Within hours of taking over the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk in August 1980, an action that opened the way for the collapse of communism, Polish workers decorated the gate with a large photograph of Pope John Paul II. The portrait was both symbol and talisman -- a rejection of the godless ideology of Marxism and protection from the fury of the communist regime.
Karol Wojtyla helped inspire a workers' rebellion in his native Poland that became a model for anti-communist upheavals in Eastern Europe. Historians and participants alike credit the pope with playing a key role in making the revolution possible and keeping it peaceful.
The workers who occupied the shipyard, making a mockery of the communist boast of a "workers' state," identified the pope and the Catholic church with a decades-long struggle against a totalitarian system imposed by the Soviet Union.
When their leader, Lech Walesa, ended the strike by signing an agreement with the authorities to establish the first free trade unions in a communist country, he used a huge souvenir pen from the papal visit, emblazoned with a portrait of pope. A portrait of Poland's most revered religious symbol, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, adorned his lapel.
As Walesa later recalled, dissidents and free trade union activists accounted for a minuscule percentage of Poland's 35 million people in October 1978, when Wojtyla was elected pope. "A year after the visit, I had 10 million supporters," Walesa marveled, a "miracle of multiplication" that he compared to the New Testament story of the bread and the fishes.
Some 20 million Poles turned out to greet the pope during his nine-day homecoming. It was an extraordinary demonstration of the depth of feeling against the one-party dictatorship that exercised almost total control over parliament, the trade unions, the judiciary and the media.
"The regime's sense of invincibility was suddenly shattered," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Polish-born official who served at the time as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. "After that visit, nothing was the same again."
The pope's election and subsequent visit to Poland gave Poles "a tremendous sense of being together," said Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a leader of the Solidarity trade union created by the 1980 Gdansk agreement.
Some historians credit the pope with initiating the extraordinary sequence of events that culminated a decade later in the fall of the Berlin Wall, the overthrow of communist governments from Warsaw to Prague to Bucharest, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. They draw a direct connection between the election of a Polish pontiff and the decision by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to permit the Soviet bloc to fall apart peacefully.
"Without the pope, there probably would have been no peaceful end of communism as we saw it in 1989," said Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford University historian who witnessed many of the revolutions that swept through Eastern Europe. "Without the pope, there would have been no Solidarity movement; without Solidarity, there would have been no Gorbachev; without Gorbachev, there would have been no 1989. The pope was crucial at every stage."