Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 1922: Poland’s first president Gabriel Narutowicz was assassinated

On December 16, 1922, five days after taking office, the first president of the Republic of Poland Gabriel Narutowicz was assassinated by painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski, while visiting an exhibition at Warsaw’s Zachęta gallery.

After more than a century of Partitions between the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian empires, Poland regained its independence at the end of the First World War when the three partitioning powers were fatally weakened by war and revolutions. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, formally established Poland as a sovereign state, before a series of border wars fought against Lithuania and Soviet Russia solidified the independence of a reborn Poland.

Critically, the Peace of Riga, signed in early 1921, ended the war with the Bolsheviks and divided the disputed territories of Belarus and Ukraine between the two combatants, thereby giving Poland an eastern border well beyond what the peacemakers in Paris had envisioned, and adding millions of Ukrainians, Jews and Belarusians to Poland’s minority population.

With the young republic facing a host of daunting challenges, from extensive war damage to a ravaged economy, Poland’s formal political life began in 1921 with the adoption of the March Constitution, which designed Poland as a republic, modeled after the French Third Republic, which vested most authority in the legislature, the Sejm, tasked with electing the country’s first president.

With universal suffrage, a multitude of political parties emerged, all with very different ideologies and voter bases, dominated by the left-wing Polish People’s Party “Wyzwolenie”, the right-wing National Democracy party, and the centrist Polish People’s Party “Piast”. The national minorities also formed a political coalition, the Bloc of National Minorities (BMN).

Despite calls for him to contend in the Polish presidential election of December 1922, Chief of State Józef Piłsudsk did not run for president. Instead, he supported the candidature of the leftist Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gabriel Narutowicz, who faced Count Maurycy Zamoyski, backed by the right-wing National Democracy movement, in the last and decisive round of voting.

Having already won the backing of the Polish People’s Party “Wyzwolenie”, Gabriel Narutowicz prevailed thanks to the votes of the minorities coalition, determined to defeat the National Democracy movement, and to the centrist Polish People’s Party “Piast”, who unexpectedly switched its backing after initially supporting Zamoyski. Winning a total of 289 votes, to Zamoyski’s 227, Narutowicz thus became the first president of the new Polish Republic.

But his victory came as an extremely unpleasant surprise to various leading right-wing politicians.

Far-right zealots, ultra-Catholic unions and nationalists targeted Gabriel Narutowicz for sympathy towards Polish Jews and began an aggressive anti-semitic campaign to vilify him, calling him an atheist and a Freemason, while referring to him as “the Jewish president” in the press. Protesters even attempted to prevent the president-elect from entering the Sejm by blocking the streets and throwing mud at his motorcade.

Only five days after taking office, while attending an exhibition at Warsaw’s Zachęta gallery, Gabriel Narutowicz was shot and killed by painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski. During his trial, Niewiadomski, who was connected to the National Democratic party, claimed that he originally wanted to kill Piłsudski as “a step in the fight for Polishness and for the nation.”

Niewiadomski was sentenced to death and executed outside the Warsaw Citadel in January 1923. But some in the right-wing camp saw him as a hero and the nationalistic press began portraying the assassin in positive light, writing about his “heroic stand”, “sacred convictions” and “patriotic duty”. Within months, Niewiadomski’s grave became a right-wing shrine.

Meanwhile, new elections were held and another of Piłsudski’s old colleagues, Stanisław Wojciechowski, also running on a Polish People’s Party “Wyzwolenie” ticket, was elected as Poland’s new president on December 20. His belief in a democratic Poland shaken, Piłsudski announced his retirement from active politics a few months later.

But after a succession of chaotic power shifts in the Sejm, shaken by a trade war with Germany, Piłsudski returned to power after staging the successful May Coup in 1926

Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.

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