Mateusz SZPYTMA: Poland is more important than the party

Poland is more important than the party

Photo of Mateusz SZPYTMA

Mateusz SZPYTMA

Historian. Deputy President of the Institute of National Remembrance. Co-founder and a former director of the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II in Markowa. Member of the Programme Board of the Jewish Historical Institute.

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Wincenty Witos was a statesman capable of taking responsibility for the fate of the state in the most difficult of times, but also capable of resigning from office when the interests of the Republic demanded it.

.I come from Markowa, a village in what used to be Galicia, where the popular movement was traditionally very strong. My parents and grandparents were farmers – they all worked the land. The history of the peasant class has been very close to me since childhood, as has the figure of Wincenty Witos – the most outstanding politician to come from the Polish countryside and one of the most important figures in the history of Polish politics.

Wincenty Witos lived through several historical periods. He was born in the era of the Partitions, experienced a free Poland, then occupation during the Second World War and communist enslavement. Each of these periods required him to make difficult decisions and choices that many of us would not be able to make, even on a theoretical level. From each situation – even when he suffered personal defeats – his indomitable spirit emerged victorious.

Today, Wincenty Witos is considered the father of Polish independence. It is worth remembering that in his case this meant not only helping to regain it in 1918, but also saving and preserving it in the years that followed. Witos was prime minister at one of the most important moments in Polish history, when the fate of our country hung in the balance. He was largely responsible for winning back the peasantry to the cause of independence, thanks to which it was successfully defended.

How was it possible for a representative of the peasant state – born into a poor farming family in a Galician village in the 19th century – to mature intellectually and spiritually to become a statesman? No doubt Witos had talent, but in his situation talent alone was not enough. It went hand in hand with unparalleled diligence and a hunger for knowledge. Due to his family’s difficult financial situation, the young Wincenty started school rather late and finished at a low level. He was, however, self-taught. He developed intellectually by meeting open-minded and patriotically aware people, such as a local teacher or priest. He benefited from their advice and encouragement. This is how he first came into contact with the various readings and magazines that the intelligentsia of the time directed at the peasants in order to awaken their national consciousness, such as 'Wieniec’ and 'Pszczółka’, edited by Father Stanislaw Stojałowski, 'Gwiazdka Cieszyńska’ or 'Przyjaciel Ludu’. Inspired by books and newspapers of a socio-political nature, he soon took up the pen himself and began his journalistic activities.

In the context of Witos’s intellectual and spiritual maturation, the specificity of the region from which he came is also significant. He grew up in Galicia during the Austrian partition. The autonomy that prevailed there created the best conditions (of the three partitions) for the young peasant’s intellectual development to go hand in hand with the development of Polish national consciousness and patriotism. Moreover, Galicia was a reservoir of the Polish intelligentsia, from which a significant part of the intelligentsia of the Second Republic emerged. This is not to say that Witos, as a subject of the German Kaiser or the Russian Tsar, would certainly have grown up differently, but it was undoubtedly in Galicia that he, as a representative of the peasantry, had the best chance to mature as a Polish statesman and to hold the highest offices of state.

As an active politician, Witos – while still a member of the Galician National Sejm in Lvov and the region’s representative in the Austrian Council of State – consistently called for Polish education, an improvement in the condition of schools and teachers, the extension of autonomy, and anything else that might help to awaken and sustain the Polish spirit in the rural community. Witos, as one of the leaders of the peasant movement, also had his own vision of a reborn Poland. In 1917, he was one of the first to put forward the idea of a republic made up of the three partitions and with access to the sea. In 1918, when the fate of Polish independence was being decided, Witos headed the Polish Liquidation Commission for Galicia and Cieszyn-Silesia – the first provisional body of Polish authority in the Austrian partition. Even then, he seemed a natural candidate for the highest offices of state in the reborn republic. This was soon to be the case. In 1920 – a crucial year for the future of Poland – he was appointed to head the government as President of the Council of Ministers.

In this role, he became known as a politician who could find the best solution for the country in the most difficult and dramatic situations; as a statesman who could act even to the detriment of himself and his political circles when the interests of the Republic demanded it. He proved this in 1926 when, as Prime Minister elected in legitimate, democratic elections, he resigned in order to prevent the outbreak of civil war. Had he not done so, the coup d’état inspired by Marshal Józef Piłsudski (the so-called May coup) would have turned into a bloody, fratricidal, full-scale armed conflict. Whatever the outcome, a civil war in the mid-1920s would have been tragic for Poland. A country in chaos, ravaged by internal strife, it could have fallen prey to aggressive neighbours from the west and east. Even if this had not happened, the fratricidal war would have become a source of national trauma, the effects of which we are still feeling today. Thanks to Prime Minister Witos, but also to other politicians associated with the PSL’s 'Piast’ faction – Marshal Maciej Rataj and President Stanislaw Wojciechowski – the Republic avoided this tragedy.

The political and spiritual legacy of Wincenty Witos is also evident in his attitude in 1920, when, faced with the Soviet invasion of Poland, he decided to head a non-party government of national defence and take responsibility for the fate of the state. Witos was well aware of the risks involved in his decision. If the war of defence failed – a very real scenario at the time – he would go down in history as the man under whose rule Poland, restored after 123 years by the efforts of several generations, fell. It is difficult to imagine the weight of such a decision. Witos managed to cope with it.

Wincenty Witos is a symbol that every Pole can relate to, regardless of political and ideological sympathies. He is one of the few authorities who can unite a divided Polish society. On the one hand, this is very uplifting. On the other hand, if we look at the way in which the memory of Witos is cultivated, we can see that each community does it in its own way. Remembering this figure alone is not the same as striving for agreement and unity. All the more reason for all of us to listen to his words and follow his example. For Witos was guided by a state-oriented approach. Although he came from a particular political milieu and, as a leader, had to look after its interests, at key moments he always put the good of the state before that of the party. On more than one occasion, he paid a heavy price for this. But he never compromised his ethos.

It is difficult to say exactly what feelings drove him. I think one of them must have been a sincere love for his homeland. Witos loved Polishness. He treated it as an immanent part of his personality. Until his death, despite all the injustices and disappointments he suffered during his many years of activity, Poland remained more important to him than his personal ambitions. Humiliated, imprisoned and sentenced to exile by the Sanacja authorities, he never stopped exhorting the peasants to serve Poland. During the Second World War, he remained intransigent. He consistently refused to cooperate with either the Germans or the Soviets.

The Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), which wishes to acknowledge the contribution of Wincenty Witos to the history of Poland, is trying to promote his legacy in various ways. In June 2023, with the support of the IPN, a memorial to this meritorious politician was unveiled in Błaszki, in the province of Łódź. In turn, the IPN Publishing House published the album Wincenty Witos 1874-1945 (first published in 2010 and reissued in 2022), the comic Wincenty Witos – Prime Minister of the 1920s (2022), and the monumental five-volume series Witos’s Selected Works, consisting of his memoirs, speeches and journalistic texts (2024).

.It is worth reading Wincenty Witos, especially now, in the reality of intensifying political strife. This is the best way to understand why he was a Pole, why he loved Poland and why he was able to suffer so much for it.

Mateusz Szpytma

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