From The Australian, 5 Oct 2013, by Ben McIntyre (The Times):
...Antonis Samaras, the beleaguered conservative Prime Minister of Greece, has [compared Greece to Germany in the chaotic period that led to the rise of Hitler:]
"Greek democracy stands before what is perhaps its greatest challenge...[with social cohesion] endangered by rising unemployment, just as it was towards the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany."
A year after Samaris drew this dramatic analogy, the Greek state has moved to combat the most obvious manifestation of that challenge, by arresting the head of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party and several of his followers, and charging them with criminal conspiracy after the murder of a young anti-racist hip-hop star.
Modern comparisons with Nazi Germany are tempting, familiar and frequently simplistic. When Syria used chemical weapons on its own people, John Kerry lost no time in comparing Bashar Assad to Adolf Hitler, insisting "this is our Munich moment". Saddam Hussein, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Slobodan Milosevic: all have been awarded the Hitler label, convenient shorthand for "nasty".
Greece is not in the grip of hyper-inflation, moderate politics has not been abandoned, Golden Dawn has not achieved the meteoric rise of the National Socialists in 1932, and Nikos Michaloliakos is not Hitler (although he keeps a portrait of the Fuhrer in his home). A pudgy, grey-haired, 56-year-old mathematician, he is a boilerplate bigot with zero charisma.
Yet the echoes of Weimar grow louder: this week Michaloliakos was charged in court, while his followers chanted: "Blood, honour, Golden Dawn", an adapted Nazi slogan, and vowed, in traditional fascist style: "You will only stop us with bullets."
Many of the factors that pulled apart the Weimar Republic are present in Greece: mass unemployment, political paralysis, spreading poverty, social unrest, rising crime and rampant corruption, suffused with an acute sense of national humiliation.
Austerity measures imposed to pay off Greece's crushing debts are seen by many Greeks in the same way that Germans viewed reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, a brutal degradation enforced by international bankers, a disgrace, a stab in the back.
No one is yet wheeling around barrow-loads of worthless currency to buy bread, but with middle-class Athenians reduced to rooting through dustbins, living standards plummeting and political violence growing, radicalism is on the rise. As in Weimar Germany, the racist anti-immigrant Right in Greece has seized on the chaos with extraordinary effectiveness.
In 1928 the Nazis were a splinter group with only 2.7 per cent of the vote. In 2009 Golden Dawn seemed even more irrelevant, with support hovering around 0.2 per cent. In last year's elections, campaigning on the slogan "We can rid this land of filth", it garnered nearly half a million votes, in a population of 11 million, winning 18 seats in the Hellenic parliament. That may be fraction of the 37 per cent won by Hitler in 1932, but is still a grim reflection of the speed at which economic dislocation can poison politics. Unemployment was 30 per cent when Hitler took power; in Greece it is near that, with more than 50 per cent youth unemployment.
Golden Dawn rejects the neo-Nazi label, while revelling in Nazi imagery, including a black, white and red flag and an emblem unmistakably close to a swastika. Its methods mimic those of the Brownshirts, attacking immigrants, parading in paramilitary dress and shutting down theatrical productions it considers immoral.
As in Weimar Germany, Greek right-wing extremists have found support in the police and military. According to some surveys nearly half the Greek police support Golden Dawn. Last month a message posted on the Special Forces Reserve Union website called for an interim government "under military guarantee" - in other words, a coup.
But if Greece offers disturbing parallels with Weimar Germany, the analogy might also offer a way to combat the rise of fascism. In his biography of Hitler, Ian Kershaw writes that the Nazi rise to power came about, in large part, because of the "blatant disregard by Germany's power elites for safeguarding democracy". Centrist parties believed they could control and co-opt the extremists, and were destroyed by them.
As Golden Dawn has grown in power, there have been signs that some on the moderate right might be willing to make a deal with them. At the same time, the State appeared to turn a blind eye to the rising tide of violence by Golden Dawn supporters against immigrants, ethnic minorities and political opponents.
Finally, the Government has acted, investigating infiltration of the police and arresting Golden Dawn MPs and other supporters. Rather than trying to ban the party, the Government is charging extremists with membership of a violent criminal group.
Michaloliakos is the first elected party chief to be held in jail since the end of military rule in Greece, and his arrest has substantially raised the political stakes. If the prosecution can demonstrate a direct connection between Golden Dawn and the murder of the rapper Pavlos Fyssas, that might destroy the party by exposing it as a genuinely subversive and criminal organisation. Proving criminal conspiracy would enable party funding to be cut off and the ejection of convicted MPs.
But if Michaloliakos wriggles free, or escapes with only minor punishment, then there is another deeply disturbing historical precedent.
The trial of Hitler in 1924, after the failed Beer Hall putsch, was intended to destroy Nazism and had precisely the opposite effect, providing the party with national publicity and an ideal propaganda platform. Hitler emerged from prison after nine months, having written Mein Kampf, a martyr in many eyes.
A successful prosecution of Golden Dawn would safeguard Greek democracy; a failed one would imperil it still more gravely. Michaloliakos will not be sitting idle in prison: if history is any guide, he will be writing an account of His Struggle.