Saint Louis University

Murder of Polish Mayor Highlight’s Hostile Political Divisions by Isa Colyer

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

2 Comments

  1. Stiv Mucollari

    April 7, 2019 at 3:45 pm

    Isa, I want to first off thank you for writing an excellent blog post. You made a strong argument in tracing the correlation between extremist rhetoric and polarization and the abandonment of mutual toleration and violence that it generates. In the country that I am focusing on, Albania, incidents like the one you highlighted are common. One famous example includes in 1997 when Deputy of the Democratic Party, Azem Hajdari, was shot four times by Deputy of the Socialist Party Gafurr Mazreku during a parliamentary debate over tax legislation. Thomas Zeitzoff, assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University, wrote in a blog post that the paradox of violent rhetoric is not that the rhetoric does not matter, but that the response from the elites of society matter more than the words. He points out that when Trump famously stated that he could shoot someone on 5th avenue and get away with it, the rhetoric allowed Trump to separate true believers from non-believers. Zeitzoff adds that the lack of outrage from Republican Party elites allowed Trump to gauge the extent of the lines he could cross and see who opposes him and who does not.
    Relating this to Albania in the 1990s, the fact that a member of the Socialist Party could engage in the act of violence against a member of the Democratic Party signaled the political instability and the breakdown of the post-communist transition society, It is not surprising that the act of violence in parliament came after a brief civil war, showing that despite the conclusion of the civil war the instability would continue to follow. In relating it to Poland, the death of a mayor who came to symbolize the values that were the opposite of those espoused by Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) could show that the ideological and ethical differences in Poland’s society have reached a point of violent confrontation. Denouncing the act of violence is not enough; PiS needs to address the dynamics that have contributed to Poland’s political instability, such as intergroup hostility. Do you believe the PiS can reform and help solve the political instability or are they too much of an anti-system party to do so?
    Reference:
    Zeitzoff, T. (2018, August 17). What Violent Rhetoric Does and Does Not Do? Retrieved April 7, 2019, from Political Violence at a Glance https://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2018/08/17/what-violent-rhetoric-does-and-does-not-do/

  2. Heather Marshall

    April 9, 2019 at 11:51 am

    Isa,
    Great analysis of the tragedy in Poland. I like how you link the actions of Stefan Wilmot to the increasingly radical rhetoric of the PiS government while maintaining a focus on the positive influence of Pawel Adamowicz. It seems as though he was an incredibly positive figure for the country and could have made great strides away from authoritarianism. I think it was important that you also mentioned the responses across the country as people protested, showing the necessary civic culture that is an important marker for democracy. This seems rather conversely paired with the freedom house rating categorizing the democracy as struggling but goes to show that not every country follows the standards established by the literature. How do you think this outbreak of civic engagement will factor into the Lust and Waldner’s theory matrix of civil culture as it aids to the growth of democracy? You seemed to capture this instance of democratic erosion very well within the post and had great links for further reading. Do you think this is an isolated incident in response to the single tragic event, or do you think this is an underlying and building movement to express continued dissatisfaction in the government? It seems that this resistance against instances of authoritarianism is not just isolated to Poland, we have seen massive protests against Trump, who borders that definition, Igor Dodon of Moldova, and even against Viktor Orban of Hungary. It seems as though resistance breeds resistance so long as communication stays strong. It will be interesting to see as Poland continues to deal with the Pis and the outcomes of the assassination of Pawl Adamowicz.

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