I wrote this article in Spanish the past April. Unfortunately last months’ developments in Greece have done nothing but to confirm the worrying trends I prognosticated. These facts have pushed me to translate the article into English.
Neo-nazi party Golden Dawn won 7 % of the votes in May elections and 6,9% in the ones of June, earning 18 seats in the 300 MP Greek Parliament. The party and its gangs feel confident enough to carry attacks in broad light and even to usurp the task of the Police force as the recent events in the port-town of Rafina showed. They also threatened foreign shops owners in Athens to leave or seen their shops burnt, and some –in an event probably linked to Golden Dawn sympathizers- have done it: two white men set on fire a Pakistani-owned hairdresser’s in downtown Athens and stabbed another Greek who tried to help the migrant. In addition, Golden Dawn has threaten a Greek journalist and also beaten a leftist MP woman in a live programme on TV.
The UN and different human rights associations have sounded the alarms on the human rights abuses in Greece. But despite that, the attraction for Golden Dawn has not stop to rise. According to three different polls in September, Golden Dawn would increase their vote share and, according to one of them, could rise over the 10 %, becoming the third biggest party in Greece.
On Saturday [April, 7th], I had lunch with my Greek colleague Yannis Chryssovergis and we chatted about the continuing deterioration of the political and social situation of Greece. Yannis made a somewhat scary thought, not only because of the consequences that would derivate from it, but above all, because given the situation—which a few years ago would have seemed impossible even in the most ominous nightmares—looks now quite plausible.
Yannis told me that some days before he spoke with a teacher friend who told him the situation reminded him “the years before the 1967 coup”. Yannis disagreed, because at that time the demonstrations and public unrest had some specific political demands. However, now, mass unrest and protests seem not to be accompanied by any clear objective. “I find it more similar to the situation of the Weimar Republic”, Yannis told me.
-With less intellectuals and artists than then … -I replied, as the Weimar period was one of the most fruitful of the 20th century for German and European culture.
-Indeed, with less intellectual life. The problem is that all Weimar Republic concludes with a Hitler.
It is true that this type of analysis can be a bit alarmist and that History never repeats itself in the same way. The biggest problem, however, is that many of the conditions that led to the advent of Far-Right or Fascist regimes in 1920-1930’s Europe are materializing now in Greece.
-Economic depression. The economic crisis in Greece is on track to become a full-blown depression. The country is in its fifth consecutive year of recession, something that no European country has seen in the last 65 years, except in wartime. The unemployment rate now exceeds 20% (50% for youths) [24,4 % and 55 % according to last data received this September] and one third of stores in Athens and Thessaloniki have closed in the past two years. The middle class has been proletarianized because of wage cuts, accompanied by a rise in prices. In the past two years, most of the Greeks have lost about half of their purchasing power. Social services and the Welfare State –which were created in Europe precisely after the Great Depression of the 1930s and became popular after World War II to prevent the social and political disasters that lead to fascism and war– are being reduced or eliminated by the request of Greece’s international creditors.
-The perception of a national humiliation that comes from abroad. The intervention of the Greek economy by the so-called troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and Internationally Monetary Fund) has reduced its sovereignty to levels not seen since the German occupation during World War II. This loss of sovereignty has raised the rejection of foreign intervention among an already nationalistic Greek population.
-An imploding political system. Powerful patronage networks have worked in Greece nearly since its foundation as a modern state, forming the backbone of much of the economy. These nets have favoured the richest businessmen in contact with one or more of the sides, the small entrepreneurs, and even some workers, who were favoured with jobs in the Administration by their support / affiliation to one party or the other. Since the return of democracy in 1974, the conservative New Democracy (ND) and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) have managed the patronage system and kept great social support (in total, they used to receive between 70 and 80 % of the votes). [but in May elections they gained together only 32 % of the votes, and in June they increased to 41 %] These two major parties have been discredited by their crucial role in corruption, leading to the implossion of the political system.
-Danger or perceived danger of subversion. In recent years there has been a large social protest movement of large proportion against the government and the troika. The main trade unions have carried out twenty-two 24-hour general strikes and three 48-hour general strikes from 2008 to 2012. The number of smaller strikes is countless, and only in Athens there is an average of 3 demonstrations per day (according to Athens Municipality data). In addition there have been several experiments of workplaces taken and self-managed by their workers, from hospitals to media outlets and agricultural products distribution. The leftist parties against the measures required by the EU and IMF (i.e., all leftist parties excluding PASOK) could reach between the 40 and 50% of the vote in the next election. Of these votes, about a third would go to parties which publicly demand radical transformation of the existing order. [Finally in May and June elections, those parties –Radical leftist SYRIZA, Communist Party, DIMAR, Anticapitalist Left and other minor parties– got between 37 and 40 % of the votes]
-Extreme right squadrismo. The squadrismo (as was practiced by the Italian Black Shirts, the German SA or Hungarian Arrow Cross in the interwar period and by the various right-wing groups in Italy, Turkey, Greece and other European and Latin American countries in the 1970s) has reappeared in modern Greece and is taking a worrying dimension. These violent groups linked to the Far Right have attacked both leftists and immigrants, blaming foreign minorities of all the ills of Greece.
Support for these far-right formations, whose only program is racial hatred and the old bourgeois slogan “Law and Order”, is growing by leaps and bounds in recent years (Golden Dawn garnered more than 20% of the vote in some districts of Athens during the 2010 municipal elections). The worst part is that few of its racist attacks are prosecuted and that in many cases the police turns a blind eye (some victims and various Greek media even talk about collaboration between the far right and the security forces). The fact is that some members of Golden Dawn, such as the leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos—who was convicted under charge of terrorism during the so-called Strategy of Tension in the 1970s—are not mindless people coming out of nowhere. In several cases they have or have had ties to the military and to members of the Regime of the Colonels (1967-1974).
This trend is accompanied by a growing racism and populist measures by the Government to prevent the far right to have a monopoly on the issue of immigration: for instance, in decreeing the possibility to detain and deport immigrants for reasons of “public health” or arresting suspects by the colour of their skin. [Examples of polemic mass arrest have grown incredibly since last April even despite human rights groups and UNHCR have complained about them]
It is always beneficial to reread History to avoid repeating past mistakes. To review how and in which conditions fascism rose in Europe, I used Eric Hobsbawm’s “Age of Extrems: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991” (Ed. Crítica) [Mind that I used the Spanish version so there can be some mistakes in the translation, which I apologise for], written in 1995 when the current economic crisis was not yet glimpsed. The similarities are certainly disturbing [bold is mine].
‘The basis of the prosperity of the 1920’s was not firm. (…) As so often happens in free market economies during times of prosperity, as wages stagnated profits rose disproportionately and the richest sector of the population was the most favoured. But not having a balance between demand and productivity of the industrial system, rapidly increasing in those days, the result was overproduction and speculation (…) Banks, already affected by the real estate speculative euphoria, with the usual contribution of naive optimists and the legion of unscrupulous traders, had reached its zenith a few years before the big crash, and overwhelmed by bad debts, refused to grant new loans and refinance the existing ones (…) In 1933 nearly half of mortgage loans in the United States were in arrears and every day a thousand holders would lost their properties by that cause’ (p. 107-108)
‘Neither seemed to do nothing to improve the situation the economists who claimed that it was necessary to let the economy run its course and the governments whose first instinct, besides protecting the gold standard through deflationary policies, led them to apply financial orthodoxy, balance budgets and reduce costs. (…) For those of us who lived the years of the Great Depression it is still incomprehensible that the free market orthodoxy, so obviously discredited, once again has been chairing a general period of depression in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when it was equally incapable of providing solutions. This strange phenomenon should serve to remind us of the great historical fact that illustrates: the incredible lack of memory of the theoreticians and actors of the economy.’ (p.110)
‘In the worst moments of the crisis (1932-1933), unemployment rates were in the 22 to 23% in Britain and Belgium, 24% in Sweden, 27% in the U.S., 29% in Austria, 31% in Norway, 32% in Denmark and not less than 44% in Germany. Moreover, the recovery that began after 1933 did not allow to reduce the average unemployment rate during the 1930s below 16-17% in Britain and Sweden, and 20% in the rest of Scandinavia, Austria and the United States.’ (p. 99-100)
‘In the mid-thirties there were few states where politics had not changed substantially from the period before the Great Depression. In Japan and in Europe there was a sharp turn to the right (…). The dramatic decline of the revolutionary left helped to strengthen the radical right, at least during the most difficult years of the Depression’ (p.111)
‘All these forces (of the far right) tended to favour the army and the police, or other bodies able to exercise physical coercion, because they represented the most immediate defence against subversion. In many places their support was crucial for the right to come to power. All these forces tended to be nationalists (…) because waving a national flag was a way to gain legitimacy and popularity’ (p.120)
‘That kind of non-traditional movements of the radical right had arisen in several European countries in the late nineteenth century as a reaction against liberalism and rising socialist workers movements and, more generally, against the tide of foreigners who moved from one to the other side of the planet in the greatest migratory movement that history had recorded until then. (…) The late nineteenth century anticipated what would happen in the late twentieth century and started xenophobia, of which racism became the common expression’ (p. 125)
‘The middle and lower middle class were the backbone of these movements throughout the duration of fascism. (…) In general, the attraction of the radical right was greater the stronger the threat, real or feared, hung over the position of a group of the middle class, as the framework that was supposed to had to keep in place the social order was disrupting’ (p. 128-129)
‘Rightist reaction was not a response to Bolshevism as such, but to all the movements, especially those of the organized working class, which threatened the existing order of society (…) The blood-curdling thing for the conservatives was the implicit threat of the working class strengthening their power’ (p. 131-132)
‘Fascism had some important advantages for the capital that no other regimes had. First, it removed or defeated leftist social revolution and appeared to become the main bulwark against it. Second, it abolished labour unions and other elements that limited the rights of the employer in relation to the workforce. (…) While in the United States the 5% of the population with the highest consumption power reduced by 20% its share in national income between 1929 and 1941, in Germany that 5% of the highest income increased by 15 % its share of national income over the same period’ (p. 135)
‘What gave them (the fascist parties) the opportunity to succeed after WWI was the sinking of the old regimes and, with them, the old ruling classes and their machinery of power, influence and hegemony’ ( p 132).
‘The optimum conditions for the success of this extreme right were a decrepit state whose governance mechanisms will not work properly, a mass of disenchanted and disgruntled citizens who did not know whom to trust, a strong socialist movements involving potential threats of social revolution, but not in a position to make this move, and a nationalist resentment against the peace treaties of 1918-1920’ (p.133)
‘The main reason for the collapse of the Weimar Republic was that the Great Depression made it impossible to maintain the tacit agreement between the State, the employers and the organized labour, which had kept it afloat. The industry and the government felt they had no choice but to impose economic and social cuts, and widespread unemployment did the rest. By mid-1932 the National Socialists and the Communists won an absolute majority of the German votes and the parties committed to the Republic were reduced to little more than a third. (…) Where governments can redistribute enough and where the majority of citizens enjoy a rising standard of living, the democratic political temperature usually does not climb’ (p. 143)
‘Without any doubt, it was the Great Depression that transformed Hitler from a marginal political phenomenon to the possible, and then real, ruler of Germany’ (p.136)