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Wojciech Jaruzelski: Poland's last Communist leader, who imposed martial law on the Soviet satellite in 1981


General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland's last Communist ruler, badly wanted history to judge him kindly. He worked hard in the latter years of his life to explain and rehabilitate himself after his imposition of martial law and brutal repression of the free trade union Solidarity in 1981 had made him the most hated man in Poland – and, for a time, an international pariah.

And while many Poles eventually accepted his argument that martial law was the lesser of two evils (the alternative being a Soviet invasion), for others he remained forever a Soviet stooge, a traitor and a criminal. His personality was an enigma; a stiff, poker-faced demeanour and his trademark dark glasses only reinforced his sphinx-like aura.

In the end, his life was a story of an intelligent and highly ambitious man – and more specifically, a Pole – operating between the terrible millstones of 20th-century history: Nazism and Stalinism, patriotism and Soviet domination, Communism and demands for freedom.

His first taste of that history came at the age of 16, in 1939, when he and his father, guilty only of being members of Poland's lesser nobility, were deported by the Russians from their large estate to hard labour camps in Siberia, where his grandfather, an anti-Russian guerilla leader, had perished many years earlier. Educated by priests at an elite school in Warsaw, he found himself felling trees in waist-deep snow. His father died. The glare from the snow started an eye ailment which compelled him to wear dark glasses in bright light ever after.

When the Hitler-Stalin alliance broke up, he joined a Polish army being raised by the Soviets and took part in the Soviet "liberation" of Poland from the Nazis. By then he had learned to speak fluent Russian and had become a convinced Communist. He volunteered and served in KGB units which were setting up Polish security forces to crush Polish nationalist resistance.

Committed to a military career, he studied in Polish and Soviet military academies and gained the patronage of powerful Soviet generals, whose backing proved vital to his career. In 1947 he joined the Polish Communist party and thus set off on a fast, double-track rise to power, becoming a general at the age of 33 and defence minister at 45.

At the same time he was rising rapidly through the ranks of the party; at 48, he was elected to the main centre of power, the Politburo. From there, he and other party leaders watched as discontent mounted, until in 1980 it spilled over into mass stoppages, which compelled them – in a dramatic departure from Communist orthodoxy – to accept free trade unions and grant the legal right to strike. The various strike committees joined together in a new trade union which they called Solidarity.

For 15 months, Solidarity's power and influence grew: it numbered 10 million members out of a population of some 36 million. Frustration over its failure to extract any reforms from the regime led to (then outrageous) demands for free elections and a referendum on Poland's alliance with the Soviet Union. The economy, for years a disaster area, had virtually collapsed. The Party, demoralised, divided and with a third of its three million members defected to Solidarity, could not cope. Polish hardliners were fuming restlessly, while Moscow kept up a barrage of threats and intimidation, including manoeuvres close to Poland's borders.

The regime's only hope was the military. On 11 February 1981, General Jaruzelski was made Prime Minister, while keeping the defence portfolio. In the autumn he was also made first secretary, or No 1, of the Communist party. Two other generals were moved into the Politburo and Interior Ministry. He commanded immense power.

Secret plans for a military takeover swung into action. Small units were sent into towns and villages, officially to help distribute food, but in fact to gather intelligence and create the impression of the Army as the people's friend. Then, on the night between 12 and 13 December 1981, tanks moved into the cities, and roadblocks were set up on bridges and intersections.

Tens of thousands of Solidarity supporters were dragged from their beds and arrested. Some 10,000 were interned. Between 10 and 100 were reported killed. Posters everywhere declared that Poland was under martial law. Solidarity was banned. Protest strikes were crushed by the feared ZOMO paramilitary police.

The news unleashed international outrage and protests, and for more than three years Jaruzelski and his regime were shunned by the West. Communist leaders greeted it with praise and relief.

Martial law, which was suspended a year later, may have averted a Soviet invasion, but it hardly solved the government's problems. Solidarity continued to flourish in the underground. Despite reform plans, Jaruzelski failed abysmally to improve the economy. Poles became desperately poor, and in the spring and summer of 1988 workers protested with long and bitter strikes.

Meanwhile, with would-be reformer Mikhail Gorbachev at the helm in Moscow, the danger of Soviet intervention was receding and the way opening for change. In 1988, Jaruzelski, alone among Eastern European Communist bosses, agreed to negotiate a move towards democracy. The result was the historic Round Table talks with Solidarity (in which he did not take part personally), which ended with a power-sharing deal: free elections to 161 of the 400-seat Seym (Parliament), the creation of a freely-elected Senate, free opposition media and the re-legalisation of Solidarity. The ensuing elections were an overwhelming victory for Solidarity, which then provided the Prime Minister while the Parliament elected the General, unopposed, as President to reassure Polish and Soviet hardliners.

But developments in the Soviet Union soon made his role superfluous, and at the same time Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader, was pressing hard for his job. He asked Parliament to cut short his six-year term, and in December 1990, with considerable dignity, he stepped down.

In the following years he published his memoirs and gave many interviews in which he expressed deep regret for many actions, but sought to justify them. "I served the Poland that existed," he said. He let it be known that he had considered committing suicide rather than impose martial law on his fellow Poles, which he saw as the only route open to him.

The alternatives, he declared, would have been a putsch by hardliners in the military and the Party, civil war, and most probably a Soviet invasion and occupation. This can still be debated endlessly, but he repeated time and again that martial law was a "purgatory" necessary to avoid "hell". He has even claimed that if he had not acted, Gorbachev's campaign for glasnost and perestroika and the bloodless fall of Communism could not have happened, or at least not for many years. And he would like to be remembered as the man who opened the way for democracy in Poland, although he had to admit that memories of martial law were sharper.

But as he lived on quietly in his modest suburban house in Warsaw, his past continued to haunt him. A parliamentary investigation was opened into the possibility of treason and other crimes committed during the imposition of martial law, and into the disappearance of Communist Party documents, but they came to nothing. More seriously, in 2000, he found himself having to answer charges in court that he gave the order for troops to open fire on rioting workers in four Baltic ports in 1970. Forty-five workers died and 1,165 were injured. The general, anxious and popping anti-depressants, laid the blame on others, long since dead.

In the end he seemed proud of Poland's new democracy and would comment on political events in a remarkably enlightened way. "I was the link from the past to the future," he said.

General Wojciech Jaruzelski, politician: born Kurow, Poland 6 July 1923; married Barbara (one daughter); died Warsaw 25 May 2014.