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Wojciech Jaruzelski: the communist strongman who continues to divide Poland

Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last communist leader of Poland, is due to be given a full state funeral today. However the debate over his controversial legacy will continue long after his death.

Mark Heleniak
30 May 2014
Wojciech Jaruzelski, pictured alongside Nicolae Ceauşescu. Wikimedia commons.

Wojciech Jaruzelski, pictured alongside Nicolae Ceauşescu. Wikimedia commons.

General Wojciech Jaruzelski, a one-time Polish Communist strongman, died on 25 May 2014, aged 90.

Poles today accept Jaruzelski played a role in the repression of the Home Army resistance in the latter 1940s when the Moscow backed communists consolidated power in Poland, and believe he was complicit in the massacre of workers during strike in Gdansk in 1970. Poles also hold him responsible for the implementation of Martial Law in 1981 and its excesses.

Yet, an increasing number of Poles are choosing to accept Jaruzelski’s argument that the imposition of Martial Law, which outlawed the grassroots Solidarity movement and stifled democratic change for a decade, represented a “lesser evil”. A poll in 2011 showed that 44% of Poles considered Martial Law a necessity (The Economist, 26 May).

Since Jaruzelski’s death, the widely read Polish centrist Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper has been focusing on Jaruzelski’s later positive contribution to the regaining of Poland’s independence in 1989. He entered into dialogue with Solidarity, and he allowed the nearly democratic elections to be held on 4 June 1989. Even the right-wing Rzeczpospolita newspaper does not condemn him outright preferring to merely say that he was Moscow’s man and he will have his place in history (26 May).

Gazeta Wyborcza portrays Jaruzelski as a figure from a Greek Tragedy” (25 May) a man of honour, a dictator (1981-89) who used his power with restraint, and a belated convert to democracy. In an interview with his daughter (23 May)Monika Jaruzelska, the dictator was even seen as an ordinary man at home.

Solidarity leader and political nemesis, Lech Walesa, now refers to Jaruzelski as “a great man from an age of betrayers”(BBC, 25 May) noting how “in private talks he was a very different man, a joker” (SMH, 26 May). Adam Michnik, another key Solidarity dissident and past editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, concurs with Jaruzelski’s argument that Martial Law was the “lesser of two evils” designed to forestall a Soviet invasion. The Washington Times (26 May) and The Guardian newspapers (25 May) have followed a similar line - that despite his (significant) failings, ultimately Jaruzelski facilitated change in Poland.

To most Poles, the legacy of Jaruzelski is enigmatic. While they can understand his desperation to exit the Soviet Union by any means possible, and accept he had to join the Soviet backed “Berling’s army” to return to Poland in 1944-45, they cannot fathom his excesses and blind loyalty to the Communist regime in Poland. People still suspect Poland’s youngest general, at 33 years of age, must have done many unsavoury things to get to where he was so quickly.

Despite the forgiving tone of most of the mainstream media, Jaruzelski still generates considerable emotion and controversy. A large sector of the community refuses to accept any justification for his role during the communist repression of Poland. For these people no amount of redemption by Jaruzelski in his latter years or by his supporters can erase the crime of Martial Law. They argue that Martial Law was not the lesser evil, but the ultimate evil designed to save an inhumane totalitarian regime. The Soviet Union they argue, was already overcommitted to fighting in Afghanistan and was not contemplating an invasion of Poland. Whether or not the Soviet Union would have ultimately invaded Poland in 1981 to save its empire will be speculated for a long time to come.

The ambivalence of Jaruzelski’s legacy cannot be better demonstrated than through the official response to his death. Leszek Miller, the leader of the Union of the Democratic Left (post communists) called upon the President, Bronislaw Komorowski, to announce a day of national mourning. The request was rejected. Jaruzelski is still too controversial for such a gesture. On the other hand, the government has agreed to give a state funeral on 30 May with full military honours and burial at the key national (Powazki) cemetery – a cemetery reserved for eminent national figures and heroes. Gazeta Polska, (28 May) the mouthpiece of the conservative opposition Law and Justice party, has commented that this would be the first time that a  “member of a secret criminal organisation” will be buried at the Powazki cemetery with “honours bestowed of a head of state”.

While some chat sites, blogs, and newspaper columns will forever condemn Jaruzelski as a traitor to Poland and lackey of Moscow, mainstream media following his death, on balance, has given him the benefit of the doubt. What is unclear however is the legacy historians will create for him. Will he be seen as the man who helped secure Poland’s independence and the country’s historic return to democracy, or will he forever remain a dark figure in Polish history?

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