No one, apart from neo-Fascists, doubts that the thuggish neo-Nazis of the Golden Dawn party have created a poisonous atmosphere in traumatised Greece. After emerging from obscurity only a few years ago, they soon migrated from verbally scapegoating gays, immigrants and leftists for all of the country’s problems to encouraging and even carrying out physical attacks. Their track record for violence explains why much of the Greek public holds Golden Dawn directly responsible for the recent murder of the left-wing rapper, Pavlos Fyssas. The chief suspect has admitted only to supporting the party and there is no suggestion as yet that he acted on orders from high. But for the embattled Greek state it has been enough to justify the arrest at the weekend of Golden Dawn’s leader, several MPs and other supporters, and to charge them with forming a “criminal gang”.
Many people feel relieved, believing that when a country’s democratic values are challenged as brazenly as they have been by Golden Dawn, democracy must roll up its sleeves and fight back. It is a strong argument, drawing on the conviction that Germany might have stopped the Nazis in their tracks had it outlawed them in 1932. A Greek minister may have had this in mind when he hailed Saturday’s arrests as an “historic day”. We must hope he is right, and that these events marked a turning point. At the same time, Greeks should not fantasise that rounding up Golden Dawn leaders will necessarily decapitate the movement, let alone that this will repress political extremism.
The authorities should also follow due process and limit prosecutions to those suspected of ordering or taking part in actual crimes. Some appear inclined to dismiss this as a technical point, saying that whether the leaders of Golden Dawn were involved in violence, or merely fostered a climate in which it flourished, they merit an outright ban.
This is a risky strategy. Imposing blanket bans on political movements sometimes works, but not often. West Germany outlawed the Communist Party for decades without suffering a noticeable democratic deficit. However, the Federal Republic was rich and stable, and neither adjective applies to Greece. More generally, the record of blanket political bans is poor. Either they are evaded, or they fail because the extremist party in question is a symptom rather than a cause of a much deeper malaise. Greece is a case in point here, not only because of its relentless economic decline but because of its endemic corruption. According to the think-tank Demos, it remains by far the most corrupt state in the EU.
If the basic disconnect between the people and a corrupt political elite is not addressed, closing down Golden Dawn will bring Greece only temporary relief – before the dawn of some other, equally sinister, movement.