“The people don’t forget, they hang fascists,” goes a chant that Greeks have been hearing for decades. This year, seeing the fascists being put behind bars will suffice for most.
The slogan is born of the years of physical and mental pain inflicted by Greece’s far right on the left, dating back to the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas in 1936. Golden Dawn tapped into this vein of right-wing extremism, which was throbbing under the economic and social pressure exerted by the crisis.
Golden Dawn, though, was not serving any historical destiny or ideological cause. It was - according to the charges being brought against its leader, MPs and members – simply a collection of well-drilled criminals.
Only a few dozen supporters gathered outside police headquarters in Athens after party chief Nikos Michaloliakos and five lawmakers were arrested. The sight of MPs arguing between themselves confirmed that Golden Dawn’s facade had crumbled under pressure. Without their leader to bark instructions, the feared stormtroopers had become little boys lost. Equally, the efforts of some of the arrested party members to hide their faces from the media hinted that the shame associated with Golden Dawn is now out in the open.
The grim story of extremism doesn’t end here, though. Nobody has yet been convicted and Golden Dawn remains a parliamentary party. There is little doubt that some of its members will want revenge, in whatever form that may be. This is just one of the reasons for us not forgetting the weaknesses that supplied Golden Dawn with its lifeblood. The satisfaction of seeing our political system and institutions fulfilling their role should not allow the events that have led up to this point of possible catharsis slip from our mind.
We should not forget that for the last couple of years, and in some cases beyond that, the police and judiciary allowed Golden Dawn to operate with impunity. The broken bones, slashed faces, bruised eyes and dead bodies cannot just be put down in the collateral damage column. Each and every one is a stain on Greece’s democracy, regardless of whether incompetence or collusion were responsible for the repeated failure to clamp down on violence and abuse. Ultimately, it took the murder of a young, white Greek for the system to swing into action.
Responsibility also lies with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his New Democracy party, which chiselled out the ideological space that gave Golden Dawn a semblance of legitimacy. It should not be forgotten that in opposition, Samaras relied on doses of reckless populism to lead the anti-bailout camp, which included SYRIZA and the Communist Party. His party was responsible for introducing terms like “traitors” and “collaborators” into the language used to attack George Papandreou’s PASOK government. Those in New Democracy circles, including Samaras’ adviser Failos Kranidiotis, even mused about the need for a new “Goudi” – a reference to the 1922 military tribunal that resulted in six politicians and military men being executed for treason after Greek troops were run out of Asia Minor.
Samaras and his advisers also stoked the flames of hatred through their rhetoric on immigration. Our current satisfaction at seeing known racists and anti-Semites in custody should not cloud the fact that Samaras and his MPs often used inflammatory terms when they referred to undocumented migrants. They are the “tyrants” of society and Greeks had to “reclaim their cities,” Samaras told voters last summer at the same time that neo-Nazis were thriving in opinion polls. Earlier this year, his party blocked an anti-racism bill put forward by coalition partners PASOK and Democratic Left. Irresponsible would probably be the kindest way to describe his approach, which was greatly facilitated by a compliant media.
Responsibility does not lie solely with the prime minister and New Democracy though. Golden Dawn walked a well-trodden path when it dragged parliamentary debate into the gutter. Greece’s other parties had already contributed to the democratic arena becoming a bear pit of insults and platitudes. The acceptance of violence as part of the country’s political discourse also stems from the nonchalance displayed by the parties represented in Parliament. SYRIZA did not want to damage its links to the street, and New Democracy and PASOK could not muster the political will to draw a line.
Finally, it is for the mainstream parties and their supporters (past and present) to consider how they systematically sawed off Greek democracy’s legs, Indifference, short-term thinking, avarice, sloth and corruption were the catalysts of today’s economic, political and social crisis. They also provided a moral platform for Golden Dawn to launch its supposed “anti-systemic” message, which it used as a thin disguise for its fascist, hate-filled message. Golden Dawn MPs have argued - and will continue to do so in the days to come - that Greece’s political system, responsible for committing so many sins itself, is not fit to judge them. They will claim that Greece’s institutions did not act as efficiently when it came to investigating offences carried out by New Democracy and PASOK officials.
And, sadly, they won’t be wrong. These sentiments will resonate with many Greeks – perhaps even more than the 500,000 or so who voted for Golden Dawn in the last elections. The arrest and possible conviction of the neo-fascists won’t wash away what went on before. The possibility of a new monster rearing its head and feeding off this rotten system cannot be discounted.
Even if things go as authorities plan in the months to come and Golden Dawn MPs are locked up, Greece cannot let up in its drive to right a whole series of wrongs. The threat to democracy will not disappear so easily. After all, prison is where Michaloliakos met the leaders of the 1967-74 junta and received warped inspiration for his political activities. Adolf Hitler also found jail a useful place to crystallise his evil thoughts. We haven’t forgotten that, have we?