A worrying rise of the far right is occurring across Europe, and not for the many reasons people want to claim it is; while some argue it’s the result of economic disparity and financial distress, this is an issue that runs far deeper than that, as researcher Matthew Goodwin identifies. All nations have the potential to experience a sudden increase in far-right politics if a political party is savvy enough to play on themes of national identity, anti-immigrant sentiments, and ‘traditional values.’ Economic woes simply become a convenient vehicle for exploitation, rather than the cause of extremism.
Thus you see an increase in extremist violence and rhetoric in The Netherlands, which has an excellent credit rating and a generally sound economic outlook, and in Greece, which has become Europe’s financial and political punching bag in the midst of economic crisis. Long treated as a lesser sibling, Greece has become the target for harsh austerity reforms after being exploited by banks and other European nations, and the political party Golden Dawn swept into the vacuum created by social uncertainty to stoke fears and whip up nationalistic sentiments. Claiming that it holds the solutions to Greece’s political and economic troubles, Golden Dawn has been active since the 1980s, but only in the 2000s did it become a serious, and deeply disturbing, contender on the political stage. The rise of Golden Dawn threatens to tear Greece apart, and could have lasting ramifications for foreign policy and international affairs as well.
To refer to Golden Dawn as a political party is perhaps a stretch; it could better be described as a neo-Nazi terrorist organisation, a classification some Western governments as well as critics within Greece have applied to the group. This is an organisation that integrates Nazi slogans and propaganda into its publications and chants, salutes party leaders with a highly suspicious and familiar gesture, and integrates a Swastika-like emblem onto its party flag. Not, one presumes, in homage to the symbol’s ancient origins. Publications produced by Golden Dawn have also directly promoted Nazism and the group identifies with National Socialist ideals.
This is an organisation which runs for office with slogans like ‘to rid our country of filth’ and claims it will rid Greece of ‘migrant scum.’ Complete with outlandish campaigns about the number of migrants moving through Greece each year and allegations that they snap up jobs which could otherwise be occupied by hardworking Greeks. Golden Dawn uses immigrants as a convenient target for the nation’s wrath, giving followers something to rally around as the organisation grows in size and scope. The rhetoric, of course, is wrapped in a veneer of Hellenic values and a desire to preserve Greek culture, intended to appeal to everyday Greeks who may not have previously paid attention to immigration issues.
The party won 21 seats in Parliament in May 2012 during the national election, and in June during a followup election after attempts at forming a government failed, it won 6.9% of the vote, mostly in Athens, entitling it to 18 seats in Parliament. Golden Dawn had risen from marginal extremist organisation to political player, and it knew exactly what to do with that power.
Like many devious far right organisations, Golden Dawn has worked multiple sides of the playing field in order to curry followers and achieve its political aims. By day, it conducts public relations campaigns to make itself look like a friend of the Greek people; helping during wildfires, for example, or handing out food to impoverished people. However, these helpful acts of public service come, of course, with a catch; that food is for Greeks only, like the organisation’s other social aid campaigns.
For starving and desperate Greeks, the source of the aid can become irrelevant in the face of their immediate needs, and Golden Dawn works this with savvy political awareness. The organisation seeks out young, disaffected people frustrated by the state of their nation to recruit, pointing at the social good it does for select populations within the nation. Wooed by these measures, Greeks support Golden Dawn, paving the way for the organisation’s more sinister activities.
Acts of violence against migrants and leftist critics across Greece have been unequivocally connected to Golden Dawn, including perhaps most audaciously the assault of liberal MPs on live television. This attack was only the tip of an iceberg that’s included savage beatings of migrant workers, which occur on an almost daily basis, murder, and rape. These attacks are escalating in frequency and severity, provoking concern among human rights organisations. As Golden Dawn’s supporters grow, the organisation only becomes more bold when it comes to attacking migrants rhetorically and literally, pressuring the government to expel not just undocumented workers, but all migrants, from Greece.
The government has responded in kind; August 2012 saw a massive crackdown on migrants which included numerous human rights abuses. Detainees were deprived of food and water, beaten, and subjected to harsh interrogations despite the fact that some were legal residents and even citizens. Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias repeats lines right out of Golden Dawn rallies when advocating for aggressive anti-immigrant policies in Greece: ‘The country is being lost. What is happening now is [Greece’s] greatest invasion ever. Not since the Dorians invaded some 3,000 years ago has it received such a flow of immigration.’
Where are Greek police for this? With Golden Dawn; over half voted for the organisation and the police force in general supports the far right. When the police aren’t available, Golden Dawn members simply take the law into their own hands, as they did on Sunday when they attacked vendors at a market in an attempt to flush out immigrants. Migrants, consequently, are terrified to report attacks by Golden Dawn to law enforcement, as they have little hope of justice and could endanger themselves or their families. The connection of far right values and the police force spells trouble for Greece, as an unchecked police force can become a public menace far more worrying than a restless population.
Police have been involved in brutal suppression of protests across Greece, including anti-austerity, anti-racism, and leftist protests challenging Golden Dawn. Golden Dawn has supported these measures, arguing, of course, that only Greeks should be allowed to protest and that the police have a national obligation to crack down on protests that go against ‘Hellenic values.’
Greece and its people face worrying sociopolitical trends and some critics argue that immediate action is required to bring Golden Dawn under control. This includes banning the organisation from Parliament as well as launching investigations into its activities with the goal of breaking up Golden Dawn in the interest of public order. Whether these measures can be taken in a political climate where the organisation is developing a stranglehold on society and politics remains to be seen, and this raises the fear that leftist groups may not wait for government action.
Already, Greeks are speaking out against Golden Dawn; daughter of songwriter Manolis Rassoulis has condemned the use of his famous song ‘Oh Greece, I Love You’ at Golden Dawn rallies and other events, for example. Journalist Xenia Kounalaki was subjected to death threats after being critical of Golden Dawn, highlighting the dangers for those who dare to speak.
The group’s Athens offices were firebombed in August, illustrating that some Greeks as well as fearful migrants are ready to turn the group’s own tactics against it. Sometimes, it becomes necessary to meet violence with violence in order to expel radical hate groups, but an escalation of violence has the potential to entrap growing numbers of innocents. As Golden Dawn rises, so does the intensity of sentiment against it among marginalised Greeks, which makes for a potentially explosive combination.
If this remains unaddressed, Greece could be facing another Civil War pitting neighbour against neighbour, and the results would be ugly, catastrophic, and heartbreaking.