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Obituary: Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland's Last Communist Leader

Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last Communist leader of Poland, has died. He was 90 years old.

Jaruzelski, who died following a long battle with cancer and a stroke earlier this month, is considered one of the most divisive political figures in Poland’s turbulent post-war history.

Much of the controversy surrounds his decision, announced on December 13, 1981, to declare martial law in the country:

As a result, the burgeoning Solidarity trade union was banned and its leader, Lech Walesa, interned for almost a year. Curfews were imposed, telephone lines were disconnected, and national borders were sealed. The clampdown lasted for 18 months, resulting in nearly 100 deaths and some 10,000 detentions.

For many, the move made Jaruzelski the country's arch-villain -- a Communist stooge who did everything in his power to prevent his nation from becoming democratic and independent.

The general himself, however, remained convinced to his death that his decision to impose martial law was a “necessary evil” that “saved Poland from looming catastrophe.” Some agree with this view, arguing that the move saved the country from an impending Soviet invasion and prepared the way for a peaceful democratic transition in the latter half of the 1980s.

But what baffles most was his faithfulness to the Soviet Union and adherence to Communism, seemingly defying all expectations from his youth.

Jaruzelski was born in 1923 into an aristocratic family and grew up on an estate in Bialystok, in the eastern part of today’s Poland. His father, an ardent anti-communist, had fought in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21, which prevented the spread of Bolshevism after World War I.

When Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939, the family fled to Lithuania before Jaruzelski and his father were deported to Siberia.

While his father perished, the teenager survived the hardship of forced labor in the coal mines of Karaganda, in today's Kazakhstan. But not without great cost. Jaruzelski's back was permanently damaged, as were his eyes from the constant snow glare, which forced him to wear the black sunglasses that would become a much-heckled trademark.

Notwithstanding, he embraced Communism.

Towards the end of World War II, Jaruzelski joined the Polish army units being formed under Soviet command. Together with the Soviet army, he watched Warsaw burn in 1944, as the pro-Western Polish Home Army was slaughtered by the retreating Nazis.

Jaruzelski and the Soviets marched into the rubble several months later, laying a foundation for the bitter contempt many Poles felt toward their Eastern liberators during the Cold War years.

After participating in the takeover of Berlin in 1945, he was re-deployed against the remnants of the Polish underground forces. He also became a fully-fledged military intelligence agent and joined the newly established Polish Communist party.

His rise through the military and party ranks was meteoric. In 1956 he became a general and was defense minister by 1968.

What followed would further convince detractors of his wickedness.

Jaruzelski ordered Poland to join the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the same year he also purged the military of its Jews. He read secret reports about the killing of 15,000 Polish army officers at Katyn during World War II, but chose to toe the party line and trumpet the lie that it was a Nazi atrocity, not a Soviet one. And in December 1970 he decided to crush the uprisings in several northern Polish cities.

At least 42 died, mainly in Gdansk, in an event that planted the seed for the country-wide Solidarity movement that would oust him from power two decades later.

In 1989, with cracks appearing in the Iron Curtain, Jaruzelski legalized Solidarity and negotiated with them at the historic round table talks.

He peacefully stepped down as Poland’s president one year later, telling the nation in his farewell speech that he should be held responsible for crimes committed.

"The words 'I apologize' sound banal. However, I cannot find any other words," he said.
Former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa visited Jaruzelski in his hospital bed in September 2011 in a memorable feat of forgiveness.
Former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa visited Jaruzelski in his hospital bed in September 2011 in a memorable feat of forgiveness.

Jaruzelski retreated into public life, but was put on trial for imposing martial law in 2008, based on documentation from Poland's National Remembrance Institute.

The trial divided the country, before a district court ruled in 2011 that he was too ill to continue.

That same year saw a remarkable meeting, when Walesa, in an act of reconciliation, visited his ailing former jailer in a Warsaw hospital, later posting a picture of the moment on his website under the words, "Get well, general."
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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