General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland's last communist leader who imposed martial law to crush the Solidarity movement only to hand over power less than a decade later, died today aged 90 after a long illness, the state news agency PAP said.
In public a stern, enigmatic figure in his trademark dark glasses, Jaruzelski’s record defies easy judgment and still divides Poles almost a quarter of a century after the fall of communism.
Lech Walesa, who was detained by Jaruzelski as Solidarity leader but eventually succeeded him as president, described the communist as a tragic figure who should be judged only by God.
For many Poles, Jaruzelski was a Soviet stooge who, with Moscow’s backing, announced military rule on December 13th, 1981, after the first independent trade union behind the Iron Curtain, Solidarity, threatened communist rule.
Others accepted his argument that the decision helped to avert a Soviet-led military intervention like those that crushed similar protests in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
“The general was accompanied by his daughter Monika until the last moment,” the Military Medical Institute hospital, where he died, said in a statement carried by PAP.
Under martial law, which lasted until 1983, dozens of demonstrators were killed and thousands more, including Mr Walesa, were jailed.
Decades later, on trial for declaring martial law and for human rights violations, Jaruzelski defended his decision.
“Martial law was evil but it was a far lesser evil than what would have happened without it,” he told a court in 2008, adding that he regretted the “social costs” of the decision.
But as Polish president in 1989, Jaruzelski also convened talks that led to the legalisation of Soldarity and the first partially free elections in the Soviet bloc that finally broke the communists’ monopoly on power.
Mr Walesa, who succeeded Jaruzelski as president in 1990, had partially reconciled with his former arch-foe and visited Jaruzelski at the hospital and his home in recent years. – (Reuters)