Natalie Marchant 21st January 2019
If anyone was in any doubt about the scale of Gdansk’s grief over its slain mayor, they only needed to pass through the city’s airport shortly after Paweł Adamowicz’s funeral. Above every single one of the check-in desks in the near-empty departures hall was broadcast the now-ubiquitous black and white photo of the 53-year-old mayor, who was fatally stabbed at a charity event nearly a week before.
Similar tributes could be seen right across the northern Polish city. In the days since the attack, Adamowicz’s photo had been displayed in the most unlikely of places — from behind upmarket bars to hotel lifts and shop windows. Gdansk was in pain and it was wearing its grief on its sleeve.
Adamovicz was fatally stabbed at a major open-air charity event, held near the ornate 17th-century Golden Gate leading to the cobbled streets of Gdansk’s Main Town, on 13 January. As well as those present, thousands of people watched on television as events unfolded during the closing stages of the nationwide children’s hospital fundraiser, the Great Christmas Orchestra. The attacker was reportedly heard to accuse the mayor’s former party, Civic Platform, of putting him in prison.
The politician underwent five hours of surgery before dying a day later, leaving behind his wife Magdalena and two daughters, Antonina and Teresa. A 27-year-old former convict, named only as Stefan W, has been arrested over the incident.
Adamowicz had only recently been re-elected mayor for his sixth term and tens of thousands of votive candles placed at makeshift memorials across the Baltic port city soon burned in testament to his popularity. Meanwhile, flags outside churches, civic buildings and former communist-era apartment blocks alike flew at half-mast in memory of a liberal politician who was a well-known critic of Poland’s right-wing government.
To understand why the murder of Gdansk’s mayor struck such a chord with its citizens, it is necessary to understand the history of the city itself.
Over the centuries, the strategically-important Baltic port has switched between Polish, Prussian and German rule. What began as a small trading settlement was ruled by the Teutonic Knights for over a hundred years, until the mid-1400s, when Gdansk — or Danzig as it was then known — effectively became an independent state. While nominally part of Poland, it flourished as a major European mercantile trading hub.
The city was declared part of Prussia in the 18th-century, and part of Germany following unification nearly a century later. Gdansk grew rapidly and started the 20th-century as part of the German Empire before becoming a self-ruled “free city” after the First World War. It was then annexed by Nazi Germany before, once again, becoming part of Poland in 1945.
Gdansk is perhaps most famously the place where Communism in Eastern Europe began to collapse
This history has left the city and its citizens with a distinct independent-mindedness. On 1 September 1939, German forces attacked the Polish garrison at Westerplatte in the Free City of Danzig in what is widely seen as the first battle of the Second World War.
However, despite being massively outnumbered and outgunned, the Poles held back German forces of more than 10 times their number for seven days. The story of similar efforts by staff at the city’s Polish Post Office on that day is now part of Gdansk folklore.
In modern times, Gdansk is perhaps most famously the place where Communism in Eastern Europe began to collapse. For it was in the city’s shipyards that the Solidarity trade union, led by Lech Wałęsa, was born. By summer 1989, Solidarity had become the first opposition movement to participate in free elections in the Soviet bloc since the 1940s. Totalitarian regimes in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania soon fell and the Berlin Wall came crashing down just months later. What was most remarkable about the Polish opposition movement was that it was entirely peaceful, with Wałęsa being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.
The Solidarity movement is today commemorated at the European Solidarity Centre, on the edge of the Gdansk shipyards where the peaceful revolution began. Adamowicz had been part of Wałęsa’s democratic opposition movement of the 1980s, so it was particularly poignant that his coffin lay in state there ahead of Saturday’s funeral Mass. A procession through the streets of Gdansk that carried his coffin to St Mary’s Cathedral is estimated to have been attended by 53,000 people, bringing the entire city to a standstill.
It is hard to imagine such an outpouring of public grief over a political figure in the UK
Adamowicz’s death had come amid an increasing nationwide divide over the actions of the Law and Justice party, or PiS, and some critics blame his slaying on the cranking up of hate speech in public life. In 2017, he was one of a group of Polish mayors who were targeted by a far-right group after signing a declaration to welcome refugees in opposition to government policy. But in last November’s mayoral elections he roundly beat PiS while standing as an independent, securing 65% of the vote from the citizens of Gdansk.
It is hard to imagine such an outpouring of public grief over a political figure in the UK. While the murder of Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox stunned the country and triggered a lot of public soul-searching, the response was not on the scale of this.
On Saturday, those who did not attend the Mass itself poured on to the Gdansk’s streets to watch it broadcast live on big screens placed in and around the city. Even in the neighbouring city of Sopot, some people stood for nearly three hours in -1C to bid their final farewell. Local wellwishers even provided free coffee to help them warm up.
Inside St Mary’s Cathedral sat Adamowicz’s family and politicians from across the country and Europe including Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and former German president Joachim Gauck, as well as mayors from across Europe. Also in attendance were fellow Gdansk natives and friends Donald Tusk, president of the European Commission, and former Polish president Wałęsa.
Gdansk Archbishop Sławoj Leszek Głódź told mourners that Adamowicz’s murder had proved to be an alarm bell for the Polish people, reported the BBC. “Our homeland needs harmony in politics,” he added.
The attack on Adamowicz was particularly devastating in this city so proud of its peaceful revolution. But in the week that followed, the politics of division across the country was largely overshadowed by tributes to a politician known for seeking to transcend it. And that in itself bears testament to both the citizens of Gdansk and the man they mourned.
Natalie Marchant 21st January 2019