Death of a General
July 4, 2014
General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last communist leader of Poland and the most divisive figure in the country following his decision to impose martial law in December 1981, died in a Warsaw military hospital May 25 at the age of 91.
Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law is possibly the most hotly debated event in Poland’s postwar history. His supporters argue that the general, as he put it himself, chose the lesser of two evils in order to prevent a civil war and a possible Soviet invasion of Poland. Supporters say that the Solidarity trade union had grown so powerful by 1981 that a violent confrontation with the communist authorities seemed inevitable. They add that Moscow, alarmed at the burgeoning pro-democracy movement in Poland—at the time a Soviet satellite state—would have been forced to send in troops had Jaruzelski not imposed martial law.
But the general’s critics argue that throughout his political career he was a puppet controlled by his Soviet masters. One way or the other, throughout the first half of the 1980s, Jaruzelski was a symbol of communism in Poland and a hate figure for those who challenged the Polish communist party’s grip on power. Public opinion polls show that, even three decades on, Poles are still divided in their evaluation of Jaruzelski.
The issue of martial law is not the only accusation leveled against Jaruzelski over his record during the communist era. He was also criticized—even more fiercely considering the larger number of victims—for his role in suppressing workers’ protests in Poland’s Baltic Sea ports more than a decade earlier, in December 1970. According to critics, the general was part of a narrow group of communist decision makers who ordered the army to open fire on protesters. Jaruzelski himself consistently refuted these accusations.
Historians studying the communist period also believe that Jaruzelski played a shameful role in the anti-Semitic purges in the army and Poland’s state institutions in 1967-1968. Finally, some researchers suggest that in the early period of his military career Jaruzelski spied for the Soviets, something that the general himself steadfastly denied.
Leftist politicians, especially those hailing from Poland’s former communist party, which was disbanded in 1991, have for years been arguing that Jaruzelski played a positive role in Poland’s recent history. They point out that he gave the go-ahead for the Round Table talks between the communist government and the democratic opposition in 1988—negotiations unprecedented in the history of former Soviet bloc countries. In practice, the talks resulted in a complete dismantling of the communist system within two years. For left-wingers, Jaruzelski remains a Polish patriot and an example of political wisdom. They argue that the smooth, bloodless transfer of power into the hands of Poland’s democratic opposition was primarily due to him.
The sharp polarization of views in Polish society over Jaruzelski was evident even after his death. His funeral on May 30, attended by leaders including President Bronisław Komorowski and former presidents Lech Wałęsa and Aleksander Kwaśniewski, was held amid bitter protests by right-wingers and war veterans. The funeral, at a military cemetery in Warsaw, attracted both those who supported Jaruzelski those who fiercely opposed him. The latter chanted “Disgrace!” and “Off to Moscow with him!” and booed and blasted out Soviet military songs from speakers as Kwaśniewski was delivering a eulogy. A few scuffles were also reported.
Still before the funeral, the tabloid press launched a debate on where “Poland’s last communist dictator” should be buried. Some journalists, politicians and activists from right-wing veterans’ organizations suggested that the general’s body should be laid to rest at the Kremlin. One association grouping together former soldiers of the Polish World War II underground movement lodged an official protest with the Warsaw authorities against the decision to bury Jaruzelski at the capital’s famous Powązki cemetery, “the resting place of Polish patriots.”
Warsaw City Hall replied that Jaruzelski would not be laid to rest in the Avenue of Honor, but in the military section of the cemetery, alongside soldiers with whom he once served. Such was his last will, his family said.
Jaruzelski’s grave is under constant surveillance by the police because of the risk of desecration or damage.
Meanwhile, a district court in Warsaw June 5 formally closed two cases against Jaruzelski. In one, he was accused of “heading an illegal armed criminal group” when imposing martial law on Dec. 13, 1981. In the other, he was accused of making decisions as defense minister that led to the massacre of workers in northern Poland in December 1970. Both cases, in which other former senior communist officials are co-defendants, have been dragging on for years; in 2011, after Jaruzelski was diagnosed with cancer, the part of the case concerning him was suspended indefinitely because of his health.
FACTFILE: Wojciech Jaruzelski
Born July 6, 1923, in the eastern village of Kurów near Puławy, Lublin province.
In 1939 he graduated from a high school run by the Congregation of Marian Fathers.
After the outbreak of World War II, the Russians occupied his home village and the Jaruzelski family fled to what is now Lithuania, only to be deported to the Altai Mountains region of the Soviet Union. The young Jaruzelski had to work as a lumberjack.
On July 19, 1943, Jaruzelski was sent by the Soviet authorities to enroll at a military school in Ryazan, Russia, from which he graduated five months later, with the rank of ensign.
From July 1944 to the end of the war he fought in Soviet-sponsored Polish forces. He took part in fighting in Poland and Germany. Jaruzelski commanded a reconnaissance unit and was promoted several times and decorated. He ended the war with the rank of lieutenant.
In 1945-1946, he took part in fighting against the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army in southeastern Poland.
In 1946 he was promoted to captain. Further promotions followed soon after: in 1948 he became a major, and in 1949 was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In 1953 he was promoted to colonel.
In 1956 he became a brigadier general and took command of a division stationed in the northwestern city of Szczecin. In 1960 he was promoted to two-star general.
In 1965-1968 he served as Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces. From 1962 to 1968 he served as deputy defense minister and in 1968 he was made defense minister, a job he held until 1983.
In August 1968 he commanded Polish units taking part in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and in the crushing of the Prague Spring, that country’s experiment with democracy and political liberalization.
In December 1970, in his capacity as defense minister, Jaruzelski led a crackdown on rioting workers in the Polish coastal region during which 41 demonstrators were killed, 1,164 were injured, and some 3,000 arrested.
He formally ended his military service on Jan. 31, 1991.
In 1947, Jaruzelski joined the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR), and in December 1948 he became a member of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR)—the Polish communist party—formed after a merger of the PPR and the Polish Socialist Party. In 1960-1965 he served as chief of the Main Political Board of the Polish armed forces.
In 1961-1989 he was a member of parliament.
In 1964-1989 he was a member of the Central Committee of the communist PZPR party, and from 1971 to 1989 he was a member of the party’s inner Cabinet, the Politburo.
On Oct. 18, 1981 he took over as first secretary of the Central Committee of the PZPR, a post he kept until July 19, 1989.
On Dec. 13, 1981, Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland and became head of the Military Council of National Salvation (WRON), which existed until July 21, 1983.
In 1981-1985 he was prime minister.
After the fall of communism, on July 19, 1989 the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, elected him president of the Republic of Poland with a majority of just one vote.
Jaruzelski’s term expired on Dec. 22, 1990 after Lech Wałęsa won a presidential election.