted from all our dealings and cast onto the dust heap of history.

Father Pavel lives beneath the city, like a sewer rat. He celebrates Mass secretly in the catacombs, where ordinary people come to share the darkness. He has a distant vision of dignity, love, and freedom—a vision of what we truly are, and what we could be if only the lies and the calculations could cease. This vision lies at the end of a long dark tunnel. Yet it is the very same vision that brought hope and determination to the Poles, when John Paul II revealed it in his life and works.

Popieluszko and the Force of Forgiveness

That indeed the clergy took the lead in the resistance against communism in Poland, and inspired many believers and non-believers to join in that resistance, is also epitomized in the figure and tragic fate of Father Jerzy Popieluszko.

Popieluszko saw it as his duty to provide moral and spiritual support to the people who were most challenged by the harsh conditions of life under communist rule. His means to do so was simply the Catholic mass. He did not advocate aggressive resistance or revenge; he did not make many explicitly political or ideological statements. He said mass in honor of Poland and its people. Popieluszko, who was extremely charismatic, attracted thousands with his words, even non-believers. He spoke about dignity, love, and freedom and especially about forgiveness. This last is of crucial importance. Popieluszko knew, as well as John Paul II did, what a powerful thing forgiveness is, and he repeatedly emphasized the importance of forgiving the communists for what they did.

Forgiveness is a most powerful force and form of resistance. What is so powerful about forgiveness is that it not only includes a condemnation, but something more. When you say to a person: “I forgive you,” you not only recognize that he harmed you, but you also channel the way to respond to this harm.

Popieluszko spoke those words of forgiveness very deliberately. Through these words, he channeled the feelings of resentment and hatred people felt against the oppressors. This form of forgiveness was a crucial aspect in the peaceful demolition of communist rule and life; an attitude of forgiveness was a necessary precondition for a peaceful transition. There was quite a lot of resentment and hatred in Polish society, but moral leaders such as John Paul II and Popieluszko helped the Polish people to channel their resentment and hatred into a positive attitude. “Boże, wybacz im.” “God, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Forgiveness is an ultimate act of love and an expression of human dignity, and it is crucial in overcoming the moral deficit of communism, with its neglect of dignity and love.

Unfortunately, Popieluszko did not live to see the end of communism. Oscar Wilde once said that you must always forgive your enemies, since nothing annoys them more. I’m afraid that it’s true. The communists were extremely annoyed by Popieluszko and the force of forgiveness. Popieluszko was constantly harassed, bullied, and threatened by the secret police. In 1984, he was beaten to death and thrown into the Vistula.

“I am ready for everything,” Popieluszko said many times. He knew something terrible was coming, but he freely gave his life for the cause. He even thanked God for his persecution, since he believed he was particularly chosen to live a life in the service of humanity.

Our Duty: Resisting the Totalitarian Temptation

Being ready for everything. Not being afraid. Not giving up on dignity, love, and freedom. That is what people such as Popieluszko and John Paul II advocated in their resistance against communism. To resist the totalitarian temptation in all its forms, these are the things we must pursue.

As Kolakowski knew, the totalitarian temptation can never be entirely overcome, and there is always a possibility that barbarism will return. Therefore, even if we will never achieve them completely, we must ceaselessly strive to pursue dignity, love, and freedom.