IS NEO-NAZISM ‘GANG ACTIVITY’ OR A POLITICAL MOVEMENT
In a recent article, THE GUARDIAN noted that the Greek political party represented in parliament is more like a criminal organization than a party. This is the sort of hollow analysis that some writers engaged in about Italy’s Fascist Party and of Germany’s Nazi party before they took power, given that Nazis and Fascists had paramilitary operations that were the core of their political movement. The mere presence of paramilitary organization does not necessarily mean that the sponsoring political party is any less political.
Such analysis underestimates the mass appeal of neo-Fascism and neo-Nazism not just in Greece in 2012, but throughout the West. I have written as much in an article where I suggested that the return of Fascism/Nazism are possible against a global political economy that engenders capital concentration and downward social mobility, and against the background of a Western clash with Islam at a time that the world’s economic center will be shifting from West (EU and US) to East (China, India, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia). In short, the downward social mobility of the middle class make it feel suffocated and without any prospects for its own and their children’s future.
It entirely possible that pluralistic society generally tolerant of disparate groups of people may remain vibrant, but more likely is the dilution of such a societal model. Greece is not exactly a good example of what may follow in the West, but it is a manifestation of how the combination of political, economic and cultural developments in the West as well as domestic developments and historical traditions account for the rise of neo-Naziism.
HISTORICAL PRECEDENT FOR NEO-NAZISM IN GREECE
When I published a short book entitled Authoritarianism in Greece (New York, 1983), about the pro-Nazi John Metaxas dictatorship of 1936-40, more than a decade had passed since the military junta (1967-1974) that modeled itself after the 1930s dictatorship. In fact, when I published that book, both the dictatorships in Portugal and Spain were gone, replaced by Socialist parties were as strong as in Greece, so I never imagined a resurgence of neo-Nazi or neo-Fascist parties in the early 21st century.
Just as in the case of the Great Depression that weakened democracy in many countries and eliminated it in others, similarly, the current deep economic contraction is causing similar sociopolitical conditions of polarization, sweeping the middle class and segments of the working class to its camp. And this is not about isolated incidents of anti-Islam neo-Nazi groups in every country from Norway to Greece, but about a genuine grassroots political movement with momentum to carry it into the mainstream.
‘GOLDEN DAWN’ AND MAINSTREAM SOCIETY
In June 2012, a new political party (Chrysi Augi) Golden Dawn was elected to office representing roughly half a million voters, a party that openly proclaims to follow a neo-Nazi/neo-fascist ideology. Founded in 1980 as a movement, it registered as a political party in 1993 when Greece experienced a wave of Balkan, Eastern European, as well as some African and Asian emigrants coming in as cheap day laborers in construction and farms, household workers caring for the elderly, or street vendors.
Although the neo-Nazi movement was and remains essentially a street-gang organization whose target is street fights and property destruction against any progressive organization, either it is extraordinarily superficial analysis or deliberate distortion to dismiss it as ‘just another criminal organization’. While the neo-Nazi gangs have been well known to the police for many years, while their members have been in prison for criminal activity, police almost always turn a blind eye and often collaborate with the neo-Nazis because ideologically the police are in agreement and also because neo-Nazi targets are either aliens or progressives that the police oppose and their superiors want crushed.
Moreover, the two mainstream political parties, PASOK, once center-left-now neo-liberal, and New Democracy, the conservative party now in power, have turned a blind eye to neo-Nazis along with the judicial system because Golden Dawn gangs’ violent activity instills fear in many people wanting to support the progressive and leftists from staging demonstrations and protests. Neo-Nazis are just another tool for sociopolitical conformity, but also a counterweight to the rising leftist popularity.Clearly, the leftists are using the neo-Nazi rising popularity to mobilize voter support. However, this raises the question of a growing gap in centrist parties and growing political polarization that actually helps the right even more than it does the left, for the latter has always been part of the institutional mainstream.
Interestingly, the ruling parties, PASOK and New Democracy, along with the mainstream media, insist that there is no difference between neo-Nazi gangs beating up foreigners, destroying their property and terrorizing them so they can create a ‘pure Hellenic society’ (a vague and meaningless concept), on the one hand, and leftist workers demonstrating because their wages have been cut sharply or they have lost their jobs. In short, the neo-Nazis are the ideal cover for the ruling parties representing the EU that wants continuance with the austerity measures intended to hasten downward social mobility.
The Golden Dawn party received 5% of the vote in local Athens elections, mostly from urban neighborhoods with large population of immigrants. In June 2012, the neo-Nazis managed to have 18 members of parliament, of the total 300 elected from seven different parties. The most recent public opinion polls indicate that 22% of the voters trust the neo-Nazi leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos who has been in prison for extreme political activity resulting in beatings and explosives possession.
What is the ideological orientation of the neo-Nazis? There is no coherent ideology, but a string of incoherent ideas based on history and tradition, and underlying prejudices. Strong support of nationalism and Orthodox faith, which means adamant opposition to Islam and Judaism is at the core of Golden Dawn’s ideas. Of course, it is difficult for any of the Golden Dawn officials to articulate their own beliefs, because they lack not just the educational level, but the capacity for rational thought. In fact, just as NAZI and Fascist ideologies were rooted in the irrational, thought and action, so is neo-Nazism.
Another neo-Nazi belief rests in conspiracy theories, namely, that the world operates as a result of conspiracies caused mostly by Zionists, backed by Americans who want to control the world. Xenophobia to the extreme degree means that Greek neo-Nazis have no qualms about using force to eliminate foreigners they see as ‘polluting’ the purity that is Greece, a nebulous concept they link to classical, Byzantine, as well as modern from the era of Independence in the 1820s.
Adamant opposition to gypsies, Communists, varieties of leftists, Liberals, traditional conservatives, feminists, social progressives advocating human rights, and intellectuals who advocate peace, social justice and human equality. While the neo-Nazis use symbols such as Hitler’s photograph and the swastika, and writings from the German Nazi era, they are against modern Germany, for they want to return to the 1930s, instead of moving forward with corporate-directed globalization. Finally, like classical Fascism and Nazism, neo-Nazism dismisses dialogue of differing ideas and believes in action rooted on violence.
NEO-NAZI POPULAR BASE
Who are the supporters of the neo-Nazis? Financing comes from wealthy individuals, as does media support, given that at least one media organization is led by a tycoon who became wealthy transporting contraband items. That financing comes from wealthy individuals is not a surprise, nor is it a surprise that many lower middle class people pushed down to working class living standards are turning to neo-Naziism. It is true that there are also some workers who believe that the reason for the economic hardships, crime, neighborhood deterioration, and all societal evils must be attributed to foreigners. If foreigners, the same foreigners who work the fields, construct buildings, work as domestic servants, and do other menial jobs for wages far less than Greeks earn, if these foreigners were to return to their countries, Greece would become Switzerland.
NEO-NAZIS and MUSLIMS
Given that roughly ten percent of the population in Greece is from another country, most of them as ‘economic emigrants’, primarily using Greece to cross over to Italy and beyond, the neo-Nazis have used this issue to scapegoat these people no differently than European Catholics scapegoated the Jews during the Black Death, or the Germans blamed the Jews and Communists for all the calamities of their country in the interwar era. Of course, we must keep in mind, the the cultural foundations as much for Nazism in the 1930s and for neo-Nazism in the 21st century already existed in society, just below the surface of ‘democratic civility’. The Western World’s distorted political economy and the anti-Islam political-cultural campaign of the last two decades has actually provided the pretext for the rise of neo-Nazis.
Entry point for many Muslims, most recently Syrian refugees, is Turkey. Those wishing to cross over into Greece pay anywhere from a few hundred euros to several thousands. Once they reach Greece, their goal is to make it into the West, but many are unable to do so, forced to work for 10-30 per day in the worst possible jobs that very few Greeks would take. Greek slumlords rent filthy cramped apartments to legal and illegal foreign nationals, mostly from Pakistan. As many as 30 may live in an apartment intended for two people, while the landlord charges between 100 and 180 per month per person. Not that the situation is dissimilar in many Western countries, but it is important to remember that the legal and illegal aliens are exploited not only by the employers who may or may not pay them the low wages, but from the landlord as well, without any legal recourse. Yet, it is precisely these people, mostly Muslims, that neo-Nazi Gold Dawn, including its elected officials target for beatings, some resulting in the occasional murder.
Amnesty International as well as other organizations have repeatedly warned about abuses of human rights, police brutality, xenophobia and racism in Greece. However, the result is a rise in racist tendencies, as the economy deteriorates and people that would never even consider supporting a disreputable neo-Nazi party are now strong advocates; a situation not much different that Germany in the early 1930s under the Weimar Republic. Otherwise respectable middle class people want blood, preferably foreign blood, though it is these same people who use cheap foreign labor in their homes, farms and workplace. Hence the prevalence of the irrational in human nature when the institutions precipitate major shifts in peoples’ lives. Which brings me to the role of the IMF, EU and the banks in the rise of neo-Nazism.
NEO-NAZISM AND GERMANY
Germany, which has been behind austerity more than any other nation or entity in the West and which has benefited to the tune of an estimated 30 to 60 billion euros, has been strongly condemnatory of Golden Dawn. Considering that many analysts regard austerity as a form of dictatorship and a catalyst to diluting democracy, the fear on the part of many Germans is that their policies may be contributing to the rise of neo-Nazism in Greece and perhaps elsewhere. Germany may try to control neo-Nazi activity in its own soil to contain anti-Western responses throughout the Muslim World, but the monetary, fiscal, trade, labor and social policies it is imposing on the rest of EU are strengthening neo-Nazism.
In some respects, it is useful to view historical epochs as a mirror, and not to assume that the future is a line of upward progress, leaving the past behind without a trace. It is useful to reflect on what accounts for the dominant irrational tendencies in human and institutional behavior, even when such behavior leads to destruction of others, and by extension to ourselves. When I ask people why they support neo-Nazi movements, they almost always reply that they have no choice, as though it is their religion. Given that the mainstream political parties, moderate right, center and left have worn each other out to such a degree that a third force emerges to fill a gap that people believe will be their salvation, the messiah solution is to be expected not in the main, but in the extremes. Civil society has never had messiah solutions, for it is difficult enough trying to keep it civil, respectful of all people’s basic human rights, and of social justice. The final lesson here to the faithful of neo-Nazism is that today’s abuser may become tomorrow’s victim; for neo-Nazi violence knows no boundaries.