Redemption for the Polish Leader Who Crushed Solidarity?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Janek Skarzynski / AFP / Getty

General Wojciech Jaruzelski (L), Poland's last communist-era leader, and former head of the Polish communist party Stanislaw Kania (R) leave court after a hearing in the long-running legal case over the former regime's martial law crackdown in 1981, on April 24, 2008 in Warsaw.

In December of 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law on Poland, orchestrating a brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy Solidarity trade union movement that eventually saw some 90 people killed, and around 10,000 detained in internment camps. But as Jaruzelski and six other former top officials set out their defense in a criminal trial over their coup and crackdown, many of the former leaders of Solidarity have emerged among the general's staunchest defenders. In a bizarre twist of history, the leaders of the very movement Jaruzelski sought to crush 27 years ago now say he was right, at the time, to curb Solidarity's growing appetite for power.

In his lengthy defense statement at the Warsaw regional court, Jaruzelski, who was prime minister at the time as well as the head of the Communist Party, explained his motivation for declaring martial law this way: In 1981, he argued, the Solidarity movement was in the throes of an internal power struggle between radicals and moderates, with Moscow watching closely, having reinforced the Soviet troop contingent stationed in Poland. The Soviets had previously sent troops to crush a popular rebellion in Hungary in 1956, and to brutally destroy a reformist Czech communist regime in 1968, and Jaruzelski was acutely aware of the danger that Poland could suffer a similar fate. Martial law was "a dramatically difficult decision," but it "saved Poland from a looming catastrophe," according to Jaruzelski.

"Solidarity did not want to rein in its political aspirations," the general argued. "Because of the geopolitics, the authorities could not step back. There was a knot which we decided to cut ourselves." The crackdown, however brutal, was a "lesser evil" that spared Poland the a direct Soviet military intervention, he argued. He acknowledged that martial law brought human suffering, for which the general said he "is sorry and takes the responsibility."

While the question of whether the Soviets were ready to start an invasion is still debated by historians, Jaruzelski's background may have made him more prone to fear that Moscow would intervene. As a 17-year-old during World War II, he had been deported with his parents to Siberia after Soviet forces entered Poland. His father was imprisoned, and young Jaruzelski logged trees. "He had no illusions about Russia," says Stefan Chwin, a Polish writer. Even Lech Walesa, the legendary Solidarity leader interned for almost a year during the clampdown, feels empathy for Jaruzelski. "He belongs to an unfortunate generation broken by (historic) circumstances," Walesa said in a radio interview. "Had he lived in other times, he would have been a great patriot." Walesa believes the trial is "a mistake", and emphasizes that Jaruzelski eventually prepared the way for democracy in Poland by starting the Round Table talks with Solidarity that brought about the peaceful end of the the communist regime in 1989.

Another former opposition activist, Kazimierz Kutz, now a filmmaker and member of parliament also defends the general. "If not for the martial law," Kutz argues, "there would have been many more victims. Had Solidarity started to fight, the army would have had to use weapons and there would have been a massacre. Jaruzelski prevented a real civil war." Kutz was interned during the martial law and his pregnant wife suffered a miscarriage after having searched prisons to find her husband. Despite his personal tragedy, Kutz can still see merit in the crackdown, which, he says, stopped radicals and allowed moderates on both sides to work for reconciliation and compromise.

"Eventually we [Solidarity] won, not thanks to a bloody slaughter but to the Round Table negotiations," Kutz argues. "It was a great phenomenon." He also praises Jaruzelski's efforts to explain motives and circumstances behind the martial law. Having stepped down in 1990 after serving as president of Poland during the transition period, the general published books and gave numerous interviews about the clampdown, forcing Poles to rethink their recent history. "He is a man who bears his crown of thorns with unusual dignity and unusual strength," says Kutz.

Opinion polls show public opinion in Poland divided on how Jaruzelski should be judged. A December 2007 survey showed that 44% of Poles believe that the communist authorities had no choice but to impose martial law, while 45% condemn the decision. Some former Solidarity leaders, such as current Speaker of the Senate Bogdan Borusewicz, are not as forgiving of Jaruzelski as others have been. "The trial is an act of justice," Borusewicz said. "The martial law was a classic Latin-style military putsch. Jaruzelski defended the communist system, not Poland. He defended the communist dictatorship, not the state."

It is not clear when the court will hand down its verdict, and many procedural delays are expected, not least because of the advanced age and health problems of the defendants. But Jaruzelski had welcomed the proceedings because he "wanted the matter to be considered by an independent court at an open trial". Many prominent lawyers, however, doubt whether a definitive verdict can emerge from courts of law. With even Poland's court of public opinion divided on the case of General Jaruzelski's declaration of martial law, it will ultimately be left to history to judge his actions.