Fear Not – 25 Years Later

  • 2015-06-04
  • bY Professor Tomas Halik, Charles University

Prague - Monsignor Professor Dr. Tomas Halik’s delivered the following speech at the State of Europe Forum in Riga last month.
‘’Don’t be afraid!’’ – these words were the central message of the first sermon given by Karol Wojtyla, in his new role as head of the Catholic church. Wojtyla ascended the throne of St. Peter at a time when the church had long ceased to exercise any power in the world except in the power of the word. ‘’How many divisions does the Pope have?’’ a Soviet leader is said to have once asked with scorn. And yet Pope John Paul II, through the power of the word and his moral influence, became probably the most politically significant pontiff in the entire history of the papacy.

Solidarity, the independent Polish trade union movement, came into being in the atmosphere of the ‘’Polish pope’s’’ first visit to his homeland. The Solidarity - movement, from its establishment in 1980, to its underground activity during the period of military rule and the elections in 1988, represented for world communism a reversal comparable to Stalingrad for Nazism. Marx had dreamed of a ‘’proletarian revolution’’, but the emergence of communist regimes in Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other countries was never the outcome of proletarian revolutions. Possibly the only truly proletarian revolts were the Polish workers’ rebellion against the communist regime.

The new pope’s first homily and his ‘’Don’t be afraid!’’ in October 1978 meant a great deal to me personally. Just a few hours before, I was secretly ordained priest in a bishop’s private chapel in the then German Democratic Republic  of East Germany and was about to commence my activity in the ‘’underground church’’ in Czechoslovakia. ‘’Don’t be afraid!’’ – these words helped many Christians to realise that Christian witness also involves accepting political co-responsibility for our world, responsibility for freedom, peace and justice in our societies.

On the threshold of the new millennium, the pope asked God and people to forgive the errors and crimes committed by the Catholic church in the course of its lengthy history, That symbolic act was the express of a certain philosophy of history. The past is not a sealed tomb in which deeds of the distant past lie ‘’bruta facta’’, like dead fact that can no longer be changed in any way. The past walks alongside us and lives within us. It dwells in our memories and constitutes an important dimension of our existence, our identity. That applies not only to individuals but also to families and cultural communities, such as nations and churches. Cultures are memory communities. Like many things in our bodies and minds, memory too can be ‘’injured’’. It can contain things that we prefer to suppress and re-label because they have caused us pain and anxiety. These unhealed scars are often connected with guilt, the memory of having injured someone or of someone injuring us. These traumas can also have a super-individual, historical dimension: consider, for instance, ‘’the history of the nation’’, that collective memory which is part of the identity of each of us through many narratives, learning and cultural reminders. There are nations that have lived with a sense of resentment for centuries as a result of wrongs suffered and emotions that explode repeatedly over the ages in horrifying acts of vengeance.

To ‘’come to terms with the communist past means pointing clearly to the ‘’anthropological roots of totalitarianism’’, to those forms of behaviour and character traits that enabled the totalitarian regime to survive for so long.  
The persuasion that the mere existence of a free market and the privatization of property will give life to a new, better human type is as naïve as was the Marxist expectation that this could be reached by collectivization and socialisation. Man is simply not primarily determined by economic factors of social development, as Marx thought or as is the belief of some theoreticians of ‘’upside-down Marxism’’, the post communist market fundamentalists.

I heard a story about Indians who being removed by colonists from their original settlements and brought to new ones. Before the end of the trip, the Indians asked for a break, explaining: ’’Our bodies might be almost at the end of the trip, but our souls are still in those old homes. We have to wait for our souls’’.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn once answered the question what would follow communism: a very, very long period of healing.
Today not only the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are watching with great concern the attempts of the Kremlin rulers to resurrect the old empire. The ideology of communism died a long time ago in Russia, but old-style Russian nationalism and imperial dreams are still very much alive. The extremely dangerous developments in Putin’s authoritarian regime in Russia, including the aggression against Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea, ought to open the eyes of all ‘’Eurosceptics’’ and demonstrate the need to enhance the political unity of democratic states in Europe.

The strong political integration of Europe is the only protection for the European nations, not only against external dangers but even more so against an explosion of barbarism within, against the extreme nationalism chauvinism and xenophobia that are once more raising their ugly heads in countries in Europe. If the dangerous temptation of national selfishness and isolationism were to triumph in Europe, leading to the tragic collapse of the European Union, the nation states of Europe would not acquire greater sovereignty,  but instead would be exposed far more to the forces of chaos and destruction from within.

Since the fall of the atheistic religion of communism, nationalism and national egoism are now the dangerous opium of nations. The fact that Putin’s policies have the support of a great number of Russians proves that although the economic and political conditions of the old Soviet regime have been done away with, the main support of the old regime still remains, namely, homo sovieticus, Soviet man. The real strength and weakness of societies lie not in their economic and military power but in the mentality of their citizens.

If the common European home is to be a real home, it cannot be based solely on administration and trade. Culture has a decisive role to play in creating the spiritual and moral biosphere of society. The Communist system in which culture was controlled by ideology was unable to survive in the free global market of ideas. But what will happen to a society whose culture has lost its spiritual dimension and instead is dominated by the commercial entertainments industry?

Europe, our common homeland, the mother of a great culture that gave rise to great dreams but also destructive wars, needs a new generation of educated people, who will be willing and able to assume responsibility in intellectual and political life. Two years after the creation of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, it’s founder President Tomas Garrigue Masaryk declared: We now have a democracy; what we now need are democrats. In like vein we could say: We now have a European Union; what we now need are real Europeans.

Let me remember another personality, connected with the events 25 years ago, which I have the honour to know well to, Czech writer, dissident and later president of my country, Vaclav Havel. In his celebrated essay ‘’Power of the Powerless,’’ written during the communist period, Vaclav Havel writes about a greengrocer who displays in his shop window – as was the custom in those days – a poster with Marx and Engel’s slogan ‘’Workers of the World, Unite!’’ to coincide with the anniversary of the Russian October Revolution. What did the greengrocer mean by his action?

The greengrocer didn’t intend to proclaim anything about workers and their unity. What the greengrocer was saying to his superiors by the slogan placed among the onions and carrots was: I am a loyal citizen, not a troublemaker. Leave me in peace! I am one of those who regularly takes part in elections in which the Communist Party regularly receives its 99.9 per cent of votes.

The regime can count on me when it needs to present the image of a unanimous and content mass of citizens.
In reality that was the secret of the communist regimes’ stability. They were able to rely more on that unwritten covenant between the rulers and the ruled than on the army and the police: if the ruled were apathetic to public life, if they played the game by the rules, then the regime wouldn’t interfere too much in their private lives. Both the rulers and the ruled would be content and wouldn’t  disturb each other. Peace – that empty propaganda word in the Soviet bloc that called itself the ‘’camp of peace’’ – was the peace of the graveyard. In that climate of moral decay and corruption, there emerged a new type of human being: homo sovieticus.

In that atmosphere of constant mutual deception and fear, the only truly dangerous person was the one who, like the child in the story of the emperor’s new clothes, unexpectedly stated the simple truth: that the emperor is naked. I can recall the liberating power of Havel’s texts: here were words that revealed the true nature of our everyday reality, concealed behind propaganda Newspeak.

The game of subterfuge was disrupted by the fact that its unwritten rules were uncovered and described. Words received the power of light and became a weapon of light, of the power of the powerless.
If we truly feel responsibility for the future of our nations, we will strive to understand more thoroughly the culture of our nations in the European context and then strive to enrich, expand and enhance our awareness of our national identity with a European dimension. We need Europeans of the kind that Karol Wojtyla and Vaclav Havel were. The great project of European unity needs new spiritual strength and intellectual vitality. The Europe of today and tomorrow needs great Europeans