A New, Dark Day for Greece
By Stewart Pollock
Nowhere has the Eurozone crisis been felt more deeply than in Greece. The Hellenic republic’s rising debt and weak economy have turned what used to be one of the region’s most lively nations into an austerity-ravaged wreck, where riots are a daily occurrence and faith in the government is all but nonexistent.
In economically and socially tumultuous times like these, inspirational leaders often emerge to reinvigorate their nations’ spirit. It is abundantly clear that these figures — the FDRs and Nehrus of the world — have little in common with Greece’s current flailing leadership under President Karolos Papoulias and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. With its flagging economy and apparent inability to stabilize a soaring debt, Greece’s leadership could be more accurately compared to Herbert Hoover at his worst — impotent, uninspired and unable to motivate its coalition governments. Recent events, however, inspired a much darker parallel from the depression era: Paul Von Hindenburg.
The reason for such an alarming comparison to the notorious final leader of Weimar Germany is simple: the growing clout of the People’s Association party, more commonly known as the Golden Dawn. This far right political party, now the third most powerful in Greece’s parliament after it won seven percent of the vote in this year’s election, has become an emblem of what is wrong with Greece and an ominous sign of what will come if Greece remains unable to right its listing economy. As Greece has fallen, the party has risen, capitalizing on growing social tension to spread its message of nativism and xenophobia. Although it once confined itself to spouting anti-immigrant vitriol, the Golden Dawn has become increasingly violent in action as well as speech, attacking immigrants, women, liberals, anarchists and others who oppose it.
The Golden Dawn has its origins in the murky years following the Balkan Wars, during which many Greeks fought for the Serbs as mercenaries. Its leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, was a former Commando who was dishonorably discharged from the Greek military. Michaloliakos, who openly admires Hitler and the Third Reich, has shifted the Party’s focus several times throughout its tumultuous history. As the party’s clout rose following their victories in elections last spring, Michaloliakos and other leaders attempted to downplay their violent reputation. Michaloliakos told reporters, “No one should fear me if they are a good Greek citizen,” but added, “if they are traitors, I don’t know. Those who are traitors, it is for them to be afraid. We are coming.” Although the Golden Dawn officially denies that it is a neo-Nazi party, its actions tell another story; one telling example is its emblem, the Maender, an ancient Greek symbol that resembles a modified swastika.
Last month, an Egyptian man in Athens was nearly beaten to death by Golden Dawn supporters armed with clubs when they found him sleeping behind a building. In another incident, a Pakistani shopkeeper was attacked and beaten by a mob shouting Golden Dawn slogans after they heard about an unrelated mugging involving an allegedly black perpetrator. Furthermore, the Golden Dawn routinely passes through slums, demanding that dark-skinned shopkeepers present their immigration papers or else have their wares destroyed.
It is bad enough that the police have been unable to stop the country’s rising tide of anti-immigrant violence. Worse, there is a great deal of evidence that both the police and the powerful Greek Orthodox Church are aligned with the party, whose support was recently gauged at close to 22 percent nationwide. Greece’s justice minister, Antonis Roupakiotis, warned that the group was creating “conditions for the growth on neo-fascist practices.” In October, a senior police official told The Guardian in confidence that the Golden Dawn had infiltrated the Greek police “at the highest levels” and was using the party to wage a proxy war against anarchists, who they view as a greater threat. On the individual level, many police are sympathetic to the group for purely practical reasons: “These policemen feel unappreciated and isolated. They are badly paid, they work under the worst conditions and they look for support,” added the anonymous source. Unfortunately, they often find this support in the Golden Dawn.
Indeed, the real threat of the Golden Dawn may be its skillfulness in providing an alternative to the increasingly scant public services offered by the government. According to the Washington Post, the Golden Dawn has set up several “pure” blood banks that only accept ethnically Greek donors. Golden Dawn activists can often be seen providing food and other goods to Greeks on the street while other party members hand out pamphlets about the organization. This strategy of using panem et circenses to appeal to the masses has paid off. The bulk of those who support the Golden Dawn do not subscribe to its neo-Fascist ideology, or even its strong anti-immigrant stance, but instead see the Dawn as the only group providing effective leadership and fulfilling basic needs.
The alleged involvement of the Greek Orthodox Church with the Golden Dawn is as bad, if not worse than that of the police. In a country where approximately 95 percent of the population is nominally Orthodox, the Golden Dawn has effectively instilled its events with pseudo-Christian overtones. New regional offices are typically blessed by priests and the Golden Dawn is pressing for more stringent enforcement of Greece’s rarely-used blasphemy laws.
Like the police, the church’s support is in part due to a fear of anarchism, which it sees as threatening the entirety of Greek society. In fact, many in the church disagree with the Golden Dawn and some prominent leaders have spoken out against the party. One such critic is Metropolitan Pavlos of Siatista, who in an interview told the Greek Reporter that “[The Golden Dawn] have nothing to do with ancient Greek civilization nor the Gospel…We all have to take a clear stand on the Golden Dawn issue…We have to preach the word of God, which has nothing to do with the acts committed by members of Golden Dawn.”
The Golden Dawn is unfortunately not unique amongst European parties. Nationalist, far-right parties like the United Kingdom’s British National Party or France’s Front Nationale have been around for decades, usually confined to the fringes of society and denied access to the legislature. However, with its not-insignificant electoral successes, the Golden Dawn is harder to dismiss as a fringe group. The crisis facing Greece is severe, and in desperate times, people are often driven to desperate measures. If the Greek economy rights itself, or more likely is righted by foreign intervention, then the Golden Dawn’s fall may be more meteoric than its rise. Their electoral victories do not reflect a real support for most of their extreme policies, but instead are indicative of right-wing Greek voters fleeing the sinking ship that is the ruling New Democracy party. The support of many within the Church and police force are also tied to the economic crisis. Like so many other movements founded on animosity and chaos, the Golden Dawn’s greatest enemies are time and progress.
This does not mean the party should be dismissed out of hand: if Greece continues a downward spiral into debt and is forced to exit the Eurozone, the Golden Dawn may continue to gnaw at the country, distracting Greeks from their problems whilst using immigrants and foreigners as scapegoats. Perhaps the worst case scenario — a Greek republic resembling the German Weimar republic — is unlikely. At the very least, Greece’s democratic neighbors would probably be unwilling to work with a Golden Dawn-led Greek government. But while it continues to draw misguided support from Greeks more concerned with their next meal than their country’s future, the Golden Dawn is a fundamental threat to the people and leaders of the world’s oldest democracy.