Friday September 12 2008 18:00 BST
Wojciech Jaruzelski cuts a dignified, vulnerable figure these days, living in quiet retirement at the age of 84. At first sight the decision by Polish prosecutors to put him on trial for his role in declaring martial law in December 13, 1981 looks vindictive. True, it ended the intoxicating era of freedom created by the Solidarity trade union movement, which had jemmied open the communist party's grip on power. But it prevented (perhaps) a far more traumatic outcome: full-blown Soviet invasion. And it was also the Jaruzelski government that enabled Poland's lasting return to democracy in 1989, with the round table talks in which the communist regime negotiated its own peaceful demise.
Yet General Jaruzelski did not seem a dignified, vulnerable, altruistic figure in the terrifying days after 1981. Along with other activists in "Solidarity with Solidarity" I shivered outside the Polish embassy in London, chanting "Bez solidarnosci nie ma wolnosci" (No freedom without solidarity). We knew that many of our friends in Poland were on the run or among the thousands interned. Dozens of Polish patriots were beaten to death by riot police and other goons. In their search for informants, the secret police used their habitually nasty tactics to turn sister against brother, husband against wife, parent against child. The trauma and distrust of martial law and its aftermath still poisons public life in Poland today.
It would be quite wrong to portray Jaruzelski simply as a victim of events, let alone a patriotic altruist. Other Poles in high positions under communism faced tough choices too – and chose differently. Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, another Polish officer, chose to spy for the west – and gave warning of the plans for martial law. Whether he was a hero or a traitor is still a divisive question in Poland today.
It would also be wrong to see the round table talks as an unqualified success. From the point of view of many Poles today, the negotiations were unfair and the result a shameful fudge, in which weak-willed opposition leaders (some of them with a dodgy past and open to blackmail) allowed the communist usurpers to make a sham departure from power. Some 20 years later, it is remarkable how well the old regime has fared in Poland, particularly in business but also in politics.
Reasonable people can disagree about how harshly to judge the past. Writing off the whole of communist rule in Poland as illegitimate is not as tidy as it seems. Real people lived real lives and had real achievements. Even the most hawkish Poles do not say that the university degrees they gained under communism were valueless.
But a couple of things are clear. At least Poland is debating its past, and the difficult calculus between justice and mercy. That is a sharp contrast with modern Russia, where the regime is busily obfuscating history: producing a new textbook for example, which makes Stalin out to be a tough-minded leader who made difficult decisions for what he thought was the good of the country.
Secondly, prosecution is not guilt. Jaruzelski will have a chance to put his side of the argument. The prosecutors will put theirs. If he dislikes the verdict, he can appeal. If voters don't like the outcome, they can elect representatives who can change the law. That is how things are supposed to work – and that's just what didn't happen during the years Jaruzelski was in power.
Friday, September 12, 2008
Friday September 12 2008 18:00 BST