All this weekend Greeks were glued to images of Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, the little führer of Golden Dawn, being led in handcuffs from the Athens police headquarters with four of his deputies, each one flanked by members of the anti-terrorist squad, armed and with faces covered. Greek TV channels played the perp walk over and over again. Stills of Mihaloliakos, face set hard, clutching a battered leather bag in front of him like a shield, and of the party spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, mouth gaping wide to roar, are all over the Internet, raw or Photoshopped or embellished with jokey captions. Like children gripped by pictures of monsters in a book, we stare at them and scrawl on them, crayons held tight in our fists, wanting and not wanting to turn over the page.
The five Golden Dawn MPs were arrested on Saturday, along with two policemen and a few party members; the deputy leader, Christos Pappas, went AWOL for twenty-four hours (no doubt to take care of business) and turned himself in on Monday with a fascist salute. Pushed into action by the public outcry both in and outside Greece at the murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas—the first Greek, but not the first person, to be killed by the neo-Nazis—the government pressed Greece’s Supreme Court to declare Golden Dawn a criminal organization. The charge sheet includes murder and grievous bodily harm, money-laundering and blackmail. The MPs will keep their seats until (or unless—a frightening thought) they are convicted, but the party appears set to lose its public funding.
It’s a moment to celebrate; it’s also fraught with dangers. Golden Dawn’s tentacles reach deep into Greek public life. Its neo-Nazi ideology is particular, in its open contempt for democracy, its use of paramilitary structures, its roots in anti-Semitism, racism and blood lust, its glorification of violence, its opposition to capitalism as well as communism. But Golden Dawn is also the most dangerous beneficiary of a far-right nationalist tradition that goes back at least to the 1930s and has the prime minister’s ear, if not a piece of his heart. As welcome as this purge is, there’s a risk that it will be used to legitimize a more “respectable” far right as well as the policies of Greece’s old mainstream parties, New Democracy and Pasok, that have formed a dark penumbra round the black spot of fascism: the random street round-ups and brutal detention centres for migrants and dark-skinned people, the outrageous law that allows forcible testing for HIV, the violent repression and criminalizing of protest, the selective application of the judicial system.
In their not-so-long march through Greece’s institutions, the neo-Nazis have found fertile ground. In the last few days mainstream Greek media have rushed to denounce the evil fascist gang and publish lurid confessions by its former members, but until recently reports about Golden Dawn had to be published abroad before they were deemed fit for Greek ears, even in paraphrase. Private TV channels gave plenty of air time to neo-Nazi shrieking heads and newspapers ran puff pieces extolling the new street-tough, body-building lifestyle. Less than a year ago, the Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias threatened to sue The Guardian for reporting on allegations of torture by the Greek police; less then three months ago he insisted to the BBC that Golden Dawn had no real foothold in the Greek police.
Yet in the days before the Golden Dawn arrests two senior policemen resigned and seven others were transferred; at the very last moment the head of the Greek Intelligence Agency was suddenly replaced. One Golden Dawn MP crowed, “They had to take apart the police and the GIA so that they could arrest us.” Was Mr. Dendias asleep at the switch? Was he perhaps keeping schtum to put bent coppers off the scent? Or has Golden Dawn, with the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, at last become more threatening than useful to the government—threatening enough that he’s prepared to risk alienating his own police?
Recent polls show a drop in support for the fascist party since the murder of Fyssas, back down to the 7 percent or so it got in last summer’s elections from a high of around 15 percent; most of those voters seem to be heading back to New Democracy, which has been tempting them for some time with red meat. In what, then, did the usefulness of Golden Dawn consist? The left’s somewhat epigrammatic answer has been that Golden Dawn is “the long arm of the state”; some have been so convinced that Golden Dawn and the state are the same that (forgetting the 1930s) they’ve chosen to play down the party’s significance. That there is collusion is obvious. Video footage clearly shows Golden Dawn supporters throwing stones at anti-fascist protesters under the protection of the riot squad; there seems to have been a “strategy of tension” to legitimize repression. Golden Dawn has waged a useful ongoing street war against migrants, leftists and anarchists; its culture and ideology has stiffened the backbone of some front-line police. Still, the questions remain: What exactly is the relationship between Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy party and the old Greek far-right parastate? How deep will the purges go? Is this a battle for the soul of the Greek right, or the dismissal of an uncouth, over-zealous bodyguard?
And in the unlikely event that the institutional clean-out is far-reaching and thorough—if Golden Dawn’s party structure is utterly destroyed and all the Athens precincts known as hotbeds of support are broken up and staffed with squeaky-clean new recruits—the longest, hardest struggle will still have to be fought. Golden Dawn is in the villages, in the church, in schools. Its support has grown because Greece has been devastated by a misconceived and misapplied austerity programme imposed from the outside. But it has been fed by decades of corruption among Greece’s own politicians–corruption so blatant that when Ilias Kasidiaris threatened to denounce PASOK and New Democracy as criminal organizations, it was difficult not to concede that he had a kind of point. And, as the journalist Nikos Chrysoloras points out in a brave comment piece, it’s been fed by the xenophobia, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and intolerance that are still widespread in Greek society, on the left as well as the right, unchallenged in most of the media and in too much of the sclerotic education system.
So for a day or two we can scribble on the monster. At least its ugliest, most vicious head has been cut off. But we have to remember the story of Heracles and the Hydra, and we have to face the monster that’s in us.