As Poland Buries Its Last Communist Leader, An Old Debate Is Dredged

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Poland's last Communist leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, has died, leaving Poles a difficult question: What honor befits a man with such a complicated legacy? Konstanty Gebert, a Warsaw journalist, explains.


The death on Sunday of General Wojciech Jaruzelski presented his country, Poland, with a question - what should today's Poland, a member of the European Union and NATO, make of its last Communist leader? Jaruzelski ruled through martial law from 1981 until 1989, when he negotiated with the opposition, whom he had criminalized. Those negotiations led to elections and the end of communist rule. So what honor - what kind of burial befits the career soldier, a man of such famously erect bearing a ramrod with some flimsy by comparison? Well, Konstanty Gebert is a journalist in Warsaw and an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: There's been some debate over where Jaruzelski should be buried. I gather that's been settled now. Where?

GEBERT: It has been settled. He will be buried in the military section of the Piwonski Cemetery in Warsaw, among other soldiers and generals buried there. This was his wish. This was the family's wish.

SIEGEL: And will there be any ceremony or any official state honor paid him?

GEBERT: There actually will be. It will be a state funeral. It will be preceded by an official mass, because the General Jaruzelski apparently returned, on the deathbed, to the Catholicism of his youth. And this will provoke protests from Poland's radical right-wingers, who believe that the general, as a former Stalinist officer and especially as the man who imposed martial law in Poland '81, has no place in the Powinski Cemetery, where so many victims of the Stalinist regime are buried, including some an anonymous graves that had been discovered only recently.

SIEGEL: Well, how do people on the other side of that argument respond to the fact that General Jaruzelski did impose martial law. There were perhaps not tens of thousands, but hundreds of people who died under martial law. And he was indeed the last remaining leader of the old communist regime.

GEBERT: The exact number of victims of martial law actually is 102 people. I remember many of those victims personally. I was in the Communist underground at that time. A hundred and two victims is 102 too many. But then, this is how many Argentinian junta, say, would kill in a slow week. The general was not a bloodthirsty killer. If anything, he was a bumbling bureaucrat. And he was both the last Communist leader of Poland and the first leader of non-Communist Poland. The non-Communist Poland that came into being through the negotiations that he had allowed and spearheaded.

The debate, really, is not about him. He is just the standard - a symbol. The debate is about how we think about Poland's Communist 45 years. And it's a debate that cannot be solved. There are those who say that this was simply an imposed Stalinist regime of occupation. There are those who say this is the only Poland we had. And there are those who say it is over, for God's sake, it is over.

SIEGEL: Have the different views of Wojciech Jaruzelski and Polish communism - have they been argued out in school curriculum debates in Poland over the years? And what is a young person taught in a Polish school these days?

GEBERT: Our education ministry, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that Polish kids no longer have to be overburdened by history. The history curriculum has been severely reduced. And debates about the most recent Polish history reduced to a set of platitudes. On the one hand, one might think that this is actually a good thing. Poland has lived in the shadow of history for so long that emancipating it from this powerful presence of the past actually frees people to think about more practical things. I tend to think this is wrong.

I tend to think we still need our history, also, to guide us in the future. But kids in school don't learn very much. What they do learn, of course, is at home, because this is a debate which pits Pole against Pole. Families are divided. In each family, you will find people that serve the regime, oppose the regime and those - the majority - who just try to muddle through. So kids learn, but not at school.

SIEGEL: Konstanty Gebert, thank you very much for talking with us today.

GEBERT: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Journalist Konstanty Gebert, who is an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, spoke to us from Rome.

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