Right-wing and populist discourses in the context of the economic crisis
by Christina Koulouri (Panteion University, Athens)
Since the beginning of the economic crisis, and as Greece was sinking into recession, German-Greek relations have been gradually worsening, as is reflected by media discourse as well as by populist politicians’ rhetoric. In both countries, the image of the “other” has been constructed through negative stereotypes while the historical past has been systematically abused by extreme right-wing and populist left-wing parties. Ancient Greek symbols were used by German media to denigrate modern Greeks, while the traumatic memory of the Nazi occupation in Greece was revived by Greek media inspiring anti-German feelings connected to the present role of Germany in the Greek crisis. The role of the media (mainly populist) in both Greece and Germany has been crucial in constructing and propagating hostile attitudes; we may speak about a “media war” which started with the Focus magazine front-page in February 2010 and continued with similar responses by Greek newspapers.
On the other hand, a neo-Nazi party, “Golden Dawn” (GD), saw its votes increasing dramatically in Greece from 0.29% in the parliamentary elections of 2009 to 6.97% in 2012, when its elected MPs for the first time entered the Greek parliament. Its counterpart in Germany, the National Democratic Party (NPD) has a low number of supporters and cannot be compared with GD on this level; however, the number of people who agree with xenophobic right-wing discourse has increased in Germany. Interestingly enough, the two parties have developed contacts and common activities, like the memorial march (2011) for the victims of the Allied bombings during the Second World War in Dresden. They also share the core elements of extreme right-wing ideology: anti-Semitism, anti-communism, anti-parliamentarism, xenophobia, violence, chauvinism, Euro-scepticism, admiration for Nazism. They both use the internet and the social media to propagate their ideas and recruit new members. Perhaps this ideological affinity explains the fact that NPD has been targeting Greeks only indirectly during the crisis. However, GD has tried to conceal its connections with the NPD, especially since its local rivals were accusing the Neo-Nazi party of being pro-German. At a time when patriotism in Greek society became synonymous with Anti-Germanism, it was impossible for a party which called itself “nationalist” to attract audiences by expressing its admiration to Hitler and his Nazi compatriots. Gradually, its official organ, the Golden Dawn newspaper, as well as its website muted their revisionism of World War II and started expressing, instead, fierce criticism of Berlin’s policy, also referring to German debts to Greece from the time of WWII (war reparations, occupation loan). In this respect, Golden Dawn’s discourse has been overlapping with that of the right-wing populist press.
The populist press has a much larger audience than extreme right-wing parties and therefore its discourse is more likely to have significant impact on public opinion, especially when the press undertakes a real campaign as was the case with BILD newspaper. Actually, BILD started scapegoating Greeks already from 2010, depicting them as lazy and chaotic and their politicians as corrupt. The process of othering was founded on the contrast with hard-working, efficient and successful Germans. The picture of two opponents, which inevitably involved a feeling of superiority on behalf of the Germans, might have aroused indignation and anger against Greeks who were represented as spending German money ungratefully.
Anti-Greek articles and cartoons from the German media were constantly reproduced by the Greek media in order to stigmatise German “arrogance” at a time when the Greek society suffered. Actually, reproducing negative pictures was aimed at triggering the Greeks’ indignation against the “colonialist” attitude of a strong country towards a weak one. Berlin’s policy towards Athens, i.e. austerity measures and memoranda, was also strongly criticised as biased and wrong. Obviously, the stance of Greek media was not unanimous – neither of the German ones. However, populist voices were louder than moderate ones in both countries.
The Greek Sunday tabloid Proto Thema (“First Issue”), the newspaper with the highest circulation in the country, is a good example of the contradictions, the inconsistencies and the transformations of the representations of Germany by the Greek media. After a provocative front-page greeting of Chancellor Merkel with the word “Heil” (October 7, 2012) during her first visit to Athens, the newspaper held a moderate attitude during the Chancellor’s second visit to Athens (April 13, 2014). In general, it seems that both the Greek and the German media were targeting mainly their own governments, and that they were using stereotyping against Germans and Greeks, respectively, in order to put pressure on their own political elites.
Abuse of history and symbols is another characteristic of populist discourse. If Focus magazine featured Aphrodite of Melos giving the finger, Greek newspapers depicted Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble in Nazi uniforms. Readers can decode the message of a picture if the “language” is simple and symbols are easily recognized. The “war of symbols” lasted till the Greek Prime Minister A. Tsipras signed the last Memorandum in July 2015. After that date, gradually, mutual negative representations between Germany and Greece became more and more rare. Of course the reasons for that are more complex: the refugee crisis swept all other priorities and attracted media attention; terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists changed hierarchies in othering. Europe seemed less concerned by the unresolved Greek debt crisis.
These recent developments do not result necessarily in silencing the negative stereotyping of Germany in Greece. The question of war reparations remains open and articles are still being published on this issue in the Greek media – and not only in right-wing or populist ones. The fact that Greece suffered greatly during the Axis occupation is still alive in collective memory even if resentment is rarely expressed by living witnesses. Victims are expecting recognition of their suffering by the culprits, as happened between Germany and France. It is not by chance that the German President Joachim Gauck visited Greece in May 2014, when German-Greek relations were at a crucial low point, and he paid tribute to the people massacred by the Nazis in the village Ligiades (in northwestern Greece) on October 3, 1943.1 It was the first formal apology by a German official to the victims of Nazi atrocities in Greece. Apparently, this was also one of the results of the crisis.