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Neni Panourgia
Neni Panourgia
Neni Panourgia is an anthropologist. She currently teaches at Columbia University.
Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is a European problem
When people are pushed to the brink, ugly things happen: something the troika, especially Merkel, should never forget.
Last Modified: 16 May 2012 10:13
In Greece, Golden Dawn won 21 seats in parliament, although new elections may diminish that number [Reuters]

New York, New York - By now, nearly everybody has been exposed to the phenomenon of Golden Dawn (Chrysi Avgi in Greek), the neo-Nazi organisation that received almost 7 per cent of the vote in the Greek elections of May 6.

After the initial shock, the question "How is this possible?" was followed by the legitimate worry: "Are Greeks becoming fascists?" Some commentators on various blogs (many of them from northern and western Europe) even left messages urging the Greek electorate to feel shame, the deeper the better, for this unsightly and frightening development.

But let's set a few things straight. First of all, Golden Dawn, despite its recent claims, is indeed a neo-Nazi party. Their ideology, which they describe on their website as "Popular and Social Nationalism", gives their precise coordinates within Nazi ideology.

So do the origins of their party, which was founded by Nikolaos Michaloliakos in 1985 under a direct order from the imprisoned leader of the Greek junta, George Papadopoulos. And so do their self-representation, language and tactics. The official publication of Golden Dawn runs articles praising the Nazis and often places photographs of Hitler, Himmler, and Nazi gatherings on its front cover. The members of the organisation have the same uneducated, invented, and highly idiosyncratic understanding of ancient Greece as the Nazis did.

And their tactics are virtually indistinguishable from Nazi terrorist tactics: they terrorise immigrants, leftists, and journalists; they beat and maul teachers and students; they have infiltrated athletic clubs and have introduced hooliganism to the Greek landscape; and they have assumed the role of vigilantes and protectors of the general public. Some of those attacks have been documented, and the Golden Dawn-affiliated perpetrators have gone on trial and been imprisoned.

The history of the organisation is inextricably connected to the history of Michaloliakos, whose first public intervention in 1976 was an attack on journalists who were covering the funeral of the junta torturer Evangelos Mallios, who had been executed by the urban guerrilla organisation 17 November. Arrested and briefly detained, Michaloliakos met the leaders of the military junta in jail. Two years after his release he engaged in a series of bombings of public places in Athens, for which he was indicted. Golden Dawn gained notoriety after 1991, when it started attacking the first Albanian immigrants and after some of its members participated in the Srebrenica massacre. The organisation registered as a political party in 1993 and first won political representation in 2010, when Michaloliakos was elected to the Athens City Council.

It is doubtful, however, whether the 21 Golden Dawn deputies will ever enter the Greek parliament (legally, that is). We now know that no coalition government can be formed (without a gross violation of the Constitution), which means that new elections will be held, probably on June 17. Yesterday's polls showed that 76 per cent of the Greek electorate expects Golden Dawn to lose most of its vote, with a large number of those polled expressing doubts that it would even win the 3 per cent needed to enter parliament.

Two questions remain, however, regardless of whether Golden Dawn ever enters parliament. The first one is a question of democracy: namely, what sorts of legitimate steps are available to democratic polities when they face the development of a totalitarian, racist, exclusionary formulation that actively engages in violent acts that severely restrict the civil and human rights of others? I argue that when a state is faced not simply with ideas but with the materiality of actions, then the state is obligated to outlaw them and the media are obligated to report on them. In Greece this is a multiply complex issue, since what I suggest was used from the beginning of the 20th century as the groundwork upon which the elimination of the left took place, based on fabricated accusations.

A second question remains: Why would Greeks, who fought against totalitarianism in massive numbers and paid one of the heaviest tolls in Europe for their participation in the resistance against Nazi Germany, vote for this despicable, emetic, and deeply anti-political formation, even as a protest?

What we need to keep in mind is that this tolerance of violence in the public sphere, especially violence that is directed towards the unarmed and the unprotected, is the result of the state's long-term suppression of dissent and the collaboration of the police forces with right-wing extremists whose violent tactics the police have used. This tolerance is evident even in mundane instances, such as when, in 1999, the ludicrous Gerasimos Yakoumatos, a deputy and member of the centre-right New Democracy party, wanting to show the Minister of Public Order that he "meant business", walked into Parliament brandishing his (legally obtained) revolver as protest for his house having been burglarised by immigrants the previous evening. Not only was this tolerated, but he was not arrested and was not in any way reprimanded.

The Greek polity has always found itself in a tug-of-war. On one end, there is a wide, democratic, proceduralist, but largely powerless (and ultimately apathetic) body politic. On the other end, there is a small but powerful authoritarian class that constitutes the core of state structures. Decades of brutal suppression of dissent has relied upon various para-state and paramilitary organisations. Police brutality, hooliganism, and the deep-seated intimacy between fragments of the police force and Golden Dawn have made the organisation's temporary surge possible.

There is no right, centre, or left distinction in this, if by left one means the nominally socialist PASOK party. All post-junta Greek governments have availed themselves of this intimate relationship, as all Greek governments, at least from the early years of the 20th century, have invested more energy and resources into producing a polity that relies on snitches and turncoats than in producing responsible, accountable, and democratically minded citizens. For example, in the summer of 2002, as the dismantling of 17 November was taking place, the Greek prime minister - clearly at the behest of the British and the American antiterrorist secret services - asked the citizens to report anyone who appeared to be suspicious and dangerous.

A month ago I wrote in the Anthropology Newsletter about the claim that under the current circumstances in Europe, in which the social welfare state is being eviscerated and the destitute are pitted against the poor, the distinction between right and left is no longer useful. I argue, however, that it is precisely now that the elision of such a distinction is pregnant with dangers that the world has faced before.

The neo-cons, the neo-fascists, and the neo-Nazis have been selectively appropriating leftist discourses and practices in order to obscure and obfuscate the distinctions between left and right. Michaloliakos, the coddled child of the junta, uses the term "junta" pejoratively (to indicate the totally inept but democratically elected Greek government, the press, and the memorandum), calls the actions of Golden Dawn "national resistance" when he instigates violence against immigrants and politicians, and has warned about an "uprising of the masses".

Europe stands on the head of a needle, steeped in a crisis that threatens the foundational premises of democracy, self-determination, and autonomy. Golden Dawn is a European problem, not a limited and containable Greek one. It is a European problem because its ideology developed and flourished in Germany and Italy of the early 20th century. It is not a "natural", essential, ontological property of Greece, and it is intractably connected to the moralistic and punitive positions that have organised the actions of the troika that put the bailout packages together.

When people are pushed to the brink, ugly things happen, and the troika (and particularly Merkel) ought never to forget the warning of George Santayana: "Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it".

Neni Panourgia is an anthropologist. She currently teaches at Columbia University and is the author of Dangerous Citizens: The Greek Left and the Terror of the State.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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