Golden Dawn was a political party in Greece that used racism, economic anxiety and fascist propaganda to rise in Greece. The question is, how did Golden Dawn grow so strong despite Greece suffering Nazi occupation and the parties overt Nazi connections? Sheri Berman’s “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic” shows us the resemblance of the growth tactics and circumstances of the NSDAP and the Golden Dawn party in Greece. With Golden Dawn being declared a criminal organization in 2020, it’s important to look at how the party was able to infiltrate civil society in similar manners to the Nazi party in Germany during their rise to power. Golden Dawn, taking notes from the NSDAP, used violence as much as civil society infiltration and had clear aims to rid Greece of immigrants and “un-pure” citizens. Where the NSDAP used the failings of the political parties to facilitate their infiltration into civil society, Golden Dawn used the 2008 financial crisis to similar ends. Like the NSDAP, Golden Dawn used the inability of current political parties to adapt to changing times, the overt frustration and anger against the government contained within civil society, and the racism of their supporters to gain a massive surge of support. They increased their say in parliament to 18 lawmakers, before suffering electoral defeat in 2019, losing all of those seats.
Since 2008, Greece has been unstable. Suicide rates have increased for both men and women, conflict and bombings have become increasingly frequent as activists push back against the New Democracy government as well as the foreign forces (mainly German) that they believe are worsening conditions. The financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures may not have been the depression that effected Weimar Germany, but the drastic change in the material conditions of Greeks led to a change in belief in the government. Many believe the government was manipulated by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Mass protests occur frequently and civil organizations play a major role in Greek society despite the ongoing pandemic. One protest in January against the planned education reforms that include allowing police onto college and university campuses had over 4,000 demonstrators. Protests have also turned violent, as police used tear gas and flash grenades when around 10,000 protestors gathered in Athens rallying against a new law placing restrictions against public demonstrations.
The attacks against the Greek government, both violent and non-violent, and dissatisfaction among the general populace are a trend that Golden Dawn are able to take advantage of. Golden Dawn, however, is not the only party able to take advantage of newfound distrust in the national government, with SYRIZA, a coalition of leftist parties, taking hold of Greek politics in 2015 before losing control of the government in the 2019 elections. Despite this, SYRIZA maintains its role as main opposition party to New Democracy, winning just over 31% of the vote while losing 59 seats. (For more information on the rise of SYRIZA, I recommend Kevin Ovenden’s 2015 book “Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth”.)
Golden Dawn built themselves as outsiders to the national government. The party was seen as not complicit in the austerity agreement. They were able to push this narrative of political outsider, a tactic similar to NSDAP branding. Golden Dawn infiltrated neighborhoods to keep them “Greek,” however narrow their definition was. This earned them buy-in, taking advantage of the anxieties and racism of populations while shifting their beliefs further towards the extreme right. Neighborhoods and towns material conditions had deteriorated so severely that Golden Dawn came in, provided a modicum of relief and propaganda, and got more voters. Much like Berman’s Marburg example, where the NSDAP invested ground forces to tailor their message specifically towards the residents of the city while also showing that they were physically there.
Similar to the NSDAP’s proclivity towards broad and sweeping solutions to Germanys problems, Golden Dawn offered clear and sweeping solutions to Greece’s. Close the borders, remove the immigrants and the undesirables, and create a country for “true Greeks.” Golden Dawn used the depression to make inroads across groups of voters who were either victims of unemployment or had become disaffected with the Greek government. Using these inroads, the party brought them closer to their fascist beliefs, branding themselves as the only true nationalist party. From its inception as a modern political party in 2009, Golden Dawn experienced boosts in support, beginning with just under 20 thousand votes in the 2009 elections. In 2012 they increased their amount of votes by around 2000% to over 425,000. In 2015 they became the third most popular party, despite losing around 40,000 votes. Finally, in 2019, the party fell below the three percent threshold, before being designated as a criminal organization. The collapse of Golden Dawn stemmed from many factors, among them the resurgence of the Greek anti-fascist movement in response to the parties growth and violent activities. It’s important to remember two factors. Fascist governments and parties have been defeated, but the ideology has the ability to go to ground and hibernate until it’s ready to make an appearance once again, and the underlying causes of the rise of Golden Dawn are still present. Greece is still unstable, as protests occur and the income inequality exposed during 2008 shows no sign of stopping. Golden Dawn may be a criminal organization, but its leaders are still on the run. We must remember the factors that led to the rise of the NSDAP, how they mirrored the factors that led to the rise of Golden Dawn and be aware of them as we continue into the future.
I think this is one of the first times I’ve heard of an authoritarian party being so swiftly defeated at the polls. Surely it being named a criminal organization played a critical role in the complete ending of the party, but since the Euro Debt Crisis and the rise of the European far right I don’t believe any right-wing populist party has lost ground. What happened to Golden Dawn? As the Guardian article you reference mentions, Greeks have turned their backs on populism and abandoned the political extremes (Syriza also did poorly at the same time as the Golden Dawn). But pulling together a large group like this should have been difficult is not impossible, so I’m curious as to how it happened. The Guardian article makes the point that extremist ideologies were abandoned, with Syriza losing out in 2019 as well as Golden Dawn. But Syriza was the governing party, and typically the extremes are abandoned because economic and social security have come back, making people more relaxed. How does an incumbent lose after presiding over a time of economic growth and security? These aren’t questions I have a good answer to – perhaps there’s something I’m missing about them. But I hope we can know in the future, because being able to replicate this will be key for the future.