At the end of 1943, in the darkest days of Nazi rule in Europe, the mayor and the local church leader of the Greek island of Zakynthos were asked to hand over the names of 270 Jews to German occupying forces. They refused, giving their own names instead and hiding the Jewish families in the mountains. All of them survived the war.
Until recently, the neo-nazi party Golden Dawn was just another obscure party on the fringes of the Greek political system.
Greece has a long history of civil and armed struggle against Nazism, which claimed more than four percent of its population during World War II. So until recently, the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was just another obscure party on the fringes of the Greek political system. In the national election of 2009, it polled just 0.29 percent. But only three years later, it captured seven percent of the vote and landed 18 seats in parliament, out of 300.
There, its colorful representatives managed to insult Greece’s top democratic institution countless times by swearing, threatening and generally obstructing its work. Much worse, in September, antifascist hip-hop artist Killah P (also known as Pavlos Fyssas) was stabbed and killed by a Golden Dawn supporter, and the subsequent investigation sent Golden Dawn party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos to prison while awaiting trial.
Golden Dawn members insist they are not neo-Nazis, but their flags and salutes are strikingly similar, and the party promotes white supremacy. In electing them, “Greece surpassed its worst self,” writes Aristides Hatzis, an associate professor of legal theory at the University of Athens who runs GreekCrisis.net. “They elected a party whose members (leaders included) did not even try to disguise themselves as peaceful ultra-right-wingers.”
So how is it that, 70 years after suffering terribly under the Nazis, Greece would support such an extreme party? For starters, World War II is drifting from memory, as is Greece’s anti-Nazi past.
World War II is drifting from memory, as is Greece’s anti-Nazi past.
But the real answer lies in severe economic conditions imposed by an international bailout and the failure of the crisis-hit state to provide basic public goods like safety and security to its citizens, combined with Golden Dawn’s anti-austerity, anti-establishment and anti-immigration rhetoric.
Since 2009, the Greek economy has shrunk 25 percent, bringing unemployment to a record high of 27.9 percent, the highest in the European Union. It has endured six years of recession, and the average citizen’s purchasing power has fallen by a third due to increased taxation and lower salaries. Unemployment among the young has hovered at almost 60 percent for months, and many fear a brain drain, as those who can find a job abroad are leaving the country. Those who stay are an easy target for Golden Dawn’s rhetoric: a party poll last summer put its support at 14 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds, and 16 percent for 30- to 44-year-olds.
Indeed, Golden Dawn has been helping some of the most vulnerable, providing food to the poor — as long as they can prove their Greek identity — and escorting the elderly to the bank to protect them from rising crime. Its young male members are organized like a military unit, reportedly training in secret locations. “The kids in black,” as they are known, patrol the poorest neighborhoods of Athens, often attacking immigrants and taking the law into their own hands.
The legitimacy of the post-junta party system vanished due to the bankruptcy of the Greek state.
”The legitimacy of the post-junta party system vanished due to the bankruptcy of the Greek state,” says Harris Mylonas, an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University. With the Greek state no longer having the resources to maintain “the patronage contract” between parties and voters, the once-dominant Socialist party collapsed and Golden Dawn enjoyed a meteoric rise.
Despite the arrest of its leader and subsequent loss of state funds, support for Golden Dawn remains strong, in part because the party’s racist machismo is combined with contempt for the political establishment. While its ratings dropped following Fyssas’ stabbing, it is still Greece’s third-most popular party.
As Costas, a 60-something taxi driver who drove me to the polling station on election day in June 2012, put it: “I want Golden Dawn in parliament, because it is the only party who can inspire fear to all those sold-out politicians.” He hoped that Golden Dawn would “teach a lesson” to those “out-of-touch-with-reality stuck-ups.”
This flirtation with political violence has spared no one. Even Golden Dawn fell victim to it recently, when two of its members were shot dead and another seriously injured by a gunman outside its office in an Athens suburb. All three were young and underemployed.
If anything, Golden Dawn’s popularity is a testament to how fragile democratic values can be when faced with the hopelessness and explosive nature of shockingly high unemployment, particularly among the young.
With Greece at the forefront of the Euro crisis, its tilt to the far right could also be an indication of what lies ahead for the rest of Europe, as the continent’s social model and incomplete European Union institutions struggle to deal with an ongoing financial crisis and shifting global economic forces.
Golden Dawn’s popularity is a testament to how fragile democratic values can be.
France’s far-right National Front is leading the polls ahead of the elections for the European Parliament next year; new ultranationalist parties are making a stir in Bulgaria and Hungary; and anti-immigration, anti-European Union parties are also gaining followers in Finland, Germany and Austria, where the far-right Freedom Party recently gained one-fifth of the vote. In that respect, Greece may be the canary in the coal mine, as the first developed country to be challenged so hard, and for so long, by a crisis.
This is not the first time that the country has fallen victim to extremism or been marred by violence. Greece’s recent political history includes a civil war, a pattern of foreign interventions, a military junta on the right and terrorism on the left. But the historical precedent that seems most apt is Germany’s Weimar Republic of the 1920s, when the winners of World War I imposed such financial hardships that it led to the rise of the Nazis.
With a young democracy that was restored only 40 years ago, there is a tangible fear that safeguarding political stability in Greece may be even harder than turning the economy around.
Lambrini Rori is a Golden Dawn researcher and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Paris I (Sorbonne). She believes that Golden Dawn’s future will depend on “whether the reasons for its rise are dealt with.” She mentions fear and instability first among them, but is also concerned about the rejection of the established political system. To that end, last year Rori co-founded an advocacy group named Forward Greece in an effort to provide a democratic alternative to extremism and economic hardship.
In Greece today, as in Germany in the ’20s, the two seem to be inseparable.
Katerina Sokou is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Greek daily Kathimerini and a recent Knight-Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University.
Why you should care
Because political instability can be even worse for a country than severe economic problems. Just ask Weimar-era Germany.