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<b>How did you become interested in writing about interbellum Poland?</b>
The Second World War marks an enormous disjuncture in European history and this is particularly true in the case of Poland. The Polish state recreated after World War II was in many ways totally different from the one which preceded it. In contrast to its forbear, the new Poland was ethnically homogenous: it had no Jews, no Ukrainians, no Belarusians, and no Germans. It had lost its aristocracy, its political elite, and a good part of its intelligentsia. When I was growing up
in Poland in this dreary, gray , and different world; a colorful and exotic world, full of different peoples, ideas, perspectives, and possibilities. This early interest in the antebellum period has stayed with me until now.
<b>What kind of challenges did Poland face after it was recreated? What was the political environment like?</b>
Interwar Poland faced enormous challenges, most of which were shared by other Eastern European states. First, was the challenge of introducing democracy to a people with virtually no experience of political liberty. Second, was the problem of dealing with powerful and hostile neighbors, Germany and the Soviet Union, who would ultimately join forces to destroy the Polish state 1939. Third was the question of economic reform--like most countries in Eastern Europe, Poland was a primarily agricultural state desperately trying to industrialize and modernize its economy. And finally there was the so-called “nationalities question.” About 30% of the country’s population was comprised of ethnic minorities, mostly Ukrainians, Jews, Germans, and Belarusians, many of whom did not wish to be the citizens of a Polish state.
<b>Who was Gabriel Narutowicz? How did he become prominent in interbellum Poland?</b>
Narutowicz was an extremely successful Swiss-educated engineer who had left Poland as a young man. Yet he decided to give up his comfortable life in Zurich in order to help rebuild the country of his birth. His vision of Poland was an idealistic one--he envisioned a democratic, progressive, and tolerant state in which different ethnic groups would be able to coexist harmoniously under the rule of law. His rise to prominence boils down primarily to his international experience and personal charm, a combination which made him one of the country’s most successful diplomats.
<b>How strong was anti-semitism in Poland?</b>
<b>Why was Narutowicz nominated for the presidency? He seems to be an unlikely candidate?</b>
There is a myth, still current today, that it was the national minorities, and specifically the Jewish parties, which played the decisive role in bringing Narutowicz to power. Indeed, this is why he was murdered. In reality, however, his election was the result of a series of accidents. One of the things I realized while researching this book is that seemingly random events can play a crucial role in setting off deeper, long-term processes. For example, if a better-known left wing candidate had been elected to the presidency, the story of the election being a “Jewish conspiracy” would have been more difficult for the nationalists difficult to sell to the public. And this may have had important long-term implications for the development of Polish-Jewish relations in the interwar period and beyond.
<b>How did Poland react to his assassination?</b>
The initial reaction was shock and outrage. Even those antisemitic politicians who had stoked the fires of hatred and called the president a “Jewish stooge” initially condemned his murder. But even though no one publicly condoned the assassination, many nationalists portrayed it as a natural reaction to the Jews’ participation in the election. And the murderer was quickly turned into a sort of tragic hero, whose intentions were pure and noble even if his actual actions were misguided.
<b>What surprised you the most when you were researching this project?</b>
I think most surprising was the power and reach of antisemitism, on the one hand, and the existence of such forceful opposition to it, on the other. Interwar European society, and in this case Poland is an exemplar rather than an exception, was extremely polarized. In the end, the nationalists and antisemites won the debate in most countries, but it in the early 1920s the struggle was perhaps at its peak and all options were still on the table.
<b>How would you recommend using your book for a history class?</b>