- October 24, 2012
How did the elections look like in Vilnius in 1939
After recovering a little from a pleasant daze caused by the announcement of the first round of the parliamentary elections and by the historic success of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania I decided to dig around in old books, documents and newspapers to find out how did Vilnius residents vote in the past. By the past I mean not the last 20 years of the Republic of Lithuania but the pre-war times. The results of this look through the old papers, or to call it professionally, the results of the preliminary research at archives and libraries, surprised me to such an extent that I decided to share my knowledge with “Wilnoteka” readers. I would like to get ahead of the story with saying that I am not going to bore the readers with summarizing the course of the campaigns and the results of the parliamentary and local elections in Vilnius and its area in times of Second Rzeczpospolita.
I will refer to the recent elections to the City Council of Vilnius. The voting took place in May 1939. It was almost on the eve of the outbreak of war which is, I my opinion rightly so, more and more often referred to in Poland as the historical disaster. Undoubtedly, the Second World War has been a disaster of the size of a hecatomb for Vilnius and it transformed the face and the character of the Borderlands capital. First of all, it took away a lot of people. Tens of thousands of them, whole generations that were deeply settled into this city. They were killed or expelled. Probably all the Vilnius town councillors of the last term also shared the same fate.
In 1939, during the time of the “late” Poland (as my elderly friend from the vicinity of Ejszyszki says), the National-Catholic electoral register won the last elections. It represented the National Party, which was the biggest pre-war political party and which was in opposition to Piłsudski supporters. Nationalists won 27 seats in the City Council consisting of 72 members among which there were also representatives of 5 more political parties and other political organizations. There were 2 parliamentary and 3 Jewish political organizations. More specifically these were: the governmental Camp of National Unity founded by leaders in the Sanation movement which obtained 19 seats; the oppositional Polish Socialist Party that introduced 9 councillors; the Jewish Labour Bund that sympathised with communism won 10 seats; the Zionists who had 2 councillors and the Jewish General Block with overall number of 5 persons.
The elections results almost entirely reflect the ethnic composition of pre-war Vilnius. It was Polish and Jewish city which in 1939 had approximately 200,000 inhabitants. Polish inhabitants dominated. There were more than 60 per cent of the whole population. About 30 per cent of Vilnius residents were of Jewish origin. From all the other nationalities Russians were the biggest group – about 7,000 of them lived in Vilnius. Lithuanians were not even 1 per cent of Vilnius population. They were only 1,500. For that reason they had never managed to have their councillors club in the local government.
The result and the range of support for the National Party in Vilnius may surprise many. Vilnius is quite commonly associated with Józef Piłsudski, the biggest political opponent of nationalists. The nationalists were the followers of the thoughts and ideas of Roman Dmowski, the architect of restoration of Poland in 1918.
There have been plenty of things written about Vilnius political arena but not from the perspective of the National Democratic party. There are volumes written about communist so called Academic Left Association with which Czesław Miłosz was socially connected. Brothers Stanisław and Józef Mackiewicz – the followers of nostalgia for the idea of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and in addition to that the first one was also a supporter of the restoration of monarchy – are popular in Poland. In schools we learn about federal ideas of Piłsudski. We do not know almost anything about Dmowski’s east line and his nationalist programme. We know even less about his political ideas concerning Lithuania and Lithuanian nationalistic aspirations from the beginning of the XX century. However, it is still a little bit better than in Vilnius area where neither the federal concepts of Piłsudski nor the nationalistic concepts of Dmowski are thought in schools.
It turns out that nationalists in Vilnius were a numerous political force and they were popular. It is the National Democrats who won a majority in parliament of so called Republic of Central Lithuania in 1922. It is also them who forced through the resolution, which was then adopted by the Polish Sejm, about incorporating Vilnius area to Poland. What may also surprise many is the fact that it happened against Piłsudski’s will, who at that time was still making plans of federation with Lithuania.
In the 30s Vilnius’ nationalists still were a strong group. The party structures in the city had more than a thousand of active members. The people from Stefan Batory University were pulled at their heartstrings by Nationalist youth. At this university the All-Polish Youth was the largest academic organization and national democrats won almost all elections for the Students Brotherly Help’s board. They also had a significant impact on associations of law and medicine students.
What is the reason for their popularity? Undoubtedly, when it comes to economics, it was influenced by the growing conflict between the Polish and the Jewish community. Jews held 75 per cent of trade and services on the north-eastern Borderlands. Therefore, national democrats’ support for Polish merchants and craftsmen and the initiative for the creation of Polish co-operatives brought them popularity. Moreover, National Democrats’ programme was also anti-communist and most probably it was them who understood the threat of Bolshevism the best. It was also deeply ideological and well-organized formation. Many people might have been impressed by that and it would probably make them vote. However, the Vilnius people might have had other reasons as well. They wanted the Borderlands to remain Polish despite any political trends for being “national” and local and despite the poisonous communism.
This National Democratic idea of Polishness of the Borderlands was perfectly expressed by Wiktor Trościanko, a completely forgotten writer in exile. I would like to use a fragment of his excellent autobiography entitled “Manhood” (org. “Wiek męski”). One of the sites where its plot takes place is Vilnius.
“I am ‘local’ in a geographical sense of this word; since time immemorial. But not in a political sense. Those, who label themselves politically ‘local’, they are most eager in sawing off the branch they are sitting on. In spite of everything, they are cutting off the roots from which sprouted everything that made and still makes this land. For tactical reasons they will support Belarusian and Lithuanian nationalism. They will be joining different “politically non-aligned blocs” just to stop these roots from sprouting towards Polishness in its broadest sense. I come from the place where peasant-like gentry together with peasants went “into the woods” during the January Uprising (1863). They knew that this battle was led by moral force – the Warsaw government from the time of the uprising. My forefather Stefan – my father’s uncle – was “in the woods.” My grandfather – my mother’s father – was “in the woods.” They did not fight for some “local” causes.”
Maybe that is why, not because of “local” causes but because of Polish cause, Vilnius residents voted for Nationalist-Catholic electoral register in 1939 elections.
Tłumaczenie Monika Rak w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Monika Rak the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.