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15 January 2019

The murder of Gdansk mayor Paweł Adamowicz reflects Poland’s increasingly toxic political climate

Adamowicz had long been a victim of hate, but was it really the hate that killed him? 

By Christian davies

In 2017, a far-right youth organisation called All-Polish Youth issued a series of “political death certificates” announcing the demise of high-profile pro-European politicians. Among them was Paweł Adamowicz, the long-serving mayor of Gdansk, famous in Poland for his robust defence of refugees and promotion of LGBT rights. “Cause of death:” it stated, “Liberalism, multiculturalism, stupidity.” 

Adamowicz was stabbed on stage at a charity concert on Sunday evening, and died on Monday afternoon. He leaves behind him a country in mourning – but for his supporters, the sadness is tinged with anger. No evidence has emerged that the murder was overtly political in nature, in the sense that his assailant was ideologically motivated. But many people blame his death on an increasingly toxic political climate since the rise to power in 2015 of the right-wing Law & Justice Party that opponents say has spread and normalised hate speech, paving the road to violence.  

For some liberal Poles, the most obvious historical parallel is that with the assassination in the 1920s of Gabriel Narutowicz, the first president of the new republic of Poland that was established in the aftermath of the First World War. In contrast to the relative homogeneity of contemporary Poland, the interwar republic was strikingly multi-cultural, with large minorities of Germans, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Jews. A man of the left, Narutowicz was elected by the Polish parliament with the support of left-wing parties and representatives of Polish minorities, making him a hate figure for many on the nationalist right, who saw him as a traitor and puppet of the enemies of the Polish nation. He was shot dead just five days into his term by Eligiusz Niewiadomski, a nationalist painter and art critic.

This association in people’s minds between the deaths of the two men was made explicit on Monday, when a silent march mourning Adamowicz made its way through the streets of Warsaw to the Zachęta art gallery, where Narutowicz was assassinated. Speaking to mourners in Gdansk, more than one brought Narutowicz up in conversation. It is a dangerous business standing up for minorities in this country, they say. If the right doesn’t kill you themselves, their hate will kill you for them. 

One can make the case that there were strong similarities between the two victims. Both held high office, representing a multicultural vision of Polishness that made them hate figures on the nationalist right. In Poland’s feral right-wing media, Adamowicz was routinely described as a traitor, a German, a criminal, a homo-lover, a paedophile, a Commie, and a puppet of the EU – echoing almost exactly nationalist rhetoric from the 1920s describing Narutowicz as in the pocket of “Reds, Jews, and Germans”.

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But things get complicated once you start trying to draw parallels between the two assassins. Niewiadomski had a long history of right-wing activism, and his motives were overtly ideological. But when Adamowicz’s assailant, having just stabbed the mayor, took the microphone to address the horrified crowd, he said he had done it because he blamed Adamowicz’s former political party for his imprisonment in 2014 for a series of violent attacks. This appears to make his motives “political” in some broad sense, but not ideological, in the sense that Adamowicz was killed because of his political beliefs – an important distinction. Complicating things still further, it has been reported that the assailant has a history of paranoid schizophrenia. Adamowicz had long been a victim of hate, but was it really the hate that killed him? 

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Already at the time of writing, just one day after Adamowicz’s death, there are distressing signs that this question is once again dividing Poland against itself. The government and its supporters stand accused of feeding and normalising hate speech, the result of which is an atmosphere of tension and hatred that makes such attacks as that on Adamowicz more likely, whether they are politically motivated or not. Government supporters, on the other hand, accuse opponents of politicising a crime committed by someone who was self-evidently a criminal with severe mental health problems. 

Even amongst those who appear to agree that Poland has a problem with hate, regardless of its connection to the murder, the country’s warring factions appear more concerned with blaming each other for the problem than turning down the temperature. As Britons found out in the wake of the murder of Jo Cox, the kinds of people who are capable of learning the lessons from such a terrible tragedy tend not to be the people who were responsible for the problem in the first place.

So far, so depressing. But amidst the Baltic gloom, there are reasons to be positive. For years, the various controversies surrounding Poland’s nasty, rancorous government has cast a shadow over the millions of Polish citizens who do not fit the stereotype of the Pole as mean-spirited xenophobe. The attention now being given to Adamowicz – his popularity, his generosity, his normality – shines a light on a more decent Poland, the country represented by the crowds of people who queued to donate their blood in an ultimately futile attempt to save their mayor. It will have to be built without him.

Christian Davies is a journalist based in Poland.