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Wincenty Witos

Wincenty Witos (1874–1945) – politician, columnist, three-time prime minister of the Second Polish Republic; leader of the Polish Peasant Party “Piast” (PSL “Piast”) and the Peasants’ Party, member of the National League, and one of the fathers of Polish independence.

He was born to a peasant family in Wierzchosławice. At elementary school he proved to be a gifted student, but because of the poor financial situation of his family, he could not enter further education. He was a self-taught man who read fine literature. He joined the peasant movement in Galicia as a peasant press columnist, and wrote, among others, a column for “Przyjaciel Ludu” (“The People’s Friend”) in the years 1896–1903. In 1898, he married Katarzyna, née Tracz, with whom he had a daughter, Julia.

As a local peasant activist, in 1908, he was elected to the National Sejm in Lviv, and in 1911, he won a seat in the State Council in Vienna. In 1909, he was elected commune administrator and held the position until 1931. After a split in the peasant movement, in 1914, he became one of the leaders of PSL “Piast”. At the outbreak of World War I, he took the side of the pro-Austrian party, and then actively supported the draft of peasant volunteers into the Legions. Already in 1915, however, he grew closer to the National Democracy, which eventually resulted in his joining the underground National League in 1917. In November 1918, he refused to participate in the leftist government headed by Daszyński in Lublin, while at the same time leading the Polish Liquidation Committee in Galicia, which was ready to recognise the legitimate central government in Warsaw. In the Legislative Sejm, he became the leader of PSL “Piast” and the main coalition partner of the national democracy club. He was among the most hard-working members of parliament. At the critical moment when the Bolshevik army was approaching Warsaw, he headed the government of the Polish Republic, using all his authority to convince peasants to defend the young state. In his special appeal issued on 30 July 1920, he wrote: “It is up to you, my fellow peasants, whether Poland will be a free people’s state, where the people rule and live happily, or it will become a slave to Moscow …”. On the days of the battle of Warsaw, he was on the frontline.

In the elections to the Sejm and Senate of the Polish Republic held in the autumn of 1922, PSL “Piast” became a major political force, without which a parliamentary majority based on an alliance with the nationalists was impossible to secure. After the tragic death of President Narutowicz, on Witos’s initiative the Chjeno-Piast coalition government was eventually formed in the spring of 1923 based on the agreement referred to as the Lanckorona Pact, whereby Witos guaranteed the implementation of an agricultural reform. The economic crisis prevented the implementation of this idea, but the agricultural reform adopted in December 1925 was based on the provisions of the said pact. Witos formed his third administration in May 1926 in the context of a prolonged governmental crisis and threats received from Marshal Piłsudski who was ready to solve the crisis by force. In the face of the May Coup and continued street fighting in the capital, the Cabinet resigned. Witos co-organised the centre-left “Centrolew” opposition. He brought about the unification of the peasant movement and formation of the Peasants’ Party in 1931, and became its leader. Before that, Witos and other Centrolew members had been arrested by the Sanation government and imprisoned in the Brest Fortress in September 1930. Then, at the famous trial – he was released pending adjudication – he was sentenced to imprisonment for a year and a half in January 1932. Facing imprisonment, he emigrated to Czechoslovakia. In the mid-1930s, along with Paderewski, gen. Haller and gen. Sikorski, he was the initiator of the centre-right alliance eventually called the Front Morges in 1936. He returned to Poland in 1939.

After the outbreak of war, he refused to cooperate with the Germans and continued to be kept under house arrest in Wierzchosławice throughout the occupation. In 1945, despite serious illness, he was actively engaged in an attempt to reactivate PSL. He died on 31 October 1945, and his funeral in Cracow was arranged as a state ceremony. His body was laid to rest at the cemetery in Wierzchosławice.

prof. Jan Żaryn