Can Europe Make It?

Far-right violence in Greece: an effective response

More democracy and power to the people is a good starting point. Democracy is not weak or defenseless in Greece and freedom of thought and ideology are the essence of democracy.

Maria Alvanou
2 September 2014

Demonstration against migrant detention centers in Korinthos, Greece, 2014. Nikolas Georgiou/Demotix. All rights reserved.5th Century BC: In Greece the principle of democracy is born, and perfected in Athens.

21st Century AD: Greece faces a severe economic crisis; its political institutions are challenged and violent incidences take place against immigrants, people of different race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, as well as against those who support their rights.

Experts who try to analyze this violent phenomenon from a political standpoint, as well as the media, correlate it with the existence and rise of “neo-Nazism”, “the far right”, “fascism”, “the extreme right”, or “the populist right” in Greece. These terms are used interchangeably, and though there are ongoing academic debates both on the accuracy and historical correctness of the terms, as well as their scholarly application, this does not change the facts.

Violence is being perpetrated in Greece and it has special characteristics: organized violent attacks, groups that operate as quasi-military units and the use of hate speech, Nazi-totalitarian regime symbols and gestures. Foreigners and people of “non Greek blood” are targeted because they are conceived as subhuman and a menace to the “purity” of the Greek nation. In addition, there is an ongoing judicial investigation against members of the Greek Parliament belonging to a certain political party (characterised by the press, scholars and other political groups as far right or neo-Nazi), who are accused of involvement in violent criminal activity[1]. Despite the accusations and the pre-trial detention of the party's members, its electoral support is rising.

As in other European countries, violent extremist crimes inspired by far-right neo-Nazi principles in Greece don't occur out of the blue. Relevant social, economic, and political developments have taken place and the country has undergone changes. Greek society was silent and neglected or refused to see the problem of extremism. Even politicians, one could say, were blind to the danger.

One reason for this was that such extremism is a strange development in the country's history, culture and tradition. Neo-Nazi salutes and support in a country that paid one of the highest victim tolls during World War II, that had whole villages destroyed and burnt to the ground with their population massacred, seemed absurd. Violently attacking and killing immigrants in a country where nearly every family has an immigrant relative living in the US, Canada, Australia, Germany, or Sweden seemed an unlikely eventuality. The rhetoric of hate against people who are different in race, colour, religion, political ideas, or sexual orientation in a society that has been traditional, but where part of this tradition has been tolerance, solidarity, sacrifice and collaboration, did not appear feasible. Against all the odds, what seemed absurd and a dim possibility, actually happened, and it is taking on new dimensions that pose a threat to public security.

Addressing this phenomenon can be tricky for many reasons and lots of problems seem to arise. First of all, extremist violence must be countered, but at the same time freedom of ideology and speech should remain intact in a democratic state and society. Violence as a criminal activity is dealt with through the jurisdiction of law enforcement and justice. This means in-depth police investigations, successful operations, and speedy (and fair) trials, so that criminal cases are solved, and perpetrators arrested and convicted without delay. The message must be that the Greek legal order does not tolerate violence and responds accordingly, and at the same time the legal response must be independent from the political arena and expediency.

Perpetrators of assaults should be punished for their violence (physical or verbal) and breaking the law, not for their ideas (regardless of their absurdity). Political party competition as well as electoral interests must be distanced from the justice system. This will ensure that the prosecuted do not present themselves as ‘heroes’, persecuted for their beliefs, and that citizens will trust the justice system in its integrity.

However, apart from prosecutions, the response to extremism must also take a political form. The whole spectrum of political parties should work to re-establish trust in Greece’s institutions and should approach citizens with care regarding their needs and their serious problems.

In addition, the Orthodox Church is a very influential institution and its appeal is wide-reaching in the Greek population. Debunking and deconstructing the ideology of hate, discrimination and violence using the Church’s authority and validity (putting forth the humanistic, non-nationalistic teachings of the Gospel and the non-discriminatory practice of orthodox life) can have an impact. Especially considering that far right movements set out to lure and recruit members from ‘conservative’ parts of the population, who traditionally attend church and are religious.

Look at the people

The phenomenon of far-right extremism is complex and it should be addressed on several levels. It is important to look at the people behind the phenomenon. There are those who perpetrate violence either as a result of their extreme right ideological affiliation, inspired by it or using it as an excuse. These people must be stopped and the role of the police, the law, prosecution authorities and the judiciary is crucial in these cases.

Then there are those who believe in the extreme right ideology (and may not even strongly condemn incidents of extreme violence), but themselves would never cross the line and take illegal action; these people cannot be classified as criminals and their political views cannot and should not be a matter of concern for the justice system.

Nevertheless, they may be considered the oxygen of the violent far right, and are the platform that supports their existence. This group of people poses the biggest challenge for the democratic state. While far right and Nazi ideology opposes every aspect of democracy, the very essence of democracy is to avoid criminalisation and persecution simply because of (even adverse) ideologies. Freedom of thought and ideology are the essence of democracy.

The weapons against extremism must be political education, dialogue and the re-enforcing of social bonds. This is the path we must take to address a final category of citizens: the circumstantial voter or supporter. These are citizens who feel trapped inside the political system, who suffer real grievances and vote for or support far right or neo-Nazi parties as a form of protest.

They do not agree with the far right rhetoric, and they do not see themselves as affiliated to the ideologies, yet they choose such parties as an alternative and a protest against (in their eyes or objectively) the failed political system. In their case too, more democracy and power to the people is a good starting point.

Democracy is not weak or defenseless in Greece. As the meaning of its name tells us (demos means “people”, cratos means “power”) it is the power of the people and in those people rests its power. Greek citizens who know their history, who are a living part of the social tissue, who are active in building a better future for Greece and aware of the country's developments, are the best defense and combat mechanism against any kind of violent extremism. It is time for Greeks to awaken, take responsibility and realise that in democracy there is no place for any type of extremism and fascist violence.


[1]In anticipation of the court proceedings, the present article respects the presumption of innocence and the principals of fair trial, applying for defendants in every legal case.

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