In this interview with Dimitris Psarras, we discuss distinct responses to the economic and political crisis coming from Greece, a country at the fringe of the continent which seems to epitomize the problem with Europe. The rise of both the exceptional case of the Golden Dawn, an explicitly neo-Nazi party, as well as of a multitude of grassroots initiatives are commented under a historical but also topical light.
The rise of Golden Dawn in Greece
In 2015, Varoufakis was clear about the causes of the rise of Golden Dawn: “You have to understand that the rise of the Golden Dawn and the Nazi influence in Greece, while despicable and utterly regrettable, and worrying is a symptom, is a symptom of the Great Depression, that’s what happens when we have a Great Depression, Nazism rears its ugly head.” (Varoufakis, 2015, 21’34”)
The ongoing upsurge of far-right parties all over Europe is something that we are by now accustomed to hearing about in mass media but also within academia (e.g. Bosco & Verney 2012; Halikiopoulou & Vlandas, 2015) as being a result of the global financial crisis. But is it only this, ‘a symptom of Europe’s Great Depression’? And is this explanatory scheme enough in detecting the root causes of the far right’s ascent? Most importantly, are we to accept it as an inevitable societal drift? Among other effects of the crisis, are we to mention only this?
These are some of the questions to be explored by taking Greece as a case signifying and accentuating the problem with Europe, in my discussions with two key intellectuals from Athens and Thessaloniki -– Greece’s second biggest city. In this interview, my interlocutor is Dimitris Psarras.
Psarras is an investigative journalist and author of, among others, "The Black Book of Golden Dawn", published in October 2012. It offers a comprehensive summary of the years of research he conducted on the history and activities of Greece's extreme-right political party. I met him at the start of a two-month ethnographic fieldwork period I undertook for my thesis research in Athens and Thessaloniki. His was the first out of 13 interviews with members of numerous self-organization initiatives, such as the cooperatively produced daily newspaper ‘Efimerida ton Syntakton’ (Newspaper of Editors) where Dimitris currently publishes. It is in the offices of this independent paper, born in 2012 from the ashes of one of the early victims of Greece’s economic crisis, the left-liberal paper ‘Eleftherotypia’ (Freedom of the Press), that we discussed both Golden Dawn and the grassroots initiatives flourishing in Greek society since 2008.
Could you give us a topical commentary of the Golden Dawn phenomenon within Greek society following the crisis?
First of all, my opinion is that Golden Dawn is not a phenomenon of the crisis, it much predates it. Not only because it has existed as an organization since 1980, but because it began to acquire more mass characteristics already in 2010 when Michaloliakos (the party leader) was elected as alderman in Athens. Golden Dawn managed to obtain about 5% of the votes in the municipality of Athens. Since the moment in autumn 2013 when prosecutions were lodged and the first Golden Dawn leadership members were arrested, what has changed is the dramatic decline in racist assaults, assaults against immigrants or against different people. This immediately points in favour of the fact that attacks which we did not attribute to Golden Dawn, because they occurred at night without anyone claiming responsibility for them and without visible perpetrators, and because usually victims were vulnerable they did not even address themselves to the authorities, indirectly this is an indication, not a proof, that the organization was responsible to a large extent for these assaults.
What is curious about Golden Dawn, and this is why we are so involved with it, is that it takes the form of a party. Far-right, racist and nationalist parties and movements exist and are notably larger in many European countries. However, what is probably the original and distinct (trait) of Golden Dawn compared to its European counterparts is that it is the only one combining the party structure with criminal activity. Usually organizations that undertake criminal activity are on the fringes of normal parties, but here they have a common leadership. At least in my opinion, the leadership of the party and of the criminal organization are one. This is why it is so hard to counter this phenomenon, because at the same time that there is an ongoing trial, with all of the leadership of Golden Dawn accused -since then, since 2013- at the same time the same leadership is in Parliament, functions as a normal party. The sole exception is that its funding has been suspended via a law, it does not receive state funding.
When did this happen?
This happened then, after the arrests, which means November 2013, because then they were all in jail, it would have also been irrational. However, it has been suspended, which means that this law, if the leadership of Golden Dawn is exempted by the Court, they will be retroactively refunded this money.
If one has an idea about the European landscape, what I usually say as an example is that Golden Dawn is simultaneously, if we are in Germany, both Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD) and Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (NSU) - a terrorist organization, it is strange. Of course we do know in Germany too that two members of the NPD had a direct relationship to the NSU and are also involved in the trial that is currently taking place. However, in Greece there is this story with the party. The Greek constitution did not predict the prohibition of a party. There is an awkwardness of the political system vis-a-vis Golden Dawn. Hence we also have a delay, the trial is still taking time...personally, my estimation is that I will testify around the end of the year (2017), because the witnesses for the criminal organization are in alphabetical order and I am at ‘Y’, so I am last.
They haven’t created a movement just as we see in other European countries, precisely because it is so extreme as an organization.
Now, where are we on a level of substance? The truth is that following an upward turn, in terms of voters the Golden Dawn had gained, at the moment it has stabilized. In reality it receives the same percentage as any extreme right party would, namely ‘Laos’ (Popular Orthodox Rally) led by Karatzaferis, before GD had achieved 7%. Now these may exceed 7% and reach 8%, it just seems that they attract people from the old (extreme right). Which means they haven’t created a movement just as we see in other European countries, precisely because it is so extreme as an organization. It is so extreme that the rest of the nationalist, Eurosceptic extreme right of Europe wants nothing to do with Golden Dawn.
Marine Le Pen, for instance, has also made a statement to our newspaper that her party (Le Front National) emphatically stays away from those ‘types’. And although two of these types have been elected to the European Parliament, they are not part of the political groupings, they have remained outside. Just those two and the German NPD representative, Uto Voigt, are outside. So what I’m saying is that their appeal seems to have somewhat stabilized. It is interesting that whereas in the beginning, in 2012 when they made a great leap with the increase of their resonance, they did really well in places where there were problems with immigrants. Let’s say, in the center of Athens for instance, they had an impressive increase.
After 2014 when we had European elections and municipal elections, they went well but in the center of Athens or in places where they had had a large increase, they decreased. They won in places where the extreme right traditionally existed, with supporters of the Greek military junta (7 year dictatorship), the King and so on and so forth, such as in the southern Peloponnese, in Corinth and some regions of Macedonia. Which means that in the places where traditionally the extreme right would get voters they did too.
And in Athens they remain rather small. A first reading of this fact is that from the moment they stopped having this extreme-right activism, with the so-called ‘raid guilds’, meaning the attacks , they could not inspire some young voters, skinheads, hooligans, etc. So again they rely on their traditional audience of the extreme right. This also has some importance for the potential of transformation of Golden Dawn. Namely, around this point there are various cases where people that surround GD -not in its leadership- that want to exploit this trend, seeing its dynamic in the respective trend in the rest of Europe or the world, now with Trump etc. They could change or transform GD into something milder but with a larger resonance. But in my view the current leadership of Golden Dawn will not go there, as it consists of fanatical Nazis who have learned to do this thing and have no reason to leave it. After decades of being at zero it has now yielded (results) and brought them to the surface. So I don’t believe that Michaloliakos (Golden Dawn leader) could become Karatzaferis (Laos’ leader, see above)..
We mentioned that as a parallel development, your newspaper being case in point, the emergence of a wide array of grassroots initiatives in response to the crisis, possibly coming together under the umbrella of ‘alternatives’. As part of one such initiative, during my time as an undergraduate in Athens, I witnessed one of the most active members pronounce views leaning very much towards Golden dawn discourse. What do you think could account for such incidents?
My personal view is the following: there is an ideological underbed in Greek society which has been shaped since the 90’s. This was a period of nationalist hysteria around the issue of naming ‘Macedonia’ (FYROM), it was the time when some immigrants from the northern borders first came in. First were Albanians, and we had foreign workers in Greece. Notably under those conditions -the known ones- a big discussion started to happen around foreigner’s criminality.
It was also during the same period that we first obtained private electronic media - television and radio. All of these coincided and created a transformation in Greek society. If you look at the Eurobarometer studies between 1990-1993, in 1990 Greece is the most tolerant country towards foreigners and immigrants in the EU...in 1993 it becomes the most intolerant. Within 3 years, right. This course continues until 1996 and its deviation from the European average becomes tragic.
Living in Greece, back then, because no extreme-right political tide existed to express this thing, one could see racism, intolerance and nationalism being expressed by mainstream media, not by ’Stochos’ (Target), ‘Xrysiaygi’ (GoldenDawn) [the party’s fringe newspapers]. It’s no coincidence that Golden Dawn makes its first public appearance in December 1992, in Athens, in a protest with others. Until then it did its own activism, it went ahead and beat someone, did this or that. They took part in the large rally in Athens in December 1992 about the Macedonian issue. There was a Golden Dawn block for the first time. After that they went on to beat a squat of anti-authoritarians (nearby).
So what I mean to say is that this has existed since then, and is an underground current in Greek society that hasn’t been overcome. Actually, when 10 years later, in 2000, under the Simitis government, an effort was made. We were then in sight of the Euro, the EU, the Olympic games etc. An effort was made towardsthe purported ‘’modernization’’ of Greek society. This modernization was perhaps financial, but was not accompanied by a social modernization, a ‘Europeanization’, I would say, of some things.
And all these had a common denominator which exceeded the separation between the right and the left. That was the denominator of conspiracy theories
On the contrary, it was during this period that the famous ‘battle of identities’ occurred. In 2000 the government simply wanted to remove religious affiliation from identity cards. The revolution of the Church happened, and they (GD) were back in the streets. 2 million signatures were gathered so that this wouldn’t change. So, all of these things (already) existed, it was not Golden Dawn who created them, nor the crisis.
And all these had a common denominator which exceeded the separation between the right and the left. That was the denominator of conspiracy theories. This is my second book, on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It is about the role of conspiracy theories in shaping current political ideology in Greece, and why anti-Semitism in Greece continues to be so solid. It has not been replaced, as in most European countries, by anti-Islamism. I mean of course there is anti-Islamism but it hasn’t been substituted for anti-Semitism […] Of course, I also consider the special role of the Church. It is one of the pillars of the Greek deep state, to the point that even pagan GD members have been obliged to compromise with the Church and appear orthodox.
So what I am saying is that there are some elements of conspiracy theories which are considered obvious. Of course during the crisis all were looking for a scapegoat. So it is the easiest explanation of ‘how did we suddenly end up like this, we who are the leaders of the entire world, and the best race , the most intelligent, we’ve become universal laughing stock...someone must be at fault, it can’t be us’ and that is expressed everywhere, not only in lower class, uneducated people, it traverses even the most cultured. […]
It is anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories that have led to Golden Dawn, not the other way round
As a whole -not as individuals- as a contemporary political culture we’ve accepted this thing, by force so as to be able to survive, as happens in these cases, like the phenomenon of ‘metathesis’ (transfer) to someone. This is very important for me and it exists everywhere, not only politically in the left and right but also in all educational levels. And what is important is that this leads to the extreme right. I mean from the moment that this is prevalent...it is anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories that have led to Golden Dawn, not the other way round. They are taken for granted, they are familiar when voiced. We may consider that the way they are expressed (by GD) is more exaggerated, extreme and more violent that the way others express it but what GD members say is not foreign to our ears. From that “we are the ‘chosen’ people, the most intelligent …” up to that “we are the kindest, the ones in most solidarity with refugees…" It is all of that.
Coming back now to the space of the 'alternatives', would you say it is currently recognized in public opinion?
I think that by now it is very much recognized, surely it is recognized, because it is quite wide, quite massive by now, it is not restricted. However, in my view, and although it has fairly common characteristics...It may not be organized with some vertical hierarchy, but precisely because it has been created at a specific conjunction, there may be groups or individuals or movements coming from heterogeneous situations. But this activity is an activity that was created during the period of the crisis, I mean the particular activity. So this somehow unifies the space.
This movement and those initiatives haven't been able to enter into the real economy.
The thing is that for us [‘Efimerida ton Sintakton’, a cooperatively produced newspaper], because this matter also concerns us as a newspaper and we have somehow tried it, we are somehow fighting for it...It hasn’t been able to, this movement and those initiatives, enter into the real economy. It is , again, forms of social activity or forms of superstructure, although we have the crisis.
So I want to say that no real culture has been created apart from the domain of solidarity. However it is like a side project. It is not the social organisation itself, the social organisation hasn’t changed. And for this reason oftentimes it starts off as a solidarity movement and it ends up a philanthropy movement. Even on the movement’s side, necessarily so, since no structures have been created. At the moment while there are plenty of people talking about the refugees, there is no movement that says something should be done with the empty houses, the millions of apartments empty and rotting with no value anymore, so that is something very simple that could be done, if there were a real movement.
How would you comment on a growing discursive overlap and thus potential kinship that can be observed between Greek grassroots alternatives and Golden Dawn?
Its alternativeness is that the structure that is worthwhile is the structure of the race of blood, this is the trait around which they insist they need to be organized.
The only thing I know well is that the core of Golden Dawn is a special thing, and I insist on that because this core has for many many years been exactly the same. Formany many years it has reproduced and developed its own internal code that is based on the study of the writings of national socialism. As such it is not a thing of today’s predicament and one can see a totally different approach. Which may also be called ‘alternative’ in some way, because there is the approach to nature that is different.But the story of blood comes first much more often, namely the racial aspect, and this is why I say Golden Dawn is a special case.
They, just as in traditional national socialism, are against the logic of the state structure. Its alternativeness is that the worthwhile structure, that may be called fatherland, nation, Greece, whatever, in reality, is the structure of the race of blood. This is the trait around which they insist on being organized. And of course, they do have some aspects of egalitarianism within the framework of the race, namely that in this framework all must be protected, there shouldn’t be sections which exclude even from the matter of subsistence the racial kin. Or that out-of-borders racial kin must co-preserve themselves and all those things. So, only in this way, in this framework indeed you see that they do not adopt the predominant capitalist logic.
- They are “antisystemic”
They are ‘antisystemic’, ‘anticapitalists’ in this sense. So you can see... this is the point where they fantasize they are the new Spartiates. It looks like a military society, namely a society of equal soldiers but [laughing] with a General on top. But whom in the framework of the race may suffice with the minimum so that all the race or army has that minimum. So in this respect one may see some kinship –with the alternatives, as they may see kinships with ecclesiastic forms as we mentioned
Thank you Dimitris.
 Psarras, D. (2013). The bestseller of hate. The protocols of the elders of Zion in Greece. 1920–2013. Athens:Polis. [In Greek]
Bosco, A. & Verney, S. (2012) Electoral epidemic: the political cost of economic crisis in Southern Europe, 2010 –11, South European Society and Politics, 17(2), p. 129–154.
Halikiopoulou, D. & Vlandas, T. (2015). The Rise of the Far Right in Debtor and Creditor European Countries: The Case of European Parliament Elections. The Political Quarterly, 86 (2). p. 279-288.
Novara Media (Producer). (2015, October 23). Interview: Yanis Varoufakis [Video file].
Psarras, D. (2012). The black book of Golden Dawn. Documents from the history and practice of a national-socialist group. Athens: Polis. [In Greek]