No fond memories.

Photographer: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

Why Poland Wants to Punish a Dead General

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The history of Eastern Europe is constantly being rewritten: It's tough for any nation to live with a legacy of Communism or Nazi collaboration or both. Few countries, however, would go as far as Poland under the nationalist Law and Justice party, known as PiS. Now Poland is planning to strip Wojciech Jaruzelski, its last Communist ruler who died in 2014, of his general's rank.

"I want to inform Poles that today is the last time any officer of the Defense Ministry will use the word 'general' with the name of Mr. Jaruzelski," Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz declared this week, explaining that the same punishment was also being applied to Czeslaw Kiszczak, a close Jaruzelski ally and former prime minister. "Criminals responsible for using arms against their own nation do not deserve to bear a military rank," Macierewicz said.

Jaruzelski was one of the most complex figures in 20th century Eastern Europe, a place where moral complexity and its dire consequences touched every family. The grandson of a Polish general who had rebelled against the Russian empire and the son of a man who volunteered to fight against the Russian Bolshevik invasion in 1920, he almost lost his eyesight logging in a Siberian labor camp, which forced him to wear dark glasses for the rest of his life. Released during World War II, he first wanted to join an independent Polish army, but all that was available to him was service in a Soviet-formed Polish unit. He helped the Russians take Warsaw and Berlin, ending the war as a lieutenant.

A subsequent career in Soviet-run Poland took him to the top of the country's military. He was part of the system, and, like his friend Kiszczak, he participated in the cruel repression of Poland's growing labor movement. By 1981, Solidarity, the labor union movement, was strong enough to take power in Poland. Jaruzelski, by then the country's Communist leader, declared martial law to suppress the rebellion. Later, in retirement, he claimed he'd done so to prevent a Soviet military intervention along the lines of similar expeditions to East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

It's not clear whether that was a possibility. Some sources claim a Russian military operation was being prepared. But Poland's Institute of National Remembrance, set up by the parliament in 1998 to prosecute "crimes against the Polish nation," says that the fear was unwarranted and that Jaruzelski was a criminal because of the reprisals that shook Poland while martial law was in effect and Solidarity was banned. 

But the wind that blew from Moscow was changing, and, as Andrzei Rapaczynski wrote in a brief history of Polish constitutional politics: "The authorities now had more room to maneuver and could no longer hide behind the threat of Soviet intervention. In the end, after some hesitation, the authorities decided to move in the direction of genuine power-sharing." In 1989, Jaruzelski held the so-called Round Table Talks with Solidarity, led by Lech Walesa, the Catholic Church and other groups. The compromise they hammered out, which gave the Communists a parliamentary majority and Jaruzelski the new post of president, fell apart after the Communists suffered a crushing defeat in the 1989 election. A year later, Jaruzelski stepped down.

For the rest of his life, he had to explain, often in court, many of his previous decisions. When he died, he was buried with military honors, but the funeral was disrupted by angry demonstrators who called him a criminal. Walesa, who attended the funeral, said God would judge Jaruzelski.

The PiS is not God, but since coming to power in 2005, a review of history has been one of its most important goals. Their version portrays Poland as a victim of both Nazism and Communism. It acknowledges the heroes who resisted both evils but not the Nazi collaborators or the Communists who tried their best to steer a middle path under Kremlin's watchful eye. This year, the ruling party seized full control of Institute of National Remembrance. It wants to use the body to resume lustration -- the process of filtering out former Communists and informers from government institutions, which stopped under the previous government.

Neighboring Ukraine, which also believes in lustration and is establishing a new version of national history, has also taken steps to criminalize its Soviet past and present World War II-era nationalists as a liberation movement rather than Nazi collaborators. Ukraine's attempts at self-aggrandizement, however, clash with Polish ones. Under PiS, Poland has passed a law to commemorate the "genocide" of Poles by Ukrainian nationalist units. Ukraine, for its part, has made it illegal to criticize those same nationalists from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, some of whom collaborated with their German occupiers, at least at first.

To make matters worse, both the Ukrainian and the Polish nationalist versions of history contradict the Russian one, actively rewritten under President Vladimir Putin. In that narrative, the fact that the Soviets saved Ukrainians and Poles from the Nazis should somehow justify what they did to them afterward. To Putin, Jaruzelski was a hero, not a villain. On the general's 90th birthday, not long before his death, the Russian leader sent him a telegram saying, "In difficult situations, you always showed courage and responsibility and took well-thought-out, far-sighted decisions."

Few of those who lived under Jaruzelski's martial law would agree with that. That doesn't mean, however, that Jaruzelski should be posthumously stripped of his rank: That would be like saying Chile's Augusto Pinochet wasn't really a general because he was also a criminal dictator.

Eastern European countries have a recent history soaked in blood, betrayal, oppression and unbelievable flights of desperate heroism. They deserve to keep it in full, in all its gore and glory. But the willingness of politicians to, as Macierewicz said, "take legal steps" to amend this history or to legislate it away will probably leave the next generation of east Europeans with serious gaps in their knowledge of their countries. If that happens, it will be harder for them to understand why Europe ever felt the need to unite and why most European countries underwent intense healing both after World War II and after the Berlin Wall's fall. 

Because of the rewriting efforts, foreign academics will soon be the only keepers of a relatively unbiased history of the region, and they often lack the cultural background to understand and interpret what they learn. Poland, Ukraine, Russia and their neighbors should be more interested in recording every facet of personal histories like Jaruzelski's than in politicizing the bits they hate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net