(Corrects first name of author in 22nd paragraph.)
Wojciech Jaruzelski, the communist leader and army general who imposed martial law in Poland to suppress the Solidarity movement in 1981 before ceding power eight years later as his regime collapsed, has died. He was 90.
He died at 3:24 p.m. today at the Military Institute of Medicine in Warsaw, according to a statement from Colonel Grzegorz Kade, a spokesman for the hospital, which he confirmed by text message. Jaruzelski suffered a stroke on May 10 while being treated for lymphoma.
Poland’s anti-communist protests led by Lech Walesa and supported by Polish-born Pope John Paul II, made Solidarity a household name worldwide. Jaruzelski argued his decision to order troops to sever telephone lines and seal the country on the night of Dec. 13, 1981, was to protect Poland from a Soviet invasion.
“Jaruzelski was under enormous pressure -- and, more to the point, they put him in the job because they knew he’d act as he did,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European Studies at Oxford University in the U.K.
Jaruzelski fared better than many of his fellow communist leaders in Eastern Europe after the system was toppled.
While Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania was shot by firing squad with his wife in 1989 and Erich Honecker of East Germany fled to Chile, Jaruzelski was allowed to remain peacefully at home in Warsaw. He was excused in recent years from attending court cases over his imposition of martial law and role in the massacre of shipyard workers by Polish troops in 1970.
“The scores of that period needed settling,” said Walesa, leader of the Solidarity movement and Poland’s first democratically elected president. “The point isn’t really about some prison sentence, it’s about making sure that nobody else comes up with the idea of doing anything similar.”
Jaruzelski was born into a gentry family on July 6, 1923, in the town of Kurow, Lublin province, in eastern Poland. He attended an exclusive Catholic boarding school and was brought up with the conservative, nationalist beliefs espoused by the National Democratic party, Jaruzelski recalled in his memoirs.
In the first years of World War II, his family was deported to the east of the Soviet Union, where Jaruzelski’s father died. The teenage boy, with a sick mother and younger sister to support, became snowblind while working as a lumberjack in Siberia. The lifelong affliction forced Jaruzelski to wear the dark glasses that became his trademark.
The ordeal made Jaruzelski a convinced socialist, out of gratitude for ordinary working people who helped save his life, while leaving deeper psychological scars, according to his daughter Monika.
“Father is a pessimist by nature,” she wrote in a 2013 memoir. “That pessimism and a feeling of feat governed many decisions in his life, including the most important ones.”
When the Soviet authorities began setting up Polish army units to fight alongside the Red Army on the eastern front, Jaruzelski joined up and served as an infantry officer before taking part in the liberation of Berlin in 1945.
After the war, Poland was handed over to Josef Stalin to become one of the Soviet Union’s satellite states through an agreement made in the Black Sea resort of Yalta between the U.K., U.S. and the Soviet Union. The decision set off a civil war as anti-communist forces loyal to the prewar Polish government waged a guerrilla struggle against the Soviets.
Jaruzelski took part in suppressing both Ukrainian and Polish partisans, before attending military training schools and joining the Communist Party in 1947. He quickly rose through its ranks, becoming chief political officer of the Polish armed forces in 1960 and defense minister in 1968.
That year Czechoslovakia’s communist party led by Alexander Dubcek tried to put a “human face” on the regime, only to be suppressed by Soviet tanks. Jaruzelski later said he regretted dispatching a Polish army corps to help crush the so-called Prague Spring, in which more than 70 people died and hundreds were injured.
“I’m well aware of just how wrong this decision was,” he told Czech Television in August 2005. “It still pains me.”
On Dec. 13, 1981, 16 months after the nationwide strikes gave birth to the Soviet bloc’s first independent labor union Solidarity, Jaruzelski declared martial law and outlawed the movement. The measure, called “state of war” in Polish, had questionable legality since even the communist-era constitution didn’t foresee its use in a civil disturbance.
It was the biggest military operation of Jaruzelski’s career, employing 150,000 police and soldiers and 3,650 armored vehicles against his own countrymen, according to historian Jerzy Eisler.
Then and afterward, Jaruzelski argued the decision was intended to forestall the even greater evil of a Soviet invasion with far bloodier consequences than in Czechoslovakia.
“I wanted to protect Poland,” Jaruzelski wrote in a 1992 book defending his decision. “It was the lesser evil for Poland because had events taken another turn, the consequences would have been disastrous. Still, it was evil.”
Critics, including biographer General Lech Kowalski, accuse Jaruzelski of devoting his professional life to serving Russia’s interests and seeking to prolong the rule of Poland’s communist party at any price.
Ryszard Kuklinski, the general staff colonel who drafted the plan for martial law before defecting to the U.S. in November 1981, said the general was “broken” by the Soviets and became a “coward” who would do their bidding, according to an interview-based book by Maria Nurowska.
While there has been conflicting testimony from Soviet officials, documents show the Politburo in Moscow wanted to rule out any further military commitments while the country was waging war in Afghanistan.
“Jaruzelski certainly had his back to the wall and their hands at his throat, but he still had a choice,” writer Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski wrote in 1991. “What was required was an act of courage and a minimal regard for his countrymen’s aspirations for freedom.”
Jaruzelski said his aim was always to avert bloodshed.
“Unfortunately, blood was spilled,” he told Polish public radio in 2005. “But it wasn’t a river, and it might have been had martial law not been declared.”
Martial law wasn’t fully lifted until July 1983. In 2006, Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, which is responsible for investigating crimes committed during the Nazi occupation and the communist era, formally charged Jaruzelski of acting illegally when he imposed the sanctions.
Protests were held each year in front of Jaruzelski’s Warsaw home on the Dec. 13 anniversary. In 2003, a counter-demonstration was started by supporters of the move.
Most Poles think Jaruzelski did the right thing by declaring martial law, according to a November 2011 poll of 1,001 adults by Warsaw-based researcher TNS OBOP published on the 30th anniversary. The poll showed 51 percent of respondents supported the decision, while 27 percent said it was wrong.
As opposition to the communist regime in Poland sharpened and new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev instigated reform, Jaruzelski offered in 1988 to enter talks with Solidarity.
The negotiations resulted in Poland’s first partially-free elections since World War II and installed Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Catholic opposition activist, as prime minister. As part of the historic bargain, Jaruzelski was elected president by Poland’s parliament in a controversial vote decided by a majority of one after some Solidarity deputies abstained. He served for less than one year before stepping down.
“Jaruzelski was a Polish patriot at heart,” said Garton Ash, author of the 1983 book “The Polish Revolution: Solidarity.” “As soon as Gorbachev gave him the chance to act differently, he did.”
He is survived by his wife Barbara, daughter Monika and a grandson, Gustaw.
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