An interview with General Wojciech Jaruzelski in Rosiiska Gazeta, July 16, 2008, portrays the General as the architect of Poland’s democracy, not its last communist leader. General Jaruzelski assumed dictatorial powers as head of the Military Council for National Salvation when he declared martial law on December 13, 1981, having already been Party chief, Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. This amassing of roles indicates why he became the supreme leader of a “putsch” against his own country. The majority of Poles at the time did not acknowledge his rule as legitimate.
General Jaruzelski claims the declaration of martial law as his greatest achievement, a patriotic act that saved Poland from the catastrophe of a Soviet invasion, which would have been a bloody disaster had it happened. In fact, the General lobbied for and, like most of his comrades, would have preferred a Soviet invasion because it would have absolved him of responsibility of maintaining power by force. Existing Soviet and Polish Politburo documents and testimonials from different sources contradict the General’s claims.
They indicate that late in 1981, Soviet intervention was ruled out in the event the Polish security forces with army’s backing failed to pacify Solidarity, supported by the overwhelming majority of Poles. Importantly, the General was informed several times that Moscow would not bail him out before he executed the order.
It is difficult to view General Jaruzelski as a villain, even though his decision was a setback for democracy in Poland, claimed lives, filled prisons and forced over a million people to immigrate. General Jaruzelski’s personal dilemma was his inability to admit that he was, as US Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger famously described him, a “Russian general in Polish uniform.”
The Soviets recognized the danger that Solidarity presented and urged their Polish comrades to act decisively to gain control of the situation and eliminate a growing crisis. Jaruzelski executed the plans approved by the Soviets without receiving any assurances. His actions reflected the perplexing moral choice of communist leaders in a vassal state. Jaruzelski was less brutal but also less successful in bringing his country out of a crisis than Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet with whom he is often compared. He looked for solutions that minimized violence and labored to maintain at least the appearance of legitimacy, but could not contemplate giving up power.
Like his predecessors, he perceived his own countrymen as unreliable because he could not admit that he and the regime he represented were illegitimate. He feared that the longer he waited for an opportune moment, the more likely abrupt measures would have to be applied. The people, and in the case of Poland, the conscript army were becoming undependable.
Jaruzelski became Minister of Defense in 1968, shortly before the Soviet–led invasion of Czechoslovakia in which Polish troops participated. For his role in the invasion the general has apologized and underscored limited involvement. He did not apologize for the bloody suppression of the strikes on the Baltic Coast in December 1970 since the order to fire on unarmed shipyard workers came from his superiors and therefore was not his responsibility. As Minister of Defense General Jaruzelski was responsible for 27,000 troops used against unarmed civilians on the Baltic Coast. General Jaruzelski had the option of resigning, as the former Foreign Minister Adam Rapacki did in 1968 to protest the Party-sanctioned anti-Semitic and anti-intellectual campaign.
Wojciech Jaruzelski came from a family of landowning gentry, born in Kurów, in the Puławy region of eastern Poland. His grandfather, also Wojciech, participated in the January Rising [1863-1864], and spent eight years in Siberia. His father was a cavalry officer in the Polish-Soviet War [1919-1921]. Having fled to Lithuania, he was arrested in 1941 by the NKVD when Stalin invaded.
Like more than a million of Poles, young Wojciech was deported East. Jaruzelski’s father died after his release from the NKVD camp. In his teen years in Siberia as a victim of Stalin purges, young Wojciech volunteered for General Zygmunt Berling’s Polish Kościuszko Infantry Division on the Eastern Front. It was not an auspicious beginning for a communist general, communist party secretary, and the last Communist President of Poland.
General Jaruzelski’s life and career are characterized by moral contradictions. Teresa Torańska’s interview with the general in Byli [Has-beens 2006] makes clear that these contradictions have not been lost on the general’s family. As for the general, he strikes one as having lived through the Communist period, as if in Santiago Sierra’s cardboard box, paid for occupying a role. He openly admits he is a Russophile and embraced the Soviet system as his own, joining the ranks of the [Communist] Workers Party in 1947. “I probably would have made the same choice if I had been a Soviet General,” he once told the German weekly Der Spiegel.
In 1989, General Wojciech Jaruzelski presided over a peaceful surrender of power by the Communists as part of the Round Table negotiated agreement.