GDANSK, Poland — In a bitterly divided Poland, residents of the port city of Gdansk were united: in grief over the assassination of their mayor, in anger over the toxic political climate that his killing has laid bare and in solidarity that it is time for a change in the country.
Even before the mayor, Pawel Adamowicz, 53, was laid to rest on Saturday, with thousands filling the cobblestone streets around the ancient brick church in the heart of the old city, it was clear that his death could have profound political consequences as voters prepared for national elections this fall.
The contest is viewed by many as the most consequential in the young history of Poland’s Third Republic.
“The polarization in Poland is absolutely horrifying,” said Antoni Dudek, a conservative political scientist at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw. He added that feelings had hardened on all sides.
“This is an extraordinary time for all of us,” said Aleksander Hall, an academic and close friend of Mr. Adamowicz’s. “I believe that Pawel’s death will change people in a more permanent way — people are becoming more aware of what hate speech can do and hopefully many will no longer tolerate such aggression.”
If the past is prologue, however, tragedy in Poland can serve to tear people apart as much as bring them together.
The left-leaning mayor was stabbed to death onstage while he spoke at a fund-raiser organized by the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity on a Sunday night.
The assailant, 27, shouted from the stage that he had been wrongly imprisoned under a previous national government led by Civic Platform, a centrist party of which the mayor was once a member, the authorities said. But officials also described him as a mentally disturbed man with a history of violence, a criminal record for robberies, and no clear political motive.
While the motivations of the killer are still being debated, the aftermath has been a festival of accusations.
A sampling of the headlines in the country’s largest tabloid, Fakt, captured the mood. “Murdered Out of Hatred,” the paper declared on Tuesday. The headline on Wednesday: “We will not forgive you for this death! Politicians!”
In Gdansk, which like many cities remains a bastion of the opposition, most people place the blame for the current climate at the feet of one party, Law and Justice, and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
The night before the funeral, Krzysztof Szczepaniak, a professor at the University of Gdansk, was one of thousands who stood in line outside of the majestic Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which dates to the 14th century, waiting to pay his respects to the city’s slain leader.
With his wife and their 8-year-old twins, he was still waiting in the biting cold as midnight approached.
Though it was a moment for quiet reflection, he said, he could not contain his anger at what he said was the contempt shown by the governing party since the killing.
“They do not feel sorry; they are sowers of hatred,” Mr. Szczepaniak said. “We hope very much that after this murderous murder, the Polish nation will finally understand which side the truth is on. And again we can be proud of Poland and our solidarity, as we were in 1989.”
That was the year Poland broke free from communist rule. The spark in the fight for freedom came from this city, where the labor unions of the shipyards banded together in a movement that became known as Solidarity, or Solidarnosc in Polish.
But the roots of today’s current political divide can also be found in those days of uprising.
Mr. Kaczynski, along with his twin brother, Lech, fought alongside Lech Walesa to bring down Communism. In 1990, he helped the Solidarity hero win the presidency and later served as Mr. Walesa’s chief of staff. But they fell out after an intense power struggle and have been enemies ever since.
Mr. Kaczynski soon came to believe that the revolution had never been completed. By agreeing to a bloodless transition that allowed some Communist figures to remain in public life, he believed political leaders had failed to eradicate the Soviet infection.
He formed Center Agreement and, ultimately, Law and Justice, which had a brief turn in power from 2005 until 2007. But much of his agenda had been stymied by the courts. The party lost the early election to the liberal Civic Platform.
While his party sought to make a comeback, tragedy struck in 2010: A plane carrying dozens of the country’s top political and military leaders crashed near the Russian city of Smolensk. Everyone on board was killed, including Lech Kaczynski, who was president of Poland at the time.
For a brief moment, the nation came together. But soon, the tragedy was seized upon by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who placed it at the center of the party’s mythology of martyrdom and aggrieved nationalism.
Now, instead of evoking a national tragedy, the word Smolensk is a marker of tribal identity.
Mr. Dudek, the conservative political scientist, said, “I have friends, highly intelligent and very-well-educated folks, who sincerely wish Kaczynski’s death.”
He said the state television network, TVP, firmly under the control of the ruling party, is the lead promoter of bile with its coverage of the killing and the current climate; it has laid blame for the latter at the feet of opposition lawmakers.
Thousands of protesters rallied outside TVP’s headquarters in Warsaw on Thursday night, calling for its director to be fired and “to stop the propaganda of hate.”
The broadcaster has since toned down its coverage, but Mr. Kaczynski has refused calls to remove the director.
Even if the killing of Mr. Adamowicz proves to be the irrational act of madman, there is fear that the increasingly heated rhetoric could translate to violence.
Since Monday, the police have detained nearly two dozen people who had either promoted violence or had threatened public figures. A special team of 105 prosecutors has been established to investigate hate crimes.
The mayor of Gdansk had been the frequent target of right-wing politicians and journalists, who portrayed him as an immoral criminal who would let terrorists into Poland and represented a threat to the nation.
Mr. Adamowicz, who was first elected mayor in 1998, dedicated himself to combating what he saw as the forces of hate and intolerance. During an interview at his office last spring, he said it was his goal to show the world that the Poland of Mr. Kaczynski was not the only Poland.
His city, he said, was a place of tolerance, where immigrants were welcomed and gays and lesbians did not need to feel threatened, and it still embraced the values at the foundation of liberal democracy.
At the funeral, political leaders from other cities vowed to carry on with his agenda.
“We, the mayors of Polish cities, promise you to build a Poland that will be truly democratic and European, just like your Gdansk,” Jacek Karnowski, the mayor of the nearby resort town of Sopot, told the crowd.
Across the country on Saturday, in cities like Warsaw and Poznan, there were public gatherings and an outpouring of grief. Families filled the streets of Gdansk, many carrying the red flag of the city adorned with a black ribbon, and words and music from the funeral Mass echoed through the warren of streets and alleys.
The archbishop of Gdansk, Slawoj Leszek Glodz, told the crowd it was time for civility to return to public life.
“We need to rid Polish politics and public life of the language hatred, condescension and humiliation,” he said.
Orignially published in NYT.