It was an unwelcome echo of Europe’s past: as black-clad henchmen barked instructions at journalists, ejecting those who refused to show “respect” by standing up, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the greying leader of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, hailed his party’s unprecedented entry into parliament. Waving his fists like a practiced demagogue, he threatened retribution “for those who betray this homeland”. Then came a promise: “The Europe of the nations returns. Greece is only the beginning.”
The sudden emergence of Golden Dawn – an obscure fringe party only a year ago but which won 21 seats in Sunday's general election – is the latest symptom of political turmoil to hit Greece as it struggles to cope with EU-imposed austerity. Mainstream parties have fallen like dominoes as Greek voters, angry at being punished by a fiscal compact that protects northern Europe’s wealthier economies, look for politicians that have not been tarnished by compromise with the Brussels elite. Many have turned left, but 7 per cent of voters chose Golden Dawn, which promises to “clean” Greece of immigrants and boasts a swastika-like emblem on its flag. In the words of one Greek Jewish leader, “They don’t deny the Holocaust – they desire it.”
The spectacle has made outside observers shudder, while the millions of Greeks who did not vote for Golden Dawn are justifiably revolted. Greece has not suddenly turned to fascism – and although Michaloliakos was a supporter of the military junta that ruled the country from 1967 to 1974, there is no special darkness within the Greek psyche that lends itself to extremist politics. Golden Dawn’s gains, which can be reversed, were achieved with techniques employed by the far right in other countries. It stood “ordinary” candidates – members of the public who had been drawn to the party in recent months – for election, and it won some support by imposing vigilante patrols in urban neighbourhoods. As in other countries, they have been challenged every step of the way by Greek anti-racists.
Golden Dawn's scapegoating of immigrants is widely shared, too. Across Europe, the financial crisis has inflamed tensions between a global market, a multinational EU, and nation states that still count on patriotism as a social glue. Migrants have thus become a lightning rod for all manner of anxieties. The difference is that Greece feels these more acutely, battered by five continuous years of recession and sitting on the EU’s porous border with Turkey. Frequently, migrants are sent back to Greece from other EU countries to rot in poorly maintained detention centres or left destitute in a country where one in five is unemployed. The fate of 200 African migrants left to drown in the Mediterranean last year by Nato forces – possibly including a British helicopter – suggests we are all capable of such callousness. This is not Greece’s dirty secret: it is all of ours.
The success of Golden Dawn is a tragedy for migrants and a painful dead end for their voters who will find them a quack cure for their country’s ills. There’s a grain of truth in Golden Dawn’s call for Greece to be freed from “the slavery of the bailout agreement” and voters will continue to seize on it until a viable alternative is found.
Left-wing parties are now struggling to find enough common ground to form a government and fresh elections may have to be held next month. The challenge is to find a solution that brings stability while fulfilling the egalitarian principles the EU project aspires to. Otherwise, the future is one of angry, reactionary nationalisms – and, perhaps, if groups like Golden Dawn are allowed to keep a foothold in democratic politics, something even more vicious.