Jaruzelski, age 86, again mounts a defense

WARSAW, Poland — General Wojciech Jaruzelski may be ill and 86 but he continues to divide his country over his 1981 decision to crush the Solidarity labor union with force, saying he was acting to prevent a possible Soviet invasion.

The latest blow-up over the general’s past came last week following the broadcast of a documentary called “Comrade General,” which took a hard and unfavorable look at Jaruzelski’s Communist past.

“The film was a type of prosecutorial presentation,” writes Rafal Ziemkiewicz, a conservative columnist for the Rzeczpospolita daily.

The general is outraged at what he called the one-sided nature of the film, which hit at the core of his defense: that he is a Polish patriot who was acting out of the best interests of his country, not a communist stooge in the service of the Russians.

In a recent interview, Jaruzelski sat stiffly at his desk, his eyes shaded by the dark glasses that are his trademark, and spelled out his reasons for declaring martial law.

“Our country was in great danger,” he says, stressing that the Soviets had held massive maneuvers on the Polish border. “There were tanks on the border and Soviet forces in the country which would have been called on in extreme circumstances.”

“Intervention would have destroyed the country,” he adds, saying “I would have put a bullet in my head” if the Soviet army had invaded Poland.

Opinion polls show that about half of Poles agree with his reasoning, and feel that he acted correctly, while the other half are vociferously opposed and see him as a traitor. Every year on Dec. 13, the anniversary of the day Jaruzelski declared martial law, protesters gather outside his modest Warsaw house. This year, they waved signs with slogans such as “We're waiting for Justice” and “We remember your crimes,” while a smaller group held a sign reading, “We believe in you General” and chanting, “May you live 100 years.”

Interest in Jaruzelski persists because he is much more than a communist thug who used the military to crush a brave resistance movement. His complicated life reflects Poland's tangled history over the last century.

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.