The entrance of Third Reich sympathizers into the Greek parliament reveals how fragile and vulnerable a system of government democracy is, in the hands of unreliable state officials. It is a regime that permits the existence of the most extremist political voices even when those voices challenge democratic values and institutions. ‘For the last 38 years we do not have democracy in Greece; the fact that we won a position in the parliament is an indication of the weakness of democracy’ declared the president of Chrissi Avgi (Golden Dawn), Nikolaos Michaloliakos, when asked his opinion on democracy after he was elected a member of the Greek Parliament on May 6. So what provided Michaloliakos’ party with the opportunity to participate in national and local elections: was it the weakness of the Greek state authorities, or was democracy itself to blame?
Indeed, the most recent election results in May and in June suggest that opting for Golden Dawn is increasingly acceptable, since the majority of its voters are middle aged men from the middle class or the petty bourgeoisie. Golden Dawn has thus managed to refute the stereotype of far right groups being mostly supported by the young, the uneducated or the working class.
A neo-Nazi group?
Golden Dawn was founded as a political organization in the early 1980s by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, an open supporter of both Greek military dictatorships (1936-1941, 1967-1974), who had been arrested several times (in 1974, 1976, and 1978) for his terrorist activities as a member of far right extremist groups. In prison, Michaloliakos met the leaders of the military junta who ruled between 1967 and 1974. After his release, he proceeded to publish the far right magazine Golden Dawn. In 1985 he founded a populist and nationalist movement bearing the same name, which was officially recognized as a political party in 1993.
Golden Dawn’s similarities with neo-Nazi groups are plainly visible in the party's symbolism, with its flag resembling a swastika, its Nazisalutes or its chant ‘Blood and honour’, encapsulating its xenophobic and racist ideology. The party relies on a strict military hierarchy and includes hit squads committed to perpetrating hate crimes against migrants, an activity party members see as a way to exterminate the enemy, that is ‘every foreign worker (who) leads to a Greek being unemployed’, as one of their main slogans goes.
Leading members of Golden Dawn however distance themselves from Nazism and protest that they are ‘Greek nationalists’, claiming for instance that their preferred greeting refers to ‘the way Metaxas used to salute’. They consider ancient Greek civilization to be superior, although they limit their references to Sparta’s regime and constitution, which completely focused on military training and discipline. The party’s historical falsifications do not stop with the idealistic representation of Metaxas and his ultranationalist supporters. It transcends national borders when members of Golden Dawn question the existence of gas chambers and of the Holocaust and state that ‘Hitler has not been judged by history, because history as we know it has been written by the winners’.
Ties between Golden Dawn and the Italian neo-fascist party Forza Nuova, as well as the German neo-Nazi NPD also illustrate the National-Socialist character of the group. Yet no hint of socialism may be found in the party's official discourse, due to the heritage of the Greek civil war (1946-1949) and of seven years of the colonels’ dictatorship, whose propaganda relied on the vilification of the ‘communist enemy’ and the persecution of leftists. This lack of reference to socialism might be an added factor explaining why the contemporary Greek state has tolerated the existence of hit squads masquerading as a political party until now.
The roots of Greek national-populism
Far right groups are not a new phenomenon in Greek society, nor do they derive from the consequences of today’s financial crisis. The roots of fascist groups may be sought in the age of the Greek civil war and in the ongoing existence in its aftermath of an ultranationalist front acting as a parallel state, legitimized by the Greek junta. Political instability was the main characteristic of the Greek state in the 1950s and 1960s. The left wing was consistently portrayed by mainstream political parties as the ‘enemy of the nation’ and far right militias linked to the Greek police undertook to fight this enemy: under the label of ‘indignant citizens’, they attacked left-wing politicians and their supporters. What brought the activities of these paramilitary groups to a stop, was the assassination in 1963 of Grigoris Lambrakis, a prominent left-wing politician. But the same groups continued their action under the regime of the colonels, this time without the cover of the ‘indignant citizens’ label.
Nostalgia for fascist regimes and practices did not vanish with the regime change in 1974, as some members of former radical right groups either joined the right wing of the conservative party New Democracy, or the far right party LAOS (Popular Orthodox Rally), while others continued their unconcealed thuggishness against leftists and minorities within the hit squads of Golden Dawn.
According to some Greek politicians, including former Ministers of National Security, the Greek authorities were well informed of the involvement of Golden Dawn activists in attacks against leftist students and knew all about the reappearance of these ‘indignant citizen’ movements since the beginning of the 1980s. But there was no move on the part of government to outlaw these far-right extremist groups. On the contrary, Golden Dawn has been suspected of developing close ties with the Greek police. This became apparent in the latest election when it was revealed that one out of two police officers had voted for them. Overall, the party obtained 7% of the popular vote both in May, a result it maintained a few days ago, and has now entered the Greek parliament.
Many media and academic commentators across Europe have ascribed the frightening rise of fascism in Greece to the frenzy over austerity and the financial crisis. This is only one side of the coin. The other one has to be sought amongst the Greek main political actors. Just a few days before the general election of May 6, members of the coalition government and the mainstream media took to scapegoating migrants who were now accused of being responsible for the sociopolitical failures of the country. Together they orchestrated the broadcasting of a range of racist comments. The minister of public health labelled migrants a ‘sanitary bomb threatening the Greek people’ and the minister of public order proudly announced the opening of concentration camps for migrants. The use of xenophobic discourse by public authorities and the participation of the extreme right wing formation LAOS in the coalition government spread the fear of the ‘Other’ in the Greek society and legitimized further voting for the far right. These 7% of Greek voters who opted for Golden Dawn may have been experiencing an extreme collapse of their financial security, and they blamed the migrant 'Other' for it – too easily forgetting that any attack against this Other is also an attack against democracy. In today’s Greece, both of them are in danger.