The Golden Dawn’s ‘Nationalist Solution’: Explaining the Rise of the Far Right in Greece

November 3, 2020

On November 2nd, the MacMillan Center hosted a talk with Dr. Sofia Vasilopoulou, who discussed her research on the rise and fall of the Golden Dawn in Greece, as well as her recent book, The Golden Dawn’s ‘Nationalist Solution’: Explaining the Rise of the Far Right in Greece, which she co-authored with Daphne Halikiopoulou. Vasilopoulou is a professor in Politics at the University of York and an expert on the Golden Dawn. Holding a PhD in Politics from the London School of Economics, she specializes in various topics like political dissatisfaction with democracy, Euroscepticism, and loss of faith in traditional politics.

Vasilopoulou began by sharing a presentation summarizing the electoral success of the Golden Dawn from the period of 2012-2015, the factors that led to its rise during the Greek crisis, as well as the circumstances that contributed to its fall shortly thereafter. Drawing on the central thesis of her book, Vasilopoulou argued that two conditions were necessary for the Golden Dawn to make its appearance: “an economic crisis that eventually became the crisis of the Greek nation-state”, and within that context, the ability of a political party to present a solution that was palatable to a broad social demographic. The Golden Dawn, Vasilopoulou argued, was able to provide a “‘nationalist solution’” to this crisis, tapping into the widespread disillusionment with the political system in Greece. Concluding her introductory remarks, Vasilopoulou noted that the Golden Dawn’s warning of Hellenism being under attack resonated with a broad range of people, and these individuals eventually became its heterogeneous voter base.

Following her presentation, Vasilopoulou discussed the reasons for Golden Dawn’s downfall, given that the characteristics she had previously cited were still present when the group began losing strength. Referring back to her framework, Vasilopoulou posited that due to the renewed “bipolar opposition” in the Greek political system, Greece’s improving economic situation post-2015, and criminal charges that have somewhat undermined the nationalist narrative of the movement, the Golden Dawn has lost much of the previous strength it had gained from the context of an economic, political, and representative crisis. 

Next, Vasilopoulou replied to questions regarding Golden Dawn voters and where they stand politically today, and provided her opinion on how the case of the Golden Dawn was treated judicially, and whether movement elites will seek to capitalize on the trial by portraying themselves as victims. To the first question, Vasilopoulou responded that Golden Dawn voters came from different backgrounds, and that she sees the newly reinstated bipolar party system as stable, though a potential recession caused by the pandemic may create new political opportunities for the Golden Dawn or other far right groups in the future. In regards to the judicial treatment of the group, Vasilopoulou emphasized that while the Golden Dawn was easier to prosecute than other extremist groups in Europe because its members legitimately engaged in violence, some members have been attempting to reframe the trial as a prosecution of their ideas, leading them to “sacrifice” themselves for their beliefs. Evoking this idea of “sacrifice” is very salient to the Greek identity, and may prove to be fruitful, Vasilopoulou argued. 

Vasilopoulou spent the remainder of the time answering the audience and panelists’ questions, which dealt with topics of the relationship between the Golden Dawn and the media, the Golden Dawn’s lack of capitalization on the Macedonian issue, the party’s leadership composition, and similarities between the Greek Golden Dawn and its offshoot in Cyprus. Vasilopoulou provided detailed explanations on the Golden Dawn’s development of a propaganda machine and how internal splits between “moderates” and radicals paralyzed the group. Likewise, Vasilopoulou answered further questions on how the Golden Dawn compares with other neo-Nazi movements, the effect of diaspora votes for the Golden Dawn on future elections in Greece, the funding structures of the group, and the political effects of foreigners and former diaspora returning to live in Greece. Vasilopoulou acknowledged that there is not much data on the funding structures of the Golden Dawn or the inner workings of other European neo-Nazi movements, and that Golden Dawn’s diaspora support is largely overstated by the movement and mainstream media. 

A final question was posed to Vasilopoulou—given the acceptance of the Golden Dawn by a small, though significant minority of Greek society, “what level of economic pain turns you into a fascist?” Vasilopoulou responded that an economic crisis alone will not trigger such a reaction, but rather an economic crisis in combination with a widespread public perception of the illegitimacy of the state and the political actors associated with the state. This amalgamation of crises, Vasilopoulou argued, may lead people to overlook less palatable elements of far-right groups like the Golden Dawn in an attempt to “shock the system”. 

Written by Barbara Mola, YC 2022, Ezra Stiles College.