Just published in the 100 Lat Niepodległości. Pamiętniki i wspomnienia series (100 Years of Independence: Diaries and Memoirs), begun in 2013 by the Polish History Museum, is Czas przeszły dokonany (The Simple Past) by Adam Pragier, the three volumes of which stand out against the backdrop of twentieth-century Polish memoirs.
by Kamil Piskała
Its author, however, is little known to a wider audience. Born in 1886, Pragier belonged to a generation that played a key role in the struggle for independence during the First World War, and then in building the foundations of the Second Republic of Poland. He was a lawyer and economist by profession, with positions including a professorship at Wolna Wszechnica Polska (the Free Polish University, a private high school founded in 1918 in Warsaw) and a clerkship in the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare.
Pragier also belonged to the elite leadership of the socialist movement in the interwar period. As a member of Polska Partia Socjalistyczna (Polish Socialist Party), he was a member in the Sejm (Poland’s parliament) and for many years was a member of his party’s Chief Council and head of the authorities of the powiaty, or counties, around Warsaw. He was persistently critical of government policy after the May Coup of 1926, the coup d’état led by Marshal Józef Piłsudski from 12 to 14 May of that year. The coup overthrew the government of President Stanisław Wojciechowski and Prime Minister Wincenty Witos.
Along with his merits in revealing election abuses that followed in 1928, he was in the group of leaders from the democratic opposition imprisoned in September 1930 in the Brest Fortress. After sentencing in the famous Brest Trial, Pragier left Poland for several years, but returned after Piłsudski’s death, serving part of his sentence and resuming political activity. During the Second World War, he was among the most influential figures in Polish London, the émigré community in London. He was a member of the National Council of Poland, the expert body consulting the Polish government-in-exile and the Polish president, then from late November 1944 he also served as Minister of Information and Documentation in the government of Prime Minister Tomasz Arciszewski, another socialist fighting for the liberation of Poland.
Although, excepting this departmental episode while the position of the government-in-exile was weakening dramatically, Pragier did not hold important office and usually did not take part in taking the most important decisions, he spent several decades almost continuously in the mainstream of Polish political life. In his introduction to these memoirs, he notes:
The fact that I have never held office of importance in public life, but rather belonged to the audience from the middle rows on the main floor, should favor my project. For only a short time, in a desperate situation, I found myself on stage. Yet from the main floor, you see what is happening on stage far better than while being on stage yourself. I was interested in all the performances. Sometimes I was actively taking part in them: clapping or whistling. I am aware that the actors do not like when viewers are whistling. And they blame those viewers for all the anxiety in the audience, not themselves.
Pragier, however, was not merely a “viewer,” but also, as his memoirs confirm, a stern reviewer of representatives among the Polish political elite. He seems an undoubtedly insightful and attentive observer, very intelligent – a character trait that has been accentuated by other authors who knew him personally – but also often ironic, sarcastic, or even rather arrogant. We find dozens of interesting and unconventional (often not very kind) characteristics mentioned among influential figures he encountered in his political career, as well as numerous brilliant comments and interpretations of events in which he participated. As a diarist, and earlier as a politician, Pragier was very independent in his opinions, often opposing the current views.
Although he was associated with the socialist movement for almost the entire mature period of his political activity, his memoirs certainly are not – as often in the cases of his Polish Socialist Party colleagues who wrote memoirs after retiring from politics – historical journalism dressed in autobiographical attire, calculated to defend one’s own choices and the achievements of Polish socialism. On the contrary, Pragier does not spare criticism of some former colleagues, writes openly about weaknesses of his own party, and interprets particular episodes from the history of the Second Polish Republic in ways that differ from the socialists’ interpretations.
Pragier describes inner conflicts of the Polish Socialist Party in the early 1920s and the attempts – in which he was heavily involved – to restrict Piłsudski’s influence and that of his people in the socialist ranks. The description of his parliamentary work (1922–1930) is also colorful and, at the same time, abundant in little-known details, such as his account of a special committee investigating activities of secret political associations (including Pogotowie Polskich Patriotów, the Ambulance of Polish Patriots, a nationalistic, anti-Semitic organization run by Jan Pękosławski), which comprised the biggest threat to young Polish democracy before the May Coup.
The reader should be forewarned, however, that in the perspective of the entire memoir, Pragier devotes less attention to the interwar period than to Polish political exile during the Second World War. He was in the first group of prominent Polish politicians who arrived in Paris and began recreating the government alongside the Western allies. In this first period in Paris though, then after the defeat of the French Third Republic in Polish London, Pragier followed his own path. He was critical of Władysław Sikorski, the prime minister in exile, and later of Stanisław Mikołajczyk, Sikorski’s successor. He often argued with his own colleagues from the Polish Socialist Party, and on the other hand he joined discussions and some forms of cooperation with the party that was traditionally the greatest socialist opponent, National Democracy. He met with its members on the basis of a policy of “steadfastness” – consistent, firm defense of prewar Polish borders and manifestations of the full independence of the Polish government in the face of pressure from the Big Three alliance. To Pragier, therefore, signing the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement, a treaty between Poland the Soviet Union (the name taken from its two most notable signatories, Prime Minister Sikorski and the Soviet ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ivan Mayski), meant capitulation. Decisions taken by Stanisław Mikołajczyk in trying to find a modus vivendi with Moscow and at the price of certain concessions in attempts to preserve the independence of postwar Poland, were considered by Pragier a slippery slope leading to full subordination to the Soviet Union.
The Simple Past convinces us that for Pragier the idea of Polish “steadfastness” was not only a symbolic thing – a means of showing the entire world disagreements that elites in exile had with the way leaders of the major powers were acting – but the best possible political strategy, providing real hope for eventual liberation. Pragier’s concept was adopted when it was too late, though. The government that was established in late November 1944, under the leadership of Tomasz Arciszewski, no longer had the tools to alter the country’ political fate. Pragier was among those who set the de facto tone for the activity of that government, which was losing international recognition, however, and facing the gradual demobilization of the Polish Armed Forces in the West along with the dissolution of expanded government administration in exile during the war years.
Pragier decide not to return to the country after the war – the idea of “steadfastness” prevailed. In the following years, he remained one of the most active political participants in émigré life and in media polemics (he ran the popular Puszka Pandory column – Pandora’s Box – for the periodical Wiadomości in London). He believed the role of emigration entailed preservation of the continuity of independent Polish statehood, while providing testimony to a will to regain full independence by Poles and manifesting Poland’s membership in the Western world. Pragier remained faithful to this idea until his death in 1976.
The first edition of his memoirs had come out in London a decade earlier, in 1966. Its publisher was Bolesław Świderski, a prewar activist in the national-radical movement. Of course The Simple Past, the work of an exceptional émigré politician, was not allowed to be distributed in Poland, though some copies found their way into academic libraries and to some historians. The book was almost immediately regarded as a classic, among the most frequently quoted political memoirs in literature devoted to the Second Polish Republic and Polish London from 1940 to 1945.
It had been, however, a work that was hard to accessible, known to some only from footnotes and references. All the more reason to appreciate the initiative of the Polish History Museum, especially as their new edition is a critical one, including footnotes and clarifications about Pragier when he is clearly being biased about himself. Additionally, the edition is enriched with a comprehensive hundred-page introduction, which draws this extraordinary person closer to the reader, and which was developed by the historians Andrzej Friszke and Ewa Pejaś.
The new edition of The Simple Past may interest not only academic researchers, but stands the chance of also reaching a broader, more diverse readership. Especially because the cool politician and economist Pragier seemed to be turns out, in fact to be a brilliant, talented literary diarist. His memoirs are both an extraordinary journey through the complicated history of Poland in the first half of the twentieth century, and an opportunity to read good piece of prose writing, very engaging and surprisingly rich in its vocabulary.
Author: Kamil Piskała
Translation: Alicja Rosé & Alan Lockwood