May 29, 2014 / 3:48 PM / 3 years ago

Poland's Walesa to pay last respects to foe Jaruzelski

Former Polish President and 1983 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Walesa addresses the audience during the opening ceremony of the 13th World Summit of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates at Palace of Culture in Warsaw October 21, 2013. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

WARSAW (Reuters) - Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity movement that overthrew Communist rule in Poland, said on Thursday he will attend a funeral mass for General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Communist leader who had him thrown in jail.

Jaruzelski died on Sunday aged 90 and will be buried on Friday at a military cemetery in Warsaw. While in power, he declared martial law in Poland to put down a pro-democracy uprising before finally stepping aside to allow free elections.

“I will be at the mass,” Walesa, 70, told the TVN24 station. He said though he would stay away from the burial ceremony itself because “I can’t stand it when they put a person back into the ground.”

Explaining his decision to go to the mass, which will take place on Friday before the burial, Walesa said Jaruzelski belonged to a generation which had to survive after Poland came under Soviet domination at the end of World War Two.

Some of them were genuine opponents of democracy, Walesa said, but others tried to undermine Soviet rule from within the Communist system. He said he did not know which group Jaruzelski represented.

Over the past few years, there had already been a tentative rapprochement between the two former enemies.

Walesa, a former shipyard electrician who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in helping bring down the Iron Curtain, visited Jaruzelski in hospital during a bout of ill health in 2011, and the following year visited the general at his home.

RECONCILIATION

There have been other examples of public reconciliation between one-time ideological foes.

When Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, he linked hands with F.W. de Klerk, the last white president. In 1993, then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shook hands to seal a short-lived peace deal.

Walesa had reasons to dislike Jaruzelski.

When Jaruzelski declared martial law in 1981, Walesa was detained for almost a year. Security forces under Jaruzelski killed dozens of protesters. Walesa had earlier lost his job because of his dissident activities, leaving his family in poverty.

But in the years since Jaruzelski lost power, many Poles have been re-assessing his role.

Some people believe he calculated that it was better for him to crack down on dissent than for his Soviet masters to send in tanks, crushing Polish hopes for independent rule. They say he deserves credit for not resorting to widespread bloodshed in a vain attempt to cling to power.

Some historians point to Jaruzelski’s early life as a sign that, at heart, he was plotting against Russian oppression. He wore dark glasses because he suffered snow blindness as a young man in Siberia, where his family was exiled by the Soviets.

Speaking in December 2012, Walesa said he had been prompted to seek a rapprochement with Jaruzelski by Roman Catholic pontiff John Paul II, who was himself a Pole.

“At all my meetings with the Holy Father, and I had a lot of them, he always asked about the general,” Walesa said on Polish public television. “Often, I was very unhappy about this.”

“The Father didn’t ask about the problems of the people who fought (Communist rule), but he asked about the general every time. So, there is something here and I am trying to see what that is. Why such a relationship? Was there something that is not known to the general population?”

Reporting by Marcin Goclowski and Anna Sterczynska; Writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Stephen Addison

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