Saturday, 5 October 2013

Golden Dawn: a very Greek phenomenon

There’s a lot of nonsense written about Golden Dawn, both by Greeks and the international media, the latter having a lurid fascination for the ultra-nationalist party and its activities. Two of the most popular assertions is that Golden Dawn is a Nazi party and that Golden Dawn’s success is a direct result of the economic catastrophe that has overwhelmed Greece. Neither of these contentions stands up to scrutiny. First, to characterise Golden Dawn ‘Nazi’ is to diminish the term and overlook the specific cultural, historical and political context that allowed for the rise of national socialism in Germany. Nazism may appeal to some in Golden Dawn, but the party draws most of its ideology from the authoritarian nationalist tradition present in Greece, which Christopher Caldwell (in this piece for the FT, published below) identifies with idealisation of Sparta, the Metaxas regime of 1936 and the military junta that ruled Greece between 1967-74.

As to whether Golden Dawn is a phenomenon of the Greek economic collapse, I’ve already written that the emergence of anti-immigrant, hyper-nationalist politics in Greece predates the economic crisis. Before it voted in favour of the troika bailouts, LAOS – several of whose MPs were frequently accused of being fascists and Nazis – had successfully mined the same terrain as Golden Dawn. Furthermore, we note that other countries that have suffered similar economic turmoil as Greece and with even more significant authoritarian traditions – Italy, Spain and Portugal – have not experienced a resurgence of the far right. Clearly, the far right requires more than economic collapse to sustain its appeal. Indeed, the fact that the far right has revived in Greece but not elsewhere in southern Europe suggests that Golden Dawn is a specifically Greek phenomenon with specific Greek causes. In particular, I would attribute Golden Dawn’s success not to Greece’s economic malaise, but to the evisceration and discrediting of the Greek state in the post-1974 era, in which the economic collapse is a symptom not a cause. Now, who eviscerated and discredited the Greek state after 1974 is another story.

Greece should crack down on crimes, not beliefs
By Christopher Caldwell

In mid-September, polls showed that at least a 10th of Greeks would consider voting for the nationalist and anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party. One of its MPs was looking the favourite to become mayor of Athens in next year’s elections. And at just that moment, a group of about 30 men, allegedly party sympathisers, surrounded a leftwing singer outside a café near the Athenian waterfront and killed him. The man who confessed to the deadly stabbing was a regular visitor at party offices in nearby Nikea.

There had been reports that Golden Dawn members bullied immigrants, extorted money from street vendors and showed traits of a paramilitary organisation. Too few people paid attention. But before dawn on Saturday last week, police dressed in balaclavas began arresting dozens of party members. Eventually, six parliamentarians, including the party’s leader and deputy leader, were arrested, along with several police officers.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras of the New Democracy party is taking a gamble. There is a good case for attacking Golden Dawn robustly. But the criminal case must be strong – precisely because the government is not.

At least until the murder, Golden Dawn was becoming more popular. It helped patrol dangerous neighbourhoods and provide food and services for the poor. The unemployment rate in Greece is about 30 per cent. Golden Dawn benefits from not saying a kind word about liberal capitalism, while the government defends austerity plans imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the EU.
Golden Dawn’s foes call it neo-Nazi. Its members give straight-armed salutes, the Greek “meander” that is its symbol looks like a swastika, and investigators released photos of German military memorabilia allegedly found at the home of deputy leader Christos Pappas.

The party’s manifesto warns that Greeks are “in danger of becoming ethnically cleansed in their native homeland”. But leader Nikos Michaloliakos said this week: “I am not a Nazi.” There is no particular reason to disbelieve him. Alien though most Greeks find his ideology, it appears cobbled together out of elements in their country’s authoritarian past, not Germany’s. His role models are the Spartans, Ioannis Metaxas, the 1930s hardline anti-communist prime minister, and the anti-communist “colonels” who ruled until 1974.

That raises a more practical problem with tying the movement to Nazism: the constitution. Almost every foreign observer notes that not since the colonels has any Greek government moved against opposition parties in this way. Greeks remember that period as an abusive dictatorship.

Thereafter, Greece put into place strong protections for even the most unpopular views. Its constitution does not permit the outlawing of political parties, although it does allow banning criminal organisations. This is the tack the government is following. In going after Golden Dawn, prosecutors must distinguish between criminal violence, which is unacceptable in a democratic system, and ideology, which Greece has promised to respect, in all its occasionally disheartening variety.

The Greek state’s ability to do that is open to question. Certainly it is serious about proving Golden Dawn a criminal organisation. The National Intelligence Service has been tapping party members’ phones for years, and its recordings include several made around the time of last month’s murder. Leaked wiretap evidence is alleged to link prominent members to pimping, protection rackets and money laundering.

Worries about the strength of the case spread this week when judges ordered the release of three of the arrested MPs. One prosecutor said the party used a “Führerprinzip”, as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party did. But doesn’t every organisation have a leadership principle? He noted that Golden Dawn is divided into a political and an operational wing, and added that Golden Dawn has weapons hidden throughout Greece. Might it have been wiser to wait until those caches were discovered before proceeding? Mr Samaras’s government risks looking opportunistic. It is pursuing legislation to suspend funding for parties charged with – as opposed to convicted of – crimes.

The government aims to ban Golden Dawn in all but name. That is why it 
is imperative to proceed based on what Golden Dawn has done, and not 
on what it thinks. Otherwise, there will be a temptation to examine the similarly “populist” message of the largest opposition party, the leftwing Syriza. Greece is admitting that its modern democracy lacks the roots to weather certain challenges. Such an admission may be the best course. The most precious asset governments have is credibility, and right now Greece’s government has more need of it than most.

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