The Polish city of Gdansk – a Northern port city filled with access to beautiful beaches and a charming medieval Old Town – is most closely associated with the Solidarity movement, the first site where the fabric of Soviet-style communism began to fray at the edges. Gdansk has become a symbol of resistance, resilience and revolution in favour of democratic process, a product of its recent history and the struggle of its citizens. It has become a liberal enclave, a city that invites multicultural exchange, and a flourishing metropolis.
As of January 14th, 2019, Gdansk has once again become the focus of the Polish nation, but not as the symbol of hopeful change and certainly not as the seaside refuge it has marketed itself to be. All eyes are on Gdansk because it has revealed the cleavages, weaknesses, and brutality of Polish politics with the death of a singular individual: former Mayor Pawel Adamowicz.
Perceived as the father of Gdank’s spectacular transformation into a prosperous city, Adamowicz was both a beloved figure in liberal circles and a hated adversary by PiS politicians and more conservative individuals. As a result of his progressive voice (support of sex education in schools, LGBT rights, and tolerance for minorities), he was routinely described by Polish right-wing media as a traitor, criminal, pedophile, homo-lover, and puppet of the EU. It was Adamowicz’s attempts to shape Gdansk into a liberal island in a sea of xenophobic nationalism that led to the announcement of his “political death” by the nationalist All-Polish Youth (Mlodziez Wszechpolska). His cause of “death”? Liberalism, multiculturalism, stupidity.
In reality, Adamowicz’s death was caused by repeated stabs to the throat, heart, and stomach. The attack took place during the annual “Wielka Orkiestra Swiatecznej Pomocy” (WOSP; translated as “The Grand Orchestra of Holiday Help”), a nationwide charity that raises money for underfunded state hospitals. With Adamowicz leading the countdown towards the moment when fundraising officially ends, a man wearing a “Media” badge climbed on stage, timing his attack with the moment that the countdown reached zero. Rather than lights raised in celebration, the stunned crowd was met with the attacker’s brutal justification: Adamowicz’s former political party (PO) had wrongfully imprisoned and tortured him. To complicate matters further, the attacker was identified by national media as a mentally ill individual suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.
Adamowicz’s family has asked for his death not to be politicised, but with the toxic rhetorical environment in Poland, the loss of a beloved liberal individual, and such an announcement from the attacker, many Poles are asking: How can we not politicise this incident?
For a nation that sparked the fire of democracy in the former USSR, the sudden onset of hateful and nationalistic sentiment is particularly jarring. The murder of Adamowicz is a watershed event that is leading Poles and members of various other societies ask: Why? How could this have happened? Is this a product of recent developments? Where do we go from here?
With such a brutal death sending shockwaves throughout the Polish nation, there have been renunciations from both sides about the nature of the incident, and broader calls for unity. But even in such a traumatic time, the Polish nation has split further.
This single incident, though taken outside of Poland’s political climate, is revealing of a broader trend. In polarised nations, death and tragedy – especially in relation to controversy – are often woven into the fabric of political infighting. They are weaponised and thrown back across the wall of political difference, splitting a nation further into two. The seemingly obscure Polish case can also serve as a cautionary tale for those of us entrenched in controversial debates here in the United States. The dark consequences of polarisation that plague the Polish nation – a nation subscribed to our Western values – may very well manifest themselves in our own political arena. The results of events in Poland and in the United States may not be as mutually exclusive as we think them to be.
In the direct case of Poland, Adamowicz’s death has resulted in two opposing narratives. These narratives are taken to be separate truths, ones that bite and snap at each other from each end of the political spectrum.
The more right-leaning public takes the position that the attacker was mentally unstable and his success can be blamed on the lax security of the Charity event. A subsection of the Catholic far-right has even taken issue with the WOSP Charity itself, claiming that it promotes an absence of moral principles. They trace this process back to the Charity’s founder, Jerzy Owsiak, a musician and artist who promotes tolerance and individual lifestyle choice. For these members, the promotion of such a lifestyle does not align with the spirit of charity, meaning that WOSP’s work is tainted and should be shunned. Though this is not a mainstream opinion among Polish Catholics (as the leading Catholic aid organization, Caritas, actually partnered with WOSP this year), this opinion is worth mentioning, as it reveals the deep division of society. Even a charity is controversial, even a charity is made political.
Conversely, more liberal circles cite the unmitigated rise of hate speech in the political environment as a direct contributor to Adamowicz’s death. As evidenced by the ways in which Adamowicz was described by the opposition, vicious attack on personal character are becoming increasingly permissible in rhetoric and public discourse. Additionally, in the case that a documented case of hate speech even makes it into court, it is often annulled and almost never penalized. State television has become an instrument whereby hate speech and xenophobia are spewed out almost daily: three days before Adamowicz’s murder, prime-time TV broadcast an anti-semitic satire about the WOSP organization.
It is possible that these narratives don’t run parallel to each other, but converge in ways that both sides of the opposition don’t want to admit. Though the attacker suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, it is important to note that most mentally ill individuals are not inherently violent. Amid an environment of such hateful speech, with major media platforms airing vicious attacks against the PO opposition, it is possible that someone prone to paranoid delusions (like the attacker) would slowly convince himself that he had been tortured by this seemingly evil party. Additionally, his successful attack was helped by the fact that Polish security standards for mass events are far less rigorous than in many Western countries.
Both narratives contain some semblance of truth in them, but what is striking about them is each side’s incompleteness. The attack may not have been overtly political and may have just been the product of a mentally ill individual with harmful delusions. The attack would have been made possible because of a lack of security detail. But where did these delusions come from? Likely from the environment around the attacker. And with such a toxic and polarised political environment taking hold in Poland, it is not unreasonable to assume that they may at least have partially drawn from state-run media sources. Similarly, hate speech as a direct cause of death does not tell the whole story either. If this were the case, the many other major political figures mentioned in the All-Polish Youth’s death certificates would suffer the same fate as Gdansk’s Adamowicz.
Nonetheless, Poland has reached a crossroads, proving that factions of its society will increasingly choose polarising and opposing paths. These divisions have shown their stubbornness, their resolve to fester and remain, even when faced with death.
For many Poles, Adamowicz became a symbol of something much bigger than the attack. Murdered at a charity event that is meant to bring Poles together, he has become a symbol of the death of unity in Poland, a symbol of what toxic polarisation can do to individuals and to an entire society.