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Wednesday, 16 May, 2001, 08:35 GMT 09:35 UK
Profile: Poland's last communist leader
General Jaruzelski
Jaruzelski rose through party ranks to become leader
By central Europe analyst Jan Repa

Poland's last communist leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski, who has gone on trial in Warsaw over the deaths of 44 strikers in 1970, is better known as the man who imposed martial law more than a decade later.

The proclamation, on 13 December 1981, was an attempt to suppress the Solidarity movement.

Jaruzelski was already leader of the Polish Communist Party, prime minister and minister of defence. He would become head of the Military Council of National Salvation and Polish president.

For some Poles - particularly the "Solidarity generation" - he is little short of a traitor

Now a frail 77-year old, Jaruzelski has lived quietly since the collapse of communism - writing memoirs, polishing his image as a patriot and gentleman, and trying to stay out of jail.

Like much of communist Poland, Jaruzelski's own personal record is obscured and open to different interpretations.

What we do know about Jaruzelski's career runs roughly as follows.

Forced labour

Born into a Polish gentry family in 1923, Jaruzelski and his parents were deported into the depths of the Soviet Union, along with around a million other Poles, following the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.

He was orphaned, and became a forced labourer - permanently damaging his back and eyes.

Drafted into the Polish army units being formed under Soviet command, he ended the Second World War as a lieutenant - and then participated, under Soviet direction, in the ruthless suppression of the Polish wartime resistance movement.

Public opinion in Poland is now divided on Jaruzelski
However, Jaruzelski's career really took off after the departure in 1956 of the Soviet Field Marshal, Konstantin Rokossovsky, who had been installed by Stalin as Poland's Commander in Chief and Minister of Defence.

Jaruzelski became the chief "political officer" of the Polish armed forces in 1960, chief of staff in 1964; and defence minister in 1968.

In 1971, a year after the Baltic shootings for which he is now being tried, he became a full member of the Communist Party Politburo.

Polish public opinion remains deeply divided about Jaruzelski.

'Lesser evil'

For some - particularly the "Solidarity generation" - he is little short of a traitor.

Opinion polls, however, suggest that a majority of Poles today are prepared to accept Jaruzelski's explanation of martial law as the "lesser evil" - intended to prevent a Soviet invasion.

Earlier attempts to put Jaruzelski on trial - whether for 1970 or 1981 - have been frustrated by lengthy legal wrangles and Jaruzelski's own alleged poor health.

The present trial is scheduled last at least a year, with several hundred witnesses due to be called. Whether it will bring Poles to a clearer understanding of their post-war history is unclear.

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