Some years ago, when Greece dominated the news around the world, the bulk of stories about the country were associated with three main “crises”: the economic crisis, the refugee crisis, and the political crisis, namely the phenomenal rise of a neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn. a fringe political organization with minimal electoral clout and popularity, Golden Dawn rose to prominence in 2012 in the midst of generalized turmoil in Greece, when the party got 7 percent of the popular vote in national elections (compared to 0.9 percent in 2009).
Rosa Vasilaki is an Athens-based historian and sociologist. She holds a PhD in History from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Bristol. This article first appeared in the RLS-funded insert, Info: Griechenland.
Despite the fact that Greece suffered a violent history in the twentieth century, with its fair share of military dictatorships, a vicious civil war that led to the persecution of thousands of left-leaning citizens, and a peculiar post-war regime that systematically resorted to the violent repression of political dissenters, by the 1980s it seemed that far-right ideology and practices had been left behind for good. In that sense, witnessing the emergence and rapid spread of a far-right, neo-Nazi political organization that seemed to have won the hearts of a significant share of Greek society in the 2010s came as a great shock to the country.
Of course, the other two crises were inextricably linked to the rise of the far right as a significant political power in Greece. With rampant unemployment (reaching close to 50 percent for those under 25 years old), rapid impoverishment and a massive drop in GDP (around 35 percent), Golden Dawn’s promises of a “Greece that puts Greeks first”, financial and material help to those in need, and a sense of belonging and pride in a disoriented society enabled it to make significant electoral breakthroughs, even in areas considered strongholds of the Left.
In this context, Golden Dawn assumed a form of solidarity for “Greeks only”, as a hybrid organization, a militant party and a social movement, which radicalized Greeks towards the far right. The role of the media, which gave space to Golden Dawn to air their hate rhetoric, magnified their appeal while partially concealing the true nature of their intentions and deeds. The constant evocation of security and the demonization of migrants led to blatant manifestations of violence, ranging from threats against journalist and politicians to pogroms against migrant communities. This dazzling ascent to popularity and the immunity they enjoyed despite their crimes culminated in the murder of the antiracist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in 2013, which forced the Greek government — henceforth under pressure from the European and international community — to take action and persecute the leadership, the MPs, and other members of the party implicated in criminal activity.
The completion of the trial in October 2020 was marked by an impressive political consensus: pretty much the whole political spectrum — those political parties that came to be known as the “democratic arch” in the preceding decade — condemned Golden Dawn and celebrated its fall from grace. This was even the case on behalf of political parties — like the conservative government of Antonis Samaras — which had maintained close links with Golden Dawn during the years that the organization enjoyed extraordinary popularity. The convergence of the entire political spectrum against the criminal neo-Nazi political party, as well as a more accurate portrayal of it by the mainstream media — which was quite different from the time they presented Golden Dawn members and MPs as folk heroes with a few rough edges but nonetheless a great Greek heart — seemed to create a new consensus.
From the acceptance — if not admiration — of Golden Dawn’s “courage” against the corrupt political system, the political mood made a U-turn towards their unanimous denunciation, and the Greek “Proud Boys” were, henceforth, described and condemned as criminals. However, this wholesale condemnation of criminal activity was not matched by an equal indignation of the specific nature of these crimes: little was said about the racism and aggressive nationalism that were the ideological sources of Golden Dawn’s criminal activity. As such, Golden Dawn was almost “cleansed” of its political roots and intents, which were carefully obscured under the vague label of “populism”.
The main issue with this silence on the specific nature of Golden Dawn’s crimes is not the hypocrisy demonstrated by those politicians, public figures, intellectuals, and journalists whose tolerance of Golden Dawn’s rhetoric and practices had legitimized their presence, but the fact that far-right ideas and views have migrated towards the centre, thus colonizing the mainstream and becoming what we could call the new normal, the new “common sense”. This has become obvious in a number of areas of social life in Greece, including attitudes towards migrants and refugees, rampant Islamophobia, police violence, and unapologetic authoritarianism on the part of the current neoliberal centre-right government in Greece.
Perhaps the field where we can see most clearly the penetration of Golden Dawn ideas concerns the shifting attitudes towards refugees: from a country that prided itself in providing refuge to those fleeing war and violence, Greece has become a country where xenophobia and widespread Islamophobia have become the organizing principles of national politics.
In March 2020, thousands of refugees flocked towards the Greek-Turkish border at Evros, when President Erdogan declared that he would no longer stop those seeking asylum in Europe. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, of the centre-right New Democracy party, declared that “this is no longer a refugee and migration problem. It is an asymmetrical threat against Greece’s eastern borders, which are also European borders.” In an unprecedented turn of events and in clear violation of international human rights conventions, the Greek government temporarily suspended asylum rights.
Surprisingly, this same attitude was reflected by the opposition, when centre-left Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras stated that “the government was right in closing the border” and that Greece is “facing a geopolitical threat from Turkey”. Around the same time, there were numerous incidents of violent attacks against refugees, members of NGOs, journalists, as well as the police as local residents protested against the creation of detention centres for migrants and refugees in their areas. It is important to point out that these reactions were not directed against the operation of detention centres because of their inherently inhuman character towards people in dire need, but because the locals were opposed to the presence of refugees as such.
This convergence of right and left politically legitimized among the public a view of refugees as “invaders”, as an insidious threat and, hence, unworthy of protection, thus, shifting the debate from humanism to security, pretty much adopting Golden Dawn’s rhetoric of a few years previously. In that sense, it is not surprising that 57.1 percent of the Greek public believe that the country is at risk of “cultural alteration”, 62.6 percent believe that there are too many immigrants in the country, and 58.5 percent associate immigration with criminality. These same ideas are reflected and popularized by one of the most powerful ideological institutions in Greece, the Orthodox Church. Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos stated in an interview that “Islam is not a religion but a political party, it has a clear political intention and [Muslim] believers are people of war”, further normalizing Islamophobia; again, it is no coincidence that 61.3 percent of the public believe that Islam threatens the freedom of women in the West.
The normalization of the far-right mentality is further manifested in a number of developments: the massive reactions against the Prespa Agreement, which settled the dispute between Greece and North Macedonia with regards to the name of the latter, demonstrated the sheer power of aggressive nationalism in the country; the various (and mostly unsuccessful) efforts to “revise” women’s reproductive rights and the conversion of the government’s General Secretariat for Gender Equality into the General Secretariat for Demography, Family Policy and Gender Equality signalled the return of blatant sexism; the numerous instances of police brutality and unaccountability during the past two years as well as the establishment of a special force of “university police” are further indications of Greece’s turn towards authoritarianism.
The Droitisation of Europe
What we are witnessing in Greece, which may be instructive of broader general developments in the European context too, is a general shift to the right, in what has been described as “droitisation”. This is taking place simultaneously on two different levels: not only does it concern society at large but also the liberal centre, which is moving further and further towards the right.
As far as society at large is concerned, far-right ideas have proved to be extremely persistent, and their corrosiveness has inflicted considerable damage on the body-politic of the country. While during the economic crisis society seemed to be at a crossroads between the Left and the Right, and despite Syriza’s electoral success, the political mood that prevailed in the long run was that of conservative, if not reactionary, views on a number of landmark issues, as noted above. Syriza’s failure to materialize its promises and its reluctance to take the necessary progressive reforms (such as the separation of church and state, the democratization of the security forces, the sanitization of the judiciary) has led to a great disillusionment with the progressive side of the political spectrum, further facilitating the swing towards the right.
With regard to the liberal centre, despite its self-representation as the enlightened European equivalent in Greece, the current neoliberal centre-right government has demonstrated, as mentioned above, a clear penchant for authoritarianism, and it has become clear — also through the tight control it exercises on the media — that its ideological agenda draws on far-right sources, among other things. The presence of two seminal figures of the far right in senior positions (Adonis Georgiadis, the Minister for Development and Investment as well as New Democracy deputy leader, Makis Voridis, the Minister for the Interior) is not a coincidence in that respect, and precisely serves the implementation of such agenda in concrete policy.
These trends are studied in-depth in the research conducted by our group, Dissensus, with the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Office in Greece, entitled Mainstreaming the Far Right in Greece: Gender, Armed Forces, the Media and the Church. Through detailed interviews with members of the armed forces and the church, with feminist groups and LGBTQI activists, as well as the systematic analysis of media rhetoric, our research explored the ways through which the far right has been legitimized and normalized in Greece during the past decade. The statistics quoted above are derived from a large-scale questionnaire we conducted in autumn 2020, just after the conclusion of the Golden Dawn trial and its unanimous condemnation by Greece’s political forces. Our findings point towards a widespread normalization of the key ideas represented by Golden Dawn — fear of “cultural alteration”, a view of neighbouring countries as inherently inimical to Greece, high levels of Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism — and, perhaps most worryingly, an unawareness of the discriminatory nature of such views, which are now embedded as “normal” and expressed unapologetically.