Last week, Greeks woke up with a shocking phone video that was posted on the newspaper Kathimerini’s website and then went immediately viral on the Internet. A toddler dressed in a traditional Greek uniform, bearing a Nazi armlet on his right arm, and holding a Nazi flag, was being taught by an adult how to perform the Nazi salute and say Heil Hitler. The adult was identified as Christos Pappas, the second in command of the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn. This is not the result of a phone hacking scandal. The video was retrieved from Mr. Pappas’s phone and is part of the massive evidence that prosecutors have collected to put fascism on trial. The trial is expected to start before the end of the year. For the first time after the Nuremberg tribunal, elected members of a fascist party are being indicted. Can such a trial become a model for Europe’s response to the rise of the extreme right?

This question is becoming increasingly salient. In an era when European nativism is thriving, political developments in Greece have revealed its most extreme and dangerous face. Golden Dawn got nearly 10% of the votes in the recent European elections. This happened despite the fact that its leaders (including party chief Nikos Michaloliakos, Mr. Pappas, and seven other members of parliament), as well as twenty one high-ranking party officials, are in jail awaiting trial for running a criminal organization, with a total of 78 suspects charged (including the remaining nine MP’s). Equally disturbing were the latest news about the penetration of Golden Dawn within the coalition government. Especially so after it was revealed that Takis Baltakos, the chief of staff of the prime minister, had secret contacts with the neo-Nazi party, and in the past, had instructed its representatives in parliament on how to vote in crucial legislation. True, Mr. Baltakos resigned, but questions remain regarding the government’s commitment to fight fascism.

Against the complacent view of Greece as the European anomaly of an inconsequential periphery, we should pay serious attention to Greek neo-Nazism. The Greek case represents an innate possibility within the complex universe of the European extreme right spanning the European continent as whole. In short, rather than regarding Greece as an isolated and idiosyncratic phenomenon limited to the particularities of Modern Greek history and the recent politics of austerity, we should consider it as the extreme symptom of a broader trend to revive an authoritarian and nationalist Europe. Although the disquieting rise of neo-Nazism in Greece is often explained in terms of domestic transformations triggered by the financial crisis, like the collapse of the dominant but corrupted two-party system, the underlying cause lays elsewhere. It has been a mixture of the meteoric upsurge of unemployment and the anxieties about immigration that lead to an unprecedented xenophobic reaction of a population accustomed to nationalist self-praise. And it is this precise combination that could fatally tip the political balance in the European continent in favor of neo-fascism.

The Parthenon, in Athens, a temple to Athena (view from the south) © Thermos | Wikimedia Commons
The Parthenon, in Athens, a temple to Athena (view from the south) © Thermos | Wikimedia Commons

Greece, the place where democracy was born, could become the site of its demise. However, there is some hope. The juridical response to fascism that the trial of the Greek fascist leaders represents could provide a blueprint for similar cases in other countries that face analogous challenges, but like with the Greek constitution, they are unwilling or unable to rely on a militant democratic strategy against fascist parties (as it is the case of Spain and Germany where fascist parties are unconstitutional). Thus, instead of restricting political liberties and banning parties, the Greek response consists of bringing criminal charges for a series of illegal activities, comprising several cases of homicides to attempted homicides, violence and intimidation, unlawful gun possession, drug trafficking, and money laundering. Although it’s possible that the final indictment may include also the accusation of attempting to overthrow the existing constitutional and political order, the bulk of the charges are predominantly criminal in character and thereby not political.

In fact, putting fascism out of the democratic political game implies recognizing its instrumental take on democracy. As shown in the historical cases of Mussolini and Hitler in the 1920s and 1930s, fascism often used democratic means to achieve its dictatorial and racist aims. But can a purely legal process defend democracy on its own without the broader support of the population? Can it prosecute fascism in a way that has not yet connected to the massive support of civil society? In Argentina, for example, the trial of the Juntas nearly thirty years ago, was accompanied by thousands of people that gathered outside of the courts to support the legal process against the dictators. This Argentina trial established a paradigm for other transitions to democracy from Guatemala to South Africa and beyond. Will the Greek trial of fascism represent the same inspiration for Europe? This will depend on whether this legal response against those that aim to destroy democracy from within, works in tandem with the politicization of civil society and its democratic mobilization. In short, in Greece like in Europe as a whole, the fight against the present fascist danger depends as much on  the marginalization of racism in everyday life and the confident embrace of difference and diversity in society, as on the rule of law.