Jaruzelski, Wojciech (Poland)

Reference work entry


Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski was Poland’s leader from 1981–90, as premier and first secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PUWP), president of the Council of State and finally as president. Under intense pressure from his Soviet overlords, he introduced martial law in 1981 and oversaw the suppression of the Solidarity movement. By the late 1980s, hindered by a faltering economy, he was forced into negotiations with Solidarity that led to the collapse of the Polish communist regime.

Early Life

Jaruzelski was born on 6 July 1923 in Kurow, Poland into a middle-class background. When the Red Army invaded the country in 1940 his family were taken prisoner and he was taken to the Soviet Union where he was put in forced labour. During his imprisonment he was converted to communism. In 1944 he signed up with the Polish wing of the Red Army and returned to Poland to fight Germany.

Jaruzelski remained in the military after the war, studying at the Polish Higher Infantry School and graduating from the General Staff Academy. In 1947 he joined the Polish Communists (later to become the PUWP). By 1956 he was Chief of the General Staff and in 1968 he was appointed Minister of Defence. In this role he oversaw the involvement of Polish Troops in the Warsaw Pact invasion of the Czech Republic in the same year. Three years later he became a full member of the Politburo.

In 1976 the precursor to Solidarity, the Workers Defence Committee (KOR), emerged to promote workers rights. Following widespread strikes in 1980, and particularly in the shipyards of Gdańsk, KOR evolved into Solidarity under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa. By the following year its membership exceeded 10 m. people and its power was challenging the authority of the ruling communists. It was in this climate that Jaruzelski became premier on 11 Feb. 1981 and then party first secretary in Oct. 1981.

Career Peak

As defence minister during the nationwide strike of 1970 and 1976, Jaruzelski had resisted using the military to supress workers groups. However, with Soviet troops gathering around Poland’s borders and under intense pressure from Moscow, Jaruzelski declared martial law in Dec. 1981. Several thousand dissidents were rounded up, including Wałęsa and most of the rest of the leadership of the outlawed Solidarity.

By the end of 1982 Solidarity had been removed from Poland’s political scene. There are those who believe that he perpetuated Eastern Bloc communism for ten more years, while others hold that martial law was necessary to avoid a Soviet invasion of the country. Wałęsa was freed at the end of 1982 and martial law lifted in 1983, but Jaruzelski was the target of more popular discontent in 1984 following the murder by government agents of the dissident priest, Father Jerzy Popieluszko.

Poland’s economic problems continued throughout the 1980s. Jaruzelski, having become President of the Council of State in 1985, proposed a new range of unpopular economic reforms in 1987. Support for the dormant Solidarity movement swelled again and there were country-wide strikes during 1988. Jaruzelski was forced to embark on negotiations with Wałęsa and the Catholic Church. Agreement was reached in April 1989 and Solidarity was given legal status and freedom to fight the up-coming elections, whilst the previously ceremonial post of Presidency was vested with new legislative powers. In return, Solidarity agreed to compete for only 35% of the seats in the Sejm.

At the July 1989 elections Solidarity won virtually all the seats they contested but because of the 35% rule Jaruzelski was voted in as president. However, the elections signalled the beginning of the end of Poland’s communist regime. Solidarity refused to join the communists in a grand coalition and Jaruzelski had to appoint Tadeusz Mazowiecki, an official of Solidarity, to be Poland’s first non-communist premier in over 40 years. Jaruzelski resigned his positions in the PUWP and in Nov. 1990 was succeeded as President by Wałęsa.

Later Life

In the mid-1990s charges were brought against Jaruzelski and several other high-ranking communists in connection with the murder of 44 workers during the 1970 food protests. In 1997 the Polish courts declared Jaruzelski unfit to stand trial. That decision was reversed in Nov. 1999 and Jaruzelski testified his innocence in Oct. 2001. In 2006 he faced further charges relating to abuses committed during his time in office. However, he avoided appearing before a court by citing ill health.

Jaruzelski died at the age of 90 on 25 May 2014.

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© Springer Nature Limited 2019

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