Golden Dawn guilty verdict is a victory for Greek democracy. But will it solve the country’s deep political divides?
While the Golden Dawn verdict is a positive step for Greek democracy, it is still important to understand why circa 500,000 Greek citizens voted this criminal organization in the parliament, despite the fact that its violence was well known. The Golden Dawn is an openly neo-Nazi party and its rise in Greek politics should be understood not just as the product of Greece’s economic malaise, but rather of the culmination of the economic crisis into an overall crisis of democracy and political representation.
Giorgos Georgiou, NurPhoto via Getty Images
Crime and punishment
It is perhaps a cliché, by now, to start a blog post with the suggestion that the Golden Dawn verdict is a positive step for Greek democracy. On a symbolic level, it constitutes vindication not just for the victims and their families, but also the activists who struggled for years to expose the Golden Dawn. On a legal level, the court decision sends a clear and powerful message about the Rule of Law: Everyone in Greece is equal before, and accountable to, the law. Committing crimes incurs punishment. On a political level, the court ruling attests to the resilience of Greek institutions: despite severe crisis and years of political instability and social unrest, the country has checks and balances in place that ensure its institutions are independent from each other and able to function in ways that safeguard citizens’ democratic rights and freedoms.
It would be, however, too optimistic to suggest that this court verdict has signaled the end of the far right- or any type of ‘far’ politics- in Greece. While indeed an important development, it still begs the questions of why Greek citizens voted for this party in the first place, despite the fact that for years its members committed their crimes openly, in broad daylight. Since its establishment as a bulletin in 1980, Golden Dawn members often roamed the streets attacking, beating and stabbing their victims: refugees, immigrants and left-wing activists. Since getting voted into parliament in 2012 party members often became embroiled in acts of violence, attacking small street vendors of non-Greek origin and terrorizing anyone who did not fulfill their criteria of belonging to the ‘superior Greek race’. In January 2013, they murdered Pakistani immigrant Shezhad Luqman. In September of the same year the murder of Pavlos Fyssas- a left-wing activist known as ‘Killah P’- became the catalyst for indictment after a trial that lasted over 5 years. Why did it take so long to bring the Golden Dawn to justice when their violent activities were well-known to the Greek public and the authorities?
A Neo-Nazi group
This question is all the more difficult to answer if one considers that the party’s violence was not only calculated and orchestrated from above, but also defines the core of what the Golden Dawn stands for. The members themselves reject the Neo-Nazi label, preferring instead the term 'Greek nationalists'. The large collection of Nazi paraphernalia found in their possession since the beginning of the trial suggests otherwise; as does their espousal of all core fascist, and more specifically Nazi, principles. The party falls under the neo-Nazi label because it fulfils the defining criteria of a fascist group, including nationalism, statism, paramilitarism, transcendence and cleansing. It endorses the principles of National Socialism, opposes democracy, rejects liberalism and socialism, employs violence and concentrates all power in the hands of the leader. Its ultimate goal is to establish a state that is subservient to the nation and believes fully in the supremacy of race- the Greek race- over and above everything else.
Like fascist movements of the past, the Golden Dawn puts forward its own palingenetic myth. It highlights the significance of social decay and regeneration, and sees itself as having the unique mission to lead the nation into a phoenix-like national rebirth, rising from the ashes of the old degenerate social order.
Is the Golden Dawn populist?
Populist ultra-nationalism is a recurrent theme is the party’s ideology; not in the way populism is understood today as a rhetorical tool of the more moderate far right, but in the way that one would argue all fascists are the quintessential populists: claiming legitimacy not simply by speaking on behalf of the ‘pure’ people, but embodying their singular unified Will into an all encompassing state subservient to the nation. In its materials, the Golden Dawn presents itself not in elitist terms, but rather as a movement from below which embodies the collective will of the Greek people. That’s how it justifies its quest for ultimate state power: it is the epitome of the nation and its Will. 'The Nationalist Socialist leader does not stand above or beside the people, he is not part of the people’, argued Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the party’s leader. ‘He is the People. He incarnates the secret 'calling of the blood' and his ultimate goal is full control of state power in the name of the nation’.
A crisis of Political representation
We should have every reason to expect this type of politics to be obsolete in post-war Europe, especially in countries like Greece that witnessed first hand the brutality of Nazi atrocities. And while indeed across most of Western Europe Neo-Nazi parties have been in progressive decline precisely because of their nostalgia for fascist ideals, the Golden Dawn was voted into the Greek parliament in 2012 and managed to retain an approximate 7 per cent of vote for almost seven years, during some of which it was already undergoing trial. How could an openly Nazi-party gain support in a country that, not too long ago, suffered from Nazism and a military dictatorship?
This is more disconcerting if we consider the possibility that people voted for the Golden Dawn because and not despite its violent character, driven by anger towards a political system they believed had failed them. This anger was not just the product of economic discontent, but the response to a perceived breach of the social contract. As the Greek economic crisis turned into a political, and subsequently ideological, crisis what was at stake was the legitimacy of the state and its capacity to provide basic services.
The success of the Golden Dawn must be understood precisely within this context: as dependent on the extent to which it was able to propound plausible solutions to the three sets of crises—economic, political, and ideological—that befell Greece and culminated in an overall crisis of democracy.
In it is not the intensity, therefore, but rather the nature of the crisis- an overall crisis of democratic representation- that facilitated the rise of the Golden Dawn, offering the party fertile ground to present itself as the saviour of the nation and defender of the national mission. The Golden Dawn’s nationalist solution was appealing precisely because it drew upon available cultural reservoirs: its ideas are at least consistent with—albeit an extreme version of—the dominant narrative of Greek nationalism. This nationalism is characterized by moral conservatism, intolerance towards minorities whether they be religious, ethnic or social, and a justification of this position on the basis of defending Greek national identity. In a country where ethnic nationalism prevails and religion is hardly decoupled from politics, the boundaries of toleration are precarious. The Golden Dawn’s widespread support revealed a deeply ingrained intolerance and propensity towards violence, and was partly related to the party’s ability to claim ownership of nationalist issues that were- and still are- both salient and widespread in Greece.
Polarization and the future of extreme politics in Greece
What is striking to observe after the initial jubilations about the verdict is the degree of left-right polarization that still very much defines Greek politics. But left-right identification should be beside the point. The Golden Dawn indictment cannot- and should not- be appropriated by one political faction; nor should it become a pawn in a political game about whether the right or the left is better. Unless we overcome this polarized logic, other violent ‘Dawns’ are possible when the next crisis arises, regardless of where they come from on the political spectrum. After all, the Golden Dawn was legally indicted for its violence and not its ideology. Perhaps now is a good time to take a step back as a country and reflect on this: on why this explicit, unabashed violence did not prevent 500,000 Greek citizens from voting this criminal organization in the parliament.
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