Christmas 2018 was a particularly bright occasion in my home town of Gdańsk. The fresh snow that blanketed the Old Town glimmered with lights strung up everywhere – as if the mayor, Paweł Adamowicz, wanted to celebrate his recent victory in municipal elections. Although he had been in the post since 1998, the November 2018 election was particularly tough. For the first time, he ran as an independent candidate, facing two serious rivals from both the right-wing ruling party, Law and Justice, and his former party, Civic Platform.
Only two weeks on, Gdańsk is weeping. The mayor was stabbed to death at the biggest charity event in Poland, organised by the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity. His attacker apparently has a history of mental illness, as many point out to suggest that it was not a political murder. Perhaps it wasn’t, but in the febrile politics of the moment in Poland, all acts have a deeper political meaning – even those committed by those with mental illness.
For many in Gdańsk, insanity does not alleviate the sense of extreme violence – violence against the mayor, against the people who attended the event, against the event organisers, against the message of generosity, against all the people of Gdańsk, against the previous government (which the perpetrator accused of torture from the stage immediately after the attack), and against the liberal values and openness that Adamowicz stood for. On 14 January, thousands of people filled the Old Town to be together and to protest against hatred and violence.
Without respect, the weather may soon be the only topic we can discuss without risk of insult
Photos and messages from Poland this week remind me of November 2015 in France, where I lived at the time. All of France was mourning those who died in the mass shootings in Paris and were struggling to believe that there could have been such a barbaric attack on its people and their way of life. The scale of the violence in Gdańsk is, of course, incomparable to that in Paris. However, the impact on citizens is similar – leaving them with feelings of incredulity, denial, numbness, fear, immense sadness, and the urge to come together against hatred. And they face the same debilitating questions: what now? What does it mean? What next?
The political context of Adamowicz’s murder is inescapable. In recent years, he had become a vocal defender of equal rights. With a new right-wing government in power in Warsaw, he fought for Gdańsk to remain an open, tolerant city. When the far-right National Radical Camp marched through Gdańsk in April 2018, Adamowicz organised a counter-march for tolerance and against nationalism. He spoke out in favour of diversity, supported Pride parades, and launched a new initiative to better integrate the approximately 25,000 migrants and refugees who live in Gdańsk into the local community.
He also supported the work of the Orchestra, despite the central government’s refusal to cooperate with it. State-run television channels are forbidden from mentioning the successes of the Orchestra – which is also very active among the Polish diaspora, organising fundraising concerts all over the world. Polish embassies had until 2015 always supported the charity, but they are no longer permitted to associate with it.
It is initially hard to understand why: the Orchestra has been active for 27 years, raising significant healthcare funding in Poland, not least that for children. However, right-wing groups gradually started attacking Jurek Owsiak, the charismatic chairman of the charity, accusing him of financial fraud and spreading left-wing ideas. Poles voted with their purses, generously funding the charity such that it grows every year. Donations to the Orchestra have been politicised as a sign of resistance. In another symbolic act of support for the charity and in protest against the government’s attitude towards it, last weekend Poles covered some Polish embassies with bright red hearts, the logo of the Great Orchestra. This is the context in which Adamowicz was murdered.
Despite the bright lights and its continuing economic boom, Poland has lapsed into political gloom. Many Poles note that the current government has created conditions in which violence and hatred are tolerated and even excused. For example, Polish independence day, until recently a rather unremarkable occasion, is gradually becoming an annual display of nationalist fervour that most citizens prefer to avoid. Significantly, both Adamowicz and Owsiak became prime targets for hate speech for their activities.
Europeans keep looking for ways to defend the global liberal order. What can national governments do? What can Europe do? How can we remain open and tolerant? Adamowicz’s murder is a tragic reminder of the role of local politics in strengthening our societies’ resilience.
If national governments do not want to address the issue, cities can and should step in. The new mayor of Warsaw reacted immediately, launching on 15 January a programme against hate speech in schools. The capital is only the second Polish city to take up the initiative, after Wrocław. Local governments elsewhere in Poland and beyond should follow suit as soon as possible.
Fighting hate speech with substantive programmes is a good way to begin to overcome divisions and violence. We need to show more respect for one another – on the local level, on the national level, and within the European Union. And we need to do so quickly. Without respect, the weather may soon be the only topic we can discuss without risk of insult. This is not the recipe for the peaceful Europe that we have been striving for decades to create.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.