Mazower on the rise of Greece’s political extremes
British historian Mark Mazower has gained worldwide repute both as an author of very important books on the modern history of Europe, particularly the Balkan peninsula, and as a director of the Center for International History and the Heyman Center for the Humanities, both at Columbia. He comments on current affairs for the Financial Times and the Guardian while being a contributor to The Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books and The Nation.
In Greece he has gained prominence thanks to his historical studies on Greece in the 1940s and Thessaloniki in the early 20th century, publishing works such as “Inside Hitler’s Greece,” “Dark Continent,” and “Salonica, City of Ghosts.”
Mazower is in Athens this week for a lecture on the rise of political extremes in crisis-hit Greece, at Deree College [You can watch the event live here on Tuesday at 7p.m.]. In an interview with Sunday’s Kathimerini, Mazower talks about the delegitimation of Greece’s political class, the rise of Golden Dawn and comparisons between violence committed by the far right and the far left.
Is the debate about the “rise of the extremes” here in Greece a discussion about the rise of the far right or both the far right and the far left? Describing the far left as a political extreme would irk many Greeks.
The new and highly disturbing feature of the scene in Greece is obviously the rise of the far right. Its emergence forces us to confront the problem of violence because violence is its calling card, its modus operandi and – I am thinking, for instance of the Kasidiaris incident on Antenna last year [when the Golden Dawn spokesman assaulted two female politicians on live TV] – has been instrumental in its growth. That such manifest and public violence should increase a movement’s popularity is deeply disturbing to anyone who believed that the combined memories of living through a bitter civil war and then through dictatorship had led Greeks more than most to prize stability and democracy and see the value of some kind of civility in their public life.
I do not think that the rise of Golden Dawn has anything to do with the far left. The causes lie elsewhere, above all in the extreme delegitimation of the entire political class through the crisis and the consequent discrediting of the achievements of the post-junta regime change. We could have a long discussion about whether this political class could have done more, despite the crisis, to restore its reputation in the popular estimation: I personally think they could have done more, and can still. But precisely because we are in a new and more violent phase of public life, I think it is hard to treat the throwing of Molotov cocktails at the police, still less armed attacks on people’s homes or offices or shops, with the kind of almost benign toleration that was common in the past. The same applies to political rhetoric as well. For the left there is a serious question or two to be faced. When you use a rhetoric of violence – of overthrowing the state, of a new insurgence, of striking at collaborators – that is drawn from an earlier epoch, a time of real revolutions and real wars – do you mean what you say? Do you want war? And, if so, are you sure you can win? If not, then – and here we come to the crux of things – how do you talk and think more productively about the possibilities for a real and radical transformation of capitalism that the current crisis of institutions and ideas calls out for? In my view, dreaming of playing some heroic role in a new, and this time victorious 1917, or 1944, is not the answer and we have to consign those dates to history and not continue to use them as guides to action.
This debate is associated with a broader and more international debate concerning whether fascism and communism are in fact similar – two sides of the same coin. Most people in Greece find this very hard to accept. What is your opinion?
The theory of totalitarianism developed in the West during the Cold War and rested upon an equation of Nazism and Stalinism. In my view, it was and is an ideological construct which hides more than it reveals. The Third Reich and the USSR had some similarities but many differences, more profound I think than the similarities. To come to the present situation in Greece, one cannot enter into this particular topic without being aware that the current government’s recent stress on law and order seeks emphatically to assert this kind of commonality. There is an electoral strategy here of course: New Democracy obviously needs something to boost its appeal at a time when it is implementing the austerity program, and it needs something in particular that will allow it to gain at the expense of other right-wing parties and will put the left opposition at a disadvantage. Two things get neglected in such a strategy: the real problem of police violence, especially in major urban centers, and the fact that many on the so-called “anarchist” left are simply occupying empty buildings – which may be a crime against property but is not an act of violence in my book – or engaging in legitimate protest. I say all this while insisting at the same time on the left’s own responsibility for having tolerated a certain discourse that legitimates lawlessness.
The extremes are closely associated with the use of violence. In Greece there has been a heated debate on this issue: On one hand there are those who claim that violence is the same evil no matter where it comes from, right or left, and, on the other, there are those who hold that there are types of justified violence, at least in some cases – i.e. the killings by the November 17 terrorism organization – that are not the same as the killing of an immigrant by neo-Nazis. To what extent is this valid?
My answer is in two parts: First, murder is murder, and, secondly, I prize the struggle for social justice and regard racism in any form as deplorable. To fight for social justice and against racism is the challenge right now.