The murder of Gdansk Mayor Paweł Adamowicz has sent Poland into a tailspin. The nature of the crime speaks to the febrile state of Polish politics under the rule of Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Adamowicz was everything that the PiS is not. Though conservative, he led the local gay pride parade and symbolically bestowed the keys to the city on Gdansk’s women to commemorate the centennial of women’s suffrage in Poland. He, along with a dozen other mayors, invited refugees to their cities, offering jobs and support – an offer the central government rejected. When my organization invited the leftist Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek to Gdańsk in 2009, Adamowicz immediately invited him to dinner.
The timing and setting of the crime are telling. The assailant attacked Adamowicz during the finale of an annual fundraiser organized by the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity. Now in its 27th year, the event has been crucial to fundraising efforts for the modernization of Polish hospitals and is the country’s most trusted public entity.
And yet the charity and its founder, Jerzy Owsiak, have for the past three years been subjected to a right-wing hate campaign similar to that directed against Poland’s judiciary and opposition parties. Speaking from the stage, the killer explained that he had exacted revenge against the previous governing party, Civic Platform, which he held responsible for a prison sentence that he had recently concluded. Though Adamowicz was elected as an independent, he was previously a co-founder and member of Civic Platform and enjoyed the party’s support.
In Poland – like other countries with similar histories of war, uprisings, and assassinations – political tragedy never seems to unite us; instead, it deepens existing divisions. After the murder of a popular political figure, one might expect an empathetic response from all sides. But Polish civic life has deteriorated – become more polarized and malevolent – in the wake of every political tragedy, and the subsequent process of reconciliation generally takes decades.
There is a basic psychological mechanism underlying this dynamic. If a society comprises enough people who perceive themselves as victims of some kind, the public reaction to misfortune will tend not toward empathy, but hate. The instinct is to treat sympathy as a scarce resource that must be defended from rivals. It is as if society were locked in a state of competitive suffering.
The Polish scholar Andrzej Leder put it best: “Those who have a sense of victimization have hearts of stone.” Among other things, this insight helps to explain the post-World War II surge in anti-Semitism among Poles, many of whom had just witnessed the Nazis murder millions of Jews on Polish soil.
Adamowicz’s murder brings to mind events in Poland in 1922, shortly after the country regained independence. After Gabriel Narutowicz was declared the winner of the country’s first democratic presidential election, he came under vicious attack from the right, which decried him as a “Jewish president” because of the support he had received from the country’s numerous national minorities. Just five days after taking office, Narutowicz was fatally shot by a right-wing fanatic.
The 1922 tragedy did not unite Polish society. On the contrary, the assassin soon became a “national hero” for the right, and Poland’s minorities were effectively shut out of parliamentary politics because the other parties were wary of allying with them. The doctrine of Polish majoritarianism prevailed.
Then, in 2010, Poland experienced another national tragedy, when a plane carrying then-president Lech Kaczyński – Jarosław’s brother – crashed outside of Smolensk, killing everyone on board, including the chief of the Polish General Staff, 18 members of parliament, and numerous other military and political leaders. Shortly thereafter, the Polish right began accusing then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Russia of jointly plotting the crash.
Since then, the Polish right has created a “cult of Smolensk,” appointing its own pseudo-experts (none of whom has ever examined a plane crash) to “investigate.” Under the PiS government, there have been, for eight years, monthly marches commemorating the crash, and the military is forced to hold ceremonies where the names of the “fallen” are read out. Since the Smolensk crash, Poland has been divided into two warring camps.
This time will be no different. In the hours immediately following the attack on Adamowicz, Polish President Andrzej Duda and PiS officials, shocked by what had occurred, exhibited restraint. That lasted less than a day. The primetime news program on state television blamed the tragedy on Owsiak, accusing him of not securing the event. No mention was made of the words of the actual perpetrator.
In the meantime, PiS-controlled media accused Civic Platform of carrying out the attack, including in its coverage quotes only from Civic Platform politicians and the former president of the Constitutional Court. But it is Kaczyński’s party that for the past three years has been denouncing Poland’s judges as thieves and communists. Should we be surprised that a convicted criminal recently left prison convinced that those who put him there are illegitimate, and that Civic Platform, a staunch defender of the judiciary, should be punished?
Because Poles are generally suspicious of opposition parties, courts, and private media, the PiS’s diversion strategy has been effective. But if the party thinks it can avoid blame for Adamowicz’s murder, it may be in for a surprise. Owsiak is a widely respected and beloved public figure. Almost everyone in Poland has either seen or benefited directly from the life-saving medical equipment his charity provides. Generations of Poles have participated in the charity’s fundraising drives. For years, Poles have ranked Owsiak as the country’s greatest moral authority – ahead of the Pope.
The state media’s narrative portraying Owsiak and Civic Platform as the guilty parties behind Adamowicz’s murder will only undermine the PiS. Kaczyński has repeatedly demonstrated his impulsiveness. He pursues power without considering the consequences of his actions. And if he attacks Owsiak, he will lose.