Authority in the Second Polish Republic and the legacy of Partitions
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30

[in:] Władza w polskiej tradycji politycznej: idee i praktyka, OMP, Cracow 2010.



Let us begin with a few technical remarks on the difficulty caused by the need to strictly determine the scope of our study. The basic question to start with is whether to focus on what is imagined about the legacy left by the partitioning powers or rather pursue a more ambitious task and try to specify the actual impact, undoubtedly imprinted in a permanent manner on numerous fields of life. Even if we stick to the political side – as the title suggests – there are still various difficulties to tackle. These would mostly pertain to materials because the scale of queries would be vast, considering a broad scope of research questions that should be asked. These questions would regard: 1) the shape of the legal system, confronted with analogous solutions applied in Austria, Germany and Russia serving as closer points of reference (as well as – as further points of reference – Western states); 2) the shape of the state apparatus of authority: organisational solutions, manner of action, life histories, education (naturally, including the place where it was received); 3) relations between the ruling and the ruled, mutual expectations, political mores (or political culture). The last element would be 4) the analysis of what is imagined about post-Partition heritage. Although this heritage was seen as more of a burden than value in the interwar period, a precise analysis of this phenomenon would be necessary. As it transpires, a complex of problems emerges worthy of a monograph if not a long-term research programme for a team of experts. Another type of difficulty results from the fuzziness that marks the subject of all studies dealing with nation-related issues. It is simply impossible to precisely separate what is “ours” from what is “foreign.” Only at a level of declaration can one find relative clarity in this respect, assuming that one narrows down their observation to an individual with a specified sense of national identity. Further analyses get complicated and the formulated conclusions either begin to dangerously verge on voluntarism or one begins to more or less intentionally bend to suggestions in source materials.

In order to illustrate the problem, I will refer to the opinion of Roman Dmowski – a still vividly controversial statesman who, despite being historically remembered as a pro-Russian politician, fully shared the sentiment spread throughout the Russian Partition. When describing the impact of Russians on the Polish society, he always painted a gloomy picture, indicating a plague of banditry on the outskirts of towns in the Kingdom and a general lack of hygiene, while – in the political sphere defining relations between the society and the authorities – he considered the increasingly vague differences between the legal opposition and the state’s enemy to be a sign of Russian impact on political affairs in Poland. Such views were represented more widely and imprinted themselves permanently, which makes them a substantial social fact, irrespective of whether they were justified or not. Did at least some of the abovementioned faults characterising social life and political culture not originate from native sources or result from other factors than Russian influences?

To avoid difficulties, one may shift the focus to the fairly measurable aspects that allow for reasonably exact coverage. This pertains to the transformations of political, institutional and legal, as well as economic structures, associated with the state being rebuilt. It would be a separate issue to analyse their functioning and ask questions about the social expectations of the administrative apparatus that was rapidly growing due to various factors. This issue will be readdressed further on. Nonetheless, there is no doubt about the direction that was followed. With hindsight (including contemporary experiences) and given the scale of difficulties faced by the state, it is quite impressive how fast a pace was achieved when working on a constitution – one that would take native specificity into account while importing solutions from the part of the world with which links were willingly acknowledged in Poland. It is noteworthy that the various divides existing in political elites translated into discrepancies among proposed systemic solutions only to a limited extent. Despite various specific issues being disputed in the course of constitutional debate among the main political movements, from socialists to national democrats, views were convergent in respect of fundamental points that determined the character of the political system. This particularly included the need for the system to be based on authorities appointed in general election according to legal procedures proven in the West. The reconstructed Polish state was a republic with the actual supreme power lying – like in erstwhile Poland – in the hands of the parliament. It was fundamentally different from all conservative monarchies of the partitioning states in this respect, including the liberal Habsburg Monarchy.

Providing uniformity to administrative and legal systems was a process that extended over time but its course clearly illustrated the priorities of political elites – delivered persistently and systematically in a continual manner, irrespective of both cabinet changeovers and the more fundamental changeover effectuated by the May Coup. With regard to administrative structures, the general tendency was to make them uniform. The view that the state should be uniform also gained ground among the circles advocating federalism and later regionalism, who at the same time fought against the institutional separateness of the former Prussian district and Silesian autonomy. Both the general direction of ongoing changes and the logic behind the rate of their implementation demonstrated a determination to even out post-Partition differences. Problems of crucial political significance were the first to be regulated, followed by those less essential and others, over time. The unification of the administrative apparatus at voivodeship and county levels was conducted during the first several years while it was not until the next decade that it applied to self-government organs. Commentators living in that era rightly noticed the effect of an authoritarian character of rule on the shape of many organisational and legal regulations. However, this effect faded or disappeared, tempered by other factors, whenever the political sphere in its strict sense was less involved. Other factors most importantly included professional qualifications of advisory teams engaged in preparing new regulations. This view is fully relevant to e.g. the Codification Commission formed in 1919, whose works were interrupted by the disaster of September 1939. Even the legal historians distancing themselves from the Second Polish Republic indicated the high level of legal knowledge and the originality of solutions presented by the Commission. Polish penal law contained in the code of 1932 was also highly rated.

Post-war Poland increasingly divested itself of Partition-related traits through changes in the political arena that followed the outbreak of World War One. Some were of a long-term nature, associated with democratisation, and some were driven by the euphoria of the first months of independence. They resulted in conservative circles, which used to be influential before the war, being sidelined and in other parties, based on a mass (plebeian) electorate and representing rival trends: national democratic, peasant, and socialist, remaining at play. Their asset, apart from doctrines that made their rhetoric easily adjustable to the mentality and needs of circles that were freshly entering politics, was their anchorage in complex organisational structures built by hundreds of voluntary middle rank activists. Their organising skills were demonstrated by swift consolidation of milieus that had previously been active within areas under separate partitioning powers, resulting in the formation of all-Poland party structures. The advancement of an often criticised “petty party politics” – though not free from various pathologies – was a positive development and a symptom of the state growing in strength, not only based on the administrative machinery but also on the activity and engagement of social structures and people formerly uninvolved in community life. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the mentioned processes, especially in the first months and years of the regained statehood, considering both the weakness of clerk system and the scale of hardships faced by the country – both related to war fighting and wide-ranging social problems.

The environments known in the historiography of the Polish People’s Republic as “revolutionary left” represent a separate case. The merging of the Polish Socialist Party-Left with the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania in December 1918 was by no means an analogous process to those in progress in other major ideological movements, because it did not aim at covering the entire (and growing) Polish territory but only sought to perform the strategy of the global communist movement (eventually constituted in July 1920) as a whole. Although the question of to what extent the country of victorious socialism created new quality and to what extent it copied the models of the tsarist state’s political culture was controversial from the start, it was beyond doubt that the activeness of the far left oriented that way had no precedent in the pre-war world, which made it (in combination with the often extreme responses it evoked) one of the determinants of changes brought by the post-war era.

The elite circles, including not only the conservatives but also liberal intellectuals, were outside the range of consolidation occurring within particular political structures. In a post-war environment, the failure to reach the mass public with a programme offer, as well as difficulties with developing organisational structures, threatened to marginalise them. Seeing themselves as an elite standing above the rabble and entitled to rule, politicians who had been influential before the war could not reach the masses (not all considered it necessary to do so) and even failed to reach compromise among themselves. In combination with their eager will to act, dictated by various reasons (from yearning to regain pre-war influence and significance to opposing the agrarian reform and felling a sense of mission that largely marked intellectual milieus), this caused growing frustration. Some succumbed to nostalgia for pre-war times while others looked out for a strong figure. As long as the political system was based on universal suffrage, the self-aggrandising elites had no chance to resume power. Although the political turnaround following the May Coup produced such an opportunity, the favourable circumstances lasted only several years, and the chance to benefit turned out to be illusory.

Post-Partition divides in the economic sphere diminished arguably faster than one could expect. I am not referring to the still existing disproportions in infrastructure – striking when it comes to the transport network. Developmental gaps, such as between the Poznań region and Polesia, were not remedied during the twenty years of independence; however, differences were certainly significantly reduced. Nonetheless, the rate of unification can be considered impressive in two other key economy-related areas. Firstly, an internal market emerged relatively quickly, with a strongly accentuated role of the state as a regulatory, organising and demand-producing institution involved also in direct management. Accelerating factors for this process, apart from the obvious needs ensuing from the wars of 1919-1921, included the breakdown of pre-war work division system, strongly emphasised in liberal publications, and protectionist practices, actually accepted by developed states fronted by the USA. The second area – where post-Partition divides were facilitated by transformations occurring outside Polish borders – was monetary circulation. In face of a catastrophe that afflicted the partitioning states, old currencies not only dropped out of circulation but also stopped being worthy of accumulation. Gold was unrivalled for this role, as well as US dollar – it became a de facto second currency for the first years of independence. However, devaluation in the Great Depression era undermined trust in dollars while the native zloty proved powerful and useful in protecting savings.

The importance of local money extended beyond the economic sphere, resounding politically and ideologically. The use of a state-issued currency determined the most common type of contact with the entity of state. Aside from the currency’s practical features, and gradually increasing trust placed in it, its existence carried political implications: on one hand they were direct, but also acted through a politics-related symbolic sphere. Above all, the currency was evidence of the state’s existence and its economic sovereignty, here manifested as a modern version of the right of coinage – the right to have its own policy of issuing securities. The symbolic imagery presented on coins and bills that was, in a way incidentally, made different to that of pre-Partition era tangibly informed users of the political changes that had occurred. This message was addressed to all residents of Poland, irrespective of their awareness and attitudes towards the state.

Additionally, the local currency pervading the domestic market of the reborn country corresponded with other actions taken by its authorities to increase state presence in symbolical sphere. Before the fighting-for-independence cult joined the core of the so-called “state upbringing” proclaimed after May 1926 (which triggered a brooding dispute over the sense of uprisings), it had been considered obvious that the renascent state should be grateful not only to those who had eventually fought back independence, but also all those who had struggled for it before them, facing unfavourable conditions. Such a stand, logically linked to seeing the state as a continuity of the former Republic destroyed by the Partitions, was strongly voiced during a session of Legislative Sejm when a point was raised about providing for the still living veterans of national uprisings. The fight for symbols also involved eliminating mementoes and monuments regarded as anti-Polish. The demolition of an Orthodox cathedral in the Saxon Square in Warsaw in the mid-1920s was a spectacular act. Tellingly, it was not the drastic character of that decision but the tardiness in its realisation that sparked protests among the elites. Despite some objections to removing “Holy Lord’s” images occasionally expressed by the people, nostalgia for the bygone order was in general curiously faint.

Naturally, it is hard to comment conclusively on that matter. It is generally difficult to measure social awareness phenomena, especially when lacking surveys and opinion polls so common nowadays. However, if we consider general election as a fairly representative indicator, two elements are thought-provoking. First, there were no groups attempting to evoke nostalgia for pre-war times on the Polish political scene. If such sentiments had been present on a larger scale, an environment would have come to being who would try to climb on the bandwagon and benefit politically – some cases of pro-regional agitation voiced locally by single parties are not enough to exemplify this. It is also striking how difficult it was for politicians associated with pre-1914 conciliatory attitudes to compete at the polls. Being regarded as conciliative towards the partitioning powers was disadvantageous, while the strength of such prejudice was as puzzling as its endurance. If we compare the 1919 and 1922 elections in that respect, no differences can be found. Everyone put their trust in, to use a more modern phrase, “loonies” of nationalist right-wing and pro-independence left-wing circles while staunchly opposing “sensible” people not eager to try to bite off more than they could chew. It was noteworthy inasmuch as the more or less simultaneous elections in France and the United Kingdom demonstrated that the perception of the Great War (and its consequences) could change over just a few years, in a spectacular way.

It is difficult to speculate on the reasons behind such a state of affairs. One reason could be the impossibility to return to the status quo ante given the scale of changes on a post-war map. It is also significant that the partitioning monarchies, before their collapse, ruined their former reputations. This also applied to “the good invader” – Habsburg Monarchy – which had a blemished record due to the acts of bestial soldiery between 1914 and 1915 followed by destructive requisitions, and finally the clumsy manoeuvring between the Polish and Ukrainian causes. Not to mention the remaining partitioning states. Consequently, the understandable desire to restore normality after four years of devastating war was no longer addressed to whom people used to call “their” monarchs. The Polish state deliberately sought to satisfy this desire, persistently building its image as an entity close to people symbolically and well-disposed towards them, responsive to their needs. This is the right context in which to regard the sense of social legislation from the first months of independence – one that was absurd if considered in a narrow context of purely economic categories. When judging that policy, one should remember that the re-emerging state’s capabilities to provide stability were feeble. The collapse of the pre-war order resulted in economic chaos and widespread destitution. This situation was unlikely to be remedied under conditions of an ongoing war and a concomitant rapid rise in inflation. Relative social peace that was sustained in those circumstances – including state crisis in summer 1920 – can be deemed another surprising phenomenon. However, it stops being such a wonder when seen against the backdrop of other processes, like the aforementioned signs of the voting electorate being ill-disposed towards conciliative “Excellencies.” In fact, it represented a sort of measure of national emotions’ strength. On the other hand, these emotions were also displayed in other forms, less conducive to stability.

However shocking this may sound to many in the light of modern notions, it can be assumed that nationalism – understood as a “national sense,” i.e. more broadly than the concept in Poland is commonly defined – was a factor stabilising Polish people’s attitudes, and thereby cementing the state. It also caused, contrary to the opinions of elites building this state, that the emerging country was only to a limited extent a restitution of statehood destroyed by the Partitions. A major novelty was that the state rested upon Polish residents. As regards non-Polish ethnic groups, their attitudes to the renascent Polish Republic differed and run a wide gamut of responses, from indifference and aversion (mildly or strongly displayed) to open and armed resistance. The resultant split turned out permanent: tensions built up in the post-war poverty period reasserted old resentments. The ensuing situation limited the choice for politicians, which they – irrespective of options they represented – had to take note of. If the toilsomely regained state was to survive, it had to be founded on the group which it could trust. Although the attitude towards minorities was definitely one of the most heatedly discussed subjects by Polish elites, the views were actually much less divergent than liberal- or nationalist-based rhetoric would suggest. Even the part of opinions which were against minority discrimination for programme-related reasons showed utmost caution whenever any risk was at stake. It was visible in military policy (particularly in the line-up of officers’ corps) and in the staffing of official posts.

Ethnic polarisation was an obvious danger to the Polish state. It also presented a problem that, when regarded in a long term, encouraged no optimism for the foreseeable future. The Second Polish Republic collapsed because of a coordinated invasion from outside; however, internal tensions made themselves felt both before and after 1939, in horrifying ways. Looking for the causes of this situation – while noting the consequences of war resentments, of ethnic policy errors made by subsequent governments, of prejudices in the Polish community, as well as cases of supporting external irredentism – there’s no escaping the fact that the earlier, Partition-period processes also mattered. In other words, it is hard to understate the consequences of having lost the 19th century. Czesław Miłosz – not only a poet but also a keen and sensitive observer of social sentiments in the Eastern borderlands, where he spent his formative years – once stated that if it had not been for the 18th-century disaster of statehood and the loss of the crucial 19th century, the entire area of the Republic of Poland would have been assimilated to Polish culture. Even if that opinion lacked moderation, there was a certain rationale behind it. After all, there is no reason to believe that the ethnic border would have been precisely the same as in the interwar period, instead of further east (though, of course, it is impossible to speculate as to where exactly it would run). In that case, the concept of ideological homeland would have probably pertained to a multicultural state area rather than a community of people speaking the same language. Separatism of groups who evolved their identity from contradicting the common historic heritage would have probably accentuate itself less strongly. In this respect, the ramifications of the Partitions were irreversible. As it turned out, their most acute and most permanent consequences were ethnic frictions and conflicts rather than grudge against foreign-imposed offices, schools, and the police.

In comparison with the divides between Poles and non-Poles, various post-Partition features and faults marking the Polish elites – and visible on a larger scale – can be considered of little importance. However, they were certainly significant as an actual social fact. They became known during election campaigns that repeatedly involved anti-foreign demagogy. The weight and durability of prejudices were also proved by the elites taking measures to counteract threats ensuing from the existing situation. I quite doubt if the May Coup, and the process of “normalisation” that occurred thereafter, could be fully understood without taking this factor into account.

The rightness of stereotypic beliefs about the characteristics associated with post-Partition burdens is a separate issue. For the reasons mentioned in the introduction, it is often impossible to determine what was reality and what was only an expression of prejudices. Let us thus indicate the least doubtful elements. Given the low mobility in the population, it should not be surprising that regional separatisms persisted – divergent traditions and habits could only perpetuate them. Poverty and the consequent skimpiness of the labour market caused similar effects. In a situation where everyone “alien” taking the bread out of people’s mouths is considered a problem, it is small wonder that reserve towards foreign residents shows.

Another issue are post-Partition resentment-related complications in the functioning of representative democracy. It would be an exaggeration to over-accentuate the importance of historical and cultural factors in the face of tensions driven by poverty, ethnic antagonisms, low legal culture and troubles with appointing the efficient executive amid a factious party environment (transferred to the Sejm via proportional representation). Nonetheless, the mentioned complications played a role. With some exceptions, the most eminent politicians in the vast majority of political movements (except peasant activists) came from the Russian Partition. Although, given their life histories, it is hard to consider them a product of tsarist state’s political culture, it is also hard not to notice that what they had preached until a certain point (with sure honesty) about accepting the Western-type institution of liberal democracy was quite an empty talk, as it had never been backed by any practical or even theoretical knowledge on the mechanisms of governing in such kind of systems.

The histories of two men of great merit and authority may serve as an example to illustrate the emerging tensions, namely: Roman Dmowski and Józef Piłsudski. They both came from the Russian Partition, where they moulded themselves into leaders by way of conspiratorial, not parliamentary, activities. Their view of Western-type democracy presented an idealistic mingling quite abstract against Polish reality: Dmowski dreamed about a two-party system, Piłsudski about a transformation of mentality that would trigger a sort of outburst of idealism. The confrontation of ideals with reality must have stirred frustration and tensions, while it also affected the efficiency of efforts. In terms of being well-versed in parliamentary conditions, politicians from the former Austrian Partition were starkly superior to the said historical leaders of both major rival camps. Although sidelined, politicians from that district still retained influence among their supporters – which was more destabilising than stabilising for the system – even if they did not attack the system’s principles and did not question its rules. As we know, however, it was not always thus.

Post-Partition resentments and habits also affected the behaviour of voters, which was perforce particularly noticeable from the capital’s perspective. Although the Romanov monarchy beset with internal unrest was by no means a stable state, the mosaic of factions having rows about everything in the Sejm could have made an even worse impression on their contemporaries. Such comparisons showed the renascent state in a bad light and raised concern over its future. A bitter remark by Gabriel Narutowicz about the Warsaw mob, clearly implying that it needed taming to calm down, was a form of diagnosis of both the existing situation and the character of cultural legacy. It was also a reflection of a more common and widely signalled view. After all, sometimes the elements of a stereotype etched into a wider identity did not compose a precise image. As an example, let us take the belief in the commonness of corrupt practices often linked to the Russian Partition’s heritage. Despite the actual scale of corruption not being large in the revived state, the popular notion was quite the contrary. Complaints about the ubiquity of corruption can be traced back in memoirs and, above all, in the press, which repeated this subject ad nauseam. It was masterfully used by Piłsudski’s followers seeking to discredit their political opponents. The question arises as to whether in a different situation, without crowds of people believing that the authorities stole because they had to do so, their arguments would still sound convincing. Yet if people had really been certain about the naturalness of corrupt behaviours, they would not have demonstrated so strongly and fervently against them. So it sometimes happened that, alongside post-Partition burdens themselves (or what was considered to be them), the will to be relieved of these burdens acted with equal or even greater power.

Another important problem involves the assessment of factors that affected the functioning of the native model of authoritarian system. A suggestion, put forward by various milieus, was reiterated in interwar political publications that the May Coup held Poland away from its civilisation ties with the West and that adapting the country to oriental customs was all the easier on the Polish ground because this ground had been culturally prepared on a large area of the re-emergent state. It is obvious that this view is indefensible in its integral form. The Polish coup was just one event in a long wave of anti-parliamentary riots that swept through Europe, not only Eastern, in the 1920s and 1930s. Just like the others, it was a product of its time, an era of mass political movements, violent pursuit of authority and yearning for stability lost during the Great War. However, was the – so to speak – cultural susceptibility a completely negligible factor? After all, it could increase or decrease pressure from the political electorate; it also affected public response to governmental actions, provoking a lesser or greater deal of objection. The size, forms and effectiveness of the latter depended on the ability of people to spontaneously organise themselves, their resistance to propaganda, and the habit of responding to actual violation of law whenever it happened. Such attributes, typical of civil society, can generally be considered a certain ideal, with which – if we are to believe Christopher Lasch’s bitter words – even countries with consolidated democratic culture have problems, and – unfortunately – these problems are growing. However, one can assume that the probability of developing and cultivating the said attributes is even lower in conditions of a despotic system (including authoritarian and totalitarian). From this point of view, perhaps the realities of the Russian Partition had indeed prepared one better for functioning under authoritarian dictatorship, compared with other Partition districts. These realities taught conformism, risk aversion and yes-man practices. For the sake of historical accuracy, let us now list the elements of post-May Coup rule that were regarded as “oriental” by its contemporaries. First of all, a cult of the leader – stinging remarks were made on this subject also by those close to the ruling camp, despite the fact that the phenomenon was more widely present, also to the west of Poland. Another phenomenon noticed by the contemporaries, sometimes expressed in caricatural ways, raises fewer interpretational doubts, namely: the tendency to create facade structures. A complex policy related to outdoor toilets is not the most characteristic example. Descriptions and analyses in the excellent book by Włodzimierz Mędrzecki about the situation in Volhynia in the 1930s make a more powerful impression, considering the tragic course of events that followed. Associations with a Potemkin village are striking. On the other hand, while we are indignant over the instances of bonus remuneration for officials and of corruption, which had grown considerably in relation to the pre-May Coup period, are we not mistaken when suggesting a cultural and historical background of such behaviours – in a situation when other factors also favoured them? Can they not be sufficiently explained simply by the sense of impunity felt by people of power, depraved by the lack of control from the society?



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