Sunday, January 18, 2009

DBTL 5: St. Elsewhere

By the terms of Poland's first postwar Constitution, ratified on 17 March 1921, the President was chosen by the two houses of the Polish legislature, meeting jointly as a National Assembly. The decision to choose the President this way, rather than through direct popular election, was the result of two circumstances: first, the universal expectation in Poland that Jósef Piłsudski would be chosen as President; and second, the fact that the 1921 Constitution was written by Piłsudski's political enemies. These two circumstances also explain why the post of President was made largely ceremonial and most of the power in the government was vested in the lower legislative house, the Sejm.

As it turned out, Piłsudski was not interested in serving as Poland's President, describing the office as a "gilded cage". When the National Assembly met for the first time on 9 December 1922 to elect a president, there were five candidates, the top two being Count Maurycy Zamojski, a wealthy member of the National Democrats (and thus an enemy of Piłsudski), and Gabriel Narutowicz, a close friend of Piłsudski.

Zamojski led in the first round of balloting, but failed to gain the necessary majority. The contest remained deadlocked through three more rounds of balloting. Finally, on the fifth ballot, the "minorities" parties, those representing Poland's Lithuanian, German, Ukrainian and Jewish minorities, sided with Narutowicz, giving him a 289 to 227 victory over Zamojski.

The National Democrats and their right-wing allies were furious that Narutowicz had been elected with the support of the non-Polish nationalities parties. They began denouncing him as "Narutowicz, President of the Jews", and most of the deputies and senators from the Right refused to attend Narutowicz's inauguration on the 11th. Five days later, when Narutowicz was attending the official opening of the annual winter exhibition of paintings at Warsaw's Palace of Fine Arts, he was assassinated by a right-wing painter, art professor and critic named Eligiusz Niewiadomski.

During Niewiadomski's murder trial and execution, he was acclaimed by the Right as a national hero. Niewiadomski's funeral was made into a political event, complete with speeches and flags, and his grave became a nationalist shrine. Over the course of the next few months, over 300 babies baptised in Warsaw were given the uncommon name Eligiusz.

In 1937, following the liberation of the German concentration camps where Ernst Röhm's New National movement had murdered seventy thousand people, including fifty thousand Jews, the Polish Right suffered a schism. Efforts by the leadership of the National Democrats to condemn anti-Semitism led to the exodus of some forty percent of the party's membership. These breakaway National Democrats joined with the Falanga, the Polish fascists, to form a new anti-Semitic party called the National Socialists.

The year 1941 saw the sudden appearance in Poland's various universities of a group of freshmen students named Eligiusz. These students almost invariably held extreme nationalist political views, generally with a strong anti-Semitic component, and it wasn't too long before all the major universities in Poland had informal "Eligiusz Clubs". When Bolesław Piasecki, "Duce" of the National Socialists, learned of these informal campus groups, he proceded to organize them into a national collegiate "Society of St. Eligius" which served as a recruitment arm for the radical Right.

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