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Warnings from history in Greek crisis

What happened in Germany during the 1930s does have crucial parallels in today’s economic and political crisis. So the start of a new television series about the rise of Adolf Hitler being broadcast by the beleaguered BBC tonight is timely.

Historian Laurence Rees writes in BBC’s online magazine, that Hitler’s story holds a “stark warning for the modern day”. Particularly at a time when the openly pro-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece looks set to become the third largest party in any future election.

Journalist and author Paul Mason, and even the right-wing Daily Mail (which in its day actually supported Hitler for a period) have drawn attention to the shocking parallels between the blackshirts of Golden Dawn and Nazi party thugs of the 1930s.

With open support from the Greek police, Golden Dawn members march under the Nazi swastika, terrorising and beating up immigrants. They have attacked anti-right protesters. Homophobic Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panagiotaros and supporters closed down a theatre in Athens performing Terrence McNally’s play, Corpus Christi, beating up and terrorising actors.

This fascist party is tapping in to the existential insecurity suffered by Greeks as new €13.5bn a year cuts and tax rises demanded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund are imposed on a suffering population. The young and the elderly are victims of a regime that represents the interests of global capital.

So it is definitely worth looking at the parallels between events in Greece and those in Germany some 80 years ago.  

The Germany of the 1920s saw a massive economic crisis in which the German mark lost virtually all its value. The Wall Street crash of 1929 resulted in a depression and massive unemployment, not only in the US but also in Germany.

Electoral support for the Nazi party soared from 12 seats in 1928 to 230 seats by 1932 making it the largest party in the Reichstag. Big money from German industrialists poured in to swell Nazi party coffers allowing them to print millions of election pamphlets.

Crucially, those who sought to stop Nazism were held back by their own leaders.  Before 1933, anti-Nazi deputies in the Reichstag still held over 50% of the votes. But, due to the disastrous ultra-left policies of the German Communist Party – which characterised the Social Democrats as “social fascists” – the anti-Nazi forces were split down the middle.

Naturally, Mason is right to warn of too direct comparisons between Weimar Germany and today’s Greece. He points, for example, to the melting away of support for what he terms Greece’s “centrist parties”. In poll ratings, the Pasok’s share has plummeted from 40% down to 5.5%, in comparison to Golden Dawn’s 12% with the left-coalition Syriza at 30%.

He says the real problem is political disaffection and a sense of “hopeless inertia”. He writes: “You can feel what it is like when the political system – and even the rule of law – becomes paralysed and atrophies.”   

So is the future of Greece really down to people’s psychology – the “fight or flight” instinct, as Mason suggests? Well, no. Just as German support for Nazism cannot be ascribed to a spurious “German national character”.  

One of the greatest lessons from Hitler’s rise to power was that parliamentary democracy failed to stop the Nazi’s seizing power in March 1933. In fact, the Nazis came to power legally within the terms of the constitution. This does not mean that anti-fascists should disregard parliament, or refuse to defend it against the far right.

But democratic rights in such a period as ours cannot be defended solely by relying on the very institutions that have failed, or creating alliances with bourgeois parties as disastrously happened in Spain in 1936 with the formation of the Popular Front.

Everywhere, not just in Greece, confidence in establishment institutions is in decline. Parliamentary politics fails to convince or capture people’s imagination. The solution is not to revive a political system that is tied inextricably to corporate power but to work for a new constitutional settlement that extends democracy in new ways, beyond representation. That’s what the November 17 assembly The Revolution Will Be Networked, will focus on.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary
12 November 2012

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