WARSAW: General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland’s last communist leader who tried but failed to crush the freedom-fighting Solidarity union, died Sunday aged 90, a hospital spokesman said.
Jaruzelski, who died in a Warsaw hospital with his daughter by his side, marked Polish history by trying to strangle the Soviet bloc’s first free trade union with a brutal military crackdown on December 13, 1981.
But by 1989, he became the first communist leader to clear the way for democracy by agreeing to semi-free elections with Solidarity, led by the charismatic former shipyard electrician and Nobel Peace laureate Lech Walesa. “He would have been a great man if he had lived in different era,” Walesa once told AFP, calling Jaruzelski “a very intelligent man” who was “part of a generation from an unhappy time”.
“I don’t know if he believed sincerely in communism or whether he just let himself get drawn in. I won’t judge him. Let God and history do that.”
Jaruzelski — whose strongman image was accentuated by dark glasses and rigid posture — saw himself as a patriot who used martial law in December 1981 to save Poland from a potentially bloody Soviet invasion.
Critics, however, argue that the crackdown only bolstered his regime when the USSR was too bogged down in Afghanistan to step in. Jaruzelski was born into the minor nobility on July 6, 1923 in Kurow, eastern Poland.
The Soviets deported his family after Hitler and Stalin carved up Poland in 1939 at the start of World War II. His father died in Siberia.
He enjoyed a meteoric military and political rise after joining Polish forces under Moscow’s command to battle the Nazis in 1943. Having fought his way to Germany in 1945, he returned home to help crush anti-communist resistance. He became a general at 33, heading the military’s political department.
In 1964, Jaruzelski joined the Polish communist party’s governing Central Committee and served as defence minister for over a decade until 1983.
“I don’t think he ever enjoyed life, its little pleasures. Work and politics with a capital P were always a priority,” his daughter Monika said in her memoirs.
Jaruzelski took a hard line when protests erupted over price rises in 1970 in the shipyards of Gdynia and Gdansk — Solidarity’s birthplace a decade later. The crackdown took at least 44 lives and left hundreds injured. After the regime fell, he was charged for giving shooting orders, but was never convicted.
Jaruzelski took total control by 1981, becoming premier in February and party chief in October. The martial law crackdown on the nascent Solidarity freedom movement shocked the West. Images of tanks and soldiers in the streets and the uniformed general reading the martial law decree in back-to-back broadcasts remain etched in the minds of those who lived through the painful period.
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