Twenty-five years ago, breakthrough elections were held in Poland that led, within three months, to the downfall of that country’s communist regime. The events helped to spark the Velvet Revolutions that spread, within the next six months, to Budapest, Prague, Bratislava, Berlin, Sofia, Timisoara, and many other major cities, as masses of people went to the streets to demand their rights, oppose Soviet occupation, and win back their freedom. Communist despotisms that had lasted more than four decades collapsed like a house of cards. The world celebrated the fall of communism and the victory of democracy.
It all seemed so clear back then. But not now.
The recent death of Poland’s last communist dictator, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, at the age of ninety, has cast a pall on the celebration of that election victory by Solidarity a quarter-century ago. Despite a public outcry, the country’s current and past democratically elected leaders granted Jaruzelski a state funeral and pride of place among Poland’s military and political heroes in Warsaw’s renowned Powazki Cemetery. Meanwhile, some of the country’s most significant politicians and intellectuals, led by Adam Michnik, once one of Solidarity’s key theorists, have exonerated and praised Jaruzelski, despite his imposition of martial law in December 1981 aimed at destroying Solidarity. Michnik describes Jaruzelski as a Polish patriot who chose the “lesser evil” of martial law to stave off Soviet invasion and who, when given the opportunity, later took the “wise decision” to “unshackle the chains” he had originally bound the country with. The argument is hardly new; indeed, Michnik began canonizing Jaruzelski soon after 1989, usually with harsh polemics against anyone who disagreed with him and especially anyone arguing that Jaruzelski should be held responsible in legal proceedings for gross violations of human rights and Poland’s Constitution during the 1980s. What is new is that the Polish state has now officially sanctioned this historical revisionism in an act that symbolizes the incompleteness of Poland’s—and by extension Eastern Europe’s—democratic development over the past quarter-century.
The idea that Jaruzelski’s only choice was to impose martial law or face a Soviet invasion is belied by what actually happened on the night of December 13, 1981, when the general invoked “stan wojenny”—literally, a state of war—to be waged not against an external enemy but rather against the more dangerous enemy within, namely the ten-million-member Solidarity union, which had managed to carve out nearly sixteen months of relative freedom for Polish society following its rise in August 1980. Throughout 1980–81, the Soviet Union did wage an incessant campaign against Solidarity and used Warsaw Pact military exercises and Politburo bullying sessions to threaten an invasion on several occasions, but none occurred. In the meantime, from the moment it signed the Gdansk Accords on August 30, 1980, allowing the right to organize free trade unions and other freedoms, the communist government began secret preparations for stan wojenny. All the while, it staged numerous (unsuccessful) provocations and showdowns hoping to divide and weaken Solidarity, instigate violence (and thereby justify a crackdown), and generally prepare conditions for a re-imposition of “socialist order.”
Acceptance of an internal crackdown to prevent an invasion was an idea embraced even by many in the Carter and Reagan administrations. Almost immediately after martial law was imposed, Alexander Haig, secretary of state under President Reagan, expressed public relief that the crackdown on Solidarity and Polish society had been carried out by Poland’s internal security forces rather than by Soviet invasion, while the State Department withheld any condemnation for several days. (Instead, it urged “restraint on both sides” and announced only minor sanctions on Poland affecting air and fishing rights.) The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, forced into exile for his opposition views, pointed out that this was akin to choosing between “the hangman you know versus the hangman you don’t”: There was little difference for the victim. (What was not known at the time was that the CIA had been provided the full plans for stan wojenny by Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, a mole within the Polish general staff who, as one of Jaruzelski’s closest aides, had helped devise the plans starting in early September 1980. Despite this foreknowledge, the US did not craft a plan for reacting to martial law and it took several weeks of intense lobbying by the AFL-CIO labor federation and others both within and outside the administration before the president took stronger actions.)
The person who did not make the argument that martial law was a necessary evil to prevent a Soviet invasion was Jaruzelski himself—he would only assert this claim later, after he had left power and was looking to rehabilitate himself to avoid historical condemnation, and by extension the condemnation of courts. In fact, his Declaration of Martial Law and the comprehensive regime of repression Poland’s military and security forces undertook to enforce it show that at the time he had decided to use all means necessary to eradicate Solidarity and all “anti-socialist elements” within Polish society. He did so in full alliance with, and with full support from, the highest state organs of the Soviet Union and the military command of the Warsaw Pact. Mark Kramer, the director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard University, who has reviewed the extensive Soviet, Polish, and CIA documents on the subject, definitively refutes Jaruzelski’s later claims that he acted to forestall a Soviet invasion. On the contrary, Kramer found that by late 1981:
Jaruzelski was pleading with Soviet leaders to send troops into Poland to assist him with the crackdown, and by all indications he was devastated when they turned down his requests. The newly available evidence on this matter from many independent sources casts serious doubt on Jaruzelski’s repeated assertions [after 1991] that his decision to introduce martial law in December 1981 was intended solely to spare Poland the trauma of Soviet military intervention.
The Soviet leadership had strongly supported Jaruzelski’s full centralization of power—becoming head of the communist party, government, and military and internal security forces all at once—precisely because it had full confidence in Jaruzelski’s ability to solve “the Polish problem” using the communist regime’s own forces at a time when the Soviet empire, already beginning its decline, had seriously stressed its military by invading Afghanistan. The Soviet leadership’s confidence in Jaruzelski was well placed: martial law was successfully implemented by Polish internal security and army forces without any assistance from Warsaw Pact allies. More than ten thousand Solidarity leaders and activists were interned or imprisoned in a matter of a few days; demonstrations and strikes were forcibly put down and dozens of workers killed as all independent trade unions and organizations were banned and forced underground. All the available evidence from that time—the actions and statements of the martial law regime—point to one conclusion: the Jaruzelski government willingly suppressed the Polish people’s aspirations for freedoms once again, as communist governments had repeatedly done since the Red Army first imposed them at the end of World War II. General Jaruzelski, starting as an officer in the Soviet-led Polish First Army, had been among the most faithful servants of that regime in a meteoric career that included service as political commissar of the army and then Polish defense minister during the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and during the army’s suppression of the 1970 and 1976 worker protests in Poland.
Despite the clarity of the historical record, the claim that Jaruzelski acted as a patriot to prevent Poland from being invaded by the Soviet Union has been asserted as fact not only by Adam Michnik but also by many others, mostly former communists. Michnik characterizes those who dispute his assertions as “sad anti-communists” and “stupid imbeciles.” Michnik doesn’t stop there. He also claims, with even greater audacity, that Jaruzelski is responsible for Poland’s regaining its freedom in 1989. Michnik’s argument is that when he was freed from Stalinist orthodoxy by the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Jaruzelski chose the path of “peaceful reform.” Not surprisingly, Aleksander Kwasniewski, who led a reconstituted communist party (the Party of the Democratic Left) after Jaruzelski left office and was elected to two terms as president of Poland, agrees with Michnik and even argues that Jaruzelski deserved a Nobel Peace Prize.
This second claim is just as problematic as the notion that the general saved Poland from a direct Soviet invasion. The historical record shows a regime repressing all opposition to its rule until it was unable to resist mass pressure against it. In a recent article for the Daily Beast, former Newsweek correspondent Andrew Nagorski recounts:
As late as May 1988 when Gorbachev’s perestroika was in full swing, I witnessed plainclothesmen infiltrating a packed Mass at St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw’s old town. As we emerged from the church to face a lineup of riot police, there were a few shouts of “Solidarity”—and the plainclothesmen turned and started chasing, beating, and capturing anyone they could. They caught mostly older people, especially women, who were slower to flee, dragging them ostentatiously across Castle Square to the waiting riot police and their vans that would take them away for booking. Those were not actions of a government seeking reconciliation but of one that still believed force could prevail.
The reality that the regime faced, however, was that Solidarity was too big and too broad to repress completely. After martial law was imposed, Solidarity succeeded in reorganizing and even expanding its structures clandestinely to organize protests, strikes, an underground press, book publishing, independent education and culture, and other elements of what was called a “parallel society,” a resistance strategy that kept alive people’s hopes for regaining some measure of freedom. This was not an easy undertaking. Even when martial law was formally lifted and the crackdown was eased, until 1988 the regime continued to arrest and force into exile thousands of people who took part in Solidarity activities. It kept up massive manhunts for Solidarity leaders who escaped arrest and went underground. It used administrative fines and dismissals from work against Solidarity activists and sympathizers to put them and their families in states of penury. It infiltrated underground structures and sought whenever possible to compromise activists through bribery and blackmail.
Despite all this, nearly seven years after the imposition of martial law, Solidarity was still strong enough, in the summer of 1988, to launch another series of national strikes, which, while not as large as those of August 1980, portended a future of ongoing unrest and economic disruption to a communist government weakened by a decade of international sanctions. In addition to the regime’s slow decay, Jaruzelski also confronted another new factor: the Soviet Union, now led by Mikhail Gorbachev, was no longer as firmly committed to preserving communism in Eastern Europe as before. Gorbachev indicated quite early in his rule that the Brezhnev Doctrine, which declared no Warsaw Pact country could be allowed to escape the communist orbit, would (or could) no longer be enforced.
It was only in this perilous situation that Jaruzelski finally agreed to negotiations. The Round Table Agreement that was signed in early April 1989 between the government and opposition representatives, led by Lech Walesa, included, among other items, the re-legalization of Solidarity, release of political prisoners, limited freedom of the press, and quasi-free elections that would allow candidates affiliated with Solidarity to run for one-third of the seats in the Sejm, as the Polish Parliament was called, as well as all seats of a new hundred-member (but largely powerless) chamber, the Senate. While a significant concession, the agreement’s openly stated design, including the elections, was for the regime to retain ultimate power in a controlled setting that ensured what was later termed a “soft landing” for the ruling communists. Thus, Solidarity was not allowed to run as a party; only individual candidates could run as part of the “Citizens’ Committee with Lech Walesa.” Behind closed doors, it was tacitly agreed that Jaruzelski would remain president, and in charge of the army and security forces, in a vote by a newly elected Parliament still controlled by the communist party (called the Polish United Workers’ Party, or PZPR) and its satellites. As well, communist officials would not face any legal retribution for human rights violations and would retain their control over state institutions and assets and thereby benefit from any economic reform.
What happened in the June elections upended all the careful plans of the authorities for maintaining power. Not only were all but one of the contested seats won by Citizens’ Committee candidates—by huge percentages—but voters refused to vote for the communist party candidates. Nearly all PZPR candidates failed to gain fifty percent of the vote, the level required for election. Government pressure convinced Solidarity’s Round Table leaders, in defiance of the popular will and against the existing electoral law, to allow an extralegal second round of elections under rules without quorum qualifications. This made it possible for most of the PZPR candidates to retain their agreed-upon seats and for Jaruzelski to continue as president.
Ultimately, however, the clear mandate in the June 4th election in favor of Solidarity and fully repudiating the communist system could not be ignored. With the satellite parties (holding nearly twenty percent of the seats) and even individual communist Parliament members distancing themselves from the PZPR, no stable government except one led by Solidarity’s parliamentary leadership could be formed. In August, the initial communist-led government (with General Czeslaw Kiszczak as prime minister) fell and, under great pressure, Jaruzelski nominated Solidarity adviser Tadeusz Mazowiecki as prime minister to lead Poland’s first non-communist government since 1944, creating enormous impetus for popular uprisings in other Eastern European countries. Jaruzelski was forced (by constitutional amendment) to cede the presidency the next year and Lech Walesa became the first freely elected president of Poland’s new democracy in December 1990. Poland’s first truly free parliamentary elections were held in 1991, the year the Soviet Union finally collapsed.
If the historical record is so clear, why then is Jaruzelski now being described as a great Polish patriot and benevolent bestower of freedom by much of the country’s democratic officialdom and many of its intellectuals? The answer lies partly in the complex divisions within Poland’s political world but primarily in the personal stakes that many people have in defending their roles in negotiating the Round Table Agreement and in creating Poland’s uneasy transition from communism to democracy.
Poland’s opposition movement was always pluralist, with social democrats, liberals, conservatives, believers, atheists, and former communists all joining in a common struggle against a totalitarian communist regime and in support of basic human rights. But there was always a general division between those who supported democratization but believed any change could only come incrementally, by liberalizing the system through reforms from within, and those who believed it was necessary to push for a transformation from outside the system, i.e., to overthrow communism. This division did not have much significance until the sudden rise of Solidarity, which was on the one hand clearly a transformational movement that challenged the very foundations of communist power, but on the other hand was committed to an incremental strategy of forcing the state to recognize free trade unions and other independent social movements, and to respect, at least in a limited way, basic human rights.
The nationwide strikes of August 1980 forced the Polish government to negotiate and give in on fundamental demands for freedom by signing the Gdansk Accords. Yet there arose immediately within Solidarity two camps: one that counseled caution and compromise with the communist authorities in order to protect these gains and another that advocated continuing to press the limits of the possible in a way that might end up bringing communism down. The “compromisers” were associated with the intellectual wing of Solidarity and were said to be more liberal or left-leaning; the “hard-liners” were often portrayed as less-educated worker leaders who had more conservative, Catholic, or “right-wing” views. In fact, there was a great diffusion of views and backgrounds on both sides, and Lech Walesa, while often portrayed as the uncanny balancer who kept the two sides together, in fact also usually supported compromise, as did the Catholic Church itself.
But what is inarguable is that the “compromisers” argued against any forceful action by Solidarity (such as calling national strikes in response to government provocations) and often characterized “hard-liners” as extremists whose actions threatened Solidarity’s survival. As this division hardened into personal rancor on both sides, a belief took hold that “extremism” within Solidarity was a greater danger even than the communist state, which presumably would not act as harshly if it were not provoked. In the view of the compromisers, the slow reformation of communism toward a more democratic system (“revolution by evolution”) had to be the ultimate goal, one which some believed could only be achieved by allying with “moderates” in the communist party. Compromisers often engaged in secret talks and negotiations with the communists, including supposed moderates in the secret police, while hard-liners were generally kept by the compromisers and the communists on the outside looking in.
After martial law was imposed, there did indeed appear to be less reason to believe in transformation or revolution and more reason to adopt a strategy of continuing “negotiations” with moderates in the regime. “Moderate,” however, could be a fluid distinction. If outright Stalinists and ideological primitives were the hard-liners, Jaruzelski and his interior minister, General Kiszczak, even though they had implemented a regime of mass repression, had to be the moderates. Since moderates by definition would not have willingly imposed a regime of mass repression, they had to have done so only as “a lesser evil” to avoid something worse.
A mirror image of this schema was then reflected onto Solidarity, whose hard-liners were said to be like those in the communist party and who were therefore equally dangers. In this rendering, the actions of Solidarity “extremists” helped create conditions making martial law necessary by threatening actions that could have provoked a Soviet invasion.
In actuality, there were no absolutes on either side. There were many “compromisers” who took steely stands against communist repression (including, when in prison, Michnik himself) and many “hard-liners” who ended up advocating moderation. The pluralism that existed in Poland’s opposition continued to be manifested in the adoption of different political ideas and tactics throughout the 1980s. But one thing emerges clearly from this intellectual and political complexity. And that is that the person who became the leading ideologue of the “compromisers,” Adam Michnik, who benefited personally from the Round Table Agreement by becoming editor and owner of the powerful political newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, now defends at all costs his version of what took place in 1989—namely, that a moderate wing of Solidarity negotiated with a moderate wing of the communist party, led by Jaruzelski, and came to a civilized agreement on a transition from communism to democracy. In this rendering,
Jaruzelski’s campaign for historical rehabilitation as a Polish patriot and peaceful reformer is not just fully accepted; it must be propagated.
This rewriting of history diminishes the Polish people’s enormous sacrifice, courage, and decisive action in achieving freedom over the course of the 1980s in the face of an ideologically hostile communist government that in December 1981 instituted a regime of harsh and continuing repression under the centralized leadership of General Jaruzelski. In 1980–81, the majority of Poles were not compromisers; they believed in resisting government provocations and demands to water down their hard-won freedoms and they wanted to undermine further the communist system. Everyone understood a Soviet invasion was possible; the majority, however, believed that it was nonetheless necessary to take risks to continue to challenge the authorities to see what could be gained. In 1988, the workers who went on strike demanded full reinstatement of Solidarity and the Gdansk Accords, not “round table negotiations” that compromised the union’s structure and freedom to act. And on June 4, 1989, the vast majority did not accept the “quasi-free” elections promised by the Round Table Agreement and delivered a resounding defeat to the communist party and the entire communist system.
The Polish people’s decisive vote on June 4, 1989, accelerated the collapse of communism in Poland—and in Eastern Europe generally—much more quickly than the Round Table Agreement anticipated. And in many ways, the Poles achieved a true rebirth of freedom. Unfortunately, much of the “soft landing” negotiated for the communists, both in the Round Table Agreement itself and behind the scenes, resulted in a compromised birth of democracy (free parliamentary elections did not take place until late 1991). Justice for human rights victims was forsaken. And the
communist nomenklatura unfairly received the benefits of economic reform by virtue of its control over the privatization of state assets, while many of the workers who struggled most for Poland’s freedom have been left jobless and penniless. The consequences are evident in Poland’s social, economic, and political life twenty-five years after 1989, including in persistent high rates of unemployment and poverty, lack of opportunity for young people leading to their mass migration abroad, broken education and health care systems, a weakness of democratic institutions, and a low level of citizen involvement in public affairs.
But perhaps the greatest consequence of the “soft landing” is that many of Poland’s current political and intellectual elite have compromised their country’s history of struggle for independence and freedom by exonerating the oppressor who did the most to prevent Polish freedom and, in doing so, have created a moral ambivalence and confusion about the communist period itself. Hopefully, a majority of Poles will act decisively once again and make sure that this assault on history does not stand.
Eric Chenoweth is the co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and former editor in chief of the journal Uncaptive Minds.