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Jaruzelski, age 86, again mounts a defense

The struggles of the general who crushed the 1981 Solidarity uprising reflect Poland's complicated history.

Jaruzelski was born to a well-to-do landowning family. “I come from an ancient family,” he says proudly. “I was raised in a very religious, patriotic and anti-Russian way.”

His world of ancient values and privilege collapsed in 1939, when Poland was invaded first by Germany and then by the Soviet Union. The Jaruzelski estate was in the Soviet zone, and, like thousands of others of his class, he was deported to Siberia together with his family. There he buried his father and his eyes were blasted by the light reflected off the snow, forcing him to wear dark glasses for the rest of his life.

Joining the Soviet-backed Polish army created in the Soviet Union, Jaruzelski marched west toward Germany, passing through the smoking ruins of Warsaw, which had been destroyed by the failed 1944 uprising against the Germans.

Along the way he lost his religious faith and his belief in the old Polish tradition of brave resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. He now calls such uprisings a “crime” that caused enormous harm. So he decided to become an active servant of the communist regime imposed by Moscow, first hunting down the remnants of the underground opposition, then rising fast through the ranks to become army chief and defense minister. He led Polish troops in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and commanded soldiers to fire on striking Polish workers in 1970.

For his opponents, Jaruzelski's 1981 declaration of martial law was simply the step of a dedicated communist, while his supporters agree that he was acting in the national interest. They point out that he did lead the communists to the negotiating table with the opposition in 1989, and did peacefully hand over power when the Communist Party was thrashed in partially free elections that year.

Jaruzelski now spends most of his time defending his historical record. He has written detailed books about the past, and is standing trial along with the other planners of the 1981 declaration of martial law, charged with being part of a criminal organization — something normally reserved for gang members.

“That is what hurts and offends me most of all,” he complains. “If I had been accused of a communist crime, I would take responsibility for that.”

Now living in a democratic, capitalist country that is a member of NATO and the European Union and a close ally of the United States, Jaruzelski admits that he was on the wrong side of history, but continues to insist he was right to send the troops out more than 18 years ago.

“Historically, Solidarity was right, but we were situationally right at the time,” he says.