“Not the end of fascism but an extremely important moment for us”
On October 7, a court in Athens, Greece, condemned Golden Dawn leaders as running a criminal organization. The decision has been heralded as historic across Europe, as it is the first verdict against a far-right political party, which has held seats in the national and the European Parliaments and had links with similar-minded political parties in Europe and the US. Yet the court's decision is only the beginning of a longer battle to uproot racism and neo-nazism from European societies. A look at language ideologies can help us understand why.
"This is the first significant trial of a neo-Nazi party in Europe after World War II. It's not the end of fascism, because fascism is everywhere. But it is an extremely important moment for us." Those are the words of an Athens business owner who was among a crowd of fifteen to twenty thousand people gathered outside the Athens Court of Appeals on October 7, in anticipation of the court’s ruling in a trial that lasted almost five and a half years. Accused in the trial were 68 members of Golden Dawn, a far-right political party, including seven members of its political council. Eleven of the accused had previously been elected to serve terms in the Greek or European Parliaments. On October 7, the court found 57 of them guilty either of directing or of joining a criminal organization but also of other crimes and misdemeanors. The characterization as a criminal organization by the court effectively bans Golden Dawn from Greek political life – even as political parties with sister ideas, such as Greek Solution, founded in 2016, continue to operate. Tellingly, a public opinion poll published on 9 October found that, despite been overwhelmingly satisfied with the court’s decision (83%), 21% of respondents still saw a role for the ideas of a “serious Golden Dawn” that would abstain from criminal activity in Greek political life.
Founded in 1983, Golden Dawn became politically active a decade later during the first controversy over the name of North Macedonia. For more than two decades, its share of the vote hovered at around 0,5% until in 2010 it won its first seat on the Athens Municipal Council in the inner-city neighborhood of Aghios Panteleimonas, an area heavily populated by immigrants. After that, its ascent during the worse of the economic crisis that hit Greece in 2010 was formidable. In the 2012 national elections, it rose to third position earning just under 7% of the national vote and 18 out of 300 seats in the Greek parliament, a success repeated during the September 2015 national elections, even as several of its members, including its leader, were under trial.
The trial was prompted by the stabbing to death, on 18 September 2013, of 34-year- old rapper Pavlos Fyssas, by members of Golden Dawn in Keratsini, an Athens neighbourhood. While Fyssas’ murder served as the pretext for bringing Golden Dawn to justice, this was not the first time Golden Dawn sympathizers faced trial. Another trial, this time for the murder of Shehzad Luqman, a 27-year old Pakistani immigrant, in January of 2013, ended in May 2019 with a 21-year jail sentence for the two men accused. However, it took the outcry caused by the murder of a Greek citizen for the government to cut state funding, which parliamentary parties normally receive, for Golden Dawn and to launch an investigation into its criminal activities. Fyssas’ mother, Magda, became the public face of the trial, attending all 454 court sessions and was considered, in a poll published on 9 October, to be the second most important contributor, after the Greek legal system, to the outcome of the trial. In an interview on the fourth anniversary of her son’s murder, Magda Fyssa said “This trial concerns all of us, not just me.”
For many Greeks, the rapid rise of right-wing extremism in the early 2010’s came as a shock. Since the country returned to democracy in 1974, after a seven-year military dictatorship, governments traditionally alternated between center-left and center-right with political parties at the extremes never being particularly prominent on the political scene. Many blamed Golden Dawn’s success at the polls on the financial crisis which, starting in 2010, destabilized the country, resulting in record numbers of youth unemployment and a wave of emigration comparable to those of the first half of the twentieth century to Australia and the US.
However, despite far-right parties being elected to parliament in several countries in Europe in recent years, a cross-country comparison of unemployment rates and European Parliamentary election results, led researchers to conclude that “unemployment, real GDP growth, debt and deficits have no statistically significant effect on far-right party support at the national level”. Combined with increased support for far-right parties in countries that did not experience comparable crisis conditions, these findings suggest that the economic crisis is not all that lies behind these political developments.
Below the surface
It does not take much digging beneath this ephemeral surface to discover truths that can make us as citizens of 21st century European nation-states rather uncomfortable. As a nation-state, Greece came into existence in the early years of the nineteenth century after a revolution inspired by the ideals of sovereignty and national self-determination that had also inspired the American and French revolutions before that. In the crucial period of formation of a national identity that preceded and followed these historical events, language played a pivotal role. Language was a determining factor for Greeks to distinguish themselves from other Orthodox Christian subjects of the Ottoman empire, against which they were revolting and which used to classify its subjects by religion. To establish Greeks’ unique identity versus other Orthodox Christians collectively known as Rum, intellectuals of the time constructed a historical narrative that emphasized points of continuity with classical Greece, at once setting Greeks apart and generating the support of philhellenes, such as the British poet Lord Byron, who fought alongside the Greeks in their struggle for independence. Important evidence in support for this historical narrative came from the perception of an unbroken linguistic continuity of the Greek language from ancient to modern times. This perception was in turn aided by, among others, the traditional diglossia between High and Low forms of the language that had been handed down the ages since the first grammars of the language were written by Alexandrine grammarians in the first centuries C.E. The conservatism with which the Greek language had been recorded in writing, in its High form, for centuries, helped solidify the impression that the language had changed only minimally since ancient times. This largely linguistically-founded perception of continuity from ancient to modern Greece is a core ingredient of contemporary Greek identity. But it has also provided grounds for a Discourse of biological nationalism espoused by Golden Dawn. This Discourse is seen in Golden Dawn’s defining as Greek and admitting among its ranks only those whose both parents are Greek and in providing services such as soup kitchens, healthcare and childcare for “Greeks only”. Yet one cannot help but shiver at hearing Fyssas’ murderer declare in court regarding a photo showing him perform a Nazi salute in 2012, that he thought it was an “ancient Greek” salute.
A second Discourse of Golden Dawn with historical antecedents in the processes of state-formation of the 19th and early 20th centuries is the Discourse of racism and xenophobia. Once the new political entity took shape -- originally as the Kingdom, and later as the Republic, of Greece -- establishing homogeneity within its bounds became as important as establishing difference from what lay beyond them. This process once again took on a linguistic dimension. Linguistic intolerance targeted not only other languages spoken in parts of Greece, such as Arvanitika (a dialect of Albanian historically spoken in Southern Greece) and Vlach (a Romance language spoken in Central Greece, both now endangered) but also regional varieties of the language, many of which faced discrimination and ridicule in public life, with their speakers experiencing linguistic insecurity and abandoning the language in response. It is a small step from these processes of linguistic intolerance to the naturalization of racism in statements such as the following by a police spokesperson responding to racist incidents in the downtown Athens area of Aghios Panteleimonas: “If a man who has been living there for ages finds himself sitting on the balcony of his house and hearing so many foreign languages from the streets and seeing so many different things, how can he adapt so easily, how much can we ask from him?”
A final Discourse of Golden Dawn that can be traced back to processes of national identity formation is its anti-establishment rhetoric. As citizens of a young state established in the 19th century with strong dependencies on the European powers of the time, contemporary Greeks have always been sensitive to how they are perceived by others, which in turn has influenced how they position themselves toward Europe. Western European condescension refers to how other Europeans have often viewed contemporary Greeks, comparing them with their ancient (given the perception of continuity) forerunners and finding them inferior. Greeks have variably responded to this treatment with a mix of Euro-centrism and ethno-centrism, shifting the balance between the two depending on the circumstances. Such views manifest themselves also (meta-)linguistically through widely held opinions about the superiority of the Greek language and may well have provided a fertile ground for the anti-establishment and isolationist discourses of Golden Dawn.
The upshot of this analysis is that biological nationalism, racism, and anti-establishment rhetoric have historical antecedents in widely circulating ideas about linguistic continuity, linguistic ‘othering’, and ethnocentrism in response to Western European condescension that have been instrumental to bringing about the “imagined community” that is the Greek (and any) nation. Under these prevailing ideologies, the Greek state achieved ethnic, religious, and linguistic homogeneity within its borders. In other words, these ideas have been a part of the making of the Greek nation-state since its inception and are part of Greek banal nationalism today.
Banal nationalism is a term introduced by Michael Billig to refer to “the ideological habits which enable the established nations of the West to be reproduced” and the symbols by which they do so daily – the flag that hangs routinely outside a government building, typographic or spelling choices on public signs, culinary or dress preferences, and, most pertinent to our purposes, the use of a national language.
Banal nationalist discourses relating to language are, of course, not unique to Greece. Similar responses to late modernity are seen in other European countries. In debates about Kiezdeutch in Germany and spelling reforms in France, right-wing organizations – the German Verein für Sprachpflege and the French Front National – have been among the most vocal. Discussing the animosity around the positively-colored term Kiezdeutch (‘(neighborhood) German’) for the urban vernacular of a multilingual youth community encompassing German speakers of different heritage languages alongside monolingual German speakers, Heike Wiese argues that “in public discourse in Germany, it is not so much the actual historical relation of precedence and linguistic source for standard German that is essential to the concept of Dialekt, but rather a cultural association with German tradition that seems to involve some sort of ius sanguinis, a kinship relation based on a perceived ethnic commonality with its speakers”. Similarly, during the 2016 debate over the French Academy’s spelling reforms that triggered the Twitter handle #Jesuiscirconflexe, commentators on social media explicitly referenced simplifying the language for the sake of foreigners, thereby highlighting that debates about what is/should be included in the national language (viewed as homogeneous and unchanging) reflect underlying controversies about who is part of the (German, French, and so on) nation. As Wiese concludes, “language seems to be one of the final hide-outs where openly racist remarks are still socially acceptable in modern society, and as such, it is a very powerful domain for the construction of social out-groups”.
Language holds a special place in these processes not least because it is inescapable: “public life […] cannot be a-linguistic. Language is therefore chronically and pervasively politicized in linguistically heterogeneous modern societies”. Taking this a step further, Billig adds: “The concept of 'a language' - at least in the sense which appears so banally obvious to 'us' - may itself be an invented permanency, developed during the age of the nation-state. If this is the case, then language does not create nationalism, so much as nationalism creates language; or rather nationalism creates ‘our’ common-sense, unquestioned view that there are, ‘naturally’ and unproblematically, things called different 'languages', which we speak.”
Billig’s writing about nationalist ideology running through and constituting language is reminiscent of the way feminist scholars such as Dale Spender have written about patriarchal ideology running through and constituting language: if nationalism/patriarchy defines the terms of the language, one has no choice but to use these same terms (nationalist terms, patriarchal terms) to express oneself. If the discourse of Greek banal nationalism encompasses these elements (continuity, rejection of the non-European other, and ambivalence toward Europe itself), it is well-nigh impossible to speak or think outside of these categories without sounding un-Greek. The problem facing us, therefore, is that, once the ‘scandalous’ element is taken out of populist discourses, what is left may be too familiar to easily rebuff, requiring a complete rethinking of what it means to be a national subject and how that can be re-imagined in 21st century terms.
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