On Sunday, January 13th of this year, hundreds of Polish residents flocked to an outdoor stage in Gdansk to attend the Great Orchestra of Christmas, Poland’s largest annual charity event. It was the Grand Finale concert, and audiences expected to enjoy the music while raising money for new equipment in Polish children’s hospitals. Instead, they witnessed a tragedy. Pawel Adamowicz, mayor of Gdansk since 1998, was stabbed in the heart while speaking on stage. The crowds immediately erupted with confusion and horror, while the attacker was dragged away by security guards and Mr. Adamowicz was rushed to a hospital. He died of his injuries later that night.
Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS), the right-wing, nationalist, and increasingly authoritarian party which controls the government, was quick to deny that the incident held any political meaning. Polish President and PiS leader Andrzej Duda called it “an evil hard to imagine,” and PiS politicians around the country expressed their sorrow at Adamowicz’s death, framing it as an isolated tragedy outside the political context. Still, as the country reeled, many began connecting Mayor Adamowicz’s murder to the polarizing and hateful rhetoric which proliferates on the Polish right, including the PiS itself.
As Mayor of Gdansk, Adamowicz was known as an important leader of Poland’s liberal opposition. He regularly spoke out against the PiS government’s conservative ideology, and was known as a champion of civil rights both at home and abroad; he frequently advocated for marginalized groups like women, Jews, and the LGBT+ community. Adamowicz was also an outspoken supporter of diversity and immigration– controversial values to support amidst the PiS government’s ethno-nationalist and anti-immigrant stances. Because of his socially liberal positions and critiques of the government, Adamowicz was the frequent target of vitriolic speech from right-wing politicians and media personalities. The PiS painted him as a traitor and threat to the country. State-run television network TVP, for example, once aired a video featuring frighteningly framed clips of immigrants, in which a narrator implied that Adamowicz was risking Polish citizens’ safety by welcoming migrants into Gdansk. In 2017, a right-wing nationalist youth group even published a fake death certificate for Adamowicz in response to his willingness to welcome refugees in Gdansk.
Attacks like these are unfortunately common in the Polish media. In the words of prominent Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, “the news in Poland today feels like a new kind of monster, a Frankenstein’s monster that has gotten out of control online and mutated into hate speech that can then be found everywhere else. Open your email, and you’ll see: “You’re a piece of trash, and you will die.” “We know where you live.” “We’re going to cut off that stupid head.” Even the charity concert at which Adamowicz was stabbed has been the target of hateful criticism: right-wing media figures have accused the Great Orchestra of Christmas and its openly liberal leader of spreading “evil,” acting as a left-wing political puppet, and more. Tokarczuk describes the criticism as having intensified since the PiS’s parliamentary victory in 2015.
Such rhetoric is partly a result of Poland’s extreme political polarization. The country is widely regarded as one of the most polarized nations in Europe, and Freedom House describes it as having descended “total political polarization and lack of consensual decision-making” in recent years. Experts have long warned that intense polarization, especially when accompanied by inflammatory rhetoric between opposing groups, can lead to increased conflict and violence. McCoy et al., for example, argue that populist leaders like President Duda deepen political tensions by portraying conflicts in terms of “us versus them” or “good versus evil.” This simplistic approach to political divisions paints the outgroup–”them,” or anyone opposing the government–as illegitimate, and more deserving of attack than compromise. McCoy et al. explain that these conditions tend to result in increased intergroup hostility, including violence (McCoy et al. 2018).
Because of the hateful speech coming from Poland’s polarized media, Adamowicz’s murder led many to blame the PiS government for generating and tolerating such rhetoric against its opposition. Experts like Levitsky and Ziblatt, who argue that toleration or encouragement of violence and refusal to respect the legitimacy of political opponents are signs of authoritarianism, would likely agree (Levitsky & Ziblatt 2018). Of course, no one can prove a direct link between the government’s rhetoric and Adamowicz’s death. The man who committed the stabbing, later identified as 27 year-old Stefan Wilmont, was an individual with a history of violent crime and mental illness. He was not, as far as anyone knows, acting on behalf of any political organization. However, no act of political violence occurs without a political context. In addition to a terrible crime committed by a deranged individual, this incident is a reflection of Poland’s deep political divisions and the violent rhetoric which fuels them. Most of the Polish public seem to recognize these dynamics at play. Accordingly, Adamowicz’s murder has largely been treated as a political incident. Citizens organized marches against violence and hatred after his death, and several prominent journalists have written about the tragedy’s political underpinnings. Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, issued a statement declaring that “this was an attack not just on the mayor, but on the very value of tolerance.” In the end, many view Adamowicz’s murder as a horrific example of what can happen when a society is flooded with hateful, polarizing political speech. If violent ideas become lodged in the mind of an unstable, violent individual, tragedy can occur. If the state of polarization and political rhetoric in Poland does not change, many will be grimly unsurprised if another incident like this occurs in the future.
Photo: Agencja Gazeta/Jakub Porzycki