A Warning from Athens: In Greece, the Far Right Has Taken Advantage of Public Anxiety Caused by Hyper-Austerity, Stoking Xenophobia and Violence. but the Country's Experience Is by No Means Unique

By Trilling, Daniel | New Statesman (1996), December 7, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Warning from Athens: In Greece, the Far Right Has Taken Advantage of Public Anxiety Caused by Hyper-Austerity, Stoking Xenophobia and Violence. but the Country's Experience Is by No Means Unique


Trilling, Daniel, New Statesman (1996)


It's Saturday morning in Athens and the players are taking up their positions for a familiar ritual. Around the National Garden, behind the Greek parliament, fortified police vans lie in wait, their occupants playing cards or chatting on mobile phones. Along the streets that stretch north from Syntagma Square, in front of the parliament building, there are more police, standing on street corners in riot gear, drinking iced coffee and idly watching groups of tourists or Athenians running Saturday errands. Crisis or no, this is still a bustling capital city.

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Next door to the National Archaeological Museum, the courtyard of which is peopled with ancient statues*rescued from a shipwreck, limbs eroded and faces barnacled, is the Athens Polytechnic. Inside the gates, a crowd of people--elderly men, mothers with teenage children, twentysoinething couples--has gathered to lay red and white carnations in front of a memorial stone. Around them, students are making banners, leafleting and gathering into groups according to political affiliation. Later, they will march noisily into the centre of Athens. For now, however, the atmosphere is quiet, reverential, if a little tense.

Demonstrations have become commonplace in Athens, so much so that people talk of protest fatigue". In the past month alone, there have been two general strikes, plus another walkout on 14 November as part of a pan-European day of action. On the night of 7 November, police tear-gassed protesters in Syntagma Square, while inside the parliament MPs debated a new wave of public spending cuts and privatisation demanded by the troika--the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank--in return for another slice of bailout money. Opposition is such that the measures are being implemented by ministerial decree--emergency legislation reminiscent of Germany in the 193os. And it's hurting: Eurostat reports that 31 per cent of the population, 3.5 million people, are living near or below the poverty line and is per cent cannot afford "basic commodities". Greece is a laboratory for austerity, the most extreme iteration of policies that are being imposed by governments from London to Lisbon.

On Saturday 17 November, the protest is of a different kind. It is the date on which Greece commemorates the fall of the military junta that ruled the country from 1967 to 1974. On this day in 1973, a tank burst through the gates of the Athens Polytechnic, which had been occupied by students protesting against the military regime and demanding the right to elect their leaders. This direct democracy had been too much for the colonels to bear and 24 people were killed in the crackdown that followed. The massacre spelled the beginning of the end for their regime, which fell a year later. The 17th has long been a symbolic date for the Greek left but in the past few years the ranks of marchers have been swelled by a new generation.

As the students begin to form into blocs, stamping their feet in unison, the old chant of those who fought the junta goes up: "Bread, education, freedom!" Now, though, it comes with a reply: "The dictatorship is not over!"

Manolis Glezos, white-haired and dressed in a sharp, powder-blue jacket, leans forward across the desk and jabs a finger. "I want to write an 'I accuse' to Britain. During the war, we stood by them as allies. So where's Britain now?"

At the age of 90, Glezos knows Greece's recent history intimately. In 1941, he and a comrade tore down the swastika flag from the Acropolis, at the height of the Nazi occupation. They were imprisoned and tortured. When civil war erupted in 1946, between the communist-led resistance partisans and a right-wing government propped up by Britain and the US, he was sentenced to death. He was sent to prison camps twice more in the years that followed--along with thousands of other leftists and eventually forced into exile when the junta came to power. …

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