Poland’s last Communist leader, 1923-
A central question remains about General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the leader of Poland throughout much of the 1980s: was he a traitor or a patriot? When he imposed martial law in 1981, was he acting to forestall a Soviet invasion or to strangle the new independent trade union Solidarity?
When martial law was declared, Solidarity went underground. But by decade’s end, amid Gorbachev’s liberalization in the Soviet Union and renewed social unrest in Poland, it re-emerged to wrest democratic changes from the Communist leadership, culminating in the partly free elections of June 1989 – a seminal event that eased the way toward peaceful political change in other Central European socialist states.
Thousands of Poles were arrested without charge during the 18 months of martial law, and perhaps 100 were killed. Since September 2008 Jaruzelski has been on trial for that decision; he has also been in court on and off over the years on charges stemming from the massacre of 44 workers in Gdynia in 1970, an assault that, as then-minister of defense, he may or may not have tried to stop.
Although a 1996 parliamentary inquiry declared that the imposition of martial law had met the legal conditions of “higher necessity” valid in 1981, he was accused a decade later by the Institute of National Remembrance of directing a criminal organization – the military council that imposed and ran the martial law – leading to the current trial. Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza characterized the claim as an odd legal device under which “the generals are being treated like gangsters.” The judicial actions have dragged on, in large part due to Jaruzelski’s poor health.
Jaruzelski’s best-known feature, his dark glasses, harken back to the snow blindness he developed during World War II, when his family was deported to the Soviet Union. He joined the Polish army under Soviet command and reached the rank of general while still in his 30s. In 2005 Vladimir Putin presented Jaruzelski with a medal commemorating the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany; the following year the Polish government gave him the Siberian Exiles Cross, than publicly withdrew the award.
Since his retirement in 1991, Jaruzelski has said communism failed and apologized for Poland’s role in the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. But he has staunchly defended the decision for which he is most remembered. “I constantly state that martial law saved Poland from looming catastrophe,” he said on the witness stand a year ago. “Martial law was evil, but it was a far lesser evil than what would have happened without it.”