The Winter’s Tale

15. 3. 2017

Paweł Kowal, Mariusz Cieślik, Jaruzelski. Życie paradoksalne, Znak Litera Nova, Kraków, 2015.

Japanese Kasumi knives cannot be blunted, while in the case of a bayonet of the Polish People’s Army a single can with luncheon meat was sufficient for this purpose, which perhaps should not be surprising, as it was made of steel 2mm thick. How many years are needed to blunt the dilemma regarding the most painfully divisive politician, to allow the appearance of some intermediate states besides the dichotomic “hero/ traitor,” such as a “traitor of great courage” versus the “hero, who betrayed his country?” Is a quarter century of political retirement enough for that, or only death calms disputes?

This year the biographers of Wojciech Jaruzelski tried out both these possibilities: this military officer and high-ranking party official in Poland governed by Communists, former Minister of Defense, Chief of General Staff, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Prime Minister, the man who in 1981 introduced martial law in Poland and outlawed “Solidarity,” and who eight years later was elected by the Parliament as a President of independent Poland, died in May 2014.

One year after his death a book about him was published by Paweł Kowal and Mariusz Cieślik: historian-cum-politician (recently serving in the European Parliament), and a writer and literary critic, both endowed with a journalistic temperament and both, importantly, belonging to the generation of today’s fortysomethings. This is the last generation remembering the General’s role from their own life—and, ironically, they remember him most intensely. For the Poles who today are firmly middle-aged or older, the General was an element of a contested or accepted People’s Republic: in parallel with them, but many levels higher, he was climbing his career path, his name appeared initially on the fourth, and then on the first page of the newspaper; only years later it became the signature under the “Decree of Martial Law,” posted at night in the streets.

The people from Kowal’s and Cieślik’s generation at that time, in the autumn of 1981, were nine, twelve, perhaps fifteen years old: they listened to what the adults were talking about, they often were “for Solidarity” or “against the Ruskies,” but all the time treating what was going on “on TV” as a kind of football league, where you can support your team, but don’t have to do it all the time. When on the Sunday morning of December 13 state television started to broadcast the General’s speech bringing the news about the martial law, most of them were seated before their TV sets, waiting for the only program (“Teleranek”) where for a quarter of an hour “Western” cartoons were shown. As a result—to quote the historian and journalist Marcin Meller, peer of the authors of the book—“a tank drove in their Teleranek.” If any people from this age group got involved in politics or social activism (and also after 1989 they did it statistically more often than people born later) it was usually because of that first impulse. Nobody has examined the question if Jaruzelski was a much more recognizable figure for this generation, but you can safely assume that it was so: you don’t forget your rite of passage.

During the 25 years which have passed since his resignation from the office of president, thousands of trivial anniversary articles and a few valuable books have been written about Jaruzelski. He himself aspired to a “place in this history”—as he put it in his characteristic pompous language—and he published successive volumes of memoirs, speeches and polemics in which he failed to say anything new. Historians with an archivist bent have learned a lot by discovering the few important documents which were not destroyed on the General’s order: they clearly suggest, for example, that Jaruzelski was active in the anti-Semitic purge in the Polish army decreed by the Communist Party in 1968.

There are also many indications (although we cannot be certain here, knowing that Moscow is an expert in manipulating the public through disclosing or hiding documents) that in the autumn of 1981 the leaders of the Soviet Union were ready to support the “hard-line” faction in the Polish Communist Party, opposed to the General, but they were reluctant to launch a direct military intervention. Yet all these revelations did not stick to the general, as if his favorite retirement outfit was not a smart suit and beige trench coat, but—despite his non-military status—a Teflon and Kevlar vest. It is in these “invisible robes of the Emperor”—unlike in Andersen, woven not so much of the ruler’s pride, but of the sympathy accorded to him by a significant part of the “post-Solidarity” media and political circles—that he received his guests and sometimes sat on the defendant’s bench during the several years long, never concluded trials and retrials, based on circumstantial evidence of abuse of power.

The work of Kowal and Cieślik is the first book in which the authors try to accomplish the impossible, that is they abandon simple formulas, attempt to understand Jaruzelski’s inconsistencies, his rejection of his family background, they write about all his, but try to find extenuating circumstances wherever possible. They most certainly did not select such a narrative due to procrastination, so widespread among the creators of popular culture, careful not to offend anyone from the audience of thousands. This scholarly incisiveness led them to choose the subtitle “paradoxical life,” suggesting from the very start a deep cleavage in the man who was growing up as a devout Catholic and a Scout, seemingly a model pupil of interwar Poland, who left public service as a contributor to Polish independence, and in the meantime, half a century long, took part in several purges and palace coups, joined the most dangerous security organization in communist Poland, that is military intelligence, co-organized the suppression of the Prague Spring and the bloody pacification in the north of Poland in December 1970, and finally broke the Polish spine by outlawing “Solidarity.”

In its surface layer, Jaruzelski: A Paradoxical Life is simply a very solid biography, in which the authors demonstrate humility towards their object of study, ability to use various types of sources, and of connecting the multiple clues. The fantastic first chapter (“a noble nest”), customarily devoted to the childhood and family of the protagonist, shows the depths of transformation which took place in the General. He came from a noble family, celebrating its origins and involvement in anti-Russian risings in the 18th and 19th century. Very few members of the Polish Communist nomenclature could boast such a pedigree, not to mention other countries of the Communist bloc, and there was certainly no one like that in the higher echelons of the regime. What is more, his school— a prestigious secondary school run by priests in Bielany— strengthened his anti-Soviet prejudices and patriotism in its most traditionalist version: naive, insurrectionary, uncritical towards the Polish past, with a slight touch of openly nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiments.

In the autumn of 1939 the 16-year-old with such a background will experience the invasion of Soviet troops, and a few months later he will face exile, starvation, exhausting labor; his emasculated father will die in his arms. Many armchair enthusiasts of communism needed much less dramatic experiences to irrevocably cure them of the infatuation with the homeland of global proletariat: why the “young master,” having broken free (even if in an army established under the auspices of Moscow) from the freezing cold of Siberia, did not shed his officer’s greatcoat (which in 1945 was absolutely possible), did not go to university to study agronomy (as the family tradition suggested) or Polish literature, since throughout his life he had a weakness for books? Was it the notorious “Hegelian sting,” appreciation of the inevitability of historical change, or was he perhaps bitten by less formidable predators, namely has he experienced—as Miłosz mercilessly wrote about the Poles stricken with the might of Russia—trepet malogo pered bolshim, the fear of a small guy facing a big one?

Kowal and Cieślik do not respond immediately to this question. Yes, they do guide us along the meanders of the officer’s life, as in a classic, but popular biography: we see the young officer fighting the remnants of wartime underground Polish units, called “gangs” by propaganda, we see him joining the Communist Party in 1947, and a year later starting to study at the Infantry Training Centre; we see a talented staff officer, in the most difficult period finding and changing his protectors without much effort. This is how he went through the Stalinist years, when falls were most dangerous and most spectacular; he never once put a foot wrong. After October 1956, the newly minted general of 33 changed his protectors once again—the Russian ones, commanders called off by Moscow, including the infamous Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, were replaced by a close associate of Gomułka, Minister Marian Spychalski—and he stepped on the chessboard of great politics, for the time being as a pawn. In the spring of 1968 he became Defense Minister; three years later, after the intervention of the Polish army in Czechoslovakia and the massacre in Gdańsk, he already had an assured place in Polish history.

The unobtrusive, but detailed recreation of his private life (the marriage “of convenience,” a close relation with his daughter, an only child, the carefully selected and often changed friends) still belongs to the canon of “popular biography.” A very valuable thing (I suspect that we owe it mostly to Paweł Kowal, author of a Ph.D. thesis defended at the Institute of Political Studies and devoted to attempts at reforming the system of government undertaken by Jaruzelski’s administration) is the detailed analysis of mechanisms of career-making in a mid-size communist country coming out of a clearly totalitarian phase, that is in Poland under Gomułka and Gierek. Never before in the writings on the period have I encountered such a precise and coolheaded description not so much of “factions,” as the circles and formations composing the seemingly monolithic apparatus of power: the security police was then something different than the bureaucracy at the Ministry of Defense, than the party nomenclature, garrisoned officers, overt and alleged residents of Soviet intelligence, and last but not least, journalists, academics, and artists, with whom you also needed to find a common language if you wanted to reach the top.

Of course, Kowal does not go as far as to suggest—following the American School of “revisionist Sovietologists”—that we are dealing with a “hidden pluralism.” In Poland under Gomułka you did not even consider openly expressing dissent (dissidents had the choice between despair, inner emigration, or markedly restrained enthusiasm): there are political factions and tribes. What is striking is the virtuosity with which Jaruzelski was able to move between them, perhaps not fraternizing with them, because it was never in his nature, but nevertheless finding a common language with regulars of the Warsaw Autumn music festival, lectors at the Central Committee, defense ministers from the Warsaw Pact countries and the “Ryazan bunch”—military officers who, like him, came from Siberia through Lenino and military school for “young janissaries” in Ryazan, sharing with him the experience of exile, uncertainty, and war. The middle chapters of the book could be easily converted into a role- playing game called “how to reach the top in a Communist regime”—and it would turn out that Jaruzelski-the-pawn, thanks to the attributes he was equipped with, always wins.

A few years later the number of pianos on which the General had to simultaneously play was even bigger: since the mid-1970s, especially after the election of Karol Wojtyła as Pope, no one who wanted to rule in Poland could keep ignoring the Church. For a few years longer you could ignore dissidents, harass them with arrests, and sometimes kill them by throwing them down the stairs, but after the August 1980, this too proved impossible: you had to find the “realists” and “fanatics” among them and play them against each other. The prime minister, party head and army commander had to talk to the Kremlin, but also to satellite capitals, and besides that to Washington, London, and even Bonn. The Vatican is frowning, foreign journalists are asking for an interview, the country is frozen by martial law, economists continuously report on the collapse of the centrally planned economy— and in the mid-1980s the virtuoso general discovers that like in a slapstick comedy the piano stool he is sitting on is rolling away from the instrument, that he no longer reaches the keyboard and any moment now he will lose control over reality.

Cieślik and Kowal masterfully build this very complicated story on the level of “factual” biography and in-depth political analysis. At the same time, the closer we are to the end, the more we see the “under-underside” of the story, the stubbornly recurring question: what did Jaruzelski need all that for? Paradoxically, his actions in 1981–1999, although seemingly signifying a U-turn (he outlaws “Solidarity” and defends orthodox Communism, only to start talks with “Solidarity” a few years later, allow it to come to power and not interfere with the dismantling of Communism), in retrospect seem more logical than the steep career path in 1945–1981. As a highly knowledgeable and quite broadminded head of state, he tried to limit the damage, he cared for the interests of his country and his own reputation, although he did that in the face of necessity and sometimes just circumstances. But for what purpose did he go continuously upward before, turning away from his former superiors, striving for successive promotions, taking part in numerous government initiatives which are impossible to defend today?

Over the years there was a number of simple interpretations of Jaruzelski’s behavior. Everyone who suffered as a result of martial law (and there were hundreds of thousands of them) tended to see in him an absolutely loyal and unreflective “Moscow stooge.” A conspiracy version of this perspective, quite elitist, was the vision of Jaruzelski as a so-called “matryoshka:” a Soviet agent, who during the Second World War appropriated, in the most modern style of phishing (Moscow knew this method long before the appearance of hackers) the identity and past of the young Wojciech Jaruzelski. Of course, such theories are inevitably infalsifiable, but this one can be refuted (just as the vision of the “Soviet stooge”) by pointing at the moments when Jaruzelski would have behaved differently if he really was just an executor of Moscow’s orders: for example in in the autumn of 1981 he would have imposed martial law earlier and more brutally.

But neither am I convinced by the vision of his supporters, according to which Jaruzelski was a “sincere patriot.” This interpretation also has its variants: in the early 1980s the party’s whispering propaganda (there was such a thing too) suggested to us an image of Jaruzelski as a Hamlet, terrified with the vision of a bloody Soviet intervention, introducing martial law against himself and almost every night putting his officer’s pistol to his head in despair and shame. The Siberian experiences of the General were sometimes discreetly recalled to suggest a scenario in which you could believe only in Poland, brought up on the romantic poetry of Mickiewicz, that is the scenario of Jaruzelski as a Wallenrod, a secret agent in the enemy’s camp, who like the eponymous hero of the epic poem from 1825 nursed a desire for revenge and would lead his country to independence. In the mid-1980s, on the initiative of the General’s eccentric advisor Wiesław Górnicki, attempts started to clothe Jaruzelski in the slightly worn-off cap and blue mantle of Józef Pilsudski, who, after all, also staged a coup d’état (in 1926) and was not an enthusiast of parliamentary democracy, but the best interests of Poland were always his priority. The change was subtle, but significant, because Marshal Piłsudski would be much more eager to put a Browning against someone else’s head than a TT pistol against his own—and in both cases absolutely unconvincing: you can’t possibly find any common points between “being a patriot” and brutally suppressing perhaps the most noble rising in the history of Poland, that is the “first Solidarity.”

So what was that driving force with the power of a rocket, pushing young Jaruzelski into the lonely heights? It would be easiest to resort to a vague, but powerful formulae like “a pathological lust for power,” were it not for everything we know (also thanks to Kowal and Cieślik) about the personality and temperament of the General. To call him “dispassionate” would be an understatement, but stealing the phrase “man without qualities” would perhaps also be inappropriate.

Most certainly he was an extreme case of an introvert, absolutely obedient to the norms he was committed to, drawing satisfaction not from fulfilling his desires, but from minutely following the procedure. His legendary abstinence would probably be amazing and inconvenient in any officer corps from Alexander the Great to Schweik, but among the Polish and Soviet conscripts and komandirs it is something absolutely incomprehensible. His courtship, as described by Kowal and Cieślik, lasted several years and is reminiscent of the behavior of the more shy protagonists of Stendhal, including a rumpled bouquet of violets in his jacket pocket. The immediately apparent stiffness of his movements (an effect of a spine injury in Siberia, making it more symbolic) perfectly matched the stiffness of his facial expressions and phrases: the orthopedic corset, mocked by the Warsaw street, hampered not only his loins, but also his tongue. As the writing duo puts it in the perhaps most sarcastic phrase in the entire book (I suspect a greater contribution of Cieślik here), “the only principles which Wojciech Jaruzelski never broke were the principles of good manners.” And indeed, he impeccably (or so the recipients say) kissed ladies’ hands and soundlessly put away the spoon after dissolving sugar in his tea: a pale-faced (only the easily reddening ears betrayed his anger), refined commander of armored columns.

So what is the conclusion—a Robespierre? But he had inside him no love of revolution and terror, if he cared so much for manners and always tried to minimize the losses with the cool head of an accountant. Or perhaps an “other-directed man,” for whom it was enough to be screamed at once in the janissary school in Ryazan to remain loyal for half a century? But he was too changeful for that: he prevaricated, he procrastinated, and sometimes he gave up. So maybe a bookkeeping dictator Franco style— they say about Franco that when he was told about the fall of the Republican Madrid, he did not even smile, but sat down to signing another pile of jail and death sentences.

I do not regard it as a weakness of Cieślik’s and Kowal’s book that they do not give a conclusive answer to this question: I would be angry if they gave it too lightly. But certainly, if the book becomes—as it is planned—the basis for a film, I would advise the producer not to spare artificial snow for creating a scenery reminiscent of the northern landscape from the “Game of Thrones.” For there is a great chill blowing from Wojciech Jaruzelski—both today, on the pages of his biography, and in December 1981, when on the longest night of the year he distinguished for many years the lights of the Polish carnival, screaming his lingering nothing nothing nothing.

Wojciech Stanislawski

Wojciech Stanislawski is a historian and a columnist. His main topics of interest include Polish intellectual history in 20th century and nation-building processes in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Until 2017 he was the editor of Plus Minus, the weekend edition of Rzeczpospolita daily. Recently he joined the Polish History Museum. In 2016 he published the translation of Solomon Volkov’s Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.

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