I am finding it impossible to write a calm, dispassionate reaction to the events of the past few days in Poland. Perhaps I will return to this issue later with more distance. Right now I am sad, outraged, and afraid.
If anyone needs further evidence of the dangers posed by the PiS government in Poland, Sunday’s brutal assassination of Gdańsk mayor Paweł Adamowicz should dispel any doubts. If anyone still believes that Jarosław Kaczyński’s movement is a normal conservative party, with only marginal differences contrasting them from the center-right Civic Platform party that leads the opposition, this week should clarify the situation. If all that has happened since 2015 hasn’t been enough to justify collective condemnation of PiS by every decent person who cares about Poland, hopefully this will be a turning point.
Historians tend to be muckrakers, and my instinct is to be skeptical about something that appears to be unambiguously good and virtuous. One of the rare exceptions would be an institution that has existed in Poland for over a quarter century, the Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy, or WOŚP. The name literally translates as “The Great Orchestra of Holiday Aid,” and it is the largest charity organization in Poland. Every year in late December and early January, volunteers from WOŚP collect money in order to purchase medical equipment that hospitals and clinics would not otherwise afford. To celebrate the culmination of each year’s fund drive, concerts are held in early January in most Polish cities and towns, with a who’s-who list of the celebrities making appearances. These are truly joyous events – I had the pleasure of attending the 2017 celebration in Warsaw, and it left me with fond memories. The sums they collect are huge: this year they raised over 92 million złoty (about 24 million dollars), the third-best total in their 27 year history (#1 and #2 were 2018 and 2017). The self-described “director” of the Great Orchestra was Jerzy Owsiak, a radio host with the laid-back personality of a former hippy. His long-time catch-phrase, “róbta co chceta,” (“do whatever you want”) captures his worldview of libertine tolerance.
The right in Poland—particularly the leadership of the Catholic Church—could never stomach Owsiak’s accomplishments. Here was an avowedly secular pop-culture icon who embodied a cosmopolitan ethos of cultural openness while simultaneously doing more good for more people than anyone else in Poland. Those on the right see WOŚP as competition for the official Catholic charity, Caritas. Owsiak’s inclusive message that good deeds can be carried out by anyone, regardless of their religious or ideological affiliation, is precisely what generates so much anger from his opponents, because they see him as a purveyor of “moral indifferentism.”
Caritas and WOŚP both direct over 90% of the money they collect to the programs they support, and both do magnificent work for those in need. But in the eyes of the bulk of the Catholic hierarchy as well as the current Polish government, WOŚP represents cosmopolitanism, communism, liberalism, atheism, Judaism, and all the other forces they imagine to be arrayed against Poland. Once PiS took control of the public media in Poland, they refused to rebroadcast any of the events WOŚP sponsored, though thankfully there are still—for now—some independent media available to take over the broadcasts. Priests give sermons instructing the faithful to shun anyone collecting funds for WOŚP, and the right-wing media spreads absurd lies about Owsiak in order to undermine his efforts.
I’m not going to link to any of those who have criticized WOŚP, because they are the ones who need to be ostracized and boycotted, particularly after the events of last Sunday. The details of their lies aren’t relevant: suffice it to say that they spin imaginative stories that identify Owsiak as a communist agent (of course) who uses WOŚP to gather funds for self-enrichment and the financing of political parties opposed to the Polish government. A few days ago the state TV broadcast a “satirical” show that depicted Owsiak as an ignorant puppet manipulated by the leaders of Civic Platform, the largest opposition party. A close viewing of the money being collected by the Owsiak puppet showed that the bills were marked with the Star of David, though to be fair this antisemitic detail could only be perceived by enlarging a screenshot of the show—in other words, that particular offense must have been an inside joke (among people whose moral standards are revealed by the fact that they considered this funny).
This background provides the context for what has just happened. On Sunday night the mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, was on stage at the city’s celebration of the WOŚP finale. He won re-election a few months ago, as part of the wave that brought every single major Polish city (and all but a handful of smaller cities) under the control of the opposition. He achieved this despite the fact that the PiS government had mounted a campaign accusing him of corruption, using the control they’ve established over the legal system to launch an official investigation that succeeded only in showing that he had made an error on a financial disclosure form. On Sunday, an assailant burst on stage to attack Adamowicz with a knife, inflicting injuries that would lead to his death the next day. Shortly thereafter, Owsiak announced that he could no longer endure the hatred and carry the burden of responsibility for those who supported his efforts. He has resigned as director of WOŚP.
The killer had a history of violent behavior and had been imprisoned in the past—in fact, during the assassination he shouted out that he was carrying out an act of revenge against Civic Platform for incarcerating him. Defenders of PiS claim that we must not politicize this act of a deranged individual. Indeed, the state television has issued an “alarm” (their term) that hostile forces could be expected to exploit Adamowicz’s death on behalf of unspecified “interests.” It appears to be accurate that the killer was mentally unstable, but the same can be said for the vast majority of political assassins. The question is: why did his violence express itself in this specific way? Why did the killer choose the WOŚP celebration to carry out his deed? Why did his twisted mind identify the representative of a particular political party as responsible for his suffering?
That’s where PiS’s unrelenting propaganda equating Civic Platform with nefarious enemies of Poland comes into play. Mr. Kaczyński’s party has spread a message of paranoia, conspiracy, and bigotry, consistently repeating the message that all those opposed to PiS are working on behalf of anti-Polish interests in an effort to perpetuate the nation’s captivity to foreigners. WOŚP is one of the key players in this storyline, because they accuse Owsiak of being part of the broader plot to perpetuate the authority of the communists even after the (supposed!) fall of communism in 1989. This is the same plot that includes Lech Wałęsa, most of the pre-1989 dissidents, and most of the country’s political elite prior to 2015, when (as President Andrzej Duda and others have claimed) Poland truly established its independence for the first time. Not coincidentally, when WOŚP celebrated its 25th anniversary, Polish TV attempted to distract viewers from watching the event by airing a “documentary” claiming that PiS’s opponents had been trying to stage a coup against the government.
After Adamowicz’s death was confirmed, people in cities across the country gathered in hastily organized demonstrations to collectively mourn his passing. In Warsaw, they assembled at the site of that city’s WOŚP concert, then walked a few blocks to the Zachęta art gallery. That poignant move starkly demonstrated the historical resonance of this horrible moment. In 1922 Poland’s first President, Gabriel Narutowicz, was assassinated in the Zachęta gallery by another mentally unstable individual who shouted slogans taken from the far right. He also believed he was striking a blow against enemies who were trying to enslave the nation on behalf of a conspiracy of cosmopolitans, Jews, and socialists. As the historian Paul Brykczyński has shown in his peerless account of that earlier murder (also available in Polish), the outcome was distressing. Instead of a broad-based repudiation of the far-right, of antisemitism, and of ethnic nationalism, the assassination convinced leaders of the liberal and leftist political parties that they had to downplay their earlier multicultural and democratic ambitions, lest they further enflame the forces of violence and hatred that had culminated in Narutowicz’s death. For their part, the right adopted the message that the killer was mentally ill and had acted impulsively and excessively, but that his anger at the President had been justified by the danger posed by Poland’s enemies. Already one can hear nearly identical comments by supporters of PiS.
Mr. Kaczyński knows that he is on thin ice at the moment. He has already announced that PiS will not sponsor a candidate to contest the election to replace Mayor Adamowicz, in order to calm emotions and begin a process of healing. That might seem like a magnanimous gesture, but PiS had no chance to win that position anyway, so it counts for little. At this time, calls to avoid politicizing Adamowicz’s death, to calm tensions at this moment of national mourning, to use this moment to get beyond partisanship—all these serve the interests of the PiS regime in their attempt to avoid responsibility for their central role in creating the environment that set the stage for this horrible moment.
It is absolutely correct that this is a time to transcend partisan politics: all decent and honorable people—whether they be conservatives, liberals, or socialists—should join together in their repudiation of hatred, conspiracy theories, manipulative state propaganda, and the demonization (literally!) of liberals and leftists by the Polish government. The partisanship that has hindered the formation of a united front against PiS is indeed a problem, but opposition to PiS itself is not a partisan issue. It demarcates a stark line that presents every Pole with a clear choice.
On Sunday night, that choice became clearer than ever.