Feeding the flames: Golden Dawn and the extreme right in Western Europe

The current recession is taking its toll across Europe, unemployment is rising and the bite of austerity measures is increasingly being felt amongst Europeans, particularly the young, old, the unemployed and the chronically ill or disabled. The recession also seems to have reignited Europe’s extreme right.

The success both electorally as well as on ideologically of Golden Dawn in Greece is the most recent manifestation of the appeal and power of extreme right-wing ideas in Europe. Disturbing reports of anti-immigrant violence in Greece are common, intimidation tactics and violent assaults on immigrants and their supporters in Greece seem to have become commonplace according to Human Rights Watch. The political wing of Golden Dawn won 7% of the votes and 18 seats in the Greek Parliament in the last elections in 2012. While the party existed before the current crisis it has only come to prominence in the wake of it, as it gained a mere 0.29% of the vote in the 2009 elections, the latest opinion polls now show that support hovers around 12% of the electorate, potentially making it Greece’s third largest party.

Greece’s geographic location on the border to Asia and at the edge of the EU has made it the main gateway for many asylum seekers and immigrants from Asia and Africa seeking protection, work and sanctuary in the EU. According to Frontex approximately 80% of people entering the EU to seek asylum come through Greece. Greece’s immigration and asylum system has been overwhelmed and underfunded even before the crisis struck. Consequently, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in January 2011 decided that Greece had violated the human rights of a refugee by detaining him under inhuman conditions and leaving him homeless, additionally, Belgium was deemed to have violated the man’s human rights by deporting him back to Greece under the Dublin II agreement. In the wake of this decision most EU countries stopped the return of asylum-seekers to Greece. According to The Dublin II agreement individuals should seek asylum in the first safe country, and that country is Greece for many people entering the EU.

In addition to significant numbers of asylum seekers, Greece has for a long time tacitly accepted irregular migration mainly from Albania. The Albanians came predominately in the wake of the Albanian Crisis in 1997 where the Albanians lost $1.2 billion in what turned out to be effectively massive financial pyramid schemes. Thus irregular migration, asylum seeking and immigration are not recent phenomenon in Greece. And neither is xenophobic violence. However, immigrants and refugees only recently appear to have become the linchpin for widespread public dissatisfaction with the mainstream political system and parties in Greece in the wake of the financial crisis and the severe economic suffering inflicted on the Greek population at large.  For many people the underlying causes of the current crisis are complicated and incomprehensible, thus looking for easy and visible scapegoats is easier, and in Greece as in most European countries immigrants and refugees remain visible minorities and easy targets. Thus the question remains whether voters genuinely support the far right messages and ideologies of these parties, or whether voting for a far right party is predominately viewed as a form of protest against the current political establishment which has failed the Greek population. Many of Golden Dawn’s supporters are disaffected young people, scared about the future of their country, pensioners who have seen their state pensions eroded almost overnight, as well as police officers.

Anti-immigration, racism and anti-Semitism (Neo-fascist ideology) are some of the main tenets of Golden Dawn’s political program. While the political leadership attempts to distance itself from the overtly violent tactics of the street gangs, the party’s black uniform carry the official emblem of the party: a swastika-looking symbol and the party’s leader, Nikos Michaloliakos is commonly greeted with Nazi-style salutes whenever he takes to the podium. However, many Greeks predominately know Golden Dawn from handing out free food parcels to Greeks in the street and other social efforts, efforts that have been met with approval in some quarters where the crisis is being felt most severely. Nevertheless, many Greeks are still disturbed by the party’s overt violence, anti-Semitism and racism and are trying to fight back. However, Into the Fire – a new documentary about the violence targeted at immigrants in Greece and the rise of Golden Dawn – shows there are suspicions that the police is colluding with the Golden Dawn supporters or at least ignoring the violence and failing to hold the perpetrators responsible.

In times of economic crisis radical ideologies carry a certain appeal for the electorate, the rise of fascism and Nazism in the interwar period in Europe springs to mind – however, extreme right wing parties and their ideologies are not limited to times of crisis as the success of far right parties in the Netherlands, Denmark, France, and Austria can attest to. The Dutch Party for Freedom, the Danish People’s Party, Front National, and the Austrian Freedom Party have all successfully campaigned during times of economic prosperity. These parties’ focus has been far more on the cultural aspects of immigration and multiculturalism, than on the economics of immigration[1]. Expressions of islamophobia and anti-immigration sentiments have become common and an integrated part of the politics in these countries as the quotes below show:

“On our poster we claim that a multi-ethnic society is synonymous with a society plagued by gang rapes, violence, insecurity, forced marriages, the oppression of women and gang violence” Kenneth Kristensen, Danish People’s Party, 2001.

”It is a case of fighting a religion [Islam] that, using an old expression by Hartvig Frisch, is a plague on Europe” Jesper Langballe Danish People’s Party, 2002.

“Islam is not a religion; it’s an ideology, the ideology of a retarded culture. I have a problem with Islamic tradition, culture, ideology. Not with Muslim people” Geert Wilders, Party for Freedom.

“When Joan D’ Arc was asked by her judges why as a Christian she did not love the British, she answered that she did love them, but she loved British in their country. In the same way, we do not hate the Turks, we love them, but in their country” Jean-Marie Le Pen, Front National.

Instead of using immigrants as economic scapegoats these parties most often use immigrants as cultural scapegoats, stoking anti-immigration and anti-minority sentiments by peddling a “clash of civilization” rhetoric, lamenting the death of national culture or framing immigrants and minorities as a threat to both national security (see 9/11) and national identity. In all of these countries they have cloaked themselves behind a “freedom of speech” discourse, while often professing to not dislike individual immigrants but only Islam, “Islamists” or terrorists. These discourses about immigrants and minorities have become increasingly legitimate, and it shows that even if the current crisis has radicalised the rhetoric and the means the extreme right is willing to use, the far right and its discourse never disappeared during the boom. Thus the relationship between economic downturns and right-wing extremism is not as straightforward as it may appear.

While the rest of Europe have watched in horror at the developments in Greece and most of Europe’s far right wing parties have been busy distancing themselves from Golden Dawn, these Western European parties can hardly be surprised that the violent rhetoric and persistent demonization of immigrants, refugees and minorities have real and often violent consequences – if you willingly stoke the fire, you cannot feign surprise when the house goes up in flames.

[1] Although Immigrants have been discussed as an economic burden for the host society and there has been calls for welfare chauvinism during the 2000s in for example the Netherlands and Denmark.

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