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Jaruzelski: The Fate of a Pole in the 20th Century

To write that Poland’s last strongman was a dictator is only a part of the truth.

by Martin Ehl 27 May 2014

Less than two weeks before the 25th anniversary of the first free elections in Poland, General Wojciech Jaruzelski has passed away. He spent more time over the last two years in the hospital, so news of his death on 25 May at 90 years old, after a fight with cancer, was not a surprise.


His fate is typical in its ambiguity of the fate of most Poles in the 20th century, even though many right-wing intellectuals and commentators would not call him anything but a dictator.


At the beginning of the German-Russian division of Poland in 1939, the young Jaruzelski fled with his family to Lithuania, which the Soviet Union later annexed. His father was exiled to Siberia and “snow blindness” during a young Jaruzelski’s work on the taiga permanently damaged his eyesight. He tried to join the western Polish army, but he ended up in the eastern pro-Soviet one, in which he made a quick career. According to some sources, secret cooperation with Russian intelligence may have helped speed his ascent. 


Jaruzelski’s fate became entwined with the suppression of various workers’ protests in the 1960s and 1970s. That culminated in the imposition of martial law in 1981, during which Jaruzelski led the military council, which gradually softened the harsh regime until transferring power to the first non-Communist government – formed after the partially free elections that took place 25 years ago, on 4 June 1989.


From that time there have been debates about whether Jaruzelski, with his tough stance, deserves credit for preventing the Soviets themselves from mounting a brutal intervention in Poland or if he should be condemned for crimes against his own people (he was at one point charged for violating the constitution by imposing martial law). He defended himself by saying that martial law was the lesser of two evils that threatened Poland at the beginning of the 1980s, when waves of protests rolled across the country led by Solidarity and Lech Walesa.


In a way, more interesting than the recent film about Lech Walesa would be a similar piece of drama about Jaruzelski. Walesa is a black-and-white hero with undoubted merit. But to try to understand someone who works for the Communists – though they essentially killed his father and uprooted his family; who toils to get to the top of their military hierarchy; and who in the end makes the decision of his life, knowing that most of his countrymen would forever damn him – now that would really be something.


To write that Jaruzelski was a dictator is only a part of the truth. He was a Pole in the 20th century, when the Polish nation built its statehood three times – twice nearly from nothing and on territory assigned to it by superpowers, rather than on its historical territory. He made decisions that brought him to the forefront and affected the fates of millions of his compatriots – and we must not forget that apart from those that cost many lives (in the years 1981-1983 alone during martial law the police and military killed at least 56 people), there were also other choices. One was to sit down at the negotiating table, as the economy collapsed and society was exhausted at the end of 1988-1989, and agree with the then-opposition on a way out of the crisis. And then to stand behind the common conclusion and not to question it later.


Most other Communist leaders were not powerful or competent enough for such steps.

Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.

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