I had never seen a neo-Nazi before. On a cloudless Sunday morning in January, the day of the Greek elections, I was making my way through people holding cups of coffee and pushing strollers in a polling station.
Amidst my neighbors, I spotted a solitary young man in black trousers, shirt, and jacket. Standing apart from the crowd, he appeared like someone going to an art-exhibit.
He looked at me as if he wanted something. Did he know me, I wondered? Did he want to give me a political leaflet? Getting closer, I saw that he was checking lists on a clipboard while speaking into his hands-free device. And then I recoiled at the sight of a Golden Dawn pin on his lapel, the Greek key design resembling a swastika.
So this is the face of Golden Dawn, I thought, the neo-Nazi party that placed third after Syriza and New Democracy. He stood as a symbol of a Europe becoming anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-Islamic.
The worrisome and remarkable rise of Golden Dawn is directly related to the depression economics that Greeks have experienced for the last five years, the worst in Europe and unprecedented in peacetime. And many people fear that the ongoing austerity policies imposed on Greece by its European creditors will push more people towards this party whose leaders are in jail awaiting trial.
Greece’s finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, warned in an interview with Charlie Hebdo that only fascists and racists would profit from the squeeze Greece’s creditors are placing on his government.
Many people in Greece have expressed this same fear to me. If Syriza, the first prominent left-wing party to come to power in Europe since the economic crisis began, fails in its attempt to reboot the Greek economy, it would only lead to the expansion of Golden Dawn.
Yet Europe’s leaders, the neoliberal governments of northern Europe, seem not to be concerned with the tide towards fascism in Greece and in their own countries. On the contrary, fearing the election of a left-wing government, they may be unintentionally encouraging the spread of fascism.
Syriza came into power in January on the promise to relieve the crippling austerity forced upon previous Greek governments in exchange for European loans. Within a month of its election, the government of Alexis Tsipras sought to renegotiate the terms of the loans that had created a humanitarian crisis
Unfortunately, the untried members of the new government made mistakes in their initial dealing with their European partners, talking tough as if still running for office. In their inexperience, they never reckoned with the implacable and ruthless drive of the neoliberal European countries, headed by Germany.
Indeed, Germany’s Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, was unyielding in his negotiations with Yanis Varoufakis, demanding that Greece abide with the original agreements, commitments that have destroyed the Greek economy and that have made it almost impossible for Greece to repay its loans.
Day by day Schäuble forced Varoufakis and Tsipras to yield more of their positions. Faced with the near collapse of the Greek banking system, as Greeks, fearing an exit from the Euro, were transferring a billion Euros a day into European banks, the Greek government caved in completely.
A jubilant Schäuble expressed the North’s schadenfreude: “The Greeks will certainly have a difficult time explaining this deal to their voters,” he said with a sardonic smile. Not only did he give voice to the rightwing orthodoxy in the European Union, he also wanted to humiliate the Greeks. Indeed, he rubbed it in by saying that “Being in government is a date with reality, and reality is often not as nice as a dream.”
He and others spoke of the responsibilities of the borrower without mentioning the responsibilities of the lender. If previous Greek governments were negligent in borrowing huge sums of money, so were the Europeans banks in lending it to them. Should these banks not assume some risk for their own greed?
Schäuble did not mention that the loan agreements arranged by the Eurogroup to Greece were meant to save European banks and not Greece itself. Nor did the member of his own party refer to this when in the Bundestag he asked his colleagues if they would buy a used car from Tsipras and Varoufakis. Ordinary Greeks have not received any benefits from these loans and only have suffered the consequences.
Rather than addressing the humanitarian crisis, Schauble and his partners thwarted the plans of the Tsipras government to boost the economy by raising the minimum wage and some pensions. And they celebrated the degrading collapse of the Greek position.
Schauble’s jubilation and his no-prisoners attitude was sorrowful to watch, like Germany’s 7-1 thrashing of Brazil in the World Cup. You could not help but be in awe of Germany’s ascendance, its hegemonic role in Europe unquestioned.
In reality it was not just Schauble. He represented the public face of European animosity at the election of a radical left-wing government within its borders. While the Germans, Finns, and Dutch have led the campaign of austerity, even those governments that have suffered from these measures, like the Portuguese, Spanish, and Irish, along with the Baltic States, don’t really want Syriza to succeed. It is in the interest of these governments for Syriza not only to fail but also to fail in a spectacular and dishonoring way.
This is so because to admit a progressive government in Europe is tantamount to questioning the dominant right wing orthodoxy. This is the real threat of the Tsipras government. It points to what may be happening elsewhere such as the possible election of a similar government in Spain. Podemos, Spain’s anti-austerity party, may be leading in the polls, a possible victory that would again shake the European order. This is why the very existence of the Tsipras government causes anxiety in the halls of Brussels and Frankfurt.
There are historical precedents for this. In the late eighteen-century revolutionary stirrings against the reactionary regimes in Europe and against the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires brought fears of disorder and chaos among the rulers.
Indeed, European powers were disheartened by the Greek attempt to rebel against Ottoman authority. While ordinary people were swept up by a Phillhellenic spirit and wanted the Greeks to win in their struggle, their governments were initially hostile to the Greek War of Independence in 1821.
Ultimately, France, and Russia joined in the efforts and helped to defeat the Ottoman forces only so as to control the Greek revolution. To this end, once Greece gained its independence, these powers imposed on the Greek state a “hereditary monarch” — Prince Otto, the second son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria.
Greece was a quasi-colony then as it is a debtor colony now. And this realization — the humiliating terms of the austerity as well as the ensuing humanitarian catastrophe — is pushing people into the arms of a fascist, antidemocratic party like Golden Dawn.
Sadly, Herr Schäuble, the possibility of a Golden Dawn victory in the future is not a dream.