Jaruzelski, Wojciech (b. 1923)

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Polish general and head of state.

Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski was a most unlikely candidate for becoming the leader of the Polish Communist Party and state. Born in a noble, landowning family, he was given the first name of his grandfather, a fighter in the anti-Russian uprising of 1863 who was deported to Siberia; his father had volunteered to fight Bolsheviks in 1920. Wojciech went to a private Catholic school and was an altar boy and a boy scout. In September 1939 his family found itself in the Soviet zone of occupation. In June 1941 the family was deported to Siberia, where Wojciech worked hard clearing forest and lost his father (he visited his grave forty-eight years later). In 1943 he joined communist-organized Polish troops and was assigned to officers' school in Ryazan. He went into combat in July 1944, and with the Second Infantry Division he reached the Elbe River in May 1945.

The war ended, he decided to stay in the army. An intelligent and diligent officer and a Communist Party member since 1947, he advanced swiftly through the ranks and in 1956 was the army's youngest general. The brilliance of his career led to increasingly political positions: head of the Main Political Authority (a body responsible for propaganda and indoctrination in the armed forces) in 1960, member of the party Central Committee in 1964, chief of the General Staff in 1965 (the first non-Soviet in this post), minister of defense in 1968, and Politburo member in 1970. This made him politically co-responsible for the Polish army's participation in such actions as repression against student rebellion and an anti-Jewish purge in spring 1968, the invasion of Czechoslovakia (July 1968), and the bloody crushing of labor protests in December 1970. During the latter he supported removing Władysław Gomułka and making Edward Gierek the party leader, but he usually refrained from intraparty struggles. In 1973 he was awarded the highest general's rank.

In 1980–1981, when a severe economic crisis and challenge from the Solidarity movement almost destroyed the party rule, both party leaders and Moscow saw the army as the last solid element of the regime. Jaruzelski became prime minister in February 1981 and the party's first secretary in October, thus occupying the top positions in the army, government, and party. He called for political dialogue while completing preparations for martial law, which he imposed as head of the Military Council of National Salvation (WRON) on the night of 13 December 1981. This massive military and police crackdown, including the arrests of five thousand opposition and trade union leaders (ten thousand through December 1982) and the brutal crushing of strikes and protests, proved effective in the short term; the Solidarity movement lost the battle, but it went underground and persisted. Martial law made it possible to drastically decrease real wages and stabilize the economy, but economic and political reforms that could reinvigorate the regime did not follow. Until the late 1980s, political repression, the expansion of secret police, and aggressive propaganda went along with repeated gestures toward the Catholic Church, amnesty for Solidarity activists, half-hearted economic reforms (including more opportunities for private small business), and the restraining of party hard-liners. Jaruzelski left the post of minister of defense in 1983 and exchanged the post of prime minister for that of chairman of the State Council in 1985, but he continued to control the party and government.

When Mikhail Gorbachev gave the green light for reforms in the Soviet bloc, Jaruzelski was the first to take the opportunity. Increasingly aware of Poland's stagnation and afraid of a possible explosion of unrest, he sought ways out of the drift. Realizing that for deep economic reforms the government needed stronger support in Poland and in the West (especially after a new wave of strikes in 1988), he decided upon negotiations with the opposition, despite resistance by some hard-liners. The round table talks of spring 1989 led in June to the first competitive parliamentary elections since World War II, which, by the almost complete victory of Solidarity, brought the regime to a bloodless end and greatly contributed to similar dismantling across central Europe. In July, under a compromise with opposition leaders, the National Assembly elected Jaruzelski (by a one-vote margin) as president; in September he in turn approved the new, Solidarity-led cabinet of Tadeusz Mazowiecki. He did not run in the presidential elections next year and in December 1990 was succeeded by Lech Wałęsa. Jaruzelski withdrew from active politics. A few years later a parliamentary commission investigated his responsibility for the imposition of martial law. He also has faced criminal charges for the massacre of 1970 and for destroying Politburo files in 1989, with no consequences. He has remained the authority for the postcommunist Left; Polish public opinion remains strongly divided on his past record.

See alsoGierek, Edward; Gomułka, Władysław; Poland; Solidarity; Wałęsa, Lech.


Berger, Manfred E. Jaruzelski. Düsseldorf, Germany, and New York, 1990.

Berry, Lynn. Wojciech Jaruzelski. New York, 1990.

Kowalski, Lech. Generałze skazą. Biografia wojskowa gen. armii Wojciecha Jaruzelskiego. Warsaw, 2001.

Dariusz Stola