Greece’s far right rears its head

June 20, 2012

Shaun Harkin reports on the success of the openly Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece--and why the growing resistance to austerity is the key to stopping the fascists.

FOLLOWING AN international scare campaign claiming that a victory for Greece's Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA, according to its initials in Greek) in national elections on June 17 would push Greece, Europe and possibly the world economy over a cliff, the center-right pro-austerity party New Democracy emerged as slim winners.

The vote for SYRIZA was still massive at 26.9 percent of the vote, and should give confidence to everyone in Europe and elsewhere organizing for social justice. The result reflects sharpening working class determination, driven by deep bitterness, to fight for an alternative to austerity and immiseration. Across Europe, the mood and pattern is similar.

Simultaneously, however, the depth of the social crisis has led to a growth in support for populist far right--and in some cases openly fascist--political forces.

In France, for example, the fascist National Front led by Marine Le Pen received 6.4 million votes, or 17.9 percent, in the first round of presidential elections in April--its biggest share of the vote ever. The final voting in parliamentary elections last weekend gave the National Front its first seats since 1998.

Nikolaos Michaloliakos
Nikolaos Michaloliakos

In Greece, where political paralysis and economic crisis have their tightest grips, the far right emerged with a strong result in this year's election, though not on the scale of the left. This makes it essential to understand why far-right parties like Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn are winning support in Europe's austerity-torn countries.

DESCRIBED IN mainstream media outlets like the Guardian as "Europe's most fanatical neo-Nazi party," Golden Dawn campaigned on the theme "Let's rid this country of the stench." Its platform called for the immediate deportation of 1 million immigrants, landmines on the border with Turkey to deter migration, and ending the austerity measures imposed on Greece as a condition of the European Union's (EU) financial bailouts.

Though its result was overshadowed by SYRIZA's stunning second-place finish, Golden Dawn won over 440,000 votes in the first elections held in May, nearly 7 percent of the total. Disturbingly, reports indicate that almost half of the Athens police force and one-fifth of lower middle class shopkeepers voted Golden Dawn.

In the second set of national elections on June 17, Golden Dawn won nearly as many votes for 6.9 percent of the total. The party will have 18 seats in the new parliament, out of a total of 300. This for a party that got a paltry 0.23 percent of the vote in the last national elections in 2009.

With New Democracy appealing for right-wing votes on the basis of stopping SYRIZA from winning the second set of elections, analysts predicted Golden Dawn's vote would decrease. But the results showed the fascists more or less maintained high votes in the same districts where they did well in May.

That Golden Dawn was able to maintain its newfound support is an indication of the depth of political polarization in Greece: the crisis is so acute and the situation so volatile and uncertain that this scourge of humanity will continue to pose a serious threat as long as the situation drags on.

Golden Dawn, of course, has been emboldened, viewing its vote as an endorsement of its message and violent attacks on immigrants. Taking advantage of the new media attention, party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos boldly took the opportunity to spew a denial of the Holocaust in May, claiming, "There were no ovens--this is a lie...There were no gas chambers either."

Golden Dawn members deny they are a neo-Nazi organization, describing themselves as simply "ultra-nationalist.' The legacy of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy has forced many sympathizers with Mussolini and Hitler to rebrand their politics, seeking a respectable image that obscures their historic political heritage.

However, Golden Dawn, unlike most other euro-fascists, operates without much of a veneer. The party's press regularly runs articles praising Hitler, and Mein Kampf and other white supremacist propaganda is available at its offices. Golden Dawn's thug members have shaved heads and give Nazi-style salutes, and the party emblem closely resembles a swastika.

At a press conference following the May 6 election, Michaloliakos greeted the audience with a Nazi salute, warning those who "betrayed the motherland" to be scared and ranting, "We will continue our struggle for a free Greece, free from foreign loan sharks and a Greece that is independent and proud, without the slavery of the bailout...We will struggle for a Greece that is not a social jungle because of the millions of immigrants they brought here without asking us."

In the weeks leading up to the June 17 election, Golden Dawn members led an attack on immigrants temporarily sleeping in an abandoned factory, and they organized a torch-lit 2,000-person march through central Athens, chanting "Foreigners out of Greece!" In Athens, there are now daily attacks on immigrants by racists, fascists and also the police.

And at an election rally, a leader of Golden Dawn who will serve in the next parliament, Ilias Panagiotaros, warned that Golden Dawn would "carry out raids on hospitals and kindergartens, and it will throw immigrants and their children out on the street so that Greeks can take their place."

During a live television studio interview, Golden Dawn spokesperson Ilias Kasidiaris, a former military commander and martial arts expert, attacked two members of parliament--Liana Kanelli of the Greek Communist Party and Rena Dourou of SYRIZA. Kanelli was slapped on the face three times by Kasidiaris before he fled the studio and the building. This so-called "politician" is also charged with stabbing a student in 2007, but the trial has been repeatedly delayed.

This is not aimless theatre. With desperation, anxiety and anger running high in Greek society, Golden Dawn's shocking actions are geared toward demonstrating by deed that it will bring "law and order" by fearlessly cracking down. Where others have failed, Golden Dawn threatens to act with an iron fist.

The fascists have no chance of winning anywhere near a majority of the Greek population, but they can provide confidence and encouragement for hard-core racists to act on their hatred--and draw those initially attracted to Golden Dawn as a protest vote against the failure of the mainstream parties closer to their active ranks. Golden Dawn's goal is to legitimize its message and gain acceptability for violence against immigrants and others targeted as obstacles to the glorious Greek nation.

GOLDEN DAWN was officially formed in 1985 after Michaloliakos split away from the far-right National Political Union.

In 1976 Michaloliakos was jailed for attacking journalists covering the funeral of a police officer who tortured prisoners during the Greek military dictatorship that reigned between 1967 and 1974. In prison, he met with leaders of the dictatorship and went on to become a Special Forces commando. Michaloliakos had Golden Dawn officially registered as a political party in 1993--it won its first political representation in 2010, when he was elected to the Athens City Council.

Golden Dawn has employed classic fascist tactics to promote itself: terrorist gangs organizing on the streets alongside official election campaigns to gain legitimacy. The party gained notoriety in 1991 when its members attacked Albanian immigrants. In 1995, volunteers from the group participated in the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys during the Balkan wars.

Golden Dawn members have physically targeted the left, as well as journalists who dare criticize them. They organize and recruit through white power music concerts and the "Blue Army" group of soccer hooligans.

Promoting anti-immigrant hatred is central to Golden Dawn's warped political message. In the late 1980s, the collapse of Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe led to a mass migration into Greece from Albania and Bulgaria, and later the former Yugoslavia. From the 1990s on, migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere came to Greece often fleeing war and poverty.

One important factor in attracting immigrants to come and work for low wages is Greece's aging population. Overall, estimates put the percentage of immigrants, documented and undocumented, in Greece today at between 10-15 percent of the total population of around 11 million.

Frontex, the European Union agency for border security, claims that border crossings of undocumented immigrants into Greece more than tripled in 2010--according to analysts, 90 percent of undocumented immigrants throughout Europe arrived initially over the Greece-Turkey border.

But the reason the Greece-Turkey border has become an entry point into the EU is because other European countries, especially Italy, Spain and France, have severely restricted access, forcing African, Pakistani, Afghani and other migrants to travel through Greece. The vast majority of migrants plan to travel beyond Greece to countries where there is a better prospect of finding employment, but many run out of money and end up stuck in downtown Athens. Those without documents who are detained in Greece face appalling conditions in a decrepit and overcrowded detention system.

Greece is a participant in the Schengen Agreement, which created a borderless zone among 26 European countries with 400 million residents. But the agreement requires signatory countries to increase border security against people from non-EU states. Locked out of the EU's border liberalization are millions of migrants from developing countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East--many of them former European colonies--who are escaping war and the devastating consequences of neoliberal economic policies.

The twin processes of legal movement among EU states and undocumented migration from non-EU regions has been utilized effectively by European bosses to drive down wages and weaken working-class organization across the continent.

Meanwhile, immigration has become a central issue for fascists and the far right as they attempt to hook an audience that will blame the loss of dignity and stability in their own conditions on immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants. Like in the U.S., the far right blames immigrants for "stealing" jobs and social services and generally taking over from native-born citizens.

THIS VILE scapegoating has gotten a hearing because of the depths of the Greek economic crisis. After several years of the debt crisis, unemployment stood at 22.6 percent for the first three months of the year, a little more than double the rage for the whole Eurozone. Among those between the age of 15 and 24 years, joblessness is around half. Overall, the Greek economy has shrunk by at least 16 percent since 2008.

Those who still have work have experienced drastic wage cuts, pension cuts and endless new regressive taxes and charges. Social services have been shredded at a time when many more workers must apply for social welfare benefits. Thousands are homeless in Athens and forced to scavenge for food. Parents have been forced to give up their children to adoption agencies because they are unable to provide for them. As the Guardian reported, summing up the country's shambles of a health care system:

Medical supplies and beds at some hospitals are running desperately short. The governor of the state-run Nikea hospital, Theodoros Roupas, called on doctors to stop non-essential surgical interventions because of a critical shortage of gloves, syringes and gauze. The order was revoked when Roupas found emergency supplies later in the day.

Yet in the midst of this misery, little has changed for Greece's super-rich who benefited most from economic policies that brought on catastrophe. Instead, they have deepened the crisis, accounting for the lion's share of the $20 billion withdrawn by domestic depositors from Greek banks since 2009.

Meanwhile, Greece's mainstream parties have fueled the anti-immigrant hysteria that created fertile ground for the far-right menace to fester.

Antonis Samaras, leader of the main conservative party, New Democracy, pledged during the lead-up to the June election that his government would crack down on "crime" by introducing tougher border patrols, speeding up expulsions of the undocumented and changing a law granting residency to the children of undocumented parents.

PASOK, the dominant center-left party for the past four decades, which led the government that agreed to drastic austerity over the past several years, has also embraced immigrant-bashing.

PASOK ministers have described migrants in Athens as a "hygienic time bomb." PASOK leader Michalis Chrysochoidis, the current "minister for citizen protection" until a new government takes over, announced plans to build 30 new detention centers to house 30,000 undocumented immigrants. In early February, the PASOK Minister for Public Order Christos Papoutsis travelled to a town on Greece's border with Turkey to announce the construction of a 6-mile-long, 13-foot-high fence, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.

Following the May election, a government spokesperson condemned Golden Dawn's Holocaust denial, but by pandering to racism and adopting harsh anti-immigrant policies, the mainstream parties have reinforced what the fascists argue, legitimizing their hateful rhetoric and violent attacks. Every step rightward by the mainstream parties has encouraged the far right to push harder and take bolder initiatives, such as organizing vigilante attacks in broad daylight and terrorizing women and left-wing activists on national television.

This has been the experience far beyond Greece, as well: By normalizing the dehumanization of those who are systematically scapegoated, racism from the top prepares the ground for the far right to win greater support and take action.

ULTIMATELY, THE social and economic crisis, the human misery and the prominence of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn pit bull in Greece are all products of capitalism--not just the result of corrupt politicians or unregulated banks.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued that fascism feeding on the margins of economic despair was much more than an ideology of racist hatred or the brute force of right-wing terrorists. He described the rise of fascism in the 1930s as a potential "razor in the hands of the class enemy":

At the moment that the "normal" police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium--the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat; all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.

Thus, the fascists, with their violent, anti-democratic methods, are a tool of the ruling classes when they face intransigent working class opposition to their policies.

Greek workers have experienced many forms violent right-wing rule over the last 80 years--the Nazi occupation in the 1940s; a civil war directed against the left, sponsored by the U.S. and Britain between 1946 and 1949; and a military dictatorship between 1967 and 1974.

Before that, there was Ioannis Metaxas, the 1930s dictator who looked to Mussolini's Italy as a model--he is a Golden Dawn hero. Faced with widespread working class unrest and growing support for the Communist Party, Greece's King George II appointed Metaxas prime minister in 1936. His "4th of August Regime" declared a national state of emergency, suspending parliament, banning political parties, prohibiting strikes and introducing widespread censorship. The Communists were outlawed and their members persecuted, imprisoned and murdered.

Golden Dawn is still much smaller than the left in Greece. The hundreds of thousands of votes cast for SYRIZA and the left are a rejection of both the pro-austerity mainstream parties and the hateful message of Golden Dawn. Crucially, in recent weeks, thousands of people have poured into streets in response to Golden Dawn attacks--activists say they will build a new anti-fascist movement in every school, workplace, neighborhood and city.

Tens of thousands of people are committed to exposing the far right's racist lies and confronting their violence. The bosses' program of working class immiseration has been politically rejected--and the fascist "movement of despair" can be stopped before it can be used by Europe's rulers as a weapon against the working class.

There is nothing inevitable about the continued growth of neo-Nazis and the far right in Greece or in Europe. The secret to their success is their facade of democratic respectability and their use of fear and hate to build support. The key to defeating them is a unified working class movement and the struggle for a European-wide socialist alternative, centered on control of society by the vast majority.

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