Polish anti-Semitism between the wars
Polish anti-Semitism between the wars

In between the two world wars, the Polish Republic, newly created in 1919 from parts of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, included many ethnic and national minorities: German, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Slovak and Jewish. Although Poland signed the Minorities Treaty of 1919, which called for protection of the civil rights of non-Polish minorities, the reality was far different when it came to the country’s Jews, who made up 10% of the population. Rampant anti-Semitism was an integral and especially virulent part of Polish society, idée fixe, that was further fueled by a series of events in 1922.

Paul Brykcznski’s revelatory book, Primed for Violence: Murder, Antisemitism and Democratic Politics in Interwar Poland, illustrates how the election and subsequent murder of the first president of the Polish Republic, Gabriel Narutowicz, in December 1922, arose from anti-Semitism and burgeoning ethnic Polish nationalism. Drawing on primary sources, including newspaper articles, political pamphlets, parliamentary minutes and police reports, Brykcznski, shows how the “December Events,” as they came to be called, were historically viewed as minimally important, but were, in fact, broadly significant. They profoundly influenced Polish society and Poland’s political climate for years to come and largely determined the political direction of the country in the lead up to the Second World War.

Four years after Poland regained its sovereignty following more than a century under foreign rule, the selection of the first president of the Republic of Poland was an unexpectedly controversial affair. Five candidates emerged, most relatively unknown to the public. Under Poland’s constitution at the time, the president was chosen by a vote by the National Assembly, the country’s two houses of parliament. A series of votes until one candidate received the majority produced a surprising result with the election of Narutowicz.

The anti-Semitic, ethnically Pole-centric nationalist parties had rallied around Count Maurycy Zamoyski, the biggest landowner in pre-World War II Poland who had served as vice-chairman of the Polish National Committee in Warsaw. The Polish Socialist Party, peasants and the National Minorities Bloc – an alliance of Jewish, German, Ukrainian and Belarusian groups – supported Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, a fighter for Polish independence and a former socialist who had created the Polish army and ruled the county as an unelected “head of state” for the previous four years. But Pilsudski had chosen not to run.  In the end, Narutowicz, an ostensibly non-controversial candidate, a Swiss engineer and friend of Pilsudski’s, surprised the populace by being the last man standing.

Although he enjoyed widespread support from a broad coalition of minority parties, Narutowicz was characterized as the “Jewish” candidate and, thus, the object of profound antipathy in a Poland wracked by anti-Semitism. Ethnic Poles loathed minorities as foreigners but singled out Jews for intense hatred. The majority of the electorate believed that minorities had to be kept out of politics and that any politician who acted against the interests of ethnic Poles in collusion with the minorities was guilty of treason. Jews were viewed as actors in a powerful, sinister Bolshevist conspiracy that would spell imagined defeat for the future of the Polish state.

Following Narutowicz’s ascent to the presidency, large demonstrations and riots took place in Warsaw, forcing the government to declare martial law.  Nationalistic Poles regarded the president as illegitimate and felt cheated out of what they deemed was their rightful place to run the country. They called for a social boycott of Jews and proceeded to loot and vandalize Jewish businesses. Roaming groups of youths, undeterred by law enforcement, hunted for Jews and attacked on the streets anyone they imagined was Jewish.

The unrest continued through inauguration day with a massive demonstration orchestrated to prevent the new president from arriving at the swearing-in ceremony. Youths wielding clubs and firearms formed in front of the assembly hall, demanding identification from all those who tried to enter. Those who had supported Narutowicz, as well as Jewish journalists, were beaten by the mobs. Eventually, a bruised Narutowicz was sworn in as president.

National Democrats boycotted the event and put pressure on Narutowicz to resign. Many of his supporters capitulated under pressure and asked the new leader to abdicate his position in the interest of the state. Narutowicz, concerned about setting precedent for mob rule and its negative implications for the republic, refused. The next day, the socialists, who had initially supported the president, organized a general strike and shut down the trams, electricity and water. Narutowicz responded by replacing the police commander and threatening to bring in the army to quell the riots.

On December 16, 1922, while officiating at the opening of an annual art exhibit, Narutowicz was shot from behind by Eligiusz Niewiadomski, a painter who insisted he acted to save Poland from Jewish tyranny and domination. Niewiadomski faulted the Jews for creating and popularizing socialism, which he believed had led to the degeneration of moral values. He claimed to be motivated by the deep desire to maintain the “Polishness” of Poland. In short order, the murderer was turned into a national hero, “a man of great character,” “a noble soul.”  Following his execution on Jan. 31, 1923, Niewiadomski’s funeral procession numbered 10,000 Poles. Even today, his grave is a place of pilgrimage, and the anniversary of his death brings many admirers.

Particularly interesting, as noted by the author, was how the image of the murderer transformed in just a few days from that of a madman to a patriot. The media presented the murder as a casualty of the nation’s legitimate reaction to its sovereignty being “taken over” by Jews. In very short order, the murderer, Niewiadomski, became a symbol of Polish resistance to a perceived Jewish threat. As Narutowicz was seen by many as an illegitimate president, the violence exhibited against him was characterized as a natural consequence of his election.

Mollified by the riots and murder, most Polish political parties of the day backed away from their support of national minorities and failed to challenge the fulminant anti-Semitism and ethnic Polish nationalism. A public discourse ensued on what constituted “Polishness,” and it was generally decided that “ethnic Poles” alone had the right to rule Poland.

Prior to the election of Narutowicz, anti-Semitic libels had focused on Jews as “causing inflation,” “taking over the economic life of certain regions,” breaking up Polish unity or “being in league with the Freemasons.”  Many Poles subscribed to the meme that the removal of Jews from political and economic influence in Polish life would solve the country’s political and economic ills. The call for “national unity” became known as the “Doctrine of the Polish Majority,” which amounted to the explicit exclusion of “non-Polish” minorities and an orchestrated plan of hatred and rejection of Jewish political participation. Instead of causing introspection and reevaluation, the murder of the Jewish president brought reaffirmation of anti-Semitism and renewed commitment to ethnic Polish nationalism.

Six months after the murder of Narutowicz, the Government of the Polish Majority was inaugurated. Its charter called for retaining the Polish national character in the governing and administration of the state and maintained that the government should be made up exclusively of Poles, who should be rightfully privileged in education, the military and government jobs and contracts.

Brykcznski makes clear in Primed for Violence that the result of the December Events, the election, resulting riots and assassination of the first Polish president, rather than bringing about a condemnation of anti-Semitism and a reformation of Polish policies to embrace minority Poles, brought doctrinal changes that formalized anti-Semitic nationalism and drove Polish politicians to champion a discriminatory political climate of ethnic Polish supremacy. In the end, defending the political rights of Jews and other minorities was viewed as a battle not worth fighting given the violence and anarchy that emanated from the deep cultural roots of anti-Semitism throughout the nation.