The Red in the Roy Orbison Glasses


The trial of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last leader of communist Poland, has resumed in Warsaw. He is, incidentally, the only Eastern European leader to be prosecuted for crimes committed during the years of Soviet control of the region. Despite the recent change in lustration laws, there has been much forgiveness of Jaruzelski in Poland, the man who presided over the killing of some 200 strikers in 1970 and the architect of 1981's declaration of martial law, with former dissident Adam Michnik stating the he was "convinced that Jaruzelski is a Polish patriot and a partisan of democracy." Well, perhaps he is now a partisan of democracy, but as Benjamin Weiser writes in his terrific book A Secret Life, it was Jaruzelski that said he "was proud to send Polish troops" into Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the Guardian, Edward Lucas writes that "it is remarkable how well the old regime has fared in Poland, particularly in business but also in politics."

Reasonable people can disagree about how harshly to judge the past. Writing off the whole of communist rule in Poland as illegitimate is not as tidy as it seems. Real people lived real lives and had real achievements. Even the most hawkish Poles do not say that the university degrees they gained under communism were valueless.

But a couple of things are clear. At least Poland is debating its past, and the difficult calculus between justice and mercy. That is a sharp contrast with modern Russia, where the regime is busily obfuscating history: producing a new textbook for example, which makes Stalin out to be a tough-minded leader who made difficult decisions for what he thought was the good of the country. Secondly, prosecution is not guilt. Jaruzelski will have a chance to put his side of the argument. The prosecutors will put theirs. If he dislikes the verdict, he can appeal. If voters don't like the outcome, they can elect representatives who can change the law. That is how things are supposed to work—and that's just what didn't happen during the years Jaruzelski was in power.