Gabriel Narutowicz, the first elected president of independent Poland, was murdered by the little-known artist and critic Eligiusz Niewiadowski at the Zachęta Art Gallery in Warsaw on 16 December 1922. Narutowicz had been elected by the Polish Sejm, or National Assembly, just a week before and sworn in on 11 December. As a Swiss-educated, technocratic liberal who had garnered just sixty-two of the 545 available votes in the first round, he was an unlikely victor, but Count Zamoyski, Poland’s largest landowner and candidate of the right, who led in the first four rounds of voting, persistently failed to achieve a majority. This reflected the fissures running through Polish society. Piast, the peasant party (to adopt Brykczynski’s usage), eventually voted with the socialists and the National Minorities’ Bloc because Zamoyski and the National Democrats (Endecja) would not agree a programme of significant land reform. Just a few weeks later, the same voting coalition elected Stanisław Wojciechowski, the preferred candidate of Piast, as Narutowicz’s successor. This outcome has led historians to play down the long-term significance of Narutowicz’s assassination, suggesting that it ultimately led to a defeat for the right, and helped secure Poland’s parliamentary democracy. In this forcefully revisionist text, Paul Brykczynski vigorously contests this interpretation, arguing that the assassination of Narutowicz and the strength of sympathy it elicited not for the victim but the perpetrator, who was represented in the rightist press as a victim of historical forces of which he had little understanding, frightened Piast and cowed the left. Narutowicz’s murder was explicitly anti-Semitic, coming at the end of a week of anti-Semitic violence sparked by the fact that the coalition which elected Narutowicz included representatives of Poland’s large Jewish population. That this majority included the other so-called National Minorities, including Germans, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Belarusians, attracted much less attention: ‘all evil in Poland’, argued Endecja deputy Father Nowakowski, ‘was the fault of the Jews and their lackey Witos’, the leader of Piast. Indeed, in summarising the history of Endecja, Brykczynski emphasises how limited its political repertoire was. But for the intensity of its anti-Semitism, he suggests, its platform was that of a conventional conservative party, a reading that risks underplaying just how fundamentally ethnicised Endek politics were—the National Minorities treaty of 1919, for instance, remained an open sore. At the same time, Brykczynski argues that the crisis also confirmed the National Democrats’ commitment to the parliamentary process, although he also suggests that ‘Polish democracy was saved not so much because of its own strength but because of the lack of resolve of its potential enemies’. This is rather opaque—‘potential enemies’?—and raises questions about the enduring authority of parliamentary legitimacy in Polish nationalist culture. Above all, Brykczynski understands the wave of anti-Semitic violence which culminated in the assassination as a manifestation of what he calls the ‘Doctrine of the Polish Majority’, a political principle predicated on the notion that for the government to be legitimate it must reflect the wishes of those judged to be ethnic Poles. Wojciechowski formed a government with Witos as prime minister and in coalition with the Endeks on just this basis. At first glance, much of this argument is aligned with the long-established interpretation of Polish nationalism in the inter-war period as divided between the ethnic nationalism of Endecja and the pluralist, commonwealth ideals of Piłsudski, but Brykczynski challenges the degree to which this distinction held firm. During his trial, Niewiadowski claimed his intended target was Piłsudski and his ‘Judeo-Poland’, while his defence wrote of the ‘tragedy of his deed’; most significantly, Brykczynski argues not only that the right came to see the murder ‘as something natural and inevitable, beyond the active agency of any political party or actor’, but that the Piłsudskiites, a very diverse force, proved reluctant to publicly contest this interpretation. Moreover, the authorities did little to prevent Niewiadowski’s funeral becoming a public event—the police had already proved unreliable—but Brykczynski suggests that more significant was how the left proved acquiescent in the face of the Doctrine of the Polish Majority. They did not repudiate their insistence on the civil rights of Polish Jews, they just ceased to give expression to it: ‘many leftists and Piłsudskiites appear to have concluded that “the Jews” were a liability in this [political] struggle’. Nominally progressive Poles became prone to argue that Jewish rights were predicated on their loyalty not simply as citizens of the state, but on their recognition that ethnic Poles were the foundation of the nation and had graciously extended rights of citizenship to the non-Polish minorities. At times, Brykczynski’s analysis is a little too entangled in discussions of contingency, and it is not wholly clear what his commitment to Roger Griffin’s theory of ‘palingenetic populist nationalism’ brings to his analysis of anti-Semitic violence and the assassination. Similarly, the attempt to locate the murder in the context of post-war violence is a little problematic, and the discussion of the Irish Republican Army is particularly clumsy. But his thesis that the election of Narutowicz was the spark that lit the proverbial powder keg carries weight. Right-wing Poles, it seems, were ‘primed for violence’, and equally it seems that there was little appetite on the left to protect those whose rights they were wedded to ideologically. The street battles between left and right which preceded the Nazi seizure of power in Germany do not appear to have occurred in Poland in December 1922. Nonetheless, whether the mob really posed a threat to the new state is open to question. As such, Brykczynski’s judgements can seem a little over-extended, particularly with respect to the degree to which these events set the terms of political debate for the remainder of the inter-war period. Kathryn Ciancia’s recent article in the Journal of Modern History on the inter-war kresy captures that complexity really well, though Brykczynski is surely right to claim that political anti-Semitism was of greater significance in the first years of the Polish republic than has previously been allowed and that anti-Semitism’s opponents were not as robust as we might like to think. This is a fine, provocative study, which left this reader wanting more. A comparable volume taking the analysis to the Piłsudski coup of May 1926 would be most welcome. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 4, 2018
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