Poland's last communist leader Jaruzelski dies aged 90

Jaruzelski, Poland's last communist leader who tried to crush country's pro-democracy movement in 1981, remained controversial until the end

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 6:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 6:03am


General Wojciech Jaruzelski

General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the communist leader who imposed harsh military rule on Poland in 1981 in an attempt to crush the pro-democracy Solidarity movement but years later allowed reforms that ended up dismantling the regime, has died at age 90.

Jaruzelski, who suffered in recent years from cancer, heart problems and pneumonia died yesterday in a Warsaw hospital after suffering a stroke earlier this month, hospital spokesman Grzegorz Kade said.

Jaruzelski died just days before Poland marked 25 years since the crucial parliamentary election in which Poles voted against the country's communist rulers and in support of the Solidarity freedom movement.

The retired general remained a controversial figure in his homeland until the end of his life for his defining act: the imposition of martial law that began at dawn on December 13, 1981.

The suppression of the democracy movement resulted in the mass imprisonment of thousands of dissidents, the deaths of dozens, and brought economic stagnation that contributed to the system's eventual undoing. It also pushed many Poles to seek exile in the West.

Jaruzelski was an unlikely servant to Moscow and its communist ideology. Born into a patriotic and Catholic Polish milieu of privileged landowners, he and his family were deported to Siberia by the Red Army during the second world war. His father died there and Jaruzelski suffered snow blindness, which forced him to wear dark glasses to the end of his life.

Despite his own tragedy at Soviet hands, he faithfully imposed Moscow's will on his subjugated nation until communism crumbled across the region in 1989.

To this day, the nation remains deeply divided over whether to view Jaruzelski as a traitor who did Moscow's dirty work or - as he portrayed himself - as a patriot who made an agonising decision to spare the country the bloodshed of a Soviet invasion, like that in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

"A tragic believer in communism who made a pact with the devil in good faith" is how Slavenka Drakulic, the Croatian writer, described him.

The image of him in his military uniform announcing martial law on television remains an iconic one in Polish history.

Straight-backed and betraying no emotion, he read from his documents as he announced martial law and the outlawing of Solidarity, the first independent labour union in the communist bloc.

"The Polish-Soviet alliance is, and will remain, the foundation of Poland's state interest," he said.

For the next 18 months, Poles lived with curfews, dead phone lines and armed troops and tanks on the streets. Nearly 100 people died during the crackdown, while tens of thousands of Solidarity activists were imprisoned, including future presidents Lech Walesa - the Solidarity leader - and Lech Kaczynski. Yet Jaruzelski, who headed the government from 1981-85 and the party from 1981 until the communist regime's collapse in 1989, repeatedly defended his decision. "The greater evil would have been a (Soviet) intervention," he said in a 2005 interview.

He spent the rest of his life seeking historical vindication.

Jaruzelski claimed partial credit for negotiating the peaceful transition to democracy as Poland's last communist leader, and many Poles credited him for allowing the "Round Table" talks with Solidarity in 1989 that paved the way for a peaceful transition to democracy.

Those talks came four years after Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership in the Soviet Union and launched his liberalisation policies of glasnost and perestroika.