Greece’s Problem With Radical Right Violence and the Politics of History

One doesn’t have to be an expert to attest that Greece has a fundamental problem with violence from the radical right. Alone in the first months of this year, we see a culmination of different forms of violence. In early March, the police arrested a group of militant neo-Nazis called AME, responsible for 34 arson and bomb attacks during the last five years. In late March, members of the extreme right party, Golden Dawn, attacked a social center in the port city of Piraeus hospitalizing five. In April, a racist mob staged a mass assault against protesting refugees on the island of Lesvos injuring at least 35. In May, the Jewish cemetery in Athens was desecrated by ‘unknowns’ who are likely to come from radical right groups.

Finally, on 19thMay, the 75-year-old mayor of the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris, was beaten by a dozen nationalist assailants amidst a furious crowd. Even though radical right violence is sadly a frequent occurrence, the brazen attack on the unprotected mayor will go down in history. Boutaris was not targeted by coincidence. He is a hate symbol for the radical right: Boutaris advocates LGBT rights, is in close contact with the Jewish community and welcomes Turkish tourists to visit the birth place of Kemal Ataturk in the City Center. Not least, he spoke out against nationalist sentiments in conflicts with neighboring countries, such as Macedonia.

The attack happened in the context a public ceremony remembering the violent expulsion of the Pontic Greeks from the Black Sea area in 1919-23. Boutaris’ attendance was considered a provocation by radical right leaders. For years the Greek radical right has been attempting to hijack historic anniversaries and uses them as a stage for hate messages. In order to present itself as the prime representatives of national commemoration, the radical right puts it historical narratives as irrefutable and asserts radical claims by force. It is not unusual that these events end in turmoil and conflict. As it happened during a nationalist mass gatheringin 2013, members of Golden Dawn hospitalized other nationalists who did not agree with their leadership position. Historical events have evolved as shows of strength and struggles over prerogatives of interpretation. Ever since the fall of the military Junta in 1974, the Greek radical right has become a prominent player in more than a dozen of national(ist) celebrations doing politics with resentments and corruption of historical facts.

The main focus of radical right ire concerns the “question of Macedonia” and its contested geo-political status. Already back in the 1990s, a nationalist wave of protest shook the country when the newly founded Yugoslavian republic claimed the name Macedonia. “Macedonia is Greek” was the battle cry now and then. The issue came up early this year again when the 25-year interim solution was aimed to be settled. In the course of a strategic emotionalization of the conflict by radical right forces politicians were smeared as traitors of the nation and received death threats.  Also Boutaris was slandered because he opposed the calls that sowed the seeds of discord. In fact, a first nationalist mass protest on the name dispute in January 2018 was loaded with violence.  For example, during the protest, a building occupied by anarchists was burned down by neo-Nazi militants and the Holocaust Memorial was desecrated with Golden Dawn graffiti. The participation of fascist groups was barely problematized by the organizers. Later, in an even bigger protest in Athens, Golden Dawn took up a central position in the protest while other fascist groups violently attacked a theatre in downtown Athens.

Unsurprisingly, Golden Dawn presented the attack on Boutaris in the aftermath as an expression of popular rage, while Conservatives played the event down as the work of a few extremists. Both are wrong: There is a footagethat shows that the attack was organized, and it is obvious that the vast crowd was applauding when Boutaris was escorted from the scene – fearing for his life. This brutalization is a result of the year-long polarization of radical right street politics – especially in historical events like these. Today, there are few national commemorations that are not dominated by radical right groups.

It is a good sign that the attack against Boutaris was unanimously condemned by all democratic parties. However, it did not take long for mainstream parties to sow conflict on the back of the Boutaris attack. Especially the deputy leader of the Conservative party New Democracy, Adonis Georgiadis, quickly depoliticized the violence and rejects an open debate on the roots of radical right violence. As he himself derives from the radical right party LAOS and maintains ties in the nationalist scene, his attitude has unfortunately been characteristic of a right-wing current that has allowed democrats to turn a blind eye to violent outbursts at nationalist demonstrations. As nationalism constitutes the bridge between the radical right and the political mainstream, party officials should be aware that granting legitimacy to the extreme may open up pandora’s box and end up damaging democracy permanently.

In sum, therefore, to seriously condemn such acts of violence would mean to purge these events from nationalist narratives and isolate radical right leaders. What we’ve seen recently goes in the very opposite direction. Radical right forces dominate the procedures of such celebration and hunt down Conservatives to play a part in their game. In conclusion, Greece needs an open and honest conversation about the potentials and the limits of a democratic culture of remembrance and an unambiguous dismissal of the normalization of radical right violence.

 Mr Maik Fielitz is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR, and a Doctoral Candidate at Goethe University in Frankfurt. See his profile here.

© Maik Fielitz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).