WARSAW, May 25, 2014 (AFP) - General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland's last communist leader who tried but failed to crush the freedom-fighting Solidarity union, died Sunday aged 90, a hospital spokesman said.
Jaruzelski, who died in a Warsaw hospital with his daughter by his side, marked Polish history by trying to strangle the Soviet bloc's first free trade union with a brutal military crackdown on December 13, 1981.
But by 1989, he became the first communist leader to clear the way for democracy by agreeing to semi-free elections with Solidarity, led by the charismatic former shipyard electrician and Nobel Peace laureate Lech Walesa.
"He would have been a great man if he had lived in different era," Walesa once told AFP, calling Jaruzelski "a very intelligent man" who was "part of a generation from an unhappy time".
"I don't know if he believed sincerely in communism or whether he just let himself get drawn in. I won't judge him. Let God and history do that."
Jaruzelski - whose strongman image was accentuated by dark glasses and rigid posture - saw himself as a patriot who used martial law in December 1981 to save Poland from a potentially bloody Soviet invasion.
Critics, however, argue that the crackdown only bolstered his regime when the USSR was too bogged down in Afghanistan to step in.
Jaruzelski was born into the minor nobility on July 6, 1923 in Kurow, eastern Poland.
The Soviets deported his family after Hitler and Stalin carved up Poland in 1939 at the start of World War II. His father died in Siberia.
He enjoyed a meteoric military and political rise after joining Polish forces under Moscow's command to battle the Nazis in 1943.
Having fought his way to Germany in 1945, he returned home to help crush anti-communist resistance. He became a general at 33, heading the military's political department.
In 1964, Jaruzelski joined the Polish communist party's governing Central Committee and served as defence minister for over a decade until 1983.
"I don't think he ever enjoyed life, its little pleasures. Work and politics with a capital P were always a priority," his daughter Monika said in her memoirs.
Jaruzelski took a hard line when protests erupted over price rises in 1970 in the shipyards of Gdynia and Gdansk - Solidarity's birthplace a decade later.
The crackdown took at least 44 lives and left hundreds injured. After the regime fell, he was charged for giving shooting orders, but was never convicted.
Jaruzelski took total control by 1981, becoming premier in February and party chief in October. The martial law crackdown on the nascent Solidarity freedom movement shocked the West.
Images of tanks and soldiers in the streets and the uniformed general reading the martial law decree in back-to-back broadcasts remain etched in the minds of those who lived through the painful period.
Thousands of Solidarity activists were jailed, including Walesa. The union was outlawed but survived underground.
Poles have bitter memories of the economic crisis that ensued as basic foodstuffs were rationed.
"What was very important was that he was a military man: he was used to that rigour, to that strictness, to the idea that you give out orders which must be obeyed with no ifs or buts," Warsaw historian Andrzej Paczkowski told AFP.
"That all featured heavily in his character and I think it was only in the late 1980s that he understood it wasn't the right personality type for a head of state."
Martial law was formally lifted on July 22, 1983 and by the time reformist Mikhail Gorbachev took power two years later, the days of Moscow's satellite regimes were numbered.
In 1988, amid a new wave of strikes, the communists decided to negotiate with the still-banned Solidarity.
The Round Table talks of 1989 legalised Solidarity and paved the way for the semi-free elections that heralded communism's demise.
Lawmakers narrowly elected Jaruzelski president in July 1989, but he resigned in September 1990 after the Polish communist party voted itself out of existence, making way for free presidential elections won by Walesa.
In 2006, Jaruzelski was formally charged with setting up a criminal military organisation for martial law. He faced eight years in jail, but the drawn-out trial was shelved after his cancer diagnosis in 2011.
He withdrew from the public eye towards the end of his life as his health deteriorated and his legal woes continued, but still spoke out.
"It might seem like a paradox, but I'm very happy to see Poland in NATO, which guarantees our security, and in the European Union, which represents a huge opportunity for development," he once told AFP.