Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Watch Greece – it may be the next Weimar Germany

by Aristides N. Hatzis

Financial Times

November 7, 2013

Since the 2012 summer elections, Greece has rumbled with echoes of the Weimar Republic. There was no doubt that the composition of the Greek legislature was the worst in modern history. Parliament now contains the full spectrum of authoritarians: neo-Nazis, Stalinists and Maoists together with radical leftwingers, populist rightwingers and numerous defenders of paranoid conspiracy theories.

Nevertheless, for more than a year the situation looked superficially bearable. Greece has a strong coalition government trying to implement reforms, cut government spending and restore our economy. But to keener observers, failures outweigh the successes.

First, the major reforms have failed or were never really attempted. The few that were successful are fragile. Most government members are afraid of the political cost and reluctant of clashes with vested interests. Many crucial government positions are occupied by inadequate party apparatchiks.

At the same time, the opposition has broken every record in demagogy and populism. A strong combination of economic illiteracy, parochialism, ideological fixation and opportunism rules out any viable alternative to the mediocre current government. So in this context of depression and pessimism, extremism is flourishing. Political violence is not new to Greece. Terrorism, riots, violent clashes between members of different political parties, or between protesters and police, have been part of the country’s history since 1974.

However this time Greece surpassed its worst self. Greek voters not only trusted a neo-Nazi party – Golden Dawn – with a sizeable presence in the Greek parliament. They elected a party whose members (leaders included) did not even try to disguise themselves as peaceful ultra-rightwingers. On the contrary, Golden Dawn started bullying their political opponents, revealing their true colours. And this did not hurt them at all. Their poll numbers surged, approaching 15 per cent.

This success was the result of many factors. The party presented itself as the anti-system party. Media exposure made members’ faces familiar, normalising their views. The authorities were extremely lenient to them: some of the officials felt bewildered as to how to treat rogue members of parliament; others felt kinship.

Golden Dawn members believed their political momentum gave them immunity. But their violent acts could be tolerated no longer. They crossed the line when one of them killed an anti-fascist rapper in a cafeteria, in front of customers and slow-to-intervene police officers.

The government reaction was bold and embarrassing. It was bold because it decided to apply the law and prosecute their leaders, including members of parliament. It was embarrassing because there were more than several glitches in the application of the basic principles of the rule of law (due process, presumption of innocence, unreasonable searches). And it became obvious that several high-ranking officials were Golden Dawn sympathisers. Nonetheless, the fast government reaction and witch hunt that followed seemed to defuse the situation. Even the radical opposition was eager to overlook the legal technicalities and rejoice.

But the fun ended last Friday. In a mafia-like hit, two professional assassins murdered two Golden Dawn members in front of their party offices in northern Athens. Was this a terrorist attack, a revenge for the murder of the rapper? Or was it literally a mob hit, having nothing to do with politics?

The reader of this article who does not reside in Greece should be terrified by now. These are not everyday incidents for a European democracy. However, if you visit Greece you will be mesmerised by the tranquillity of its residents. Most of us are watching these dreadful acts as spectators of a soccer game.

Meanwhile, we stand by as pillars of our society are cracking. For example, take a case close to my heart: an unreasonable attempt to slash the cost of higher education has caused strikes that have shut down two leading universities (including that of Athens, my employer and Greece’s oldest and leading university). This has been going on for two months. The academic year has not started yet.

Administrative personnel have closed all buildings and forbidden every activity – not only administrative but also academic work. Exams and classes are cancelled, professors are not allowed to work in their offices or meet their students. Groups of strikers, radical students and “concerned” leftwing citizens patrol the campuses.

The students are desperate and dismayed, as are most faculty members. At the same time, the government and the strikers are determined not to back down. The word “compromise” in Greece has a pejorative meaning. And what is the consequence? Nobody really cares. There are other, more interesting segments on the evening news: political murders.

* The writer is an associate professor of legal theory at the University of Athens and runs

Link to the article on the Financial Times website

PDF version of the op-ed (from

Read my previous FT op-ed on the same issue: "Back to the 1930s: The Hammer, Sickle and Swastika"

Read another op-ed I wrote for Wall Street Journal on Greek Academia: "Storming the Greek Academy"

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