Is Greece on Edge?

The killing of two Golden Dawn members on November 1 is a terrible symptom of the civil disorder that is besetting Greek society. Some pundits are pointing out the similarities between Greece today and Weimar Republic in the 1920s and its demise in the 1930s.

The recent shooting of members of the Golden Dawn Party – an Athenian lights a candle in their memory above – following the murder of an anti-Fascist singer is prompting comparisons with the Weimar Republic, where left and right wing groups fought in the streets.


One obvious comparison is: polarization of society between two extremes, in the case of Germany Communism and Nazism in the case of Greece, Golden Dawn on the right and SYRIZA on the left. The Nazis and the Communists fought it out in the streets of German cities. The immediate cause for the degeneration of the Weimar Republic was the collapse of the German economy and the onset of hyperinflation. The longer-term cause, of course, was the defeat of Germany in the First World War and the imposing, by the allies, of the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty, including the “War Guilt” clause.

The Germans were as guilty as the allies in bringing about the mass slaughter of the Great War. The combination of the Treaty of Versailles, economic meltdown, and the sense of hopelessness that haunted Germany’s working and middle classes destroyed the Weimar Republic and brought the Nazis to power. As the saying goes: “The rest is history.”

Current circumstances in Greece are not quite the same. There was no Troika – the European Commission, the IMF and European Central Bank – to come to the rescue of Germany after World War I. There may not be agreement on how the Troika is handling the Greek economic crisis, but at the very least the Greeks are not alone. Unlike the Germans in the 1930s, Greece is not alone but part of the larger entity, the EU, that has accepted to bailout the Greeks with billons of Euros in loans.

The malaise in Greek society is the result of an endemic corruption that has permeated Greece’s political, economic, educational, labor, banking, and social systems. That in and of itself is a byproduct of an Ottoman tradition that continues to permeate Greek society, a tradition that harks back to notions of hostility towards the state. After all, for four hundred years the state in Greece was ruled by the Ottomans, a foreign empire in which it was normal for the Greeks to cheat and use every means to avoid paying taxes.

Certainly this does not imply that the Ottomans are responsible for the current state of affairs in Greece, but it is the first in a series of stages that warped the evolution of the Greek state. The second was foreign intervention, during and after Greek independence, which established a pattern of loans and debt that has beset the country since the nineteenth century. The third was a series of wars, coups and social upheavals (such as the Asia Minor catastrophe and the influx of nearly two million refugees) that prevented Greece from enjoying any meaningful length of stability. The fourth was war and occupation, followed by civil war. During these cataclysms the Greek people faced chaos, financial crises, and political division.

In 1915, the Greeks were divided between Royalists and Venizelists. These divisions became permanent after 1922 and continued through the Metaxas regime of the mid 1930s. In some years the Venizelists were in power in others the Royalists but in both cases the National Schism pitted Greek against Greek. Remarkably, during the course of the political skirmishes the body count was low and limited to the leadership of the two camps.

The trial and execution of the Six in 1922, was the first occasion that blood was drawn. The six men who faced the firing squad included the prime minister, the head of the army as well as other prominent political leaders who were held accountable for the defeat of the Greek army in Asia Minor. The Venizelitst-Royalist schism turned into a blood feud but it was not accompanied by mass killings, even when the country came under the control of the Metaxas authoritarian rule.

Remarkably, the Venizelist-Royalist division that tormented Greek society did not survive the Second World War. During the course of the Axis occupation the Venizelist-Royalist schism transformed into the more brutal division between right and left that proved to be quite lethal. In 1943, the Greek resistance organizations took a break from fighting the Axis and turned against each other. The Communist dominated ELAS tried to expunge all the other resistance groups in order to bring about a communist system in postwar Greece.

The Communists failed and they failed again in 1944 when they tried to seize Athens and by extension the Greek state during the December Uprising. Two years later the Communist Party of Greece took to the mountains and from 1946-1949 dragged the Greek people into a devastating civil war that continues to reverberate.

Is the killing of the two Golden Dawn victims retribution for the killing of a leftwing rapper? More importantly, are these killings a legacy of the left-right division of Greek society? The divisions continued because there has never been reconciliation over the civil war. PASSOK in the 1980s provided amnesty for the Greek communists who lived in exile after 1949, but the socialist government did not seek reconciliation but simply rehabilitation of the Greek left. In effect, the wounds have never healed and they are resurfacing because of the economic crisis.

Andre Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC.