Obituary: Wojciech Jaruzelski / Poland's last communist leader

July 6, 1923 - May 25, 2014

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last communist leader of Poland, who sent tanks to crush Solidarity's stirrings for democracy in 1981 and went on to preside over the death of the system that had nurtured him, died Sunday in Warsaw. He was 90.

The cause was complications of a stroke he suffered in early May, officials at the Military Medical Institute in Warsaw said in a statement. He had spent many of his last months at the institute, where he had also been treated for cancer.

As a military general, Mr. Jaruzelski led a government that was deeply unpopular in Poland through most of the 1980s. For decades before that, as a career officer and party official, he dutifully worked to entrench Soviet-directed communism in Poland.

On Dec. 13, 1981, the dour general with tinted glasses, a weak jaw and a ramrod posture set in motion events that would earn him a villainous place in history. On that night, as most Poles slept, he declared martial law and ordered troops to suppress the powerful Solidarity trade union movement, whose demands for greater freedoms were alarming politburos from East Berlin to Moscow.

Mr. Jaruzelski complained that his government, which had recognized Solidarity, had shown the movement too much goodwill, tolerance and patience.

He did not say, as he would later, that he had been under pressure from Soviet General-Secretary Leonid Brezhnev to curb Solidarity and its threat to the communist system, or that Gen. Viktor Kulikov, the Russian commander of the Warsaw Pact forces, was in Warsaw at that very moment.

Under martial law, power was vested in the Military Council of National Salvation, led by Mr. Jaruzelski. The operations of Solidarity were suspended and its leaders arrested. Public gatherings were forbidden, publications were censored, thousands of people were detained and many schools and universities were closed. A strict curfew was imposed, and Poland's borders were sealed.

Three days later, Polish troops fired at strikers occupying the Wujek coal mine shafts in southwestern Poland, killing nine workers. Mr. Jaruzelski was reviled. In Western Europe, thousands turned out to protest. President Ronald Reagan moved to impose international economic sanctions against Poland.

For the next seven years, Solidarity remained formally outlawed. The strikes subsided, but the union's clandestine units generated an underground culture, challenging the Communist Party's monopolies with illicit newspapers, magazines, books and educational courses.

By the end of 1983, however, thousands of detainees were released, and many of the most repressive measures were eased.

As Mr. Jaruzelski seemed intent on placating at least some Solidarity sympathizers, the Communist Party hard-liners struck out against him.

Late in 1984, members of the secret police killed a popular pro-Solidarity priest, the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko. Much of the country interpreted the crime as a provocation organized by party hard-liners against the liberalizing policies of Mr. Jaruzelski. He rose to the challenge by having the police officers tried in open court, something that had never happened in any communist country. All four were sentenced to long prison terms, another precedent.

The Soviet Union itself was suffering a sustained vacuum of leadership as three leaders -- Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko -- died within a period of 26 months. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Moscow in 1985 pushing reformist policies, Mr. Jaruzelski was quick to ally himself with him.

By 1988, the atmosphere in Poland had changed even more. Opposition political groups, still technically illegal, were flourishing. And more strikes were called in Gdansk.

Over the objections of hard-line party figures, Mr. Jaruzelski took the momentous step of opening talks with many of the Solidarity leaders he had once imprisoned.

After nine months, Solidarity gained the right to run candidates in parliamentary elections, the first truly free and democratic elections in any communist state. They took place in June 1989 and resulted in the defeat of almost all the Communist Party candidates whose seats were contested.

A non-Communist majority formed a government. In August 1989, the Communists held their last Congress. And although Mr. Jaruzelski was elected to the presidency, he refrained from using his considerable powers, deferring to Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki of Solidarity.

After serving only a year of his six-year term, the general resigned to open the way for a new and popular presidential election, which was won by the Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski was born on July 6, 1923, on a large agricultural estate in eastern Poland near Lublin, where his father was the manager.

After Soviet dictator Josef Stalin gained control over eastern Poland in his pact with Germany's Adolf Hitler, Mr. Jaruzelski was sent to a Soviet officer candidate school and was made a infantry officer in the Soviet-sponsored Polish force. He was wounded and decorated several times for bravery in World War II. When the war ended, he remained in uniform, fighting anti-communist guerrillas.

He joined the Communist Party, advanced in the ranks and at 33 became the youngest general in the Polish army. In 1960, he was appointed political commissar of the army, a post that would have needed approval by the Kremlin.

Mr. Jaruzelski was elected to the Polish Parliament in 1961 and was named minister of defense in 1968. He became prime minister in 1981.

Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?