Calling a dictator and military officer of a Communist regime, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, “conservative” will come as a surprise to many a Western reader.

After all, can such an icon of loyalty to his Soviet overlords be truly considered conservative in any sense other than a nefarious dedication to conserving a highly destructive political order?

History is written by the victors, goes the old saying. This is all the more true in Poland, where a new historical awakening, coupled with grandiose patriotic rhetoric, has taken place over the last 20 years. This awakening has basically relegated the entire period from 1945 to 1989 to the ash heap of history as an awkward and sad moment in the Polish story, one in which moral decisions were always clear: us or them. They, the oppressors of the Polish people, were not only the Soviets, but also the successive governments and rulers of the Polish People’s Republic.

This new, negative attitude toward Poland’s history is aimed first and foremost at the late Gen. Jaruzelski and focuses mainly on his decision to introduce martial law in December 1981, a decision of truly historic consequences.

In a way, Jaruzelski’s status in mainstream Polish social and political life can be compared in the obverse to the saintly status of America’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Insofar as one heaps praise on the slain civil rights leader as one of the precursors of modern American society, then he or she is well-received in polite company. Any dissenting opinion about King, whether expressed on the left or right, would be deemed morally unacceptable and beyond the pale.

The same principle holds for Jaruzelski, the difference being that one is always obliged to condemn him in the worst possible terms. A pathological example of this established attitude was displayed during his 2014 funeral, in which groups of protesters loyal to the current ruling party made a show of their touted conservative and Christian values by disrupting the solemn ceremony, shouting inappropriate political accusations at the casket of a person who re-converted to Catholicism on his deathbed and received the Sacraments.

Should a Pole, be he scholar, journalist, or commentator, voice a different opinion about Jaruzelski; or attempt to shed some new light on his persona and actions; or give a different, less emotional assessment of his time in power, he can be sure to be singled out by hordes of internet trolls or self-appointed experts, and called a Commie, a Russian agent, or a person suffering from some mental disability. The underlying message is clear: no dissent shall be tolerated. This applies especially to Polish voices on the right, which are expected to condemn Jaruzelski without reservation. Any alternative approach to his persona is considered almost a conservative thought crime.

This narrative, ever-present in Polish society, is a testament to the enduring power of media propaganda, especially of the state-sponsored type, aimed clearly at achieving a political agenda at the cost of an honest historical debate to further illuminate one the most important figures in Poland’s modern history.

Thankfully, not everyone surrenders in the face of such moral blackmail. A number of scholars and commentators in Poland are more interested in the truth than “fitting in.”

One such scholar is Adam Wielomski, a political science professor at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw and a conservative political commentator. Known for his research on Carl Schmitt, the French counterrevolutionary right, French nationalism, and Latin fascism, Wielomski is no stranger to controversy due to his views on Jaruzelski.

In many articles and comments, as well as in a 2009 famous interview with Jaruzelski himself for the periodical Pro Fide Rege et Lege, Wielomski has made his view clear: the late general is in no way the notorious villain he is made out to be by Polish neoconservatives and liberals.

“General Jaruzelski led a simple life and assessing him from a political standpoint is a complicated matter,” Wielomski told me in an interview. He points to Jaruzelski’s childhood and youth as crucially formative of his basic ideological outlook, which was unabashedly Catholic and nationalist. Then came the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the partition of Poland in 1939, which resulted in young Jaruzelski’s tragic deportation to Siberia. Wanting to return to his country, he enlisted in the Polish Army, created by Polish Communists at Stalin’s service.

We know that during this time Jaruzelski lost his religious faith and renounced his anti-Soviet views. Jaruzelski himself would point out later that because of his experiences in Siberia, among the simple Russian folk, he began to see Russia in a different light and became more of a political realist. Wielomski places great emphasis on this realist paradigm present in Jaruzelski’s thinking. 

“While his personal behavior was characterized by deep opportunism, his political actions are more complicated,” Wielomski said. He continued: 

Recognizing the Polish People’s Republic (PRL) as the de facto and de jure Polish State, he worked for many years to improve its armed forces. We know that he contributed to the de-Stalinization of the army, removing from it hard-headed officers during the period of Communist liberalization. Finally, Jaruzelski introduced martial law in December 1981. This is the most controversial episode, because to this day we do not know whether if in the absence of martial law, the Red Army would not have intervened in Poland.

Although the historical consensus portrays Jaruzelski as an eager proponent of introducing martial law to face down the Solidarity movement, and that the Soviets were not willing to intervene in Poland in 1981, Wielomski nonetheless posits the question: what would the USSR have done should martial law have failed? He believes that in December 1981 even Jaruzelski himself did not know the answer to this question, but that there was the potential for a destructive Warsaw Pact military incursion into Poland.

1020-POLAND-2_copy“Most probably, at the time, he was driven only by the opportunistic belief that he must save his own rule and political position,” Wielomski said. “In fact, I believe, that by saving his own position, he also saved Poland from the highly probable devastating invasion by Soviet, DDR [East German], and Czechoslovak troops.” 

Wielomski also notes the rapid de-Communization of the Polish state during Jaruzelski’s tenure in power in the 1980s. “Communist slogans and the rule of the PZPR [Polish United Workers’ Party] were replaced by a leftist dictatorship based on patriotic slogans of saving the homeland and the threat from the USSR,” Wielomski said.

“The rule of Communist apparatchiks was replaced by the rule of non-ideological military officers,” Wielomski continued. “After the rejection of Communist phraseology of the PRL, there remained only a leftist dictatorship.”

Wielomski is in agreement with another proponent of the conservative realist school of politics, Professor Bronisław Łagowski, that Jaruzelski’s biggest political mistake was his decision to hand power to a group of power-hungry leftists and liberals, most prominently represented by such figures as Adam Michnik, Bronisław Geremek, and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, from the Solidarity camp. This group “privatized and destroyed everything that was built between 1944 and 1989,” Wielomski noted. “Because of this decision, from the military-political dependence on the USSR, we fell into the economic and political status of the neo-colony of Western capitalism.”

Another revisionist voice on the right, Jan Engelgard, editor of the nationalist weekly Myśl Polska and a director at the Museum of Independence in Warsaw, differs somewhat in his assessment of Jaruzelski’s political decisions in the late 1980s.

“Whether in 1989 he made a mistake by giving power to his former adversaries and opening the country to Western influence and liberalism is difficult to assess, because it is also difficult to indicate any real alternative,” Engelgard told me in an interview. Leaders that tried to avoid making these compromises, such as Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milošević, paid for it dearly, Engelgard said. “The iron laws of geopolitics and the economy were simply decisive at the time.”

Engelgard believes that the current excessive negativity surrounding Jaruzelski is part of a broader leftist political agenda. What many in Poland’s establishment right seem to miss, according to Engelgard, is that Jaruzelski is accused, often by leftists, of defending the Communist order, when in fact he is a politician who prevented a revolution. Thus, it becomes  easier to view Jaruzelski in the light of a traditional conservative statesman—a “Communist dictator,” yes, but one whose decisions were guided by the desire to maintain order and stability against a revolutionary wave; a ruler guided by geopolitical realism standing against a movement based on ideology and revolutionary fever.

Is it a stretch to say that such a figure would have been recognized by Carl Schmitt as being a katechon—one who restores order in the midst of chaos?

1020-POLAND-1_copyEngelgard has no doubts. He, like Wielomski, also points to Jaruzelski’s early years, coupled with the experience of World War II, as decisive in his political worldview. The late general’s biography is, on the one hand, a story of a Catholic patriot from a landowner family with unambiguously nationalist and anti-Communist traditions; on the other, his early life shows that after 1945 many Poles decided in the name of practical survival to make a political choice for Communism despite their previous views. 

There were tens of thousands like Jaruzelski, Engelgard points out. People who came from political groups hostile to Communism before the war. The fact that some became Communists, or whether they simply accepted the post-war reality of Polish domination by Soviet Russia, was due to the simple imperative of self-preservation.

Engelgard notes that Poland had to function somehow after the terrible ordeal of World War II, rising after its very biological existence was threatened. This was the exact view adopted by Jaruzelski, who truly believed it to be the morally right and realistic position to take. It is no exaggeration to note here that this was also the fundamental position of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, Primate of Poland: to preserve at all costs the nation from another bloody uprising and turmoil, even if it meant acceding to the demands of the Communist state. No sane person truly believed in a realistic possibility of fighting the Soviet Empire and resurrecting a fully independent Poland.

“The vast majority of the Polish intelligentsia reconciled itself with the post-war reality and more or less ‘soaked’ into the structures of the state and the ruling party,” Engelgard said. 

According to Engelgard, Jaruzelski cultivated the image of a “real Communist,” but was no such thing. After 1956, the so-called “nationalist trend” took root in the PZPR, a group referred to as the Partisans and led by Mieczysław Moczar. Lajos Léderer, a correspondent for the London Observer, referred to Moczar as “a De Gaulle-type figure who is both an authoritarian Communist and a strong Polish nationalist.” The Partisans aimed at combining official ideology with Polish patriotism, and Jaruzelski immediately joined their ranks.

Partisan membership allowed Jaruzelski to advance his political career and eventually rise to head the Polish state. This advancement, according to Engelgard, made possible the execution of a specific political agenda, whereby Jaruzelski led Poland through the crisis of the 1980s, depriving the state apparatus of ideological colors and essentially marginalizing the activity and significance of the Communist PZPR in favor of a broadly nationalist ideology rooted in tradition.

Love him or hate him, it was Jaruzelski who completed the process of liquidating Communism in Poland, which had been an ongoing phenomenon since 1956. 

“Many do not want to remember that the course of martial law could have been more tragic, if the head of state was someone else who was not so deeply rooted in Polish tradition and conscious of the tragic episodes of Polish history, including the failed uprisings,” Engelgard said. 

Andrzej Walicki, historian and former professor at Notre Dame University, noted in his work, From the Communist Project to the Neoliberal Utopia

When introducing martial law, General Jaruzelski referred exclusively to the threatened national well-being, treating the introduction of a military dictatorship as a temporary ‘lesser evil’. After gaining theoretically undivided power, he did not try to politicize all areas of life; on the contrary, he was content with passive loyalty, combining it with strenuous efforts to create a politically neutral sphere in which all Poles could cooperate with each other for the good of the country. He even outlined the ideal of ‘Socialist Constitutionalism’, which resulted in the creation of the Constitutional Court and the position of Ombudsman. While realistically assessing his capabilities, he did not take the risk of market reforms, but nevertheless recognized the need for development in this direction, completely rejecting the communist vision of a centralized non-market economy.

In light of these dissenting opinions, it is important to take into account two other factors that seem to mitigate Jaruzelski’s purported status as a villain of Poland’s history.

1020-POLAND-3_copyAs of 2016, a poll from the Polish Centre for Public Opinion Research (CBOS) reported that 41 percent of Poles expressed the opinion that the decision to implement martial law was justified; 35 percent believed the opposite; and 24 percent had no opinion. It could be argued then, that despite the negative mainstream media messaging about Jaruzelski and his most consequential political decision, more than half of Poles, when asked, are reluctant to outright condemn the late general.

The rightness of the decision to impose martial law was most often supported in the CBOS poll by Poles aged 45 to 64, who experienced the effects of Jaruzelski’s rule first-hand. This belies the popular claim that Jaruzelski’s decision was clearly aimed at doing harm to the just and right aspirations of the Polish nation. Not surprisingly, the release of the CBOS polling data was met with disparaging remarks from the establishment right, with one popular news portal aligned with the ruling Law and Justice Party calling the results of the poll “worrisome.”

Another underlying claim in the black propaganda about Jaruzelski is that American President Ronald Reagan was a hawk on Jaruzelski and his martial law decision, and that the Reagan administration was totally opposed to the general’s methods. One need only read Douglas J. MacEachin’s well-researched book, U.S. Intelligence and the Polish Crisis 1980–1981 (available to read online on the website of none other than the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency), to conclude that the American position, while being openly supportive of Solidarity in public, was more realist and accommodating toward Jaruzelski. 

According to a June 1981 CIA report, martial law was deemed to be an action excluding direct intervention by the USSR. The effects of such conclusions led to the American support given to Jaruzelski as a politician in the late 1980s, including an appeal by President George H. W. Bush supporting the general’s candidacy for president of a reborn Republic of Poland.

General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s story is not as clear-cut as it appears. Calm research conducted with an appreciation for the realist political mindset, and a conservative understanding of politics as “the art of the possible,” has led numerous Polish and non-Polish commentators and scholars to conclude that Jaruzelski was neither malefactor nor savior.

Rather, in a nuanced view, Jaruzelski appears as a tragic, Shakespearian figure acting in extremely difficult circumstances, whose stated justifications should at least be given a fair hearing. Jaruzelski, I have no doubt, would fully identify with statesmen like France’s Marshal Phillippe Pétain, who was placed in the similarly difficult position of maintaining a French government after the Nazi invasion, for which he was later tried and condemned for treason. Addressing his countrymen during his final radio broadcast in August 1944, he said, “If I could not be your sword, I tried to be your shield. I held off from you some certain dangers; there were others, alas, which I could not spare you.”

Michal Krupa is an historian and journalist based in Wrocław. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University.