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Democracy, Memory and Responsibility: An Interview with General Wojciech Jaruzelski

By Blaise Misztal

Thursday, May 29, 2014

General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish leader who passed away on May 25, 2014, was a paradox, a man torn between two worlds. As a youth, he was educated in the Catholic Church and imprisoned by the Soviet Union in Siberia, yet, fought for the Red Army and was early to join the Polish Communist Party. After 40 years of rising through the military and political ranks, he was the last head of the People’s Republic of Poland and the first president of the third Republic of Poland. He ordered both the imposition of Martial Law on December 13, 1981 and the Round Table Negotiations that resulted in Poland’s first free, post-World War II elections on June 4, 1989. He was the brutal enforcer of a totalitarian system and yet, eventually, tacitly consented to that system’s demise. But as a pivotal player in and witness to one of the most successful democratic transitions of the last quarter century, he also had a unique and still relevant perspective.

In the below interview, conducted in 2005 and published by the independent Cuban magazine Vitral, Jaruzelski discusses his role in and rationale for declaring Martial Law, why he assented to elections in 1989, and his reflections on the development of Polish democracy. His attempts to define and defend his legacy often ring hollow and rely on factual assertions that have been disputed by historians. But he also offers fascinating insights into both the conditions for and challenges to democracy. Jaruzelski’s description of the desirability of democratic governance as resulting from its more effective mechanism for making difficult political and economic choices is devoid of references to the value and inviolability of individual freedom, but it also leads him to diagnose the danger of populism and demagoguery that lurks in dissatisfied democratic societies. Similarly, his denunciation of “recollection,” of the political uses of history, seems self-serving. But he also gives this assertion context, arguing that democratic transitions can only prove successful when existing elites believe they will be accommodated, not hung, in a new political system.

These insights are valuable not only as a reflection on how far Poland has come as it approaches the 25th anniversary of 1989 elections, but as lessons that can be applied to struggling and emerging democracies today—the European Union as it struggles with populism, Ukraine as it attempts to refashion a workable political order, as well as Turkey, Egypt, Thailand or any place where democracy has taken a step backwards.


March 8, 2005
Warsaw, Poland

Blaise Misztal: In the speech which you delivered upon leaving the Presidency you famously declared that, “I would like to ask only for one thing: if time has not yet extinguished anger or resentment in anyone—may they be directed first of all at me.” In other words, you accepted responsibility for the events of December 13, 1981: the declaration of Martial Law in Poland. What does it mean to take upon oneself responsibility for this sort of incident?

Wojciech Jaruzelski: I’ll treat this question more broadly because I believe, as a citizen of this country who supported the existing [Communist] regime, I feel a moral responsibility for everything that happened in Poland, good or bad, during the time in which I served a number of functions, as I once put it, from lieutenant in 1945, after the war ended, to the General of the Army and President of the Republic. Of course, there are different types of responsibility, but I’m referring to the moral dimension. We don’t shelter ourselves from or deny that historical period in which I lived, in which millions of Poles lived, and I think that an honest, moral evaluation of that period is absolutely necessary.

Of course, December 13th, when I served as the head of the state, requires special attention. Responsibility connotes something much broader and deeper than in times past. And if they say, and here I use those words which you cited, “anger and resentment have not been extinguished,” and so on—which I understand—then I see it in the following way: that declaring Martial Law, as I have often called it, was on the one hand salvation from an unfathomable catastrophe, but on the other, it was a disaster in its own right. This is the meaning of the term “the lesser evil.” A greater evil would have been leading the country up to the edge of the destruction which threatened it.

Also evil, but in a much lesser degree in relation to this, was what happened as a result of declaring Martial Law. The various types of harm which were visited on people, the various indignities, various idiocies, mistakes, and so on…and of many of these I could not have even know or have had any influence on because of my position. But I do feel morally responsible for them. And I turn specifically to the persons still pained by those events with regret about what befell them; but that does not change my general evaluation that declaring Martial Law was proper and necessary, although unfortunate and cheerless.

BM: If, however, Martial Law was a form of salvation or a choice of the lesser evil and we thus characterize it as a necessary choice, as you just did, then what is the import of taking responsibility for it? If something was necessary it had to be that way, there was no other option. So why take moral responsibility?

WJ: No, what you’re referring to are two different, unrelated dimensions of the issue. Because, you know, there are cases where someone, let’s assume, is defending their self from an attacker…this is the example that comes to mind at the moment. Someone is being assaulted on the street and I come to this person’s defense, and it might be that I go much further than need be in defending them. I break the assailant’s arm, leg, do him even more serious harm, even though all he wanted was to steal some money. His act was not very dangerous. But I, defending the victim, either knowingly or unknowingly, cause a greater harm. This example isn’t the most fortunate, but that’s exactly how things can turn out in life: that we have good intentions, that we try to save someone from some great danger, but in the course of doing so we cause a different, albeit lesser, harm.

BM: Do you feel a similar sort of moral responsibility for the Round Table negotiations and the events that followed in 1989/90?

WJ: You see, if Martial Law was what I termed a “lesser evil” then the Round Table negotiations are the “greater good.” Which does not mean that as their consequence—besides all those prevailing positive things, which are their effect, which to this day serve Poland on its new path, in its new regime—there did not come to be certain negative consequences which are felt by very many people: there has been a growth in poverty, the distance between the best and worst off is constantly increasing, politics has become a bitter battle with no particular purpose. But all these are lesser harms compared to that which is the greater good of the Round Table negotiations and their consequences.

BM: Did the lesser evil of Martial Law have any effect upon the greater good of the Round Table? Is there a certain causality between them?

WJ: There is a relation, which I would characterize thus: without Martial Law there would have been no Round Table.

BM: Why is that?

WJ: Because if not Martial Law then there would have come to pass in Poland, more than in just Poland, in Europe, such events, such turmoil caused by Soviet intervention…with everything that was happening in Poland at the time, a growing economic crisis, internal conflict, civil war, anything was possible. This would have made the sort of democratic changes that we undertook 8 or 9 years later impossible for many years to come.

I just returned yesterday from yet another big conference. There I met with many former presidents, prime ministers, ministers, scholars, etc., among them Gorbachev. It was called the “World Politics Forum,” held in Turin. And among other topics we discussed the 20th anniversary of perestroika, it was 20 years ago this March. I had a big presentation, which was well received, and I spoke precisely about how with Gorbachev’s coming certain processes, which had long been maturing, finally had a chance to come to fruition. In fact, Gorbachev often said that Poland was a kind of laboratory for perestroika.

So, however paradoxical it may sound, Martial Law was crucial. Because if not, if there had been no Martial Law, then Gorbachev would not have come to power when he did, instead some hard-liner would have taken the reins.

I don’t know if you know this, if you’re aware of it, but Gorbachev came to power when Solidarity was at its lowest level of support. It is not the case that Solidarity, or its consequences, gave birth to Gorbachev, gave birth to perestroika. No. Perestroika was born of an internal Soviet need caused by international circumstances, among others Reagan. The arms race, Star Wars, the Soviet Union just couldn’t survive this. Solidarity did not cause this. I even regret it, because then as a Pole I could be proud that because of Poland Gorbachev came to power. But, no. No. Gorbachev came to power exactly then when Solidarity almost ceased to exist. So there is this relation, this causality, whether we like it or not, because Europe and the world would look quite differently today if we had not saved Poland from all that threatened it at the time.

BM: Do you believe then that sovereignty and social stability, precisely those things which you claim to have been trying to protect by declaring Martial Law, are necessary to achieve the sort of transformation that the Round Table negotiations began?

WJ: Every country has its own special conditions and circumstances. I know that you’re looking for an analogy, for a lesson about the road we have traveled that could be applied to other societies, other countries. This doesn’t seem to me to be an easy task, because every country has its own history, its own conditions, its own mentality, and so on.

Today, all these countries which have not yet arrived at democracy, so to speak, they find themselves in a completely different situation, first of all, internationally. We were under enormous pressure and threat of intervention to remain in the Bloc. Today, however, each of these countries which are not democratic act independently. They do not have that same pressure, and if it does exist it is solely pressure to become democratic. Cuba, of course, is subject to American sanctions, but they are not threatened with armed intervention, while we were. So I believe that they are in a better situation then we were because they can sovereignly, according to their own ability, affect change when they mature to it.

Read the full interview

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KEYWORDS: EGYPT, POLAND, SOVIET UNION, THAILAND, TURKEY, UKRAINE, WOJCIECH JARUZELSKI, WORLD WAR II