Poland's Warmed-Over Cold Warrior

The death of Poland’s last communist dictator comes 25 years after its first free elections, two events that tell us a lot about the old Cold War and the new one.

At his final meeting with the press before stepping down as Poland’s last communist leader in late 1990, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski was in full charm mode. Dressed in a dark blue suit and wearing his famous tinted glasses, he played the part of the perfect Polish gentleman, kissing the hands of the women journalists. “What was the best moment for you?” asked one woman. “Meeting you,” the outgoing president replied with a slight bow.

Jaruzelski, who died on May 25 at the age of 90, had a very serious purpose in such encounters: to spin how he will go down in history. When he reached me at that gathering, he ducked a question about his role by declaring: “What is important is historical truth.”

The question is whose truth. At this moment when the Ukraine crisis has raised the specter of a new Cold War and conjured the old specter of Soviet communism, Jaruzelski’s passing is a reminder of how things were. And while the Iron Curtain may have fallen long ago, the recent proliferation of leaders who think they can solve their country’s problems with iron fists, whether in Moscow, Cairo, or Bangkok, shows that strongmen always think they can rewrite history.

In 1981, Jaruzelski imposed martial law and outlawed the Solidarity trade union, leading to the arrests of thousands of activists and several deaths. To many Poles, this marked him forever as a traitor who served only his Soviet masters. But in 1989, he agreed to the “round table” negotiations with many of the same activists, leading to Solidarity’s sweeping victory in the first largely free elections that followed. As Poland commemorates the 25th anniversary of that seismic event on June 4, Jaruzelski’s defenders will continue to make his case that he was a Polish patriot all along—a military strongman who enabled the transition to democracy.

Like many Poles who found themselves under Soviet occupation when Stalin and Hitler divided up their country at the beginning of World War II, the Jaruzelski family was deported to Siberia. But when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the young Jaruzelski was dispatched to a Soviet officer school and joined the Polish communist forces that fought alongside the Red Army as they repelled the Germans. That drive westward both liberated Poland from Nazi occupation and set the stage for the imposition of a Soviet-backed puppet regime in Warsaw at the end of the war. From then on, Jaruzelski quickly rose within the ranks of the new leadership.

As defense minister in 1968, he oversaw the Polish Army’s participation in the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush that country’s experiment with “socialism with a human face.” When he marshaled the troops against his own people in 1981, he appeared to be following the same script: All challenges to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power had to be brutally suppressed.

Jaruzelski always insisted that he had to choose “the lesser evil” of imposing martial law to prevent a Soviet invasion, since the Kremlin had no intention of tolerating the rise of Solidarity. To this day, Poles are split on whether they believe him. As for Jaruzelski, he kept repeating that the “purgatory” of martial law was absolutely necessary “to prevent us from ending in hell.”

There’s no doubt that Soviet troops massed repeatedly on Poland’s borders to give the impression they were ready to invade, and both the Carter administration and then the Reagan administration took that threat seriously. But the transcript of a Soviet Politburo meeting on October 29, 1981, just weeks before the imposition of martial law on December 13, quoted Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov as saying “Our troops should not be sent into Poland.” In 1992, Mikhail Gorbachev added in an interview with the Polish Press Agency: “Soviet forces were not to intervene in Poland under any circumstances.” Nonetheless, Jaruzelski’s defenders still argue that he believed the invasion threat was very real, which prompted him to act.

As someone who reported from both Moscow and Warsaw in that era, I felt that the Kremlin, led by an increasingly enfeebled Leonid Brezhnev and preoccupied with its war in Afghanistan, wanted to avoid a direct attack on Poland, as Gorbachev later indicated. But they also desperately wanted to have Jaruzelski do their dirty work for them—and he certainly obliged. The debate about his decision to do so will not end soon since there are no definitive answers.

But even if Jaruzelski is given the benefit of the doubt on martial law, the second part of his version of history is even more questionable. As he was stepping off center stage, he increasingly argued that he had been seeking reconciliation with Solidarity all along, and that the epochal agreement with that opposition movement was the culmination of his strategy.

But that simply doesn’t wash. At a time when the Kremlin was immensely relieved that he had launched his crackdown, he could have made genuine steps toward reconciliation much earlier in the 1980s. Instead, he refused to accept Solidarity as a legitimate opposition force, rebuffing repeated appeals from his own countrymen and the West to negotiate with it.

As late as May 1988 when Gorbachev’s perestroika was in full swing, I witnessed plainclothesmen infiltrating a packed Mass at St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw’s old town. As we emerged from the church to face a lineup of riot police, there were a few shouts of “Solidarity”—and the plainclothesmen turned and started chasing, beating and capturing anyone they could. They caught mostly older people, especially women, who were slower to flee, dragging them ostentatiously across Castle Square to the waiting riot police and their vans that would take them away for booking.

Those were not actions of a government seeking reconciliation but of one that still believed force could prevail. After all the events of 1989, Col. Wieslaw Gornicki, Jaruzelki’s top aide, admitted that his boss believed right up until January 1989 that his brand of “socialism” could survive. “He was never a turncoat,” he added, meaning that Jaruzelski was always true to his belief in Poland and the political system he had served.
Many Poles use the term “turncoat” in a completely different way. To them, their countrymen who aligned themselves with the Kremlin qualified for that term. Reacting to Jaruzelski’s death, former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who succeeded him in the presidency, called him “a great man from the generation of traitors.” But he declared that only God could ultimately pass judgment on his actions.

During the turbulent 1980s, Poland’s communist system was a showcase for total economic failure, featuring galloping inflation and chronic shortages of the most basic foodstuffs. It also was a showcase for moral bankruptcy, prompting thousands of its best and brightest citizens to flee abroad. Those who remained became increasingly embittered—and determined to mount a new challenge against the regime. Since Gorbachev had no intention of saving the Polish communist system by rolling in the tanks, Jaruzelski reluctantly agreed to pursue a new strategy of negotiations with his opponents.

Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who succeeded Jaruzelski in the presidency, called him “a great man from the generation of traitors.”
The fact that Jaruzelski finally acquiesced peacefully to the demise of the system he represented still wins him plaudits in some quarters. Adam Michnik, the editor of the Polish dailyGazeta Wyborcza and the leading intellectual adviser of the Solidarity movement, concluded: “The same person who put Poland in shackles later freed it from those shackles.”

But history will not be as kind to Jaruzelski as he seemed to believe near the end of his life. He had convinced himself that he had been, at heart, a democratizer for a long time. And, as he revealed in an interview with Newsweek’s Polish edition that was embargoed until his death, he also had managed to convince himself that “Poland was never a communist state.” Was he even a communist? “No,” he insisted. “Whatever they say, I wasn’t.”

This was coming from the man who was the leader of the Polish Communist Party throughout the 1980s. True, Jaruzelski could have been even worse in many ways. But he was hardly a credible chronicler of his own biography. And he certainly was no Polish hero—not by a long shot.