A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

The Consequences of Bad Ideas

Part 1
Interview With Father Marcel Guarnizo
By Kirsten Evans

VIENNA, Austria, 24 DEC. 2009 (ZENIT)
The fall of the Berlin Wall is arguably the most significant event of the 20th century, says the director of an educational foundation that seeks to create a new intellectual culture in post-communist countries.

Father Marcel Guarnizo is founder and chairman of the Vienna-based organization Educational Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe (EICEE), which hosted a conference earlier this month to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and to reflect on lessons learned from the rise and fall of communism.

Cities the world over celebrated the Nov. 9 anniversary, including Berlin who marked the event with open air concerts, fireworks, and a chain of enormous dominos toppling along the wall's original path.

EICEE hosted its conference in Zagreb, Croatia, and featured speakers included Robin Harris, former advisor to Margaret Thatcher, and John O'Sullivan, executive editor of Radio Free Europe in Prague.

The keynote speaker was Noble Peace Prize Laureate Lech Walesa, former leader of the Polish Solidarity Movement and former president of Poland. Walesa's address was titled "1989-2009: Lessons Learned from the Fall of Communism."

ZENIT recently caught up with Father Guarnizo at the foundation's headquarters in the Castle Neuwaldegg in Vienna, to talk about the conference, the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the work of EICEE to rebuild the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, which were shackled under communist regimes only one generation ago.
 
Part 2 of this interview will appear Friday

ZENIT: Father Guarnizo, you are a native of Columbia, but were raised in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. In 2001, as a young priest, you felt called to found the Educational Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe. Could you explain the mission of the organization, and the experiences that inspired you to found it?

Guarnizo: In 1993, I went to Russia. The Berlin Wall, of course, had fallen four years earlier. The Soviet Union had only been officially dissolved two years earlier, on Dec. 25, 1991. I experienced a strong call to help rebuild the Church in the post-communist world.

I began with another organization, Aid to the Church in Russia, which dedicated itself to rebuilding churches in Russia that had been desecrated during the regime. We were able to rebuild quite a few Catholic churches in Russia. But after about 10 years, I began to realize that rebuilding churches was not going to be enough.

What was needed was a movement to create a new intellectual culture in the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

So we expanded our mission beyond Russia to include all of the countries of the former Soviet Union, to begin educating them in principles of what we call "strengthening and promoting free, just, and democratic societies."

For us that means economic freedom, political freedom, and cultural freedom. The inspiration was that if you do not have a sustainable culture that understands the principles of democracy, you would never be able to build a free and just society.

At Educational Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe we do this largely through educational and public policy initiatives, conferences, publications, humanitarian relief, and networking youth, intellectuals, and political leaders throughout the region.

ZENIT: EICEE recently hosted a conference in Zagreb, Croatia, which gained media attention in Europe. Perhaps the most celebrated moment of the conference was Lech Walesa's personal reflections on lessons learned 20 years after the downfall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. Could you summarize the main ideas that were shared?

Guarnizo: I want to begin by saying that at EICEE we felt it was important to clearly mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which symbolized the liberation of so many people enslaved by communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. It was perhaps the most important historical event of the 20th century.

Yet surprisingly, the anniversary went largely unnoticed in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe, and this is very pre-occupying.

Unfortunately, today many of the young people in these nations remain unaware of what actually happened. Because they are too young to have lived under communism, they do not understand its dimensions. And older generations, with the determination to move on, do not like to talk about it.

We invited people who played a role in the fall of communism to discuss the lessons learned from a historical perspective. We wanted to shed light both on what happened, as well as on lessons that can be learned for the future. We were pleased we got such a strong response and attendance.

I would say that having Lech Walesa there was a great privilege and I am grateful that he accepted our invitation.

He emphasized the role of creative minorities. In other words, what a few determined people can do to create substantial change. In his case, it was the downfall of the Soviet Union. The cumulative efforts of key players in different parts of the world, namely Reagan, Thatcher, Lech Walesa's Solidarity Movement, and a Polish Pope, changed world history. This just goes to show that you never know how great the impact a creative minority can have.

This is a sign of great hope for future generations, reminding them that they have to be involved, that they have to be active. There is a lot of despair today about the political order in Central and Eastern Europe and we are trying to inspire young people to be involved and stay involved.

ZENIT: You mentioned the role of the youth in the future of these nations. Did Lech Walesa articulate any "lessons learned" that would be particularly important for the younger generations of these nations?

Guarnizo: All of the lessons of communism are important for the youth of these nations to take to heart. But if one thing were to come to mind, he spoke of the incredible courage needed for a few people to stand up for what they know to be true and right, even if it means going against adversity and deeply entrenched systems and cultures. This is kind of moral courage is not easy to come by.

And it is something needed not only in central and eastern Europe, but also in the west the moral courage to lead and to defend the culture of the west. I think the West is committing intellectual and cultural suicide at present. We are terribly afraid of recognizing the importance of preserving our own Western civilization, of acknowledging our Christian roots, which is a undeniable fact of history. Walesa emphasized the importance of moral courage in order to defend culture.

He also emphasized the importance of ideas, such as the idea that man was created free and it is impossible to enslave man forever.

There has been a great rewriting of history as to why the Berlin Wall fell and why communism was overcome in Europe, reducing the course of events to merely the failure of an economic system. It is important to realize that communism was not overthrown simply because of a need for economic reform.

For instance, people standing in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square do not do so because of a simple desire for economic reforms. These are men and women who believe in justice and in their own right to freedom and the rights of their children, and they are willing to pay a very high price in pursuit of these rights.

The religious, political, and cultural freedom that the youth of these countries enjoy today was won by the generations that went before them, and at a very high price. This is a very important lesson to never lose sight of.
 
Part 2
Interview With Father Marcel Guarnizo
By Kirsten Evans

VIENNA, Austria, 25 DEC. 2009 (ZENIT)
There are good ideas, and there are bad ideas. For the director of an educational foundation that seeks to create a new intellectual culture in post-communist countries, communism was a bad idea.

Father Marcel Guarnizo is founder and chairman of the Vienna-based organization Educational Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe (EICEE), which hosted a conference earlier this month to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and to reflect on lessons learned from the rise and fall of communism.

EICEE hosted its conference in Zagreb, Croatia, and featured speakers included Robin Harris, former advisor to Margaret Thatcher, and John O'Sullivan, executive editor of Radio Free Europe in Prague.

The keynote speaker was Noble Peace Prize Laureate Lech Walesa, former leader of the Polish Solidarity Movement and former president of Poland. Walesa's address was titled "1989-2009: Lessons Learned from the Fall of Communism."

ZENIT recently caught up with Father Guarnizo at the foundation's headquarters in the Castle Neuwaldegg in Vienna, to talk about the conference, the role of the Church in the demise of communism in Europe, as well as the biggest challenges facing EICEE in its efforts to rebuild the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, which were shackled under communist regimes only one generation ago.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Thursday.

ZENIT: Did Lech Walesa mention the role of the Catholic Church in the demise of the communist regime of the Soviet Union in Russia and Europe?

Guarnizo: Yes, Walesa absolutely spoke of the role of the Catholic Church in the ruin of the Soviet Union. This is something that was universally recognized by all historians of the time, yet was not mentioned by any of the speakers at the 20th anniversary celebrations in Berlin earlier this year. Walsea insisted that without the Catholic Church it would have been impossible for Solidarity to survive, which of course became one of the central social impetuses that eroded the authority of the communist regime.

Walesa also emphasized his personal faith, and his strong conviction that divine providence played a tremendous role in the fall of communist Europe in the 20th century.

ZENIT: As the founder and chairman of EICEE, what have been the biggest challenges you have run into while pursuing the mission to promote principles of free, just and democratic societies in post-communist Europe?

Guarnizo: I think the biggest challenge was that nobody was really doing this before us. So it was a pioneering effort, and it was unique because we were trying to create the largest network in Central and Eastern Europe that would be concerned with creating intellectual and cultural foundations for the new generation.

The second challenge was that communism had destroyed pretty much everything. It had destroyed the intellectual class, the cultural foundations, the morals, the economics, and the politics of these nations.

Thirdly, it is such a vast territory; so many different languages, so many different cultures. In the beginning we were just trying to figure out how we would create the necessary network to promote this kind of education.

ZENIT: Could you describe some of the landmark events in these first nine years of EICEE's mission?

Guarnizo: Establishing a network which currently has eight offices operating in different countries: Austria, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Croatia, and Washington DC, has been a landmark in itself.

The second landmark would be training and working with leaders in the political, economic, and cultural order. It is not easy to establish a serious intellectual position, making yourself a voice of reason in many of the debates taking place in Central and Eastern Europe. We are grateful we have been able to accomplish this.

We are also grateful to count on the support of so many people who are vital to that part of the world. Former heads of state, like President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, Former Prime Minister Mart Laar who was the first prime minister after the fall of communism in Estonia, and former Slovak Prime Minister Jan Carnogursky, and other political and cultural leaders.

It is wonderful to have so many people behind us in an effort that is so needed, and which answers the call of Benedict XVI to drive these principles back into the cultures of nations.

ZENIT: You mentioned Benedict XVI. What is the relationship between the organization and the Church itself?

Guarnizo: The organization is non-denominational, but it is the role of the Church to be involved in helping to establish and promote principles that can sustain free democracies.

Benedict XVI has pointed out on many occasions that it is the role of the Church to safeguard right reason. This is true not only of religion, but also of all sciences, including the sciences that are fundamental to democracy: namely, economics, politics, and the cultural blocks of democracy.

We desperately need to do this in Central and Eastern Europe because while many of these countries have transitioned toward free societies, the problems and legacy of communism have continued.

If we do not educate the next generations of these nations, they will never understand what exactly made communism so destructive, and what needs to be done to do to secure free, just and democratic societies.

ZENIT: In your experience, what was at the core of the communist doctrine in Central and Eastern Europe that proved to be so destructive in the 20th century?

Guarnizo: There is a great part of the West that believes that the notion of instituting democracy and establishing free societies has only to do with free market economics and perhaps free elections or political freedom.

But the reality is that the problem of communist atheism was actually a philosophical anthropological problem, as Pope John Paul II said. It was an anthropological error the materialist vision of man that allowed them to treat man as raw material and therefore socially engineer societies. The economic disaster that followed was simply the consequence of the wrong vision of mankind.

This problem is what leads to totalitarian regimes in other parts of the world. The lack of respect for the dignity of the human person, a lack of understanding of who the human person is, and false understandings as to why he needs political, cultural, and economic freedom.

But this can also happen in a democracy. It is good to remember that Hitler was elected democratically. Hamas was elected democratically in Palestine, as well. As Benedict XVI has many times said, even a democracy without values can easily slide into tyranny. Democracy without philosophically sound principles runs the risk of becoming dangerous and enslaving.

Our foundation is absolutely convinced that ideas have consequences. Bad ideas in the 20th century killed more people than in the first 1,900 years of Christianity, and we had more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than all other centuries combined. This is because bad ideas have consequences, just like good ones do.

I have argued for many years that the goal of bringing down the Wall was not simply the goal of bringing down the Soviet Union, but to actually convert hearts and minds to a new society, a free society, and a just society.

After attaining freedom at such a cost, we have a moral duty to do something to help new generations maintain and prosper in their freedom.

We are fighting to create a new intellectual generation who understand this, so that when they act, they act in accordance with right reason and sound principles.

But for us, one generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this is the only way I think we will be able to secure a future for these nations for generations to come.

 
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