The first book that Nikos Michaloliakos, leader of the Golden Dawn, published was, perhaps surprisingly, a collection of poems on the ancient Greek gods. When asked why he writes about the Greek deities he replied that so did Angelos Sikelianos and dozens of other poets, so why not? The truth behind this is that many of the Golden Dawn neo-Nazis are pagans, as were many of the original Nazis. Christianity was considered a branch of decadent Jewishness: National Socialism was the ideology of paganism, while Marxism and Liberalism were the ideological agents of Judeo-Christianity.
By 1992, the Golden Dawn chose to conceal its pagan beliefs in order to address larger audiences. They also sided with some Christian fundamentalists, followers of the old calendar, united by their common hatred against Jews. In fact, not only did they suppress their beliefs from their public profile, they have even participated in rallies against a theatre performance in which the figure of Jesus Christ was supposedly insulted. This is because their pagan faith wouldn’t go down well with Greek voters.
You would think that this would create some tension within their party, but the history of the Golden Dawn is full of assertions that don’t stand to reason. And yet nobody cares. These are simultaneously self described Greek patriots and Nazi supporters, a whole new breed of contradiction. This remains a very important aspect of the problem of how to deal with the Golden Dawn. We are constantly tempted to scorn and correct, faced with rather conspicuous paradoxes. Unfortunately, however forcefully we do that, towards ideas that may well deserve to be scorned and corrected, the problem won’t go away.
The second most important person in the Golden Dawn, who also shares Michaloliakos’ love for the classical world, is Ilias Kasidiaris. The following is the statement he issued when this photo of his tattoo made headlines:
“So there was a major political issue over a symbol that I’ve had tattooed for more than ten years on my shoulder. Some idiot Greek haters have questioned the Greekness of this symbol. As words are crushed by the Truth (note: typical verbose Golden Dawn prose) I will refer to you a number of Greek art works. It is so simple, to bring down the propaganda of decades, that only serves to stigmatise the sole idea leading our works, our actions, and our lives. This idea is Greece.”
This is intended for a general audience. Meanwhile the official journal of the Golden Dawn reads: “the presence of the swastika in Vergina is no coincidence. It confirms the high levels of racial realization of an elite portion of the Greek nation, which knows and honours its Aryan origins.”
Kasidiaris has also published a novel on Sparta, and has referred to the ancient custom of Krypteia. In the 19th Century Spartan militarism played an important part in German education, so this doesn’t come as a surprise. In fact it has been noted that cadet schools were so identified with Sparta, that they “contributed to the criticisms leveled at the corps, by liberals, antimilitarist thinkers and Social Democrats, who considered them as a blight upon the nation.”
During the annual celebration of the battle of Thermopylae in 2008, Ilias Kasidiaris said:
“We are waiting for the moment of the great counter attack, following the path of the ancient custom of Krypteia, the silent attack on internal enemies of the city in absolute darkness.”
We know of at least two assassinations committed by members of the Golden Dawn: the killings of Shehzad Luqman and Pavlos Fyssas, so this is to be taken literally. The reference to “counter attack” is also telling. There is a propaganda film called Death in Poland, shot in 1940, where Germans are displaced and slaughtered by the Polish. It is entirely fictional, and yet it was the main propaganda material used against the Polish, presenting the Germans as victims who had to fight for their lives.
How did this happen?
Extensive use of ancient references is deeply rooted in modern day Greek nationalism, long before it was taken up by the neo-Nazis of the Golden Dawn. You wouldn’t shock your relatives if you said that Germans were eating gruel at a time when we were building the Parthenon (which is what Hitler believed, incidentally, to the disappointment of people like Himmler). Actually it is a cliché and it is said without irony. It is the sort of nationalism that is so deeply rooted in our culture, that it passes completely unnoticed.
Adonis Georgiadis, the vice president of the opposition party, New Democracy, is a man who made a career out of selling nationalist books on classical antiquity through his television show, his most famous slogan being “feel the crave?” as he pitches platonic dialogues. He wasn’t ashamed to admit that his favorite book was once Let’s talk about Jews by the patriarch of Greek National Socialism, Kostas Plevris. (For what it’s worth, he has recently recanted these views).
National pride derives from what we achieved in the classical past. This “we” is the single greatest unchallenged fiction of all, it is very rarely questioned in the popular reception of the classics. This is not confined to the Golden Dawn. It pollutes the Greek right in general. This is our current minister of public defense, celebrating “the victory over the Persian invader, which was crucial for the survival of western civilization.”
I don’t suppose we need any clarification on the racist extensions of this idea on today’s immigrants and refugees. The idea that Leonidas’s 300 were defending western civilization against eastern barbarity appeared in a Waffen SS propaganda leaflet in 1941.
In case you were wondering how he is part of a left wing government, the answer is that the current coalition between the political parties SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks apparently rests on more than ideology. Once you ’ve seen the minister of defense do that, it is less surprising when the Golden Dawn organizes an ancient Greek sport camp:
J. Chapoutot has written that the historian’s task is to bring down the masks. Optimists in Greece thought that this would deliver a serious blow to the neo-Nazis of the Golden Dawn. It didn’t. Violence is seductive for some people, for some hundreds of thousands of people, it seems, more than we would imagine. The idea was that people would distance themselves as soon as we exposed Golden Dawn for what it is. It didn’t work out that way. We saw that some of the views expressed by the Golden Dawn are downright wrong or hypocritical. As we are now beginning to realize, though, through the Trump era, exposing a lie or a false claim is not as politically effective as we would think. We have to tune in to a very different mindset.
Someone tells you he is a bird. You answer “no you’re not” and he goes “chip chip.” Insisting that these are hands, not wings, is reasonable yet ineffective, it won’t do. Susan Sontag has reminded us that when Goebbels forbade art criticism, his reasoning was that it puts the head over the heart, the individual over the community, intellect over feeling.” We are dealing with the realm of feelings, which are sometimes impenetrable by our arguments.
Nicole Loraux has corrected some claims of the Front National, explaining that it was better to be a metic in classical antiquity than an immigrant in 1990’s Paris. Some people were similarly tempted to explain to our minister Nikos Dendias that “Xenios Zeus” was not a suitable name for the police sweeps of illegal immigrants. I think we need to do more than that.
So what’s to be done?
First, I say, we ask ourselves what happened. What brought the Golden Dawn from 19.000 voters, 0,29% in 2009 to 440.000 votes and 7% in 2012?
One would think that it is immigration that gives rise to nationalist and extremist views. It has been well documented that this is not the case. I will only present the Greek case, but this is an international phenomenon. Golden Dawn was successful all around Greece, irrespective of the presence of immigrants. The significant numbers of Albanians that came to Greece in the 90s did not awaken the Golden Dawn. The refugee crisis came after the rise of the Golden Dawn, which it has failed to benefit from. The Golden Dawn is now under severe pressure on account of an ongoing trial, where its leader and another 68 defendents are accused of running a criminal organization.
Finally, contrary to what you would expect, the Golden Dawn did not rely so heavily on hate speech in the 90s. It was the name of Macedonia rather than immigration, that they were concerned with. It was in fact austerity policies that gave rise to anti-parliament feelings long lurking in the Greek society.
Doing the opposite of what they tell us to do or say is a very ungenerous strategy: intellectually, it hands over an enormous amount of power to the extreme right.
How did this come about? Ancient Greek feats are admired by the wretched modern Greeks, who, being the laughing stock of modern day admirers of classics, are scorned as lazy, unworthy inheritors of their past. This sense of humiliation, having their prime minister Papandreou publicly shaming them to his counterparts by saying I am ruling on a corrupt people, is mitigated by the most irrational fantasies about national glory: hoaxes to do with Greek as the perfect mathematic language, whatever that means, or that it is the official computer programming language, or even that we are descendants of extraterrestrial creatures that presented us with advanced technological knowledge! These are actually popular theories among some of my fellow Greeks. There is very fertile ground for any absurdity that would heal this wounded pride and offer a sense of national uplift.
We remember that one of the explanations of German National Socialism was the petit bourgeois morality of individuals with a strong admiration and fear of power in a country that had suffered a humiliating defeat at 1918.
So, what should we not do? Let me start with a minor point, concerning professional classicists, before we deal with the general frame. Let us have a look at an example. When the question came as to whether and how much we should teach Greek at high school, it was assumed by the Greek Left that wanting classics to be taught makes you side with the nationalists.
I found this reaction absurd. The problem occurs whenever we are lead to do the opposite of what the far right tells us to do. Turning now to an international example, focusing on non-white male authors because this would expose us to the criticism that we unwillingly support male supremacy is another such example. Doing the opposite of what they tell us to do or say is a very ungenerous strategy: intellectually, it hands over an enormous amount of power to the extreme right. I think we should avoid doing this, even at the cost of appearing to leave some of their claims unanswered. Will this suffice? No. What we need is nothing less than a political struggle against racism, which cannot be fought with the intellectual weapons of the classics only. We need to heal these wounds of humiliation.
I strongly sympathize with the urge to shout to racists that we do not want the classics to be associated with these views either in the eyes of students or prospective students or the general public. But, as much as I sympathize with this agonizing, I have to admit that from their perspective it makes perfect sense, why would they not do it? We all agree that there is plenty of material in Greek history to support their views.
So it is always a fact of life that some will identify with Creon and some with Antigone.
I don’t know if they have read their Edith Hall, my guess is they haven’t, but I can understand that racists would still be able to trace their beliefs in ancient sources and they will simply rejoice where we are appalled. It is perfectly understandable that they will try to use it to their advantage. We read the same material, but, remember the scene from the clockwork orange where Malcolm McDowell is forced to study the Bible and he identifies with the Roman soldier who whips Jesus? He fantasizes that he is that soldier. So it is always a fact of life that some will identify with Creon and some with Antigone. Some with Jesus Christ and some with the Roman soldier who whips him.
These are some lines from Oedipus at Colonus. Theseus says:
“I know that I myself also was reared in exile, just as you, and that in foreign lands I wrestled with perils to my life, like no other man. Never, then, would I turn aside from a stranger, such as you are now, or refuse to help in his deliverance. For I know well that I am a man, and that my portion of tomorrow is no greater than yours.”
I happen to find these lines quite moving, but this is just me, I tend to do that. When all is said and done, we are left with a political struggle to fight, to protect and to help immigrants and refugees, fight racism and misogyny and also present a view of the classics that better accommodates our worldview. It will not be the ultimate truth, a revelation of the true colours of antiquity, but only our version of it. What’s left is to write good books and fight the political struggle that lies ahead of us and to the best of our ability not let the far right set the agenda, because this significantly limits our field of vision and imagination to just deconstructing their arguments, and that would be a pity.
This article is based on a paper delivered at Cambridge, at a conference on Classics and Political Extremism, on May 20th 2017. It is published in association with our partners at The Press Project.