Polish enigma: Ruthless traitor or patriotic pragmatist?

Wojciech Jaruzelski

General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who has died aged 90, was Poland’s last Communist-era ruler and the most controversial figure in his country’s recent history. Jesuit educated, he was outmanouvred by a Polish pope.

Regarded throughout his career as a pragmatist, Jaruzelski was defence minister under Wladyslaw Gomulka in 1970 when orders were given to Polish troops to shoot shipyard workers who were striking over food price rises in the northern port cities of Gdansk, Gdynia, Szczecin and Elblag. Forty-four people were killed and more than 1,000 injured, 200 of them seriously.

Jaruzelski took over as prime minister of Poland in 1981, when he imposed martial law and suppressed the anti-Communist Solidarity movement. Thousands of Solidarity activists were interned, and several dozen killed in clashes with police or assassinated by secret agents. 

After Western sanctions, and under pressure from  Pope John Paul II (who appealed to the general as a fellow-Pole), Jaruzelski eased some of the restrictions and soon released the Solidarity leaders. Martial law was lifted in July 1983, with promises of a general election in 1984. They were not held, however, until 1985, when Jaruzelski resigned as Prime Minister to take over the post of President, with a civilian, Zbignien Messmer, appointed to the premiership.

But Jaruzelski, who described himself as a 'Polish patriot,' denied responsibility for the 1970 killings and later maintained that martial law was justified to forestall an imminent Soviet invasion. Many Poles also conceded that, although he fought hard to maintain Communist Party rule, Jaruzelski reacted to the transition to democracy with good grace.

In early 1989 he went against many of the hardliners within his party to press for 'round-table' talks with Solidarity aimed at devising some form of power-sharing. The partially-free parliamentary elections of that year ended in victory for Solidarity, and within three months Poland had the first non-Communist government to be formed in Eastern Europe for more than 40 years.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of his story was how a boy from a respectable Polish Catholic family who had spent time in a Soviet labour camp had come to embrace Communism in the first place.

Read full obituary: General Wojciech Jaruzelski - obituary (The Telegraph)

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