Sunday, April 10, 2005

A correction and another comment on the Pope's legacy

I want to make a clarification on an earlier post (Other comments on John Paul II 04/04/05), in which I cited two articles on the Pope from the leftist German paper Neues Deutschland.  I received a courteous e-mail from Ingolf Bossenz, whose byline appeared on both those articles.  He pointed out that one of the articles (Abschied von Papst Johannes Paul II.) was a news summary and that his byline had been attached in error; it has now been corrected on the Web site.

Bossenz didn't object to my sarcastic comment about changing positions as quickly as FOX News ("Maybe their old habits of changing the party line day to day hasn't entirely died out.  Or maybe they've just decided to imitate FOX News.")  But I'll claify it anyway.  Neues Deutschland is a partisan newspaper, but they do run general news articles and thoughful opinion pieces.  I remember in particular a column they ran just after the 9/11 attacks by the Christian theologian and psychotherapist Eugen Drewermann.  However partisan the paper is, it would be unfair to suggest that either it or Ingolf Bossenz practices the kind of partisan hackery that defines FOX News or the Washington Times.

Because I'm somewhat familiar with the history of the German Democratic Republic (DDR; East Germany), I often compare the crass partisanship and warped new coverage on FOX to the news provided by the state- and party-controlled media in the old East Germany.  That's also the easiest way to explain to German-speaking friends and acquaintances what FOX News is.

Actually, Erich Honecker's regime would probably have envied FOX News.  FOX makes a show of being "fair and balanced" with their "Fox liberals."  Fox liberals are normally of two types.  Either they are little-known figures who make a weak case criticizing a strongly-stated conservative point.  Or else they make a statement on the template, "I'm a committed liberal but on [whatever the issue being discussed at the moment], I totally agree with Bush and the Republicans and think the Democrats are totally wrong."

So, FOX fans not only get the daily Republican Party line spoon-fed to them.  They also get the charade that they're hearing "both sides of the issue."  I doubt many people in the former East Germany assumed that's what they were getting in the official media.

While I'm at it, I'll add a comment about the Partei des demokratischen Sozialismus (PDS), because it is very much a part of the story of present-day German democracy.  As I mentioned in passing in my earlier post, the PDS is the "postcommunist" successor party to the old East German Communist Party, which technically ruled as part of an umbrrella coalition Socialist Unity Party (SED).  Neues Deutschland is the party paper for the PDS.

Without trying to detail its evolution here, the PDS adapted itself to the parliamentary democratic system and is now accepted by the other parties as a legitimate democratic party.  Not surprisingly, some German conservatives still call the PDS, the Greens and maybe even the Social Democrats "communist."  (One conservative German friend of mine once assured me that Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was "a communist at heart" - but also said he thought Fischer was a good foreign minister.  Go figure.)  But the PDS does not call for a return to the "real existing socialism" of the old East Germany, and explicitly criticizes the old East German regime.  The party draws its electoral strength primarily from the eastern states, where it has successfully positioned itself as an advocate for the grievances of residents in those states.

I don't follow Neues Deutschland closely enough to generalize about it much.  But, in instances like the Ingolf Bossenz article on the Pope's legacy, I find that it offers a perspective worth hearing.  The quotation from that article (Kämpfer für Frieden und Rückschritt Neues Deutschland 03.04.05) that I used earlier was:

John Paul II held on unfailingly to celibacy [for priests], condemned every form of artificial birth control, definitively banned the discussion about women as priests, portrayed homosexuality as an abnormality and didn't refrain even from comparing abortion with the Holocaust.

Those are accurate and important observations, and I share the implied criticism of those positions.  The Polly Toynbee column I cited in an earlier post is even more emphatic on the late Pope's position on birth control and sexuality.

Bossenz' comments on the Pope and Poland are also worth quoting more fully:

Allein mit Pastoralreisen in seine Heimat, wo der Papst wie ein Erlöser gefeiert wurde, mit Enzykliken gegen »Materialismus und Totalitarismus« sowie mit Gebeten für ein Ende der KP-Herrschaft war diese historische Mission kaum zu erfüllen. Wojtyla nutzte vor allem die über die Vatikanbank und verschiedene weltliche sowie unterweltliche Kanäle mögliche finanzielle Unterstützung des antikommunistischen Gärens in seiner Heimat. Mit politischer Billigung vor allem der USA, die ab 1980 unter Präsident Ronald Reagan einen massiven Konfrontationskurs gegen die sozialistischen Länder verfolgten.

Der Hebel, mit dem das ganze System zu Fall gebracht werden sollte, wurde in Polen angesetzt. Wichtigster Ansatzpunkt dort: die im Jahr von Reagans Wahlsieg gegründete oppositionelle Gewerkschaft »Solidarnosc«. Um diese zu einer Gegenmacht aufzubauen, war Geld nötig. Direkte Unterstützung durch Washington und seine Geheimdienste hätte »Solidarnosc« schnell diskreditiert. Über die Verflechtungen der Vatikanbank war der Geldfluss kein Problem (es sollen insgesamt über 100 Millionen Dollar gewesen sein).

[Translation:  Mere pastoral trips to his homeland where the Pope was celebrated like a savior, encyclicals against "materialism and totalitarianism" as well as prayers for an end to the KP [Communist Party] domination were hardly enough to fulfill this historic mission. Wojtyla used above all financial support of the anticommunist ferment in his homeland, made possible through the Vatican Bank and various open as well as illegitimate [literally: worldly as well as underworld-ly] channels.  With political approval especially from the USA, which since 1980 under President Reagan followed a course of massive confrontation against the socialist countries.

The lever with which the entire system was brought to collapse was put in place in Poland.  The most important starting point there: the opposition union "Solidarnosc," which was founded in the year of Reagan's electoral victory.  In order to build it into  a hostile power, money was necessary.  Direct support by Washington and its secret service would have quickly discredited "Solidarnosc."  Through the intertwining of the Vatican Bank, the flow of money was no problem (it is estimated to have been over $100 million).]

As I indicated in the earlier post, I don't know how close the implied cooperation between the Vatican and the Reagan administration was in this matter.  But overall, that two-paragraph summary seems to be a more realistic assessment of the Pope's role in encouraging change in Communist eastern Europe than the often-heard superficial claim that John Paul II undermined those states by the force of his moral appeal.  While that claim does contain an element of truth, it has to be seen in its actual historical context.  That context included other major factors like nationalist sentiment, political changes pressed forward by Gorbachev, economic problems - and even the appeal of the Western materialism that the Pope also condemned.

As I also mentioned earlier, churches provided an avenue for various kinds of resistance to the SED regime in East Germany.  But the churches in eastern Germany were mostly Protestant churches; any influence of the Pope on the process there was an indirect one.

I've also posted quotes from Timothy Garton Ash and Jonathan Steele that offer a more realistic view of the Pope's role in those political changes than the standard line from the American mass media.

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