Jaruzelski’s reputation is improving

Polish general, president both loathed and admired

By Dale R. Herspring

Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, one of the most influential and controversial figures in Polish politics, died recently at the age of 90.

To some Poles, he was the incarnation of evil. He declared martial law and in the process attempted to destroy the march to democracy. On the other hand, increasing numbers of Poles think he had a positive impact on Polish politics. They argue that had he not declared martial law in 1989, the Russians would have invaded.  That would have been catastrophic. Several years after martial law, Jaruzelski oversaw the smooth transition to democracy.

During this period, I was in charge of the Polish Desk in the Department of State and was party to some of our most sensitive intelligence on the topic.  Also, thanks in part to former KSU President Jon Wefald, Jaruzelski gave a Landon Lecture.  This gave me a chance to talk with him and hear his side of events.

When World War II began, Jaruzelski and his family fled to Lithuania. When the Russians invaded, Jaruzelski’s father was arrested and his family was sent to Siberia. In Siberia, Jaruzelski experienced snow blindness, which accounts for the dark glasses he wore for the rest of his life.  

In Russia, Jaruzelski joined what amounted to a Polish Army under Russian control. He was wounded several times and decorated for heroism. He then fought his way across Russia and was part of the Polish forces that sat hopelessly on the east bank of the Vistula River while the Germans destroyed the Polish uprising.  After the war, Jaruzelski joined the Polish military, which was under Soviet control. Jaruzelski was a competent office and one the Russians trusted. At 33, he became the youngest general in the Polish Army. He joined Parliament in 1961 and became Minister of Defense in 1968. Some claim he was responsible for the deaths of 44 workers in 1970, but that remains unclear. The individuals doing the shooting were from the Ministry of Interior rather than the Ministry of Defense. In 1973, he was promoted to four-star general.

In the world of the Polish leadership, Jaruzelski was a moderate. As the trade union Solidarity became increasingly influential, hardliners sought to punish Solidarity via the army. Jaruzelski’s response: “Polish troops will not fire on Polish workers. Period.”

By 1980 matters were getting out of control. Resistance was heightened by the visit of Pope John Paul II — the Polish Pope — to Poland. This made Jaruzelski and the Polish government look almost irrelevant. Still, Jaruzelski soon found himself pushed to become president. The Russians were putting tremendous pressure on him, something our intelligence sources were aware of. As he put it during his visit to KSU, “We were staring hunger, cold and blackout in the face.  I spent the weeks prior to taking the decision on martial law as in some horrible nightmare. I entertained thoughts of suicide.  So what held me back?  The sense of responsibility for my family, friends and country.”

In 1992, a Polish polling firm reported that 56 percent of those surveyed regarded Jaruzelski’s decision on martial law justified. Even some former Solidarity dissidents began to speak well of him.  On the other hand, several court cases were brought against him. None was decided before he died.

About his reputation, Jaruzelski in 1994 said, “I am absolutely sure that the best opinion is expressed about anyone after his death. Because I am past 70, probably in the near future they will talk about me even better, when I will be in the cemetery.”

His chief antagonist, Lech Walesa, who followed him as president, attended Jaruzelski’s funeral. When it came time for worshippers to share a sign of peace, Walesa crossed the aisle and shook the hands of Jaruzel-ski’s widow, his daughter and his young grandson. Clearly, Walesa decided it was time for reconciliation.

The best comment on Jaruzelski was made by Bishop Jozef Guzdek, who celebrated Jaruzelski’s funeral Mass. He noted that although Jaruzelski was an atheist, before he died he asked a Catholic priest to administer the last rites. The bishop said Jaruzelski was “a politician, a soldier, a man carrying the burden of responsibility for the most difficult and perhaps most dramatic decisions in Poland’s post-war history.” He then added. “It is now up to God, and not to other people, to judge Jaruzelski.”  Good advice.

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