The brass swastika rested on the table, a grandiose war-eagle perched above, as passersby strolled the balmy avenue, wending their way past quiet cafés on the road to the Acropolis.
Comfortable in his bigotry, the old man tending the stall dismissed my incomprehensible abuses with a practiced wave of the hand. Perhaps it had something to do with the electoral success of Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-Nazi party, which had recently taken seven percent of the vote; or maybe it was because their biggest constituency was the police force itself.
Greece is a beautiful country, which entered the modern-era in the early 19th century when Ukrainian intellectuals began to talk about breaking away from the Ottoman Empire and stoked the imaginations of European dreamers. Like so many nations, it was born in the mind and backed by the military might of great powers. The revolution was the cause celebré of Europe in the 1820s, and Lord Byron, the romantic poet, even fought and died in its now forgotten struggle.
Yet, the state was born into a crippling debt, which was not paid-off until the 20th century. From the start, it followed a boom-bust cycle of growth and decline in which, for some time following the world wars, people even spoke of the Greek Miracle. But the state was now in a down-cycle, brought on by reckless borrowing, government corruption and the stranglehold of creditors.
Athens can be an incredibly warm and human-scale city, made magical with ancient ruins, but it has also taken on in many places the appearance of a third-world country. Most shops in the neighborhood where we stayed appeared abandoned, much of the block looked bombed out. Several of the buildings were in a state of disrepair not much better than the ancient Athenian ruins. And the economic decline portended a deeper despair of the spirit.
Greece has recently become the first stop for refugees on the road to Europe as well. Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis, the victims of war and genocide, streaming in on blow-up rafts, tossed on the wine-dark sea, like Odysseus struggling to find land. They too were the victims of epic battles, with their own odysseys no doubt waiting to be crafted into verse. Most were shuttered away in camps, where my partner was training teachers how to work with trauma. But refugees also dotted some of the busier streets, and we were told neo-Nazis often beat them up.
Greece’s second largest city of Thessaloniki was almost half-Jewish prior to the Second World War, when over 80 percent of the country’s Jews were murdered in the Nazi occupation. Thousands fought the Nazi invaders, side-by-side with Greeks, in a war that would ravage the country, but contemporary fascists somehow think themselves patriotic.
Neo-Nazis are not the brightest bunch. In a bid to outdo the confusion of their compatriots at home, a handful followed Lord Byron’s romance and travelled to Syria to fight for the Assad regime. There they joined the jihadists of Hezbollah and the Iranian National Guard in the deluded belief they were fighting Islamist terrorists. Perhaps they were more drawn to Vladimir Putin, now assisting the regime in its genocide of Aleppo. The Russian Nazis, who he tacitly supports, comprise about half the world’s total and also like to think of themselves as patriotic, in spite of the Nazi invasion of Russia killing 20 million.
Jews may not think themselves related to Syrian refugees, but not so long ago they were the ones suffering genocide at the hands of Nazis. Now the Muslims have occupied their old social niche. Hence, the neo-Nazis of Greece are also tacit allies in a way with the American-Israel lobby, which has been propagating Islamophobic arguments for decades. And the European Right, which used to attack the Jews is attacking Muslims instead. It is also softer and more 21st century, with the only gas chambers being in the bathrooms, decked out with fancy tiles and softer hues, but the fascism is real enough.
While most think of Greece as foundational to Western civilization, it can often appear uncannily Eastern. The Greeks were the first people to break away from the Ottoman Empire. Later, the Lebanese and Egyptians, Iraqis and Syrians, and numerous others would follow. My partner, whose roots are Lebanese, points out an array of similarities. The walking center of the city, the leisurely way of relating, the rocky outcrops and seaside inlets, even the comfort with stagnation and corruption all betray Greece’s roots in the former Ottoman Empire.
Visitors have been traveling to Europe for a couple hundred years now expecting an encounter with the West only to be met with these paradoxes. Perhaps they have just been coming with the wrong set of expectations. But it is ironic to see the Greeks taking such a liking to Nazism, given the extent to which German Nazis devastated their country. And it is even more astonishing, given that the movement is largely a response to a more recent economic devastation also brought on by German hatred, this time of a gentler and more techno-economic sort.
Refugees report to us that most Greeks have been wonderful and welcoming. The Lebanese have similarly opened their arms to Syrian refugees, who now constitute an unbelievable quarter of their population. And this reminds me of a video taken some time back of children in Gaza, now suffering a ten year siege and multiple attacks from Israel, and often referred to as the most densely populated place in the world, who were asked how they felt about taking in a million Syrian refugees. And in the best Arab tradition of hospitality, one-by-one they exclaimed it their duty and the neighborly thing to do. Even when pressed over their population concerns and lack of resources, they nevertheless persisted.
It was in this same spirit that the great powers of Europe once helped Greece fight a revolution and later brought them into their new European Union. Perhaps we all have a lot to learn from the children of Gaza.
Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May