The social and political drama that played out across Eastern Europe in the decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall had a profound spiritual dimension. From the time of John Paul II’s visit to his Polish homeland in 1979 to November 9, 1989, what historians have called a “revolution of conscience” occurred that led to the collapse of communism with little loss of life – the combined result of President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies of peace through strength and the Pope’s relentless messages of spiritual courage to the captive nations of Eastern Europe.

In the summer of 1979, John Paul II spoke in Warsaw’s Victory Square and reminded his countrymen that it was “not possible to understand the history of the Polish nation without Christ.” Soviet communism had held sway for most of the 20th century not merely by virtue of military prowess and the will to power of a totalitarian state, but because of its willingness to make demands on the inner life of human beings – it was, in essence, a church without God. As the American Catholic writer Archbishop Fulton Sheen had expressed it:

[Communism] . . . is a complete philosophy of life, what the Germans call a Weltanschauung, an integral comprehension of the world, different from all other secular systems in that it seeks not only to dominate the periphery of life but to control man’s inner life as well. Communism has a theory and a practice; it wishes to be not only a state but a church judging the consciences of men; it is a doctrine of salvation and as such claims the whole man, body and soul, and in this sense is totalitarian.

The exercise of this degree of domination by government not only tolerates the building of edifices like the Berlin Wall, it requires it. As the Wall tottered that fall of 1989, through incident after incident, and especially as they began losing their grip on power, the leaders of the countries behind the Iron Curtain saw the irrepressible nature of the inner life that was astir among their peoples.

On November 5, 1989, just days before the event whose 20th anniversary is celebrated today, some 500,000 East Germans marched peacefully to the Alexanderplatz waving placards calling for free elections and an end to one-party rule. On that same day, the East German government announced that citizens with proper identification would be allowed to emigrate to the West through Czechoslovakia; more than 50,000 promptly did so.

Another contemporary commentator called those days of bloodless change a “revolution from below.” As a populist uprising, it certainly was; but the source of that populism, fortified by historic figures like Reagan, John Paul II, and Thatcher, made it also a “revolution from above” – a triumph of spiritual power over the tyranny of fearful men.