After the Second World War, when Europe had been laid waste for the second time in a generation, there was much soul-searching about how to prevent such a thing ever happening again. Some of it focused on the broad causes of war, and resulted in the creation of institutions that are still with us, such as the United Nations and the European Union.
But some of the thinking was more specific. People wondered, given another Hitler or another Nazi Party vying for power, how should countries respond? Was it ever legitimate to ban particular political parties or restrict the freedom to express particular political opinions? Might an attempt to outlaw certain views just make matters worse?
Germany and Austria both enacted laws designed to stop any neo-Nazi party establishing itself, although they have not prevented the emergence (respectively) of the National Democratic Party and the Freedom Party. Other democracies have generally not gone so far, and over time many of them have seen parties that could broadly be described as “fascist” become a recognised part of the political landscape: the Italian Social Movement, the British National Party, Jobbik in Hungary and the National Front in France.
But although all of these have aroused plenty of debate, none have rung alarm bells in quite the same way as Golden Dawn in Greece. In the second Greek election of 2012, Golden Dawn won 6.9% of the vote to become the sixth-largest party in parliament, with 18 seats. Subsequent opinion polls have shown its support increasing, perhaps to between 10% and 15%.
To a much greater extent than any other successful far-right party, Golden Dawn really looks like a Nazi party. Its racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric is explicit, its symbol is a sort of mangled swastika, and it has been repeatedly associated with street gangs and acts of violence. Greece’s prolonged economic crisis gave it prominence, and the murder of activist musician Pavlos Fyssas last September was believed to be instigated by the party.
Kevin Passmore, a British expert on fascism, put it this way on Al Jazeera:
I do think something is happening in Greece that is quite different to the way that the far right has risen in the rest of Europe where those kind of extreme economic conditions and extreme political polarisation haven’t really quite happened. Greece resembles the situation of the inter-war period much more than any other European country in recent times.
Greek law does not permit the banning of a political party, but the centre-right Greek government did the next best thing. Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos and several other MPs were arrested and jailed on charges of running a criminal organisation. They are still awaiting trial.
Now Golden Dawn has announced the formation of a new party, National Dawn, to serve as a substitute in case the original is somehow shut down. Spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris said that “We will participate in elections one way or another … Patriots will have a party to vote for if they go ahead with the coup to ban Golden Dawn.”
Of course, no-one will be fooled into thinking it’s anything different – nor are they really intended to be. But it’s a reminder that banning organisations involves the risk of being drawn into a prolonged cat-and-mouse game as new fronts are set up for the same basic purposes. The government’s strategy of targeting key individuals is more sensible as well as being more in tune with democratic principle.
But the key thing in fighting extremism is to make sure that everyone understands what’s at stake, and especially to ensure that the established parties are not tempted to make alliances with the extremists that give them aid and credibility. Anyone who studies the story of Hitler’s rise to power will identify that as the key point where the German political system fell down.
So far, the Greeks show no signs of making the same mistake. Golden Dawn may be the third most popular party in Greece, but the other two – the centre-right New Democracy and the leftist SYRIZA – both have consistently more than double its support. And although they are sworn opponents, there is no real doubt that they would co-operate with each other rather than let the fascists in.
That’s no reason not to be vigilant, but it’s certainly not time to panic.