From Greece to the UK, false histories are a key part of the far right’s rise
By: Andrew Marks
Date: 24 August 2018
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see” – Edgar Degas
Today’s society owes more than a small part to how we have seen others and ourselves in history. In particular, and something that is highly relevant to Global Justice Now’s work, the historical misrepresentations of groups within culture have held huge significance in the rise of the far-right within the UK and across Europe.
I was recently on a trip to Athens where I was made aware of the reality of Greece’s turbulent relationship with the far-right; notably, the presence of the country’s ultranationalist third party ‘Golden Dawn’. As a political party, Golden Dawn promotes racist agendas and is often labelled as neo-Nazi in its violent anti-Semitism and homophobia. The party’s glorification of the Nazis in the 1980s is well documented and, despite attempts to make the party a little more politically palatable in recent years, comments made by the party’s spokespersonand MP Ilias Kasidiaris in 2011 continue to locate it in the lineage of 20th century fascism:
“What would the future of Europe and the whole modern world be like if World War II hadn’t stopped the renewing route of National Socialism [the Nazis]? Certainly fundamental values which mainly derive from ancient Greek culture, would be dominant in every state and would define the fate of peoples. Romanticism as a spiritual movement and classicism would prevail against the decadent subculture that corroded the white man”.
What I find particularly striking about Kasidiaris’ speech is the discussion of values in conjunction with a historical legacy, particularly the cultural legacy of ancient Greece.
Kasidiaris’ vision of classical antiquity neglects to bring with it classical Greek slavery, ritualistic slaughter of animals, violent misogyny and other practices we now view as immoral. The classical Greek narrative that Golden Dawn relies on is an imagined story or an incomplete one at best. The architecture and visual culture that Golden Dawn associate themselves with – classical architecture, abundant use of laurel leaves in their branding, the Swastika-influenced classical meander which forms the party’s flag, etc, are appropriated, with the unwanted elements of its attached history removed. This includes most of the multiracial population that made up ancient Greece in the first place.
Additionally, the vehement homophobia of a party that glorifies ancient Greek culture at every opportunity is ever so slightly ironic. Nevertheless, what Golden Dawn relies upon in terms of forming a political and cultural identity is a consequence of the misrepresentation of antiquity – a cut and paste version of history.
Misrepresentation in the UK
The appropriation and misrepresentation of past visual cultures in order to legitimise social values is not unique in the Greek context. Imagined, mythologised histories are inevitably the place we all ‘ground’ ourselves. The moment where this becomes dangerous, as we see with Golden Dawn, is where a lack of education over the complexity of history and its many actors means that people share in an invented history that violently excludes those who were also a part of the real one.
This has particular weight in the UK context following the Windrush scandal. When a vast group of people like the Windrush generation are repeatedly underrepresented or omitted within the narrative of the formation of contemporary UK culture, its wealth, and its ‘values’, a grave injustice occurs. When groups of people are written out of the history of a nation, people are inclined to believe that it is unjust that they share in its benefits when they have been so absent in historical representations of the UK.
This is a failure of collective education, accurate representation and a failure that allows a rise in identity politics and a move towards xenophobia. As David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, noted in a tweet: “The wealth of this country was built on the backs of Caribbean citizens. The context of the Windrush crisis is a complete lack of understanding and knowledge about the history of empire and colonialism that is at the very heart of the Windrush story”. The dominant perception of the British Empire and colonialism is as warped as the vision of classical Greece by Golden Dawn.
As I learnt in Athens, Greece’s educational system has never addressed its post-war fascist history and as a result it still sees it today, whereas Germany made a conscious effort to try to acknowledge this in order for it to not rise again – many German schools, for example, tour Nazi concentration camps to combat anti-Semitism.
It has been said many times that in order to move towards a more accurate representation of our own history and towards a more just vision of society, Britain also needs to accept the legacy of colonialism and stop shaving off the inconvenient facts. Education needs to include the slave trade, the concentration camps of the Anglo-Boer War, the Partition of India, the Opium Wars, and much more.
British society and its prosperity are formed from the disproportionate labour of people who are omitted from its history. The linear, racially homogenous vision of UK history that the far-right have – that of the BNP, the EDL and the Football Lads Alliance (FLA), has never existed. This is a painful but important thing to accept – that our collective identities are based on false narratives that are misrepresented in art and on television. Whilst it is perhaps easier to not address this, it is morally just to re-educate ourselves as to these inconvenient facts.
Identities are very rarely simple and historically we are all unimaginably mixed up with each other. However, this is only understood through education and a conscious effort to continually challenge the ‘single’ narrative. Justice does not only come in the form of trade, migration and climate, but also in fighting for the inclusion of people within everyday conversations and representations.
Picture – (map of the British empire 1886) Boston Public Library via Flickr // CC2.0