He was a talented artist, not a bad art historian, a lover of the Tatra Mountains. And he was a murderer

From 9 December 1922, articles slandering "Mr Narutowicz" appeared daily. There were riots in Warsaw - involving both national and socialist militias - the turmoil that resulted in the events at the Zachęta Gallery continued. General Józef Haller, among others, behaved disgracefully, inciting the crowd and making proclamations from the balcony of his flat for Narutowicz to resign from office," says Dr Patryk Pleskot, historian.

TVP WEEKLY: We know from history that in Poland - unlike in other countries - politicians, and earlier kings, were not killed.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was famous for that, it was a country without stakes and regicide. England, France - there we have a lot of bloody trials of power, palace murders, which did not happen in our country. There were a few unconvincing assassination attempts, such as the shooting of Sigismund the Old, the attack on Sigismund III Vasa by the mentally unbalanced nobleman Michał Piekarski, or the inept attempt by the Confederates of Bar to kidnap Stanislaw August.

What was the reason for this?

The lack of bloody trials or guillotines was due to both the nobility's freedom and the king's weak position. The vision of his murder was unattractive because the monarch had relatively little to say anyway.

But Gabriel Narutowicz, assassinated on 16 December 1922, had even less power than the kings of the declining First Republic. So why did he die?

The myth of a state without king-killers ended at the very dawn of Poland regaining its independence; after the first fully-fledged parliamentary and presidential elections held on the basis of the first March Constitution. In my opinion, the assassination of the President was the original sin of the Second Republic and, like any original sin, had its consequences.

Let's stay with history for a moment. The nobleman Piekarski, who attacked Sigismund III in 1620, was not only brutally tortured, but his corpse was fired from a cannon. Meanwhile, Eligiusz Niewiadomski, who shot the President of the Republic of Poland, rests in Powązki Cemetery.

This is unrelated to honouring his actions. The family plot of the noble Niewiadomski family was right there. His father Wincenty, a participant in the January Uprising, a very enlightened man, a populariser of science and Darwin's new theories, with contacts with Jewish businessmen and financiers, someone definitely not associated with the narrow-minded nationalist, was buried at Powązki.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Perhaps if Niewiadomski had been brought up by his father, he would not have become such a radical?

Eligius was the youngest of the children. When his father got involved with another woman after his mother's death, his eldest sister Cecilia took Eligius to raise him. She was 16 years old and left her father, not accepting his new relationship. And here are some threads of Niewiadomski's biography and upbringing that may have influenced his views. Cecylia was an apodictic old maid with national sympathies (and also a very distinguished social activist). Rumour had it that her unfulfilled love was a close associate of Roman Dmowski. One can therefore guess that Eligiusz had been imbued with national tendencies since childhood. In addition, like many other young people in the Russian partition, he received a strict upbringing at a school supervised by the ruthless superintendent Alexander Apukhtin, and this may also have influenced the formation of his personality.
Eligiusz Niewiadomski was a graduate of the prestigious St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts. Photo: Wikimedia
However, there is another revelation in your book that may come as a shock to nationalists who cultivate the memory of Niewiadomski.

And not a small one at that! Eligiusz Niewiadomski's mother Julia was a native German. This was a long-hidden family secret. Her father had been an alderman in one of the towns in the Saarland. As a result of a financial scandal, the family had to move and Julia ended up with her brother, who lived in Warsaw. This is where she met Wincenty Niewiadomski.

Over the years, Eligiusz Niewiadomski has been portrayed as an artist, but one could maliciously say that he was as much of a painter as a certain Austrian in Linz....

Oh no! Let us not compare Niewiadomski to Adolf Hitler in terms of talent or artistic education. Eligius did not paint landshapes amateurishly. He was a graduate of the prestigious St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, was awarded a scholarship in Paris, and won prizes such as the gold medal at the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in Warsaw for his painting "Rodzina Centaurów" (Family of Centaurs), still from the late 19th century. He is the author of the famous portrait of Stefan Żeromski, and his greatest work is the design for a polychrome in one of the churches in Konin.

This had all happened before. Later, he was not making a living from art, he was a civil servant, and a frustrated and unemployed one on top of that.

In the last months before the assassination, he made his living from tutoring, had no permanent position and did not actually earn a living as an artist. Rather, the market value of his paintings today has more to do with how he infamously made his name in 1922. We have not been able to present these works in the book for copyright reasons, but some can be seen by browsing the websites of auction houses.

You write with indignation about the fact that one of his paintings once hung in the headquarters of the Małopolska school board.

I raised the subject in the book because, in fact, for some time Niewiadomski's painting was hanging in one of the local government offices, which I find unacceptable. Who bought it, who hung it there? I do not know. If someone privately wishes to purchase works of this kind, that is their business, but it seems to me that the Polish state cannot promote the name of a murderer who killed the highest official of this state in this form.

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Let us get to the point. One thing is clear from your book: it was not Gabriel Narutowicz who was the target of the assassin.

Of course. The trial protocol is dominated by one name: Jozef Pilsudski. He was the perpetrator's obsession. During the trial, its participants were astonished and shocked at the hatred with which Niewiadomski spoke of the Marshal and the fact that 'Mr Narutowicz' himself, as Niewiadomski contemptuously referred to the President, cared little for him overall. He shot the President of his country in the back three times, and spoke mainly of Piłsudski.

The paradox is that Pilsudski's earlier actions fascinated Niewiadomski....

He was already a supporter of the ideas of the national camp at the end of the 19th century, was active in this milieu and was even imprisoned in the Citadel for distributing illegal publications. However, he soon quarrelled with this circle. This, incidentally, was often repeated, as he was a man perpetually in conflict with everyone. In this case, it was about the vision of independence activities. National Democracy (Endecja) was in favour of political solutions, a tactical alliance with Russia and winning autonomy first. Meanwhile, Niewiadomski was in favour of armed struggle, assassinations, blowing up bridges, robbing banks. That is to say, all the things that Piłsudski did in the Polish Socialist Party - Revolutionary Faction.

Piłsudski hated Russia as much as Niewiadomski did, and on top of that, he defended Poland against the Bolsheviks in 1920. So why did Eligiusz hate the Marshal so much?

Fascination turned to hatred. It happened when Poland was reborn. Perhaps Niewiadomski believed that Pilsudski had all the trump cards in his hand to become Poland's dictator, a leader who would lead the reborn country into a bright future. Yet, not only did Piłsudski fail to do so, but he also stepped back into the shadows, allowed parliamentary rule to fester, and - as Niewiadomski argued - allowed the Jews, Freemasons and Communists to come to the fore. What is more, it was these circles - as Eligiusz explained to himself - that led to the election of the first President of the independent Republic. One might say that Gabriel Narutowicz received a ricochet shot, as Piłsudski was the target.
10 December 1922. Head of State Józef Piłsudski during a conversation at the Belvedere with the just-elected President Gabriel Narutowicz. Photo: NAC
Did he give his life for Pilsudski?

To some extent - yes. Since Pilsudski did not become President, it occurred to Niewiadomski that he had to kill Narutowicz. During the trial, he was asked why he had assassinated the President, and it turned out that the assassin had nothing against the man at all. He claimed that he killed him "only" because he could not kill Pilsudski.

He also claimed that he was not killing a person, but a symbol.

This is exactly how a sociopath thinks, who does not feel the slightest empathy and does not understand that by killing a 'symbol' he takes the life of another human being, deprives his children of a father. The story gains in drama when we realise that Narutowicz, who was assassinated in a cowardly manner, did not have to come to Poland and get involved in politics. He had led a prosperous life as an acknowledged hydraulic engineer, a professor at the Zurich polytechnic, and yet he returned to build a country that in 1920 was in great danger and did not even have its own borders. He acted completely selflessly, in a spirit of patriotism that his opponents denied him.
Your book shows that Niewiadomski was a mentally unbalanced man.

Of course, from the perspective of a century, this cannot be determined by even the best psychiatrists. Niewiadomski as a personality escapes easy classification. He was certainly a fanatic, an outsider, a radical who could not cope with social relations and was constantly in conflict with everyone. It seemed to him that he had brilliant ideas for reforming the state and education, and that Communists and Jews were getting in the way of everything. At the same time, he was a talented artist, not a bad art historian, an energetic populariser and lover of the Tatra Mountains. And a murderer.

I also have the impression that the political idea itself was not important to him. If he had lived in Bolshevik Russia, he might have been a Bolshevik, although he was closest to the views of fascists, such as those who built totalitarianism in Italy.

This is also an interesting theory, for indeed Niewiadomski was a supporter of force and an opponent of democracy, and his political fascinations were very close to the ideas that were beginning to triumph in Italy at the time of his death. He was certainly disappointed that instead of a 'great Poland', a country in crisis had emerged. Only, at the same time, it must be remembered that the reality after the devastating First World War was very harsh and there were no simple solutions. We can only wonder to what extent his life choices were influenced by his personality and to what extent by the times in which he lived. It seems to me that individual determinism coincided with historical one and this created an explosive mixture.

And someone was 'shaking up' this mix. There was another man who played a role in this story....

After Narutowicz was unexpectedly elected President of the Republic of Poland on 9 December 1922 by the Sejm with the votes of the left and the national minorities, a fierce campaign against the nominee began. Black propaganda arose, rumours were spread that Narutowicz was not a Polish citizen, that he did not speak good Polish and that he was the president of national minorities, Freemasons and Jews. The architect of these theories was, among others, the publicist Stanisław Stroński, populariser of the famous phrase 'Miracle on the Vistula', which was intended to belittle the strategic achievements of Józef Pilsudski during the Battle of Warsaw. Now, from 9 December 1922, articles slandering 'Mr Narutowicz' appeared daily. There were riots in Warsaw (involving both national and socialist militias), and turmoil continued, resulting in events at the Zachęta Gallery. General Józef Haller, among others, also behaved disgracefully, inciting the crowd and making proclamations from the balcony of his flat for Narutowicz to resign from office.
Meeting of members of General Władysław Sikorski's government-in-exile with the US ambassador . Seated in the first row from the left are: Ambassador Anthony Drexel-Biddle, President of the Republic of Poland Władysław Raczkiewicz, Polish Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief, General Władysław Sikorski. Seated in the second row from the left: Deputy Prime Minister Stanisław Mikołajczyk, Minister without Portfolio, General Józef Haller, Minister of Information and Documentation Stanisław Stroński. Photo: NA
No one felt remorse after the murder, and Stroński - shockingly - became a deputy minister in Władysław Sikorski's government in exile during the Second World War.

Already after the assassination of Narutowicz, Stanisław Stroński coined a saying which, although in a different sense, entered the Polish language: " silence over this coffin". This was the title of an article in the "Rzeczpospolita" daily, in which he appealed not to accuse the National Democrats of inspiring the murderer. Yet it was he himself who in December 1922 was one of the most vociferous chanters of hatred against Narutowicz. What he wrote later was also shocking. According to Stroński, there was a tragedy of two people on 16 December. He equated the executioner and the victim, presenting the murderer as a noble patriot who wanted good for Poland. It was only years later that Stroński admitted that what he wrote then was the biggest mistake of his life.

Why do you call the events of 16 December 1922 the 'original sin of the Second Republic'? Is it because the cult of the assassin began then?

This cult smouldered for many years, although the matter has two faces. Yes, more than 300 children in 1923 were given the name 'Eligius' - previously rare - and after the execution of the perpetrator (which took place on 31 January 1923), masses for his soul were held in many Catholic churches. But it was Gabriel Narutowicz's funeral that was attended by half a million people. The murder, however, came as a shock to most Poles. So calling these events 'original sin' is of course a bit of a rhetorical trick, but it is grounded in reality. For the murder had its consequences in the history of the Second Republic, influencing, for example, the sharpening of Piłsudski's views on Polish democracy. The May coup d'état followed four years later. On a more general level, the murder of Gabriel Narutowicz must be taken into account in the assessment of the history of the Second Republic as a whole.

Who would Eligiusz Niewiadomski be today? There are many references in your book to the so-called affective polarisation plaguing our society both 100 years ago and today.

Historians are taught from the outset to avoid presentism, i.e. transferring the behaviour of characters from history to the present. Your question, however, is a legitimate one and you are entitled to ask it. Affective polarisation is a phenomenon in which we perceive a person with different political views as an enemy, which leads to radicalisation - sometimes only passive or verbal, other times active. What if Niewiadomski had been born not in 1869, but in 1969? I don't know! Everything I say would be seen as a political statement. We can answer for ourselves how he would have been affected by today's even more aggressive social media language.

– interviewed by Cezary Korycki
-translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

The book was published in the Znak Horyzont Publishing House
Patryk Pleskot, PhD, is a historian and a graduate of the University of Warsaw and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. He also studied at the University of Nancy. He is an employee of the Branch Historical Research Office of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) in Warsaw and a professor at the University of Rzeszow. He has recently published the book "Portrait of a murderer. The Artist Who Killed the President'. (Znak Horyzont 2022)
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