Anniversaries & holidays

100th anniversary of president Gabriel Narutowicz death

Gabriel Narutowicz
Gabriel Narutowicz, fot. Archiwa Państwowe / Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe

Gabriel Narutowicz served as Poland’s first president. However, he’s perhaps best known for the fact that a radical nationalist assassinated him five days after he took office, on December 16, 1922.

Narutowicz was born in Telšiai in the Russian Empire, today located in northwestern Lithuania. His ancestors were part of the Polish-speaking nobility and he connected his identity to an older idea of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After beginning his studies in St. Petersburg, he emigrated to Switzerland and where he completed his technical education in Zurich. Soon after he began his career as a civil engineer working on railways and sewage systems. Narutowicz was widely recognized as a talented expert in his field. He spent much of his life in Switzerland, even taking on Swiss citizenship, but never lost his connection to Polish political groups. Many emigres from the Russian Empire gathered in the relative safety and openness of Switzerland. When it became too dangerous to remain under the Tsar’s thumb, important figures such as Rosa Luxembourg, Ludwik Krzywicki, and Mikhail Bakunin all continued to publicize their ideas beneath the Alps.

During the First World War, even more political emigres arrived in Switzerland, including Henryk Sienkiewicz, Roman Dmowski, and even Vladimir Lenin. At this time, Narutowicz took up charity work to aid Poles affected by the war. He was not taken in by the Bolshevism of Lenin nor the nationalism of Sienkiewicz or Dmowski. Instead he was already aligning himself with figures who supported Józef Piłsudski, who became the Polish Head of State (Naczelnik Państwa) in November 1918.

In September 1919, the Polish government in Warsaw invited Narutowicz to offer his engineering expertise in the rebuilding of the country after more than four years of war. A few months later, a cabinet led by Władysław Grabski nominated him to become the minister of public works, a position for which he was uniquely qualified. During the parliamentary elections of 1922, he ran for office with the State Unity in the Borderlands party (Państwowe Zjednoczenie na Kresach), but this group received very few votes and thus Narturowicz did not get a seat in the Sejm. Much to his surprise, he was instead nominated as a presidential candidate. Narutowicz was a supporter and friend of Piłsudski, but somewhat neutral as a political figure. His reputation was that of a technocrat; he was an engineer after all. 

At that time, the president was elected by a joint session of the Sejm and Senate. There were five candidates, none of whom commanded a clear majority. In each round of voting, the lowest vote-getter dropped out, and it took five rounds before Narutowicz was elected. The deciding votes for Narutowicz came from the Peasants Party (Polskie Stornnictwo Ludowe “Piast”) and the Minorities Bloc and this unfortunately led to his downfall.

The right wing press started a campaign against Narutowicz, claiming that he was illegitimate because only a "Polish majority" should be allowed to elect the president. Nationalists called for the nullification of minority party votes, and thus the disenfranchisement of any non-ethnic Poles, who represented about one-third of the country’s population. The majority of this resentment was aimed at Jews.

One newspaper wrote,

"The Jewish invasion of Poland is not a chauvinist invention... It is a huge, organized campaign, directed by people with tactical training, in possession of enormous resources and influence. This campaign is unfolding so widely and effectively because Poland does not have a clear and compact parliamentary majority, relying on the rule of weak people who easily bend to any influence."

Protesters flooded the streets to express their anger and Narutowicz was continually attacked in the press as a tool of the Jews. Despite the protests and conflict surrounding his election, Narutowicz was apparently not concerned with his safety in the aftermath of his election. He claimed the street protests were a normal political activity, not an existential threat.

On December 16, 1922, Narutowicz attended a gala event at the Zachęta Art Gallery. An artist in attendance, named Eligiusz Niewiadomski, withdrew a pistol and fired into Narutowicz’s back. Niewiadomski gave himself up to the authorities immediately shouting,

"Be not afraid, I will not shoot at you."

At his trial, Niewiadomski claimed that he had not done anything wrong because this Poland was not the "true" Poland, not least because Jews and other minorities had helped elect the president. Thus he believed that he had performed an act of defiance against a state did not embody ethnic Poles. The court sentenced Niewiadomski to death and he was shot at the Warsaw citadel.

The murder of Narutowicz left a lasting imprint on Polish society and it was a clear dividing line in politics until the start of the Second World War. Hateful and antisemitic rhetoric employed against Narutowicz compelled someone to commit a heinous crime. The words used for political purposes had real-world consequences, and Piłsudski held right-wing politicians responsible for the assassination of Poland’s first president, Gabriel Narutowicz.