WARSAW, Poland — Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the communist leader who imposed harsh military rule on Poland in 1981 in an attempt to crush the pro-democracy Solidarity movement but years later allowed reforms that ended up dismantling the regime, has died at age 90.
Jaruzelski, who suffered in recent years from cancer, heart problems and pneumonia died Sunday in a Warsaw hospital after suffering a stroke earlier this month, hospital spokesman Grzegorz Kade told The Associated Press.
Jaruzelski died just days before Poland marked 25 years since the crucial parliamentary election in which Poles voted against the country’s communist rulers and in support of the Solidarity freedom movement.
The retired general remained a controversial figure in his homeland until the end of his life for his defining act: the imposition of martial law that began at dawn on Dec. 13, 1981.
The suppression of the democracy movement resulted in the mass imprisonment of thousands of dissidents, the deaths of dozens, and brought economic stagnation that contributed to the system’s eventual undoing. It also pushed many Poles to flee the country and seek exile in the West.
Jaruzelski was an unlikely servant to Moscow and its communist ideology. Born into a patriotic and Catholic Polish milieu of privileged landowners, he and his family were deported to Siberia by the Red Army during World War II. His father died there and Jaruzelski suffered snow blindness, which forced him to wear dark glasses to the end of his life.
Despite his own tragedy at Soviet hands, he faithfully imposed Moscow’s will on his subjugated nation until communism crumbled across the region in 1989.
To this day, the nation remains deeply divided over whether to view Jaruzelski as a traitor who did Moscow’s dirty work or — as he portrayed himself — as a patriot who made an agonizing decision to spare the country the bloodshed of a Soviet invasion, like that in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
“A tragic believer in Communism who made a pact with the devil in good faith” is how Slavenka Drakulic, the Croatian writer, described him.
The image of him in his drab olive military uniform announcing martial law on state television remains an iconic one in modern Polish history.
Straight-backed and betraying no emotion, he read from his documents as he announced martial law and the outlawing of Solidarity, the first independent labor union in the communist bloc.
“The Polish-Soviet alliance is, and will remain, the foundation of Poland’s state interest,” he said.
For the next 18 months, Poles lived with curfews, dead phone lines and armed troops and tanks on the streets. Nearly 100 people died during the crackdown, while tens of thousands of Solidarity activists were imprisoned, including future presidents Lech Walesa — the Solidarity leader — and Lech Kaczynski.
Yet Jaruzelski, who headed the government from 1981-85 and the party from 1981 until the communist regime’s collapse in 1989, repeatedly defended his decision. “The greater evil would have been a (Soviet) intervention,” he said in a 2005 interview with The Associated Press.
He spent the rest of his life seeking historical vindication.
“The structures of the state were paralyzed. … A general strike was imminent. We were staring hunger, cold, and blackout in the face,” Jaruzelski told an audience at Kansas State University in the United States in March 1996.
“I spent the week prior to taking the decision on martial law as in some horrible nightmare. I entertained thoughts of suicide. So what held me back? The sense of responsibility for my family, friends and country.”
Jaruzelski claimed partial credit for negotiating the peaceful transition to democracy as Poland’s last communist leader, and many Poles credited him for allowing the “Round Table” talks with Solidarity in 1989 that paved the way for a peaceful transition to democracy.
Those talks came four years after Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership in the Soviet Union and launched his liberalization policies of glasnost and perestroika.
In his old age Jaruzelski battled legal charges over imposing the clampdown and for crushing a 1970 workers’ strike — when he was defense minister — that left dozens dead. The trials went on for years without resolution. As he underwent chemotherapy for cancer in 2011, a Warsaw court excused him from participating in the two trials due to his ill health.
Jaruzelski was born July 6, 1923, in the eastern Polish village of Kurow. He attended an exclusive Catholic school.
When the Germans and Soviets carved up the country in 1939, he and his family fled to Lithuania, but were eventually captured by the Red Army and deported to Siberia. During three years of grueling forced labor cutting trees, Jaruzelski was struck by snow blindness and injured his back, giving him the characteristic stiff-back posture.
His traumatic experiences did not turn him against the Soviet Union, he said, because he judged Poland’s powerful neighbor by the kind and caring people who helped him while he was there. He also said he was attracted to an ideology that seemed to address the terrible social injustices and inequality he witnessed in prewar Poland.
In 1943, he entered a training school for Russian officers and fought the Nazis in a Soviet-backed Polish army. When Warsaw rose up against its Nazi occupiers in 1944, Jaruzelski and fellow soldiers from the Polish People’s Party sat with the Soviet Army across Warsaw’s Vistula River, doing nothing for more than two months as the Nazis killed more than 250,000 people and leveled the city.
Recently released documents show that from 1945-1947, he participated in the suppression of Poles resisting the imposition of Soviet-backed communism.
He joined the communist party and quickly rose through army ranks to become chief of the General Staff in 1965. As defense minister, Jaruzelski was one of the Warsaw Pact generals who planned the invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the peaceful 1968 pro-democracy uprising. In 1970 he carried out orders to suppress workers’ revolts in Gdansk and other coastal cities, a campaign that left 44 people dead and hundreds injured.
He was appointed to the policy-making Politburo in 1971. In the same year he was involved in the purge of Jews from the Polish military — part of a broader anti-Semitic campaign.
He became general secretary of the Communist party and prime minister in 1981, when Walesa’s Solidarity movement was enjoying mass popularity, often expressed through strikes.
After the transition to democracy, he argued that he should ultimately be judged by his role in peacefully negotiating a power-sharing arrangement with Solidarity.
His foes, however, held on to their view of him as a traitor.
In March 2006, the National Remembrance Institute, a state body that investigates communist-era crimes, charged him with violating the constitution and with leading an “organized criminal group of a military nature.”
In his last years, Jaruzelski periodically attended hearings in both of his trials. He was never convicted.
A parliamentary commission dominated by left-wing officials in 1996 spared him a trial before the State Tribunal over martial law. As the trials against him dragged on without resolution over procedural issues and his health problems, as he battled heart problems, pneumonia and cancer.
He said he wanted his gravestone to say simply: Wojciech Jaruzelski — General.
He is survived by his wife, Barbara, daughter Monika and a grandson.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.