WASHINGTON -- In Eastern Europe, where both world wars began, the end of the Cold War began on Oct. 16, 1978, with a puff of white smoke, in Western Europe. It wafted over one of Europe's grandest public spaces, over Michelangelo's dome of St. Peter's, over statues of the saints atop Bernini's curving colonnade that embraces visitors to Vatican City. Ten years later, when the fuse that Polish workers had lit in a Gdansk shipyard had ignited the explosion that leveled the Berlin Wall, it was clear that one of the most consequential people of the 20th century's second half was a Pole who lived in Rome, governing a city-state of 109 acres.
Science teaches that reality is strange -- solid objects are mostly space; the experience of time is a function of speed; gravity bends light. History, too, teaches strange truths: John Paul II occupied the world's oldest office, which traces its authority to history's most potent figure, a Palestinian who never traveled a hundred miles from his birthplace, who never wrote a book and who died at 33. And religion, once a legitimizer of political regimes, became in John Paul II's deft hands a delegitimizer of communism's ersatz religion.
In an amazingly fecund 27-month period, the cause of freedom was strengthened by the coming to high offices of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II who, like the president, had been an actor and was gifted at the presentational dimension of his office. This peripatetic pope was seen by more people than anyone in history and his most important trip came early. It was a visit to Poland that began on June 2, 1979.
In nine days a quarter of that nation's population saw him. Marx called religion the opiate of the masses, but it did not have a sedative effect on the Poles. The pope's visit was the nation's epiphany, a thunderous realization that the nation was of one mind, mocking the futility of communism's 35-year attempt to conquer Poland's consciousness. Between 1795 and 1918 Poland had been erased from the map of Europe, partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia. This gave Poles an acute sense of the distinction between the state and the real nation.
Igor Stravinsky, speaking with a Russian's stoicism about Poland's sufferings, said that if you pitch your tent in the middle of New York's Fifth Avenue, you are going to be hit by a bus. The Poland where John Paul II grew to sturdy, athletic manhood was hit first by Nazism, then communism. Then, benignly, by John Paul II.