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Political Conflicts in Poland

ISSUE:  Spring 1939

The Polish government today is based on the Constitution of April 23, 1935. While admitting that the 1935 Constitution is not an expression of liberalism, commentators deny that it represents the totalitarian philosophy, since Article Five, for example, declares that the “creative action of the individual is the lever of collective life.” They insist that the Constitution is based on the principle of the “solidarity of the elite.”

The Constitution recognizes the elite principle by elevating the power of the President, and by creating a Senate elected by a distinguished but exclusive voting list. In practice, however, the Polish constitutional system does not appear to have brought into power an “elite” differing from the ordinary type of politician who has dominated Polish public life in the past. Indeed, as the late Premier, M. Ladislas Grabski, pointed out, the Colonels, now so conspicuous in Polish affairs, have merely developed a spirit similar to that of the former gentry—”We are Poland.”

Although the 1921 Constitution provided that the President should be elected jointly by the Sejm and the Senate, sitting in the national assembly, the new constitution provides that the President shall be chosen by an electoral college, composed of the highest officials and seventy-five electors, two-thirds chosen by the Sejm and one-third by the Senate. While this assembly makes its own nomination for the Presidency, the presidential incumbent also has the right to nominate a candidate. If the President and the assembly cannot agree on a successor, the choice between the two candidates must be settled by a referendum. According to the law of July 8,1935, all citizens over twenty-four, regardless of sex, who have the right of active suffrage to the Sejm, can participate in this referendum. While these provisions have not been put to a test, it seems clear that they increase the influence of the existing administration over the choice of its successor. This is particularly true as long as both houses of Parliament are under administrative domination.

In addition, the President has a suspensive veto over legislation; furthermore, when the Sejm is not in session, he may issue decrees having the force of law, with the exception of amendments to the Constitution, laws concerning the elections of the Sejm and Senate, the budget, taxes, the monetary system, the issue of state loans, and the disposal and mortgaging of state real estate of more than one hundred thousand zlotys. He may issue decrees at any time concerning the organization and the administration of the government, and the supreme command of the armed forces. Actually, the executive power of the President is shared with the “second citizen” of the republic, now Marshal Smigly-Rydz, a duality which does not seem to exist in any other modern constitution.

Moreover, if the Parliament has not passed the budget within ninety days, the Government may promulgate its own draft; and in the event of any emergency the Council of Ministers may make an expenditure not authorized by law, provided it is submitted to the Sejm within seven days. During a state of war the President has virtually unlimited power, and in case of internal disturbance the Council of Ministers may declare a state of emergency, suspending civil liberties.

Under the 1935 Constitution the Polish Parliament continues in existence and has a certain number of powers. The Sejm votes the budget and imposes taxes, and may demand the resignation of the Cabinet or any Minister. If the President does not dismiss the Cabinet, the question must be examined by the Senate at its next session; and if the Senate agrees with the Sejm, the President must dismiss the Cabinet or dissolve Parliament. The Sejm is elected for a term of five years; in the Senate, also elected for five years, two-thirds of the members are elected and one-third are appointed by the President.

Although Parliament retains certain shadowy controls over the executive, the composition of Parliament under the electoral laws of July, 1935 is largely determined by the administration. Whether Poland becomes a totalitarian state or remains an “authoritarian democracy” depends less on the safeguards erected in the Constitution of April, 1935 than on the personality of the governing group, who in turn are influenced by underlying political conditions.

The people have had little more control over local and provincial government than over Parliament. Today each province is headed by a Governor (voivoid) responsible to the Minister of the Interior. These governors, as well as the Prefects, are political appointees and have wide influence. The provinces have no legislative bodies, although the Governor must consult an advisory board containing representatives elected by local self-governing groups. While occasional provincial governors, such as M. Grazinski in Upper Silesia, show considerable independence of Warsaw, the local inhabitants have very little to say about provincial government.

In the eighty counties into which Poland is divided, the administrative system is somewhat the same. The Minister of Interior appoints a Prefect (starosta) as head of each county, who is responsible to the Governor concerned. Each county has an Advisory Board, but there is no popularly elected legislative body. Each of the three thousand communes, however, has a Legislative Council of between twelve and thirty members, who are elected by direct and universal suffrage and in accordance with the principles of proportional representation. These councils, in turn, select a Mayor and Vice-Mayor, but the Prefect has a veto over such choices which is from time to time exercised, and he may dissolve the Council at any time. In the city communes the councils are somewhat larger, and the cities are divided into electoral districts of three thousand inhabitants each. The capital of Warsaw is regarded as a province governed by the central government, while commissioners appointed from Warsaw have served as mayors in Lodz and Lwow. Thus, while the principle of election has been technically preserved for members of Parliament on the one hand, and city councils on the other, in fact these elected bodies enjoy no real independent existence, let alone controlling administrative authority.

It would be hardly correct, however, to say that Poland is a totalitarian state in law or in fact. While a Parliament dominated by one party exists, opposition parties continue to carry on propaganda and hold meetings. Opposition newspapers continue to be published, and the university professors enjoy considerable freedom.

On the other hand, the Communist party and allied organizations are illegal, and in an address in 1937 General Sklad-kowski said: “We are ready to declare war to the death on Communism.” Under a presidential decree of June 17, 1934, administrative authorities may detain without a court order any person who menaces peace and public order. Thus, the government may resort to “protective custody”— which is a feature of totalitarian regimes—and has used this power to place offenders in the concentration camp at Bereza. Civil liberties cannot be said to exist when government has such sweeping powers. The government radio can be used only by supporters of the regime.

Poland has no preventive censorship; but when an article displeasing to the authorities is published, they may confiscate the issue concerned, inflicting severe financial losses on the paper. Thus, all mention in the Polish press of the peasant strike of August, 1937 was censored. It often happens that an article not censored in one city is censored when reprinted elsewhere. A newspaper can appeal to the courts against illegal confiscations, but tribunals seldom overrule the administrative authorities or, if they do, it is too late to be of practical value. After having its issues periodically confiscated, Slowo, a leading conservative newspaper in Vilna, recently wrote: “In respect to the press, we have a system here which is the equivalent of that found only in the totalitarian states.”


While the 1935 electoral laws curbed political parties, the old groupings continue to exist. The Government is making an effort to hold together the followers of Pilsudski in an organization called the Camp of National Unity. While numerically strong, the opposition to the Government is as divided as ever. The multiplicity of political groups is due to historical development and the individualism of the Polish character. The division of Poland before the war into three diverse areas produced political groups, each with particular objectives and points of view, that continued to exist after the restoration. Factionalism within each party, even more than multiplicity of parties, was responsible for the destruction of the parliamentary system in 1926. The very fact that the parties no longer had the immediate prospect of holding office after 1930 purged them of many opportunistic elements, and gave them a new chance of improving their cohesion on a basis of principles.

The Peasant party today has taken a stand in favor of democracy and civil rights, which it seems to believe is more important than material improvement. The recognized leader of the party is Vincent Witos. Although Witos is still in exile, he is ably represented in Poland by leaders such as the former Marshal of the Sejm, M. Rataj, and Professor Kot of the University of Cracow, who know how to organize the villages. Largely because of their efforts, the Government has been unable to make headway with the peasant masses, despite emphasis on agrarian reform. The peasants constitute the majority of the country, and although no one can tell to what extent they follow the leadership of the Peasant party, it seems clear that this party is stronger than ever and is the largest in the country. The Peasant party has had a pro-French orientation, has supported collective security, and advocated a common policy for all democratic countries, including an understanding with Czecho-Slovakia.

To the left of the Peasant party is the Polish Socialist party (P. P. S.), which has great influence among city workers. The late Marshal Pilsudski belonged to this party before the War, as did many of the important leaders of the present regime. The Polish Socialist party was always more nationalist than Socialist parties in other countries, and, before the War, it emphasized the fight for Polish independence rather than Socialism. Socialists who believed that social revolution was more important than independence adhered instead to the Russian Social Democratic Federation, the Polish section of which was led by Rosa Luxembourg. From its beginning in 1892, the Polish Socialist party was the most active and determined group working for Polish independence.

Although the Socialist party helped the Pilsudski coup d’etat in 1926, it soon joined the opposition when it became clear that Pilsudski had shifted his allegiance to the conservatives. Many members of the party, however, were so loyal to Pilsudski—notably the first Prime Minister, M. Morac-zewski—that they broke with the party. The Socialists were weakened by these defections. Having helped in the coup d’etat, they could not now effectively oppose the Pilsudski dictatorship. The creation of pro-Government labor unions, and the reorganization of the government health insurance bureaus so as to eliminate an important source of patronage, again weakened the party. Nevertheless, between 1928 and 1930, when the struggle between the regime and Parliament was at its height, a great Socialist leader, Marshal Daszyn-ski, became the symbol of the fight for democracy. Pilsudski won the fight and after the imprisonments at Brest the party remained quiescent as long as Pilsudski dominated the country. But with Pilsudski’s death in May, 1935, the Polish Socialist party displayed new activity. It collaborated closely with the Peasant party in the advocacy of political reforms. In view of the fact that the great majority of voters in Poland live in villages, the Polish Socialist party alone is not likely to obtain power; but it might become an important factor in a Parliament based on free elections.

In recent years there have arisen several new groups which strengthen the trend toward democracy. The Democratic Club, under the leadership of Professor Michalowicz of Warsaw, is an organization of liberal and democratic intellectuals. In October, 1937, a new political party, called the Polish Labor party, was formed under the leadership of Ignace Paderewski and General Joseph Haller. This group opposes totalitarian ideas and “government by an elite.” The Polish Labor party has many generals but few followers. Not to be confused with labor groups in other countries, it is nationalistic, Catholic, and anti-Semitic. While cooperation between this group and the Socialists or the Peasant party seems unlikely, the Labor party contains personalities capable of leading mass movements. The opposition groups of the Center and Left that favor the democratic system and oppose the elite regime can usually count on the support of most of the political parties into which the national minorities are organized.

While these parties stand to the Left of the Government, equally strong opposition elements are found on the Right, the most important of which are the National Democrats, or Endeks, Organized at the end of the nineteenth century by Roman Dmowski, the National Democratic party represents the Polish anti-Semitic middle class, particularly the urban white-collar and professional groups, containing a large number of intellectuals. Socially conservative, the program of the party calls for a nationalistic type of state, and opposes all autonomy for the national minorities, in favor of assimilation, except for the Jews. The National Democrats remained an important social and political group, having to a large extent the support of the Catholic Church and a considerable part of the middle class. Although the non-party bloc made minor inroads, the Endeks lost comparatively little ground before 1934.

The universities became a center of Endek influence, and anti-Semitic student riots served as the party’s major weapon against the Pilsudski regime. But as Dmowski grew older and the party failed to develop vigorous leaders, dissensions arose. In 1934 the younger elements broke away and formed a frankly Fascist group, partly inspired by Nazi Germany, which called itself the National Radicals or Naras. As a result of terrorist activities, this group was dissolved by the police and its newspaper suspended. After Pilsudski’s death, Nam activities, now illegal, steadily increased. The Fascist elements in Poland, however, were split into several factions, largely because of personal reasons. On February 7, 1937, representatives of different Nam groups agreed to a common program, recognizing the leadership of M. Boles-law Piasecki. The program called for a national revolution, a totalitarian regime on the Nazi model, a national state, and assimilation of the Slavic national minorities. The Jews were to be expelled from Poland. Until their expulsion, they were to be refused all civil rights, and their fortunes were to be confiscated. Leading industries were to be nationalized, but peasant ownership and small independent businesses were to be encouraged.

The strength of the Naras and other Fascist factions lies mainly in the city youth, especially the university students. As yet, the Fascists have failed to develop an outstanding personality with a popular appeal. The Polish Fascists, lacking a private army, are also handicapped by the fact that the regime against which they fight is already undemocratic and is led by Army men, rather than by “opportunistic politicians.” Thus they are deprived of many of the issues which brought Fascists to power in other countries. Although the Naras can concentrate on the anti-Semitic issue, they are not likely to win the support of the peasants and city workers on this issue alone—a support they need to achieve power.


Following the failure of the government to obtain real support in the “dead elections” of 1935, President Moscicki asked Slawek to resign. M. Koscialkowski, a liberal who was not a member of the Colonels’ group, was invited in October, 1935 to organize a Cabinet. It contained only one member of the Colonels’ group, M. Beck. This Cabinet included a number of men who realized the necessity of effecting fundamental economic reforms. The new Prime Minister endeavored to come to terms with the Left; but, although the Koscialkowski government put through a number of stern economic measures, it was not strong enough to overcome the opposition of the Colonels and win the support of the peasants. As a result, the Cabinet resigned on May 15, 1936. For the first time, Smigly-Rydz took an active part in the political life of the country; and General Sklad-kowski, who as Minister of the Interior had suppressed the Ukrainian movement in 1930, became Prime Minister. Included in the Cabinet were two generals (one of them being the Prime Minister) and three colonels. In July the Prime Minister decreed that General Smigly-Rydz should be honored “as the first person in Poland after the President of the Republic,” although there was nothing in the Constitution to justify this position. On November 11 General Smigly-Rydz was made a marshal. By bestowing the mantle of Pilsudski on Smigly-Rydz, the Colonels increased the general confusion regarding the nature of the executive power. Meanwhile, the policy of the new Cabinet had already been stated by Smigly-Rydz: “It is absolutely necessary that the entire economic body adjust itself to military needs; the Pilsudski traditions should be continued.” The Cabinet found difficulty in obtaining popular support.

Strikes continued, while the Peasant party, which had succeeded in uniting three different groups, persisted in demanding a return to democracy and amnesty for Witos.

In an effort to “consolidate” the country and to give it an “organized and single directed will,” the Marshal encouraged the organization of a new government bloc, called the Camp of National Unity (Ozon), This was a return to the party idea—but in the totalitarian rather than the democratic sense. Its principles were enunciated by its first head, Colonel Adam Koc, in a radio address of February 21, 1937. Emphasizing nationalism, Catholicism, and anti-Semitism, he declared that the Army was the one center around which every class could rally; he attacked Communism, while remaining silent on Fascism; he recognized the importance of improving the condition of the peasants, but urged industrialization and the migration of the peasants to the cities as the real remedy for the overpopulation problem. It was expected that, as a result of the Ozon, the opposition parties would be absorbed or disappear.

An elaborate organization that endeavored to enlist every element in Poland was set up. Colonel Koc also established the Union of Young Poland, headed by a henchman of the Fuhrer of the Polish Fascists, M. Piasecki. This effort to win the support of the nationalist youth ended in failure. The peasants, moreover, would not be bribed by promises of agrarian reform. The Peasant party continued to demand a democratic constitution, free elections, and the return of Witos. When the Government remained deaf to these demands, the party called a ten-day strike in August, 1937 for the purpose of preventing supplies from reaching the cities. This is probably the first case in modern European history when such a strike has been attempted. The workers in the larger towns supported the peasants by also going on strike. When the police destroyed the barricades erected on the roads, fighting broke out. According to the official count, forty-one peasants were killed, but most observers believe there were many more victims. Although the Government charged that Communists were responsible for the strike, a leading conservative paper, Czas, said that the peasants merely wished “political emancipation.”

This strike served as a warning to the Government; and, following an attempt on his life, Colonel Koc resigned as head of the Ozon at the end of 1937, being replaced by General Skwarczynski, an old colleague of Pilsudski, with liberal inclinations. Some observers believed that Koc had hoped to establish Ozon as the Nazi party of Poland.

The new regime changed the leadership in the Union of Young Poland. While supporting industrialization, General Skwarczynski emphasized the importance of finding a solution of the peasant problem. But all that the reorganized Ozon got for its pains was the denunciation of the conservative press, which insisted that it had become “radical.” On the other hand, the Socialists and peasants continued to vent their hostility against the undemocratic nature of the present regime, Nor is the Government any more popular with the conservatives.

Meanwhile, a struggle was going on within the Government. Marshal Smigly-Rydz was reported to favor a totalitarian trend, in contrast to the President, who was supposed to support liberalism. On March 24 the Vice-Premier and Minister of Finance, Eugene Kwiatowski, made a plea for national unity without resort to totalitarianism. He was thought to reflect the Government’s view that an attempt would now be made to come to terms with the peasants, and even to establish a national concentration government. Thus the pendulum swung from Right to Center.

Improvement of the political atmosphere was indicated by the fact that the Peasant party called off the demonstrations commemorating the peasant strike of 1937. One deputy, M. Budzynski, representing Fascist tendencies within the regime, was expelled from the Ozon because of “lack of discipline.” A few of his followers resigned with him and formed a Nationalist Pilsudski-ist group called Jutro Pracy. These losses, while strengthening the liberal elements in the Ozon, served to weaken the organization as a whole. The greatest blow came in June, 1938 when, after the death of M. Car, Colonel Slawek was elected Marshal of the Sejm despite the opposition of the President. Since his resignation after the 1935 election, Slawek had remained in the background declining to join the Ozon. But he saw an opportunity to regain power, Many deputies supported him for Marshal of the Sejm, since they owed their election to the 1935 electoral laws of which Slawek had been the author. They believed, moreover, that Slawek would oppose a change in these laws, and thus perpetuate them in power. As soon as he was elected, Slawek undertook to revive the non-party bloc which he had disbanded in 1935, and to strengthen his position as a presidential candidate in 1940. He even went so far as to indicate that he did not recognize the decree declaring Marshal Smigly-Rydz to be “second citizen.” It thus became clear that, with Slawek as Marshal of the Sejm, no cooperation between Parliament and the leaders of the Government was possible. Apparently to break this deadlock, President Moscicki boldly dissolved Parliament on September 13,1938.

Whatever the cause of the dissolution of Parliament might have been, practically the entire country received the decree with praise and relief. The opposition parties regarded it as a direct condemnation of the electoral laws of 1935. Nevertheless, the issue of those laws continued to create an impasse. Dominated by Slawek, Parliament was unwilling to change this law, and opposition groups—particularly the Peasant party, the Socialists, and the National Democrats —declaring that this law was fundamentally unfair, decided to boycott the November 6 elections.

In the summer of 1938 Parliament had voted a new electoral law for the local self-governing bodies that controlled the nominations to Parliament under the 1935 law. It was provided that such local elections would take place in December, 1938 (December 11 for the City Council of Warsaw), and in the first months of 1939. The Prime Minister decreed that these elections should be free of any administrative interference, “clean and honest.” This statement indicated that, for the first time since 1926, the nation would be given an opportunity to express its views freely.

While grateful for this change, the opposition pointed out that the parliamentary elections called for November would precede the elections to the self-governing bodies, and therefore would not be fair. The President had indicated, in his decree, that the main task of the new Parliament would be to change the electoral law. The opposition parties asked that the work of the new Parliament be limited to this task, and that once a democratic and liberal law had been enacted, the legislature should be dissolved and new elections held. The Government declined to accept any such commitment, going so far as to enact a decree punishing any one who advocated abstention from the election. The parliamentary election was held on November 6,1938, in the face of opposition boycott. The Government groups, consequently, obtained the majority and Colonel Slawek was defeated.

Although nearly thirty-five per cent of the voters abstained from the election, the regime won a much greater victory than in 1935. Pro-Government newspapers went so far as to say that the elections had demonstrated that the opposition parties were negligible.

The victorious Ozon received a surprise, however, when the first municipal elections, held in fifty-two cities in December, 1938, gave a decisive victory to the opposition parties. They won six hundred and thirty-nine seats in contrast to the three hundred and eighty-three seats of the Ozon. In Warsaw the opposition groups won sixty-one of the one hundred seats in the Council, in Lodz the Ozon elected only twelve of the eighty members of the Council. The Endehs were unsuccessful, except in the west, although they campaigned on the “Polonization of the cities” issue. The Naras also met with complete defeat, electing only four city councilors in Warsaw. Lodz elected a Socialist majority, and in Warsaw the Polish Socialist party won twenty-seven seats, and the Jewish “Bund” sixteen seats. Among the Jews, the Socialists increased their numbers at the expense of the Zionists and more conservative groups. Although these elections were technically local, they were the first fair plebiscite of Polish opinion on the regime in many years, for these elections were relatively free of interference by the administration. They showed that the critics were right in saying that the Government did not command widespread respect and that Poland was a “dictatorship without a dictator.”

Notwithstanding its weakness, the Government can fail to come to terms with the opposition without running into immediate danger. It has three great assets. The first is the division of the opposition elements. The second asset of the Government is the international situation. Poland realizes that a civil war would inevitably mean the intervention of Russia and Germany, and the consequent loss of independence. No Pole wants Poland to become a second Spain, because the consequences to Polish independence would be even more serious: a new partition. Realizing that the opposition forces are too patriotic to embark on revolution or other forms of disturbance under present circumstances, the Government might be able to ignore the demand for a free election and a democratic constitution.

Finally, the Government enjoys the support of the Army. The Colonels’ group continues to occupy important political posts; the “second citizen” of the country continues to be the Inspector General. The Army is exceptionally patriotic and well disciplined, and its independent position, established by Pilsudski after a long struggle with the Sejm, seems to have been maintained. The Army, suspicious of Left governments, would undoubtedly step in at the first sign of political disintegration should a Peasant-Socialist government conceivably come to power.

Despite these assets, the Polish Government remained in a precarious position at the beginning of 1939. The German success in Czecho-Slovakia increased the danger to Poland and made more important than ever the establishment of a Government which could command national confidence. The absence of such a Government was an element holding back private investment in the country. A Government understanding with the peasants has become essential to Polish security as well as to the solution of Poland’s serious economic and social problems. Achievement of such an understanding depends on whether the heirs of Pilsudski are dominated by his patriotism to the extent of sharing their present monopoly of patronage. While from the tactical point of view the Government occupies a strong position, it must broaden its base soon, otherwise lack of confidence—deteriorating eventually into anarchy—may be the result. For no country in Europe can now ignore the danger of the growth of Fascist sentiment. Poland still seems to have a greater chance to escape the totalitarian danger than other nations of the Danubian area. The greater the danger of German domination, the more suspicious Polish youth, which is essentially nationalist, may become of Nazi intrigue and propaganda. The highly individualistic nature of the Polish people and the presence of such a large proportion of non-Polish nationalities increase the difficulties of complete totalitarianism in this country. The Catholic Church in Poland, which is unusually strong and comparatively enlightened, does not wish to suffer the fate of the Church in Germany. The Polish Government has time to broaden its base if it really wishes to do so. Nevertheless, the heirs of Pilsudski will make a grave mistake if they believe they can ignore the importance of solving the internal political problem, which in some respects is the most important of all problems confronting the country.


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