Last year’s dramatic elections in Greece were marked by a significant political polarisation writes Piers Mostyn. New left party Syriza came second with nearly 27 % and the fascist Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) came fifth with nearly 7%. The far right as a whole (depending on how you define it) commanded over twice this amount of support. Since then GD support in opinion polls has grown to double figures, making it the third most popular party.
The rise of Syriza and GD reflects massive popular hostility to a political establishment which, at the behest of international financial institutions and the EU, has been hell bent on making ordinary Greek people pay the price for the country’s economic melt down. There has been continuous popular resistance, with mass demonstrations and strikes to an austerity offensive that has seen a continuous shrinking of the economy for five years.
Unemployment is spiralling towards 30% and there is mass pauperisation. By 2011 28.4% were unable to provide for basic needs and today its worse. Prime Minister Samaras last year warned of a Weimar Germany-style collapse.
Meanwhile the incompetence, corruption and venality of the ruling elite and its responsibility for the crisis have been laid bare.
The government has utilised violence, not only against trade unions and the anti-austerity movement, but increasingly against Greece’s immigrant community – thousands of who have been rounded up and detained in makeshift camps and thousands more deported – scapegoating them for the crisis and whipping up reactionary nationalism
This context illustrates the perils of taking for granted that a radicalisation to the right, not just to the left, can be triggered in these circumstances
The economic crisis and a consequent plummeting of confidence in the traditional ruling parties is the immediate cause of GD’s rapid growth. But other factors include the tainting of LAOS (previously the main far right party) by its participation in an earlier pro-austerity coalition government and a populist GD strategy of street campaigning and welfare work aimed at filling the vacuum left by the disappearance of state services.
With some government ministers and media commentators pushing the centre of political gravity to the right, GD’s reactionary politics have become legitimised. This has emboldened its supporters to engage in physical violence, particularly against immigrants. Protests against an allegedly “blasphemous” play with a “homosexual theme” led to it being pulled by theatre management. GD leaders are contemptuous of the law and talk of “civil war”.
Sections of the ruling class and the state appear to regard GD as a serious alternative. Talk of millionaire bankrolling may be as yet unproven, but few doubt the GD boast of over 50% support within the police given evidence that officers have been torturing anti-fascist demonstrators and collaborating with GD.
Whatever the immediate spark, mass fascist movements have social, cultural and political roots. To be effective, any opposition to GD will have to address this underlying foundation, which stretches back to be foundation of the modern Greek state.
The political formation of the ruling class was marked from the outset by under-development and dependence on the “Great Powers”. Although there were occasional liberal or progressive tendencies, this elite repeatedly resorted to nationalism and authoritarianism to compensate for this weakness and to crush challenges from the working class.
The 1829 victory in the war of independence that followed centuries of Ottoman rule was primarily the gift of Britain, France and Russia. Different factions of the Greek ruling elite were each identified with one of these competing powers. The head of state was a monarch, imposed from outside and constitutionally under great power control. This was a pale reflection of the European bourgeois revolutionary nationalism of the time which, for all its faults, at least made some claim to self-determination and democracy.
“Greece” in those days was much smaller than today and didn’t include the North or most islands. Its economic under-development and the state’s lack of political legitimacy generated a series of political and economic crises.
The main solution as the 19th Century progressed was the “Megali Idea” (The Great Idea). This was an ambitious strategy of territorial expansion to unify geographically, linguistically and culturally disparate “Greeks” who then co-existed cheek by jowl with other communities and whose main connection was adherence to the Orthodox Christian church. As the century neared its close, this church was itself riven by schisms and splits, expressing rival Balkan nationalisms.
Expansion did occur to the point where, by the 1920s, Greece as we now know it was broadly in shape. But the underpinning reactionary nationalist ideology and successive political splits and crises shaped a ruling class that, instead of unifying, strengthening and becoming more coherent was dysfunctional, divided and unable to break from its financial and military reliance on foreign intervention.
Nineteenth century Greek nationalism increasingly crunched up against competing nationalisms in neighbouring Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania. As the Ottoman empire disintegrated and declined, local newly-formed Balkan states attempted to fill the vacuum under the tutelage of rival imperial power blocs. Cultures and communities that had co-existed for centuries came to be seen as alien.
This process gave an increasingly sectarian, racist and xenophobic shape to the national identity being forged by the Greek bourgeoisie. This was ironic given the relatively cosmopolitan Ottoman legacy: a multi-centred communalism that, whilst institutionalising sectarian discrimination, involved a vibrant co-existence between communities based on mutual exchange.
Thus until the 1930s, Orthodox Christians were only the third largest community behind Jews and Muslims in Salonica, Greece’s second largest city. And in the 19th century the Plaka, Athens’ taverna-stuffed Mecca for tourists, was an Albanian quarter – its name meaning both Greek for paving-stone and Albanian for “old quarter”. Albanian was used in the law courts and for public business.
This historical dynamic culminated with a Greek invasion of Turkey in 1919, egged on by Britain. The invasion resulted in resounding defeat and a traumatic humiliation for Greek irredentism and bourgeois nationalism.
This then led to a massive “population exchange” sponsored by the imperial powers led by Britain at the Lausanne Convention of 1922. Hundreds of thousands of Christian Orthodox (ostensibly “Greek”) citizens of Turkey and Muslim (ostensibly “Turkish”) citizens of Greece were forcibly deported at short notice to their supposed respective “homelands”, under terrible conditions. This exacerbated an already dire post-war economic situation.
A racial, religious and ideological monolith was being carved out in the name of “Greece”, a job finally finished with the German invasion in 1940 and the genocide of 96% of a Jewish community whose ancestors had fled there nearly five centuries before following its expulsion from Christian Spain.
Marking Holocaust Memorial Day this year, Julia Neuberger observed that mass acts of civil disobedience in Bulgaria during the war ensured that not a single Nazi deportation took place and it was the only country to end the war with a bigger Jewish population that at the start. In neighbouring Greece, by contrast, despite a heroic war of resistance in the later period, rightwing collaborationism and inaction ensured the almost total destruction of the Jewish population.
The Greek elite’s history of reactionary nationalism was periodically accompanied by authoritarianism and dictatorship as a substitute for its weak social base. Unlike the rest of Europe, there was no mass social democratic party until the 1970s. The Communist Party, for decades subject to illegality and repression, was characterised by a fatal combination of fanatical Stalinism and a tendency to split.
Facilitating this tradition of authoritarian nationalism has been a long-running tradition of rightist conspiratorial military organisation and linked terror campaigns. Arguably this goes back to the struggle for independence in which Philiki Etaira (The Friendly Society) played a key role. At end of the 19th century a group of army officers revived its traditions, establishing Ethniki Etaira (The National Association) as a new secret society. Within 2 years it claimed some 3,000 members with 56 branches in Greece and 83 abroad – described by one historian as a “virtual state within the Greek state”.
In the First World War the monarchist paramilitary League of Reservists engaged in terror attacks on establishments believed to be associated with the Republican wing of the ruling class, including press offices. The western-backed counter coup by liberal leader Venizelos led to purges of these monarchists from the armed forces and civil services. But a further series of crises led to the 1922 debacle, under the Venizelos leadership, resulting in its discrediting and collapse. The consequent political vacuum eventually gave rise to the Metaxas dictatorship in the 1930s.
Rightist military networks played a prominent role in the collaboration with Nazis in the Second War through the establishment of the Security Battalions. With the Nazi defeat, far from being dismantled, these forces were instead harnessed by the US and British-backed government to smash the Communist-led resistance in the civil war that followed.
This then fed into IDEA, a secret organisation of rightist officers, linked to an unsuccessful coup by Papagos in 1951. Many of these same officers a decade and a half later were involved in the “Colonel’s coup” in the 1960s.
World War Two collaborationism and the Civil War also threw up right wing paramilitary formations outside the state. These included the “Anti-Communist Crusade of Greece” set up in 1952 and a splinter organisation, the “Pan-Hellenic National Crusade” founded after the 1961 elections, during which a campaign of intimidation and ballot rigging by the gendarmerie and the TEA (National Defence Battalions) thwarted an anticipated left victory. Greek police officially co-operated with these paramilitary forces during state occasions when they were mobilised to assist with security.
The period since 1974 has been characterised by something approaching parliamentary democracy on the European model, with the newly-formed PASOK allowed to win elections and form governments.
But the anti-democratic rightist tradition remained deeply rooted in sections of the ruling class and its camp followers. Its resurgence at a time of crisis was predictable – the only question being whether this was through or outside the state.
This history is not one long-running fascist conspiracy. It is more of an ideological and organisational melange, with different elements combining in different ways in particular periods. Its great weakness has been the chronic inability by the ruling class to achieve a strategic consensus, over issues like the constitution, democracy and relations with foreign powers, which could form the basis for stable over-arching project.
This ideological mix has centred on nationalism; xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism; adherence to the Christian Orthodox church; anti-communism and (far less so in contemporary times) monarchism. At times aspects have garnered mainstream popular support to which the left has not always been robust or coherent in opposing. In the case of nationalism, sections of the left have on occasion acted as cheerleaders.
An upsurge of anti-Semitism, particularly after 1922 not only fed into collaboration with Nazis, but carried on after the second war. The tiny number of surviving Jews who sought to reclaim property was subject to a campaign of vilification – with a public prosecutor claiming that they were persecuting Christians; local liberal politicians making anti-Semitic comments and, by the summer of 1947, a full-scale press campaign against Jewish claims. Some courts decided that Salonica Jews, deported to the death camps, had “abandoned” their property
In the 1990s Balkan crisis, the break up of Yugoslavia fed into a sharp rise in a very reactionary nationalism based on Christian Orthodox solidarity with Serbia; rank hostility to the newly formed state of Macedonia; and a revival of irredentism in relation to southern Albania. Technically Greece had remained at war with Albania for decades and normality had only begun to return in the 1980s.
Manipulated by US-British Cold War power-play over Cyprus, the periodic eruption up of tensions with Turkey has been the focus for a similar combination of territorial claims and racism against Greece’s indigenous Muslim population in Thrace.
The upsurge in Greek anti-Macedonian chauvinism played a notable role in early stages of GD’s formation in the 1990s. And one of the party’s main annual mobilisations commemorates the 1996 Imia military crisis in which three Greek soldiers died in the course of a clash with Turkey over tiny uninhabited Aegean islets.
In addition there has been deepening islamophobia and anti-Roma prejudice. These substantial, mainly northern communities with roots dating back centuries have been subject to a campaign of state discrimination.
All fascist movements feed off pre-existing reactionary popular currents. Greek fascism has been able to draw on a broader and deeper range of ideological and organisational traditions located far more centrally in the political formation of the country’s ruling class and state. It comes as no surprise that GD leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos is a former marine reservist who in the 1960s had links to the colonels’ junta.
Self-defence and mass action on the streets are playing an increasingly vital role in the fight against GD. But unless these social and ideological roots are also tackled this many-headed hydra will only re-emerge in other forms.
Visit www.greeksolidarity.org and Wikipedia on Golden Dawn for more info.
First published in Jewish Socialist No 66 Spring/Summer 2013. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org