LIES and fear can have a strange effect on people. Wojciech Jaruzelski grew up pious and patriotic, in a minor aristocratic family in provincial pre-war Poland. The country had just re-emerged from long years of foreign rule, in which the Russians had been the hardest of masters. In his childhood, he wrote later, he believed that they, and especially the Bolsheviks, “embodied all possible evils.” Yet he was to spend his life in their service.

The turning point came after his “socially dangerous” family was deported, like so much of the Polish elite, to the depths of the Soviet Union, where those who were not shot were given another death sentence: as slave labourers. His father died there. But the teenager was saved by Hitler’s fatal error in the summer of 1941, when he attacked his ally Stalin.

Reluctantly, the Soviet authorities allowed the Poles to muster. One army, of ardent anti-communists, left to fight with the Western allies. The other, under a turncoat Polish general, marched alongside the Red Army. It was in their ranks that the young officer—through eyes permanently weakened by the glare of sun on snow—saw the ruins of Warsaw, shattered after an uprising in which the Soviets abetted the German destruction. Not only the buildings were broken: so too, he wrote later, was his religious faith, and his belief in Poland’s future as an independent country.

Many in those days saw communism as herald of a bright future, free of the greed, nationalism and superstition of the past. The young Jaruzelski embraced the new creed wholeheartedly, hunting down anti-communist resistance fighters (including heroes of the war against Hitler). Though details remain scant, many counted his role in that as his blackest crime.

But there were others. In 1968 he became defence minister, benefiting from a purge of Jewish comrades. He led the Polish contribution to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in that year, crushing the hopes of those who yearned for a human face to socialism. In 1970 his troops shot dozens of striking shipyard workers in the northern cities of Gdansk and Gdynia. He claimed he had opposed the operation—and pledged that he would never again allow the military to be used against Polish civilians.

If so, it was a promise he was to break a decade later, amid the extraordinary flowering of the Solidarity opposition movement, which for 15 magical months gave Poles a taste of freedom. In December 1981—fearing, he claimed, that a Soviet invasion was imminent—he imposed martial law. Thousands were jailed without trial. Scores were killed. Yet the real victim was communism itself: People’s Poland was a workers’ state that survived only by killing trade unionists; where the proletariat despised their tribunes, while revering the Catholic church.

Poland in the Jaruzelski years was not a full dictatorship. The Solidarity leader Adam Michnik termed it: “totalitarianism with some teeth knocked out”. Detainees were soon released. The general tried some economic reforms, claiming to be the first communist leader to spot Mikhail Gorbachev’s significance. He even, unprecedently, had four secret policemen put on trial for the murder of a Catholic priest, Father Jerzy Popieluszko. Then, after strikes again swept Poland in 1988, he took the great step of opening “Round Table” talks with the leadership of the—still technically illegal—opposition. The talks and the free elections which followed (in which the communists were routed) were a defining moment in the collapse of Soviet power in Europe: bringing freedom not only to Poles but to many millions of others.

The general was briefly head of state of a free country, before giving way to his nemesis, the much-jailed Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. His last speech as president contained an apology—though for what precisely was unclear. Later, he termed martial law “a nightmare”: the “great burden” of his life.

To his defenders he epitomised pragmatism, not villainy. Impossible choices bring impossible burdens; he served his country in the best way he could—not by futile resistance, but by doing what had to be done to keep the imperial master happy. In his words: “I served the Poland that existed.” His redemption was in negotiating a dignified end of communist rule, which allowed Poland to join the West.

A Polish Requiem

To his critics, that is beside the point. Others risked and lost their lives to fight communism and speed its end, not blunt its edges. Even the peaceful surrender in 1989 has its detractors: Poland never really had a full reckoning with its overlords, the argument goes. They re-emerged besuited from the shadows, using plundered money and old networks to dominate the new order, just as they had the old.

Even his fiercest foes did not accuse the stiff, formal old man of personal greed (though they laughed when earlier this year he was caught in flagrante with a nurse, prompting fury from his wife of over 50 years). They did try to nail him for past crimes, but he dodged trial, claiming ill-health. Perhaps the deeper ailments were elsewhere: in a national psyche still wrestling with a past in which—like the general—Poles were made both perpetrators and victims.

 

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