The Folly of Banning Greece’s Neo-Nazi Party

The Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party is violent and extremist, says Jamie Kirchick. But banning them won’t destroy their toxic ideology.

Last June, an incident on Greek television revealed a disturbingly prescient commentary on Golden Dawn, the far-right political party whose rise over the past two years has shocked Europe. Ilias Kasidiaris, a young party member and parliamentarian, was sitting alongside two female politicians on a political chat show. When Rena Dorou, a member of the upstart radical Syriza party, challenged him over his alleged role in an assault on a university professor, Kasidiaris dumped his glass of water over her head. Outraged, Communist Party member Liana Kanelli stood up in protest to reprimand him, leading Kasidiaris—chivalrous young fascist that he is—to slap the 58-year-old woman hard across the head three times.

The assault by Kasidiaris—whose other great claim to fame was his denial of the Holocaust during a June parliamentary debate—comes immediately to mind in light of the news that Greek authorities have belatedly decided to crack down on Golden Dawn, a neo-fascist movement that has existed, in one form or another, for over thirty years and whose political platform can roughly be ascertained by a mere glance at its logo (One of the party’s foundational texts claims that Adolf Hitler, who invaded and occupied Greece, was a “visionary of new Europe,” a description that, though factually true, Golden Dawn meant as an accolade). Last Saturday, Greek police arrested 35 people affiliated with Golden Dawn, including Kasidiaris and founder and leader Nikos Michaloliakos, following the high-profile murder of an anti-fascist rapper by a party member in September. “This government is determined not to allow the heirs of the Nazis to poison our social life, to commit crimes, to terrorize and to undermine the foundations of the country that gave birth to democracy,” Prime Minister Antonis Samaras proclaimed following the murder. He has since promised to “eradicate” the group. Because banning political movements is illegal in Greece, the government has opted to pursue a series of 31 charges against the party that collectively cast it as a criminal organization, thereby depriving it of financing and imprisoning its leaders.

Last week’s arrests are apparently the result of a long, yet fitful, government investigation. For years, Golden Dawn has been known for its noisy protests against immigrants, rhetoric that has often incited its black uniform-clad, torch light-parading hooligans to commit violence against refugees. Last year, the Greek Ombudsman’s office recorded 253 racial attacks, many perpetrated by active members of the party, and the vast majority of them committed after Golden Dawn entered parliament with 7% of the vote. Golden Dawn members, who routinely patrol public streets armed with batons to intimidate and in some cases beat anyone who looks foreign, have allegedly received clandestine, paramilitary training. A report from the public prosecutor’s office concludes that “Violence was for the members of Golden Dawn the message and not the means of attaining whatever it was they were pursuing.”

The Greek government should, of course, prosecute anyone who has violated the law. But there are signs that its campaign against the group, so late in coming, may be undermined by overzealousness. On Thursday, in a move that some see as a blow to the government’s case, three senior members of the party—including Kasidiaris—were released from custody. And Golden Dawn is claiming that the evidence against it was gleaned from illegal wiretaps.

But it is not merely alleged technical mishaps that may undermine Athens’ attempt to eliminate the party, but also a fundamental European misconception about the ability of governments to “eradicate,” in Samaris’ chilling words, those political viewpoints which mainstream society deems unacceptable. While most European countries each have a distinct fascist legacy, the latter day popularity of Golden Dawn, as with the equally repulsive Jobbik Party in Hungary, owes itself largely to the financial crisis. For some angry at the austerity measures imposed upon Greece by its European partners, the simple answer provided by Golden Dawn—that the country’s problems are the fault of immigrants, foreign bankers, and political leaders who are nothing more than “employees of the international loan sharks”—is appealing. Combating the fascist impulses of Greeks—indeed, of any European populace beset by economic uncertainty and a diversifying population—calls for a deeper and more long-term effort than the banning of a political party. And it begins with acknowledging that this particular problem does not have a “solution,” in the sense that a solution implies “eradicating” fascist sympathies altogether. “They cut the head of Golden Dawn,” 21-year-old supporter Artemis Sarafoglou told the New York Times. “But this may be like the Hydra, where something new can grow in its place.” Dismantling a political party under the premise that it is really nothing more than a mafia, and throwing its leaders in jail, will no more “eradicate” fascist attitudes as does banning Mein Kampf.

Indeed, the Greek government’s attempt to shut down Golden Dawn bears more than a passing resemblance to the ongoing effort by Germany to ban the National Democratic Party (NPD), the closest thing that country has to a neo-Nazi party (explicit Nazism is illegal under the German constitution). The last time the German federal government attempted to ban the party, the country’s highest court threw out the case after discovering that a significant number of the NPD’s inner circle were government informants—to the point where it was unclear where the party’s activities ended and the government’s attempt to gather evidence began. Moreover, critics of the banning effort claim that its members could simply regroup under a different name, just as Golden Dawn’s hoodlums no doubt would.

Unlike the well-disciplined NPD, however, which cunningly hews the line between bigoted provocation and illegal speech (see the posters with its former leader bestriding a motorcycle, telling voters to “Give it Gas”), Golden Dawn appears to be precisely what the Greek government alleges it is: a gang of violent thugs posing as a legitimate political party. While it is the responsibility of European leaders, given the continent’s history, to condemn far-right political movements, they must also reconcile themselves to the fact that support for such forces is unlikely to ever go away. Indeed, it is a significant, if unfortunate, part of Europe’s heritage. And these groups will remain a visible part of the political landscape, especially in times of economic crisis.

With the increasing visibility of groups like Golden Dawn, however, comes a silver lining; their newfound prominence is a double-edged sword. The more times its young men beat women on television, the more times they deny the oppression of Hitler’s occupation of Greece, the more fed up the average voter will become. Far from being a group of concerned young patriots eager to dole out bread to poor pensioners, Greeks are now seeing that the party is really just a band of low-IQ, racist degenerates in need of a hobby. While Golden Dawn’s support peaked at about 14 percent earlier this year, double what it received at last year’s election, the involvement of its members in very public acts of violence has shrunk its support. Sometimes, the best way to deal with knuckleheaded fascists is to let them do what they do best: embarrass themselves.