Golden Dawn is becoming a significant political force not because a large part of the Greek population has suddenly embraced Nazism and accepted racism as an ideology, but because the party’s leadership, with great cynicism and cunning, is sowing its seeds on fertile ground. Greek society is badly traumatized by the effects of the economic crisis and this injury comes on top of a history of trauma and grim efforts to survive. In public debate – in our sense of who we are – there is a strong current of belief that the Greeks are always forced to fight against overwhelming foreign forces and the local interests that support them. Division may not be “in our blood” (nations do not differ that much from each other) but it is customary, familiar and predictable in our behavior.
If we look at the past century alone, from the National Schism (between King Constantine and the reformist Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos in 1915) to today, every great event is a clash between “patriots” and “traitors,” with each side appropriating the good label for itself while trying to smash the other, which is always depicted as the tool of foreign powers. The most tragic consequence of this mentality was the civil war of 1946-49. Before this, though, we had the trial and execution of six former political and military leaders who were made scapegoats for the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922. More recently, we had the 1967 military dictatorship, which culminated in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. In the public debate, everything was the fault of foreign powers who either acted against Greece or did not do enough in support of Greece; domestically, the people were always split into at least two camps, in a drama that kept repeating itself and inevitably led to catastrophe.
Today’s crisis, like every serious trauma, has again brought primitive instincts to the fore. The great drop in incomes, the loss of hope, the widespread insecurity, have awoken fears and behaviors that we thought had been forgotten. The incompetence of Greece’s politicians, as well as that of other European leaders and EU officials, contributed decisively to the creation of a deep-seated sense of insecurity in Greece. As long as we do not see decisions and actions and that will persuade people that there is a real rescue plan, that their sacrifices will lead to salvation, many will seek security in old mentalities and behaviors, which, however useless, promise the comfort of familiarity. It is worth noting that in the weeks of mass demonstrations by the “Indignants” at Syntagma Square in 2011, most speakers – whether from Left or Right, radical, non-political or independent – attacked “foreigners” as well as the “thieves” and “traitors” who were ostensibly in the adjacent Parliament building. In other words, irrespective of our ideology, all our problems were the fault of our creditors (the “usurers”) and the local “system” that served them.
Golden Dawn found itself in a unique position to exploit the situation and propel itself into the center of political developments. From its founding in 1980 until last year’s elections, this party’s electoral presence was a fraction of one percent; its public appearances were always accompanied by widespread ridicule, condemnation and clashes with leftist and anarchist groups. This helped forge a hard nucleus of people who believed in the group, who sacrificed much to be part of it, who identified with it and with its simplistic, ugly ideology. Above all, though, they believed in the authority of their leader. And he, Nikos Michaloliakos, has proven that he knows how to play the game, how to take the steps needed to consolidate his power and to seek ever greater influence. His direct attack on the democratic system, on the very anniversary of the restoration of democracy last Wednesday, as well as the group’s use of a Greek adaptation of a Nazi anthem, were just the most recent evidence of this.
Over the last 33 years, Michaloliakos has cultivated the image of the absolute leader-father of his group – and the fact that his wife is the only woman among their 18 members of Parliament further illustrates his symbolic power over his subservient followers. He presents himself as the leader in the fight against foreigners (governments, bankers and immigrants) and local traitors. He demands discipline and in return he makes a bunch of outsiders, deadbeats and thugs feel that they are important players on a holy mission. The leader’s permission for acts of violence – indeed his exhortations to this end – create a sense of camaraderie, self-assuredness and indifference to the mundane.
Golden Dawn’s followers are not afraid of who they are, nor are they ashamed of their actions. On the contrary, at a time when most other people are questioning everything, they present themselves as carriers of the absolute truth, ready to fight for it. They think they have the answers, and this makes them attractive to the naïve, the hopeless, the cynical, the stupid. Golden Dawn preaches the superiority of the nation while investing in its destruction. Because its solutions – hatred and division – are the ageless curse of the Greeks.