Asylum seekers at Fylakio detention centre in north-eastern Greece. wikimedia commons/Ggia. Some rights reserved.
In the September 1933 issue of the journal Cahiers Juifs, Joseph Roth, the most incisive feuilleton writer of the Weimar republic and unarguably one of the best novelists of the twentieth century, already in exile in Paris, wrote in a devastating and prophetic article: “The terrible march of the mechanized orangutans, armed with hand grenades, poison gas, ammonia and nitroglycerine….the return of the spiritual (if not the actual) descendants of the Cimbri and Teutoni - all this means far more than the threatened and terrorized world seems to realize: It must be understood. Let me say it loud and clear: The European mind is capitulating.”
In Greece we may not have reached 1933 as of yet, and hopefully we will not reach it, but we have learned to live with being apathetic, definitely feeling threatened and terrified for too long. We have been listening to the mechanized steps of the barbarians, we have been seeing for at least a decade the continuous murderous attacks on immigrants. The question facing us today is unavoidable, if we wish to face it: What is the meaning of a knifed face, of a stabbed heart, of a bruised and senseless body, of a slit throat?
What do hundreds of murderous and cowardly attacks, day in night out, on the defenceless par excellence, the immigrant, the sans papiers, the foreigner mean but the fact that we all knew and that we now share a terrible secret: that we did not speak in the name of the other, any other, that we did not lift our hand to protect, we did not open our mouth to protest, we did not listen to the cry for help?
And what does all this mean but the possibility that our world has become a hopeless world, has moved beyond the hope which every human being lives with, namely, that when attacked, there will be someone who will listen, who will offer assistance, who will protest in the name of the Other? We need to understand that we are all responsible: that our spirit has indeed capitulated because we did not recognize and accept an ethical responsibility when faced with it, we chose not to interpret a social reality in ethical terms but we capitulated to the terrorizing rationality of the real. We looked for causes that are always social so as not to give reasons that are always personal.
Our ‘innocence’ together with our pretension to it is now irrevocably lost. The relief we all feel for the prosecutions and arrests of some of the Nazis is a duplicitous relief: we feel that our guilt has also been lifted, their nemesis in some strange way signifies the recovery of our innocence. The ‘uncovering’ of the victimized other’s faces and the continuous repeating of some rituals of televised public mourning, the apportioning of blame to the perpetrators and our acquittal, threatens to close the case, and exorcise the beast. But the beast lives within and the struggle against fascism is a spiritual battle that will be won or lost only from the inside.
The threat of nationalism and fascism in Europe
But is this battle only a Greek battle? Is Greece a unique case in which nationalist and xenophobic attitudes were not accommodated within mainstream right wing parties or even within more extreme nationalist political formations, but developed into an unashamedly fascist and neo-nazi criminal organization?
In many ways Greece is indeed a unique case, but in another crucial way it is no different from other European countries and it will be extremely dangerous to conclude otherwise. The economic crisis might have played the role of the catalyst, but the causes of the rise of the neo-nazis were the diffusion of nationalist and xenophobic attitudes in the last two decades and the widespread legitimation of personal and political violence, indeed the forgetting of the Other.
The re-articulation of nationalist discourses in many European countries, as well as in Greece, resulted in the de-legitimization of liberal democratic practices and institutions and the de-legitimization not only of processes of European integration but of the very idea of Europe. Even a lot of citizens who on the whole were not unsympathetic to this idea succumbed to an easy and in many cases totalizing critique of European integration and started to entertain doubts not only about the feasibility of a European union but also about its desirability.
Overemphasising the democratic deficit?
In the same way, given the crisis of liberal democratic institutions and the atrophy of democratic practices, a lot of voices, some of them from the left, have been engaging in a totalizing critique of liberal democracy. Both these attitudes were increasingly prominent in Greece where from the 90’s onwards new nationalist, anti-European discourses were articulated which overemphasised the democratic deficit of European institutions and were furthering the spread of illiberal and undemocratic attitudes.
The claim I want to make is that it was these same nationalist, Eurosceptic and anti-democratic sentiments and attitudes together with some unique cultural characteristics of Greek society that enabled the rise of neo-nazism, and not the policies of austerity which acted on the fertile ground that these cultural and political processes have created. The spread of such attitudes and the re-articulation of nationalist, anti-European discourses is not unique to Greece though. And as it is, they that can prepare the ground for the possibility of the capitulation not only of the Greek but also of the European spirit.
To my mind these developments mean that once more we need to think, and to heed the essential. And the essential at this historical moment is not to capitulate to the spiritual threat of ignoring the Other, not to succumb to the cultural and political threat of nationalism. It means to rediscover and reimagine the project of a unified Europe, not so much as a confederation of nation states but mostly as a confederation of souls. It means also to reinvent and re-embrace the normative character of liberal democratic institutions, and to reenact the basis of political representation within an integrated Europe. This is the categorical, spiritual, cultural and political imperative of our times, and the rise of neo-nazism in Greece points to what can happen if we take this categorical imperative for a hypothetical one.