Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski

A career soldier, General Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski (born 1923) became Poland's head of state in 1981. After reaching a historic compromise with the Solidarity trade unions he took the presidency in 1989 but resigned 18 months later.

Wojciech Jaruzelski was born in Kurów near Pulawy in the Lublin province on July 6, 1923. The son of a Polish landed gentry family, his origins can scarcely be called proletarian, as he came from interwar Poland's social elite. His father was said to have served in the cavalry, the prestige arm of the interwar Polish army. His family's ties to eastern Poland and its social milieu made him one of the last major Polish political figures to originate from the Kresy, the Russo-Polish borderlands.

Little is known of Jaruzelski's early years except that he was educated at a Catholic boarding school near Warsaw that was highly regarded as an establishment school. World War II, however, would prove more formative to Jaruzelski's life. Deported with his family to the interior of the Soviet Union in 1939 or 1940, Jaruzelski was its only surviving member. His odyssey ended in Soviet Central Asia, where he was put to work in the Karaganda coal mines.

While living in the uncertain world of the Polish deportee, Jaruzelski made an ideological conversion that was to lead him eventually back to Poland. By 1943 he arrived in Ryazan, a hundred miles south of Moscow, where he attended Officers School for a Soviet-sponsored Polish army. Upon graduation he joined the First Polish Army and participated in the Soviet drive to Berlin. His wartime service took in the liberation of Warsaw as well as battles on the Baltic, and the Odra and Elbe rivers. Clearly considered reliable, Jaruzelski furthered his combat experience in the postwar suppression of the anticommunist underground in Poland between 1945 and 1947.

Jaruzelski's rapid military and political advancement in postwar Peoples' Poland indicated that he had been singled out as a high-flyer. He attended the Senior Infantry School in 1947 and the General Staff Academy in Warsaw in 1948-1951. He formally joined the Polish Workers' Party (Communist Party) in 1947, and its successor, the Polish United Workers' Party (PUWP), in 1948. In 1956 he became the youngest brigadier general in the Polish army and a year later was given command of the 12th Motorized Division, a post he held until 1960. Promoted to division general, he moved from an operational command to head the Main Political Administration (MPA) of the army (1960-1965). Two years later he acquired the additional post of deputy minister of defense (1962-1968) and in 1965 moved from the MPA to become chief of the general staff (1965-1968). In what would appear to be a culmination of his career, he was promoted to general of arms and became minister of defense in March 1968.

Jaruzelski's parallel advancement in the PUWP belied his growing political importance. He entered the party's Central Committee in 1964 and the Politburo in 1970. It was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that Jaruzelski began to emerge as a political personality. He sanctioned the use of Polish troops in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 but reportedly opposed the use of deadly force by the army against protesting workers in 1970 and again in 1976. From these episodes comes the perhaps apocryphal story that he told his Politburo colleagues: "Polish soldiers will not fire on Polish workers." If true, the statement reflected as much Jaruzelski's realistic assessment of the limitations of employing Poland's conscript army against the civil population as any political objections he may have harbored about resolving worker unrest by force.

The birth of the Solidarity trade union in August 1980 presented the most fundamental challenge to Communist rule in Poland's cycle of political crises. The disintegration of PUWP authority and Soviet pressure for a decisive resolution of the crisis propelled Jaruzelski and the military to the fore of Polish politics. Representing the only cohesive political group within the ruling Communist establishment, almost by default the task of "saving socialism" fell on Jaruzelski's shoulders. He quickly added a number of pivotal government and party positions to his defense minister's portfolio: premier (February 1981) and first secretary of the party (October 1981).

Jaruzelski's policy toward Solidarity, when viewed with hindsight, represented a curious mixture of dialogue and threats. He apparently sought agreement in talks held with Lech Walesa, Solidarity's leader, and the Polish Catholic primate, Jozef Glemp, in November 1981 while earlier, in March, a security service operation in Bydgoszcz had the trappings of an abortive crackdown. Caught as he was between domestic political and economic demands and Brezhnev's orthodox rule in the Soviet Union, however, his options were far more limited. He had to find a Polish solution for eliminating Solidarity and reestablishing party rule.

Jaruzelski's answer to his political dilemmas was the declaration of martial law on December 13, 1981. For his decision to impose martial law, he was alternately criticized for being a Soviet stooge or praised as a patriot saving the country from Soviet intervention. Overnight, he demolished Solidarity with the mass internment of its leading elements. Public support for the organization was gradually broken through the remorseless deployment of the ZOMO riot police. On Poland's wry political joke circuit, it earned Jaruzelski the nickname of "General Zomosa." Martial law not only meant the eclipse of Solidarity but also the decoupling of the PUWP from the political process. Jaruzelski ran the country through an "old boy" network of generals and political officers. It was the communist world's first, and perhaps only, example of military rule usurping party authority.

In the decade following the imposition of martial law, Jaruzelski was firmly in control of Poland's politics. He launched a program of "normalization" that attempted to rebuild the Communist Party, repress the opposition, and restore the health of the Polish economy. After the official lifting of martial law he attempted to impose his program on the country. By 1986, however, normalization was failing on all fronts: the PUWP remained factionalized and demoralized; underground Solidarity survived and succeeded in politicizing Polish society (despite continual oppression); and the Polish economy steadily declined.

The failures of normalization and the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union paved the way for the most dramatic U-turn in the career of Jaruzelski. With his regime's authority measurably eroding and the Kremlin veto over Polish internal affairs discarded by Gorbachev, Jaruzelski decided to reach an accommodation with the opposition. In late 1988, preliminary contacts with the opposition paved the way for formal talks. In the new year, events moved rapidly: in January 1989 Solidarity was relegalized; in April the government reached the historic Round Table agreement which cleared the way for partially free elections; and the June balloting confirmed support for Solidarity and indicated the near complete lack of support for the Communist Party.

Under the Round Table agreement, the Polish presidency was strengthened with a view to Jaruzelski occupying the position until the five-year transition to full democracy ran its course. On June 4, 1989, he was elected to the post by a majority of one vote in the Polish parliament. The Round Table agreement, however, quickened the pace of political change both in Poland and in Eastern Europe. By August, Tadeusz Mazowiecki became Poland's first non-Communist prime minister since World War II, sparking an East European revolution that swept aside nearly a half-century of Communist rule in the region.

Taking advantage of the continued ferment for democratic reforms, Walesa now pressed for repeal of the Round Table agreements and for holding a popular election for president. Jaruzelski set late November 1990 for such an election. When Walesa announced his candidacy Jaruzelski chose to resign and participate in an orderly transfer of power.

In the early 1990s Jaruzelski wrote a book titled Martial Law. During a book signing in 1994, a farmer threw a stome at him from close range. He suffered a broken jawbone from the incident.

In November 1996 the Polish parliament voted not to charge him for imposing martial law in 1991. Jaruzelski insisted that his action of imposing martial law kept the Russians from invading. In an opinion poll, 54% of Poles surveyed agreed with his decision.

Further Reading on Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski

Details concerning Jaruzelski's career can be obtained from the following sources: Ewa Celt, "Wojciech Jaruzelski: A Prime Minister in Uniform," Radio Free Europe Background Report/ 72, March 13, 1981; Michael T. Kaufman, "The Importance of General Jaruzelski," The New York Times Magazine (December 9, 1984); and Andrew A. Michta, Red Eagle: The Army in Polish Politics, 1944-1988 (1990). See also Time magazine (October 24, 1994 and November 4, 1996).