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“The attempt to murder the pope remains one of the century’s great mysteries,” wrote Carl Bernstein and Marco Politti in their 1996 biography of Pope John Paul II. Indeed, the mystery has remained unsolved since the pope was shot and wounded on May 13, 1981. A recent investigation concluded that the Soviet government was the perpetrator, but the situation should be examined in a broader historical context. What actually happened on May 13, 1981? Was it the sole decision and action of Mehmet Ali Agca, who was expressing his opposition to “Western imperialist policies,” as he had written in a threatening letter to a newspaper in 1979? Or had “someone else commissioned him to carry it out,” as Pope John Paul II alleged in a memoir written in 2005?

Before evaluating the question from an historical standpoint, it is necessary to provide some background in order to establish a potential motive for the Soviet Union to support such an assassination attempt. Was Karol Wojtyla (the Pope’s birth name) really “[their] enemy,” as a party directive warned in 1979? Only then can we evaluate the Soviet Union’s involvement, or whether there was a conspiracy behind the attempted assassination of John Paul II at all. Finally, we should step back and look at the significance of the assassination attempt and the impact of the pope on the Cold War and Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe.