It is hard to comprehend the party’s precipitous rise to political power. Often seen as thugs and agitators by their fellow countrymen, they espouse an ideology of racist nationalism that few rational people could relate to. Their salute is an outstretched arm with the palm facing down. In rallies, members frequently and brutally assault minorities, akin to events like Kristallnacht. Capitalizing on their homeland’s economic depression, party leaders advocate sending all immigrants to work camps, if not purging them altogether. In last Sunday’s election, the Greek organization Golden Dawn found success from these tactics, winning 21 seats in Parliament and becoming the newest addition to the rise of the far-right in Europe.
Known in Greek as Chrysi Avgi, the Golden Dawn has been around since the early ‘80s, and was birthed from supporters of the authoritarian junta that ruled in Greece from 1967 to 1974. Largely out of sight, they became known to most of their countrymen in 1991 when they opposed the the new name of Macedonia without some geographic qualifier (there is also a Greek region called Macedonia). Openly nostalgic for the Nazi movement, they refer to themselves as “national socialists” and have embraced the Nazi salute as their own. Their symbol even looks like a swastika cut in half and pasted together, in a formidable black on red palette.
With such foreboding connotations, it is not surprising that, before this year, Golden Dawn had little popularity among the Greek people. Seen as hooligans, their relationship with immigrants, ethnic minorities and far-left or anarchist opponents was well known for being violently wanton. There were also media reports that they had infiltrated the police, or at least that some support existed between the two. Videos online show cops standing by as the black-shirted Golden Dawn members strike at immigrants with Greek flags. Even with these connections, however, the party has had little political success – and only won 0.29% of the votes in the 2009 legislative election. The Nazi Party had similar lack of electoral luck before their ascension to power, garnering 2.6% of the vote in 1928.
That all changed when the country collapsed two years ago. Among the hardest hit by the Eurozone economic crisis, Greece has astronomical levels of debt, over 165% of their annual GDP. When investor confidence dropped in 2010, it became exceedingly difficult for their nation to borrow from abroad to finance social programs, and austerity measures and serious spending cuts have been swiftly put in place. The state, along with police, ambulances and other public faces of the government, receded to a degree that the nation today is semi-anarchic.
In addition to the debt, immigration to Greece – which has always been hard to control in the peninsular nation with multiple islands – greatly increased in the ‘90s. With the country’s aging population, these young laborers were welcomed and found jobs easily. Once the Greek economy went south, however, these migrants were victimized and have become deeply unpopular to support both socially and politically.
These two factors help explain the rise of Golden Dawn, who have had the most popularity in areas where the Greek state has withdrawn. Providing services ranging from escorting the elderly to delivering food to acting as vigilantes, they have gained the favor of the poor, the old, and everyone else earlier dependent on the government. Capitalizing on fears people have towards immigrants, illegal or otherwise, Golden Dawn has been able to gain enough support to win 7% of the vote in last Sunday’s parliamentary election, winning 21 seats. Although they are only the sixth-most popular party, they will likely have some role in the coalition that will be forming in the coming weeks. Both major parties, who were pro-austerity, were punished severely in the election and will have to rely on radical parties from either side to obtain enough power to make laws.
Golden Dawn hopes to take advantage of their moment of political relevance to pursue objectively fascist policies. When asked what they will do with their newfound seats, party spokesman Elias Panagiotaros concisely responded “immediate deportation of all immigrants.” Expanding on this was another Golden Dawn official, Ilias Kasidiaris, who stated that Greece ought to plant minefields along their border with Turkey. In addition to his jingoistic fervor, Kasidiaris also has interesting views on Europe’s past, believing that the “main view” that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust has been “shown [to be] a lie.”
Before presenting these unsavory policies, their first plan of action will be to leave the European Union. Like the other far-right parties rising to power in Europe (such as the French National Front), the desire to dissolve the EU is strong. In a historic irony, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn sees Germany, the wealthiest nation in Europe, as the main culprit for their disaster. Blaming their austerity measures and the international bankers who carried them out, the party wants to isolate Greece in order to protect it. In the new globalized economy, this will likely harm the nation more than help it, but as long as the immigrants leave, Golden Dawn is perfectly fine.