As with so much else in Greece, there is a lot of history, and Golden Dawn’s comes at the tail end of a long tradition of state-sponsored oppression.
This article is the second part of a series on the extreme right in Greece, following part 1: “Why Is Neo-Nazism Gaining A Foothold In Greece, Of All Places?”
May 29 marked the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople — present-day Istanbul — to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. To commemorate this, hundreds of neo-Nazis marched on the Greek parliament shouting slogans. At around the same time, two immigrant street vendors were knifed in a racist attack and an MP from Golden Dawn had his gun go off, apparently by accident, while standing at an airport counter.
As reported last week, Golden Dawn, the Neo-Nazi party of Greece, polls at just above ten percent. They have 18 seats in a 300-member parliament, and a majority of Greeks express revulsion to them. Ten percent is a minor presence, even in the fractured world of Greek politics. Why then, do they seem to be so bold and to operate outside the law?
The right and the State
Key to understanding their power is the history of how right-wing forces have been intertwined with the Greek state. As with so much else in Greece, there is a lot of history.
During World War II there were two main resistance organizations in Greece who spent almost as much time fighting each other as against the Nazis. Both committed atrocities. One group is often called “communist,” the other “royalist.” Neither label is all that precise. The defeat of the Nazis in 1945 did not bring an end to this internal fight and a bitter civil war raged until 1949. One of the first U.S. interventions to stop communism occurred in Greece and assisted the conservative forces to victory.
Once in power, the conservatives ruled Greece with an authoritarian government in the 50s and 60s. Certain left-wing parties were outlawed. Police, the military and unofficial groups worked together in an oft-violent suppression of the full range of leftist groups — from liberals to socialists. One such incident, the murder of left-wing MP Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963, was the inspiration for Costa-Gavras’s classic 1969 film “Z.”
A military coup in 1967 led to six years of right-wing dictatorship before democracy was restored. Only then was the kingship abolished and the left-wing fighters of WWII granted amnesty.
The constant thread running through this history is that the right has long been powerful in the Greek government and it has always had a base of support among the population. There is a faction of Greeks who fear a left-wing government as a terrible threat to their country.
This factor gives Golden Dawn a presence and weight they would not otherwise possess.
It is widely believed that Golden Dawn could not get away with all these violent incidents if the police were not looking the other way. There are stories of police literally doing that, as well as more subtle signs of prosecutions being dropped or delayed. It is assumed that various elements within the security forces of the government are not unhappy to see Golden Dawn do dirty work for them.
The mythology of modern Greece is that everyone is the direct descendant of someone who stood in the Assembly grounds and debated with Pericles, but democracy has always had its enemies. There are always those who think a strong hand is needed to restore order and defeat the nation’s enemies. This gives Golden Dawn space to operate.
The ‘Hezbollah’ of Greece?
One factor in the rise of the German Nazi party was its skilled use of media. They innovated by flying Hitler around Germany to give speeches at mass rallies, making for good media spectacle. Their disciplined “messaging” and use of the radio to spread the Nazi program gave the party an advantage. Goebbels and Hitler both still make for interesting reading when it comes to how propaganda works.
Golden Dawn appears in the media regularly for hosting food distribution events. These events are for Greeks only; you have to prove you are a Greek citizen to get in. Somehow, the news media knows about these events and shows up to record them. There are many, many more food distribution events, medical clinics, adult education centers and the like, sponsored by the church and diverse charity and community groups, which are open to all — but the media seldom notices these.
A Golden Dawn official recently boasted that his party was going to become “like the Hezbollah in Lebanon.” What he meant was that his party would use the appeal of social welfare events, but which also played on anti-immigrant sentiment to win support and to mask their more violent actions, or at least gain some tolerance for them.
The main political parties in Greece, right and left alike, attack Golden Dawn and reject any cooperation with them. Unlike in the United States, certain kinds of hate speech are expressly criminalized. For weeks, an anti-racism bill has been stuck in parliament. This bill would increase penalties for inciting violence and is clearly and openly aimed at curbing Golden Dawn.
In the meantime, and with considerable chutzpah, Golden Dawn has introduced its own “anti-racism” bill that would harshly criminalize crimes by immigrants against Greeks.
The center falls apart
In a common replay of events in the United States and elsewhere, the coordinated fanaticism of the right is opposed by a divided and uncertain center and left.
The current government in Greece is a three-party coalition of the near-right and near-left, while the official opposition is a party farther to the left.
The coalition parties are fighting among themselves about the anti-racism bill with a swirl of proposals, objections and counter-proposals. The smaller of the three coalition parties introduced a different bill, hoping for consensus among the left, only to have the official opposition party undercut them by introducing their own bill, one very unlikely to command a majority.
In the meantime, violent incidents continue.
This famous line from Yeats’s poem is often quoted, perhaps too often, for it is too often the truth:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.