Murder of Paweł Adamowicz: The roots of the hatred that is dividing Poland

The murder of Gdańsk mayor Paweł Adamowicz on 13 January occurred in a climate of violence which has gradually taken over public life in Poland – a country now deeply divided between supporters of the nationalist-populist government and their opponents, explains our correspondent.

Frédéric Schneider for VoxEurop

Paweł Adamowicz, mayor of Gdańsk, died on January 14th due to his injuries. He had been stabbed the previous evening by a madman at the final of the Great Orchestra of Christmas (WOŚP), an event he attended every year. The motive claimed by the killer, just out of prison: he was arrested and imprisoned when Adamowicz’s Civic Platform (PO, liberal) was in power (2007-2015).

Gdańsk, a symbol of the fight between liberty and those who would limit or abolish it. It’s here that the fall of communism began in 1980, in the shipyards where Lech Wałęsa worked. It’s here where a museum of the second world war recently opened, presenting a historic interpretation of the suffering of all Europeans during the conflict – Adamowicz having braved a ban by the Law and Justice party (PiS), in power, according to which the martyrdom of Poland could not be compared with that of others (the conservative party eventually changed the conception of the museum). And it’s here that the first shots of the SMS Schleswig-Holstein resounded, sounding the end of the inter-war years. And now this barbaric act, bringing terror and occurring within a larger context where even freedom of expression is under threat.

Why would the act of a paranoid-schizophrenic represent anything more than a tragic news item? Does this act reveal anything about the taut political climate? Opinions diverge. In any case, it’s certain that verbal violence is rising in Poland and that it can engender physical violence.

A turbulent recent history

Certain tensions emerged in 2010, at the time of the [crash of the Tupolev aircraft] (, carrying president Lech Kaczyński to Smoleńsk, in Russia. Besides the head of state, the governor of the Polish central bank, the chief of army staff and other officials died in the accident. Far-fetched conspiracy theories quickly emerged. Some claimed that the government of Donald Tusk (current president of the European Council), working with the Kremlin, orchestrated the incident.

The problem is that the twin brother of the deceased president and leader of the country’s leading party, Law and Justice (PiS), Jarosław Kaczyński, has never refuted these theories, and has even exploited the grey areas in the inquiry conducted after the incident, securing his electorate with a hateful discourse emphasising the supposed responsibility of PO for the catastrophe, the dishonesty of its members and the idea that it’s the Trojan horse of EU, aiming to limit Poland’s sovereignty.

But we have to go back to 2005 to find the source of this violent verbal conflict between PO and PiS. The two parties were expected to form a coalition to run the country after the left fell from power, similar to the PS (Socialist Party) in France in 2017. However, the right-wing conservatives and centre-right liberals failed to come to an agreement. Since then, these two movements have dominated the political stage, each systematically opposed to the other, despite their ideological proximity. Politicians from both parties then started getting angry for more and more irrational reasons, detached from reality, in order to distinguish themselves from the other side.

Invectives at full tilt

Thus, we have Stefan Niesiołowski (PO) declaring that “Lech Kaczyński needs treatment for his nervous system”, and comparing the former head of state to communist dictator Gomułka. Members of PiS do the same with the opposition. Krystyna Pawłowicz excels in the matter: “It’s not enough to consume hormones to become a woman” (in reference to transexual former MP Anna Grodzka), “Those on the left in the House are wild animals”, or even “I pray that the EU falls to pieces” – just a few examples among many others. As for Jarosław Kaczyński, referring to Smoleńsk he has said: “You destroyed my brother, you killed him, you’re scoundrels. You’re afraid of the truth. You’re traitors.

Two parallel realities, two interpretations

According to the PO, the hateful discourse coming from the current government is connected to the act of violence last Sunday. This line of argument was already defended by the party when a parliamentary assistant was murdered in 2010. But at the time, it was a member of PiS who paid the price.

The idea is that the witch hunt (against the PO, the left, judges, homosexuals, foreigners and supporters of the EU) by Kaczyński’s party is creating a climate in which the impunity of violent people, at the verbal as well as physical level, is normal as soon as the person attacked belongs to the groups targeted by Law and Justice. Thus, the government tolerates marches by the far right, and the man who burned an effigy of a jew in public manages to avoid prison.

Furthermore, Polish media have fueled the harmful atmosphere. In their current edition, the conservative weekly wSieci suggests that judges are “a cast ready for battle”, representing them with bazookas on the cover. The magazine Do Rzeczy has published a cover showing conservative journalists in battle armour. The title: “Poland against the homo-empire”. The liberal press behaves no better. Newsweek Poland evoked “the rape of Poland”, illustrated by a Polish coat of arms smashed to pieces on the front page after PiS began their controversial reforms in January 2016.

But PiS has an entirely different interpretation of events. The main television channel, TVP1, which underwent a major purge after PiS came to power, and now toes the party line, claimed Donald Tusk and Jurek Owsiak were responsible for the climate of hate which lead to the stabbing. Since Sunday evening, as a still living Adamowicz was about to be stabbed, they presented out of context quotations where the current president of the European Council declared that members of PiS were going to “go extinct, like the dinosaurs”. Owsiak was for a quarter of a century the organiser of WOŚP (he retired after the death of the mayor). The popular figure is considered controversial by PiS for promoting less than orthodox values and a decadent lifestyle. Thus TVP1 took advantage of the tragedy, citing two words (“Savage country”) to illustrate Owsiak’s supposed participation in the degradation of the political climate.

A disoriented population

The ordinary citizen finds it difficult to sort the true from the false in this context where the lines are blurred. Evidently, two camps divided along stark lines appeared in 2005, and nothing suggests that this division is going to be resolved any time soon. The electorate of PiS tend to be older, practicing catholics, less educated and in the east of the country. Those of the PO are younger, less observant when it comes to the church, have a higher education, and live more often in Warsaw and closer to the German border. The division often therefore separates members of the same family, with a grandfather in Białystok convinced of the complicity of Tusk in the Smoleńsk tragedy, and a granddaughter who moved to Warsaw to study and work. Political topics are therefore rarely brought up at the Christmas dinners of multigenerational families, given their explosiveness.

And yet, people in Poland needs to return to reason in order to defuse the situation. Starting with the politicians and journalists, obviously. But it’s not certain that they’ve got the message, even if they repeat it themselves. They see the mote in the eyes of their brothers without seeing the beam in their own. Meanwhile, another madman dialled 112 three days after the murder of Adamowicz, declaring “Adamowicz is dead. Tusk is next on the list. I’m going to put a bullet in his head

Translated by Ciaran Lawless

Factual or translation error? Tell us.

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