(W)Archives: Hero or Traitor?

May 30, 2014

Former Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski died on Sunday.   Jaruzelski is not well remembered today, except among Poles, but in the early 1980s, he was one of the world’s most reviled men—the very picture of communist thuggishness.  Was that unfair?  Today’s (W)Archives document, brought to us courtesy of the Cold War International History Project, shows how hard life as a communist thug can be.

Jaruzelski rose up through the Polish military during the communist era.  He became Prime Minister in early 1981 under Stanislaw Kania and then took over from Kania in mid-October that same year.  Two months later, he ordered the imposition of martial law, crushing the independent Solidarity trade union led by electrician-cum-democratic activist Lech Walesa.  Several thousand people were imprisoned, more than 100 people were killed, and many people fled the country.  In the long run, of course, Solidarity would win out and Walesa would become the first president of a free Poland.  But the early 1980s were pretty grim for freedom and Solidarity in Poland.

Jaruzelski always maintained that he was a “Polish patriot” who crushed Solidarity because doing so was less bad than the consequences of standing up to the Soviet Union.  After all, the Soviets were ultimately in charge in Poland and could have imposed their own military crackdown which would have been much more brutal.  As he put it years later, “I was pressured to do more.”

Today’s document gives us a peek inside the difficult situation that Jaruzelski faced.  It is an April 1981 readout of a meeting between the Soviet Marshal Viktor Kulikov, Commander-in-Chief of the Warsaw Pact forces, and East German military commanders after a major Warsaw Pact Exercise  “SOYUZ-81,” which had involved bringing substantial Soviet forces into Poland.  During the exercise, it appeared that Poland could be on the verge of a Hungary- (1956) or Prague- (1968) style Soviet military crackdown aided by forces from East Germany and other Warsaw Pact countries.

According to the document, Kulikov said that Jaruzelski and Kania “explicitly” requested the prolongation of the exercise.  He said “they wanted to utilize the exercises to strengthen their position” and they hoped that “a certain pressure should also be exerted upon the leadership of Solidarity.”  In other words, Jaruzelski was cooperating with the Soviets in intimidating the democratic opposition in his country.

At the same time, the Soviets saw Jaruzelski as weak and thought he had dangerous sympathies for the protestors.  Kulikov said that Jaruzelski and Kania incorrectly blamed the crisis in Poland and the rise of Solidarity on “mistakes that were made in the past” by the communist party.  This, Kulikov told his East German colleagues, was utterly wrong.  Rather, the Polish “counterrevolution” was the result of meddling by outsiders: Americans and West Germans. Indeed, Kulikov opined that “Comrade Jaruzelski is not the man who can turn the course of events [against the counterrevolutionaries].  Until now he has made great concessions in all areas.”

So, was Jaruzelski a hero who saved Poland from the Soviet Army or a traitor who was complicit in the Soviet Union’s oppression of the country he professed to love?  The Poles have yet to decide.  Some Poles make the argument that he chose the “lesser evil” to avoid adding to Poland’s long list of national tragedies.  On the other hand, in 2006 he was charged with “directing a criminal organization,” i.e. the government that imposed martial law.  He has also been denied the state funeral that would be normal for a former head of state.  These Poles see him as fatally compromised by his lifelong association with communism and hence the Soviet Union.

This debate is just one of the wounds—albeit an intangible one—inflicted on Poland by decades of communist rule.  It continues to fester 25 years after freedom came to that long-suffering country.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: colasito77