Martial Law on Trial

Communist crimes from over 25 years ago have resurfaced in a Warsaw court. Accusing the former communist leader of Poland, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, of imposing martial law in Poland in 1981, the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) must now revise its indictment before the trial can begin.

The case against Jaruzelski and eight other former officials was returned to prosecutors on May 14th with an order for documentation from foreign archives as well as testimony from further witnesses. Following a request from defense lawyers, the court recommended that the IPN interview leading politicians of the Cold War era, including the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former US Secretary of State Alexander Haig.

Gorbachev refused to testify in the trial, regarding the court case as “baseless prosecution.” Having written to the judges and to the parliament about the trial, the former Soviet leader told the official newspaper of the Russian government, Rossijskaya Gazeta, that he has contributed all he knows and has nothing new to add. Gorbachev also stressed the old age and poor health of Jaruzelski. If found guilty of “having led an armed organisation of a criminal character,” the former communist officials face up to ten years in jail.

The IPN, a commission established by the Polish Parliament in 1998 to prosecute crimes against the Polish nation, namely those carried out by officials of the communist state between September 17, 1939 and December 31, 1989, said it would appeal the ruling that it should question the high-profile witnesses.

According to Stanislaw Kania, then party first secretary and one of the co-accused, these figures of the 1980s “contributed largely to the fact that the Soviet Union finally withdrew from the intention to intervene.” As a result, their voice plays a critical role in the case. The testimonies would not only provide the additional information required by the court, but also clarify the international context of the decision to impose the crackdown.

The declaration of martial law on December 13, 1981 was an operation against the Solidarity movement, preventing the ongoing democratisation processes. As a result, Poland suffered extreme repression. Over ten thousand arrests followed the crackdown and close to one hundred people were killed when strikes and demonstrations were crushed by the army and police. Solidarity was banned and its leader, Lech Walesa, imprisoned. A curfew was imposed, telephone lines were disconnected, television channels were shut down and national borders were sealed.

As Miroslaw Czech from Gazeta Wyborcza states, “The imposition of martial law ended the peaceful Solidarity revolution. It destroyed the hopes of millions of Poles.” Czech maintains that the group led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski was solely accountable for this act. Consequently, the court must examine all the documents, especially those from the Soviet archives, and witnesses must be questioned.

Accepting full responsibility for having imposed martial law, Jaruzelski argues he chose the lesser of two evils, claiming that if Solidarity had brought down communism in Poland and the Polish government had not resorted to extreme measures, Soviet troops would have invaded the country. According to Jaruzelski, “martial law was a rescue for our country and Polish society from a disaster in many ways. I uphold this evaluation with utmost conviction.”

However, the IPN claims that preparations to introduce martial law started over a year earlier, in August 1980. Moreover, documents collected by the IPN show that the Soviets had no time for Poland in 1981, as they were running the operation in Afghanistan and had no intention of sending troops to Poland.

Historian Pawel Machcewicz confirms that the Soviets were not willing to intervene in Poland at that time. “In my opinion it means that General Jaruzelski had more room for manoeuvre and that he was not under the direct danger of Soviet intervention. He could have sought agreement with Solidarity.” This historical evidence belies Jaruzelski’s version, suggesting instead that Jaruzelski declared martial law as part of his own agenda.

Whatever historical truth emerges from these proceedings, Jaruzelski, as former leader of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), in ordering armed force against civilians did not ultimately succeed in bringing down Solidarity. The movement re-emerged as a coherent opposition, putting an end to the communist regime with the ascendance of Walesa as the country’s first freely elected president.

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