by Jonathan Jones
Supporters of the far right Golden Dawn party celebrate their success in elections, in Thessaloniki, northern Greece.
Photograph: Grigoris Siamidis/Reuters
This is the real thing, a political horror. Pictures of Golden Dawn supporters holding flares hark back to an earlier age of fascism
In Greek Orthodox churches light plays a dramatic part. Candles burn in the shadows, while sunlight from high windows makes mosaics glint. In this photograph the spiritual power of light has been stolen. The religious becomes political. No god is being worshipped here. Instead, the flares held aloft are offerings of light to a nation, in a gesture that evokes the pompous, histrionic rituals of the fascist political tradition.
These men lighting up the night are members of Golden Dawn, the far right party that has won 21 seats in the Greek parliament. The 7% it got among a splintered array of parties may not look much but it is a massive leap from a2009 election share of just 0.23%.
Images of extremist parties strutting their stuff – this display celebrating the election result took place in Thessaloniki – have a certain apocalyptic fascination. Especially when Golden Dawn activists also reportedly yelled “Blood and honour” and sang martial anthems. They are not exactly hiding any echo of 20th-century political darkness – they also flaunt a symbol that unmistakably resembles a swastika.
Do we play into the hands of political fantasists by dwelling on an image like this? Is it all part of a spectacle that, like the violence of al-Qaida, tempts rational minds to irrationally exaggerate a threat? It is important not to be too rattled by such images. As John Kenneth Galbraith wrote: “It requires neither courage nor prescience to predict disaster.” On the other hand, evidence is evidence. This picture gives a clear indication of what kind of party Golden Dawn is.
The quasi-religious nature of the display goes along with an unconcealed thuggishness. The men are heavily built, and look ready for a street fight. Even the flares are ambiguous – you can throw a flare, and firebombs have been part of street fighting in Athens. Intensity and violence are both projected here: passion and menace. It is exactly the kind of imagery that was taken to extravagant heights the last time capitalism failed.
The “classic” fascism of the 1920s and 30s replaced the dreary routines of democratic politics with emotionally intoxicating, aesthetically sensational mass performances with a religious grandeur. Light played a potent part in Nazi spectacle just as it does here. While enemies of fascism associate it with the heart of darkness, it sees itself as pursuing a holy grail of light, a sacral glow of national purity. At the Nuremberg rally in 1934, the architect Albert Speer created an ethereal “cathedral of light”, with vertical spotlights creating the illusion of a glowing gothic building of impossible proportions. In this case the claim to a religious mission was explicit: in Speer’s cathedral of light the Nazi party renewed its faith.
This image shares that sense of politics as an intolerant faith, if on a far smaller and tackier scale. Although Golden Dawn has won seats in Greece’s parliament, the picture makes clear that its soul is on the streets, in exhibitions of power that have nothing to do with debate.
A nasty picture, but am I feasting on its drama? There seems to be no reason for complacency or irony about what is happening here. This is the real thing, a political horror. And the social and economic factors behind it get ever worse. This week new figures revealed that youth unemployment in Greece reached 53.8% in February. With more than half of its youth sentenced to waste, poverty and boredom, Greece is effectively living in the Europe of the Great Depression. It is surely no surprise to glimpse the hellish politics of that period in this picture.
The Nazi echoes in images like this have hopefully done for Golden Dawn. It is reported that Greeks are shocked by the party’s true nature, as displayed since its election victory catapulted an obscure movement on to the national stage. Let’s hope so. The party denies it is “neo-Nazi” and says it is simply ultra-nationalist. This picture tells its own story.