Who’s afraid of Greece’s Nazis?

When we looked a fortnight ago at the performance of the far right in the European parliament elections, one of the messages was that “far right” is not a uniform category. But if you’re interested in the neo-Nazi end of the spectrum, you shouldn’t miss a piece from the Observer last weekend about Greece’s extreme right party, Golden Dawn.

Helena Smith vividly describes the conduct of Golden Dawn last week in parliament:

And as they ran roughshod through the house of democracy, hurling abuse at other MPs in an unprecedented display of violence and vulgarity, there was no mistaking what Golden Dawn is: a party of neo-Nazi creed determined to overturn the democratic order. For, far from being contrite, the handcuffed [party leader Nikos] Michaloliakos was in unusually aggressive mood, giving Nazi salutes, telling the house speaker to “shut up”, and instructing guards to take their hands off him.

Outside, black-shirted Golden Dawn supporters, lined up in military formation in Syntagma Square, gave a hearty rendition of the Nazi Horst Wessel song – albeit with Greek lyrics.

But I confess to having mixed feelings about articles like this. On the one hand, a call for vigilance is welcome. The fascist threat, of which Golden Dawn is probably the most explicit manifestation, is something we need to be informed about. We know where this sort of thing can lead, so it’s important for readers to understand what’s at stake.

On the other hand, it’s easy to succumb to a sort of panic that the facts don’t really justify. When I last wrote about Golden Dawn, back in February, I mentioned opinion polls that showed “its support increasing, perhaps to between 10% and 15%.” But in the EU elections it managed only 9.4%: worrying, but hardly a major advance on the 7.0% and 6.9% it got in the two Greek elections of 2012.

Current domestic polling has it, if anything, lower still – not surprising, since, as Britain and France demonstrated, EU elections are an especially happy hunting ground for the far right.

Moreover, it’s important to look at the whole political context, not just the absolute number of fascist voters. While Golden Dawn is (narrowly) the third largest party, the first two – the governing centre-right New Democracy and the radical left SYRIZA – are both well ahead, garnering 50% or more of the vote between them.

New Democracy and SYRIZA disagree about EU-imposed austerity measures and much else besides. But there seems not the slightest chance that either would collaborate with Golden Dawn against the other. It is clear that, if it ever became necessary, they would overcome their differences and co-operate to deny power to the far right.

Compare, for example, the 1930 German election that first showed the Nazis to be a serious political force. They won 18.3% of the vote; the Conservatives, who shared their anti-democratic attitude, had another 7.0%, while the Communists, who were equally set on making democracy unworkable from the other side, were on 13.1%. The democratic parties, divided among themselves, could only cobble together a bare majority between them.

Greece is a long way from that sort of position. The criminal proceedings against Golden Dawn’s leaders strike me as an entirely appropriate way of dealing with the existing threat – more so than an attempt to ban the party outright, which would presumably just result in it resurfacing under another name.

Sound the alarm, by all means, but don’t give up on democracy just yet.

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