Yiannis Baboulias

The fall of Golden Dawn

The party may have imploded, but the dangers of Greek neo-Nazism haven’t gone away

The fall of Golden Dawn
An anti-fascist rally outside the Court of Appeal in Athens during the Golden Dawn trial. Credit: Getty Images
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Next week, the biggest Nazi-related trial since Nuremberg will come to a close. Following the murder of Greek musician Pavlos Fyssas by a member of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn seven years ago, the entire leadership and dozens of members were charged under counter-terrorism legislation with running an organised crime syndicate. The case file, which runs at more than 3,000 pages, includes charges of murder, arson, possession of guns and explosives, and even trafficking. A combination of the famously sclerotic Greek justice system and circumstance held up the trial for years. The pandemic and the lockdown that followed it pushed the verdict back even further. But now, at last, it’s nearly over.

The party’s troubles extend beyond the courts. In July, Golden Dawn lost its last MEP in the European Parliament. For reasons that are still unclear, MEP Athanasios Konstantinou was kicked out of the party by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, its leader since the early 1980s when it was a marginal, openly neo-Nazi movement with occult elements.

A year earlier, his party had failed to gain entry to the Greek parliament. With around 270,000 votes, they came just shy of the 3 per cent minimum threshold. Following the exit of its only other MEP, Ioannis Lagos, who left GD to start his own party earlier this year, the once most pre-eminent far-right party in western politics now finds itself with no representatives at all.

And just like that, with no access to funding or the legal immunity that MPs enjoy in Greece, the GD and Michaloliakos find themselves on the ropes. The party’s deputy leader, Ilias Kasidiaris, a nephew to Michaloliakos, also joined the rats fleeing a sinking ship. The party that he set up in June after leaving GD behind, called Greeks for the Fatherland, already boasts 20,000 members.

This split in the significant but ultimately limited pool of far-right voters in Greece suggests that GD will never again be able to enter parliament. What happened to the party that was once seen as the largest and most extreme example of the far-right resurgence across the West?

For an answer to that, we need to look back to how the party found its footing in the 1990s, and even to before that, to when Michaloliakos started his career. Fresh out of prison, where he served time for possession of explosives that were used in an attack on a cinema in 1979, and where he received the blessing of the jailed dictator Georgios Papadopoulos to carry the torch for Greek fascism, Michaloliakos built a movement that has served him throughout its existence like a personality cult.

Ever since the early 1990s, when the opening of the borders between Greece and Albania gave rise to a significant anti-immigration movement, he managed to carefully build a presence that utilised everything from established propaganda techniques to gang tactics in deprived neighbourhoods of Athens and other Greek cities.

His first mainstream success was much earlier than people generally assume, when he managed to get elected on to the local council of Athens in 2010, before the financial crisis that is still plaguing Greece really took hold. But certainly the great shock came in 2012, when the Golden Dawn managed to enter the Greek parliament with 21 MPs and 7 per cent of the popular vote.

A sense of invulnerability enveloped both the leadership and the activists of the party. Their violent actions, known to journalists and the authorities for years, took an increasingly public character: pogroms in downtown Athens, beatings and stabbings of immigrants and leftists. The violence culminated in the murders of Afghan refugee Shehzad Luqman and Pavlos Fyssas in 2013. GD’s thugs had become so emboldened that when one of them stabbed Fyssas, he is reported as saying to the police officer who arrived on the scene: ‘Don’t give me away, I’m one of you […] I am Golden Dawn.’

He had good reasons to say that. I’ve carried out many interviews with immigrants and activists over the past ten years. It became evident that on many occasions, with instances recorded and thoroughly backed by evidence, the police and Golden Dawn did act in co-ordination, while it’s an open secret that the party enjoys a lot of support in the ranks of security forces. In fact, an investigation by Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, places police officers on the scene of Fyssas’s murder before it took place, meaning they failed to act.

But on this occasion, their actions forced the hand of the then Conservative government under prime minister Antonis Samaras. The authorities moved swiftly to arrest the party leadership and dozens of activists, before throwing the book at them.

Michaloliakos and his other deputy Christos Pappas, alongside more officials of the party, served 18 months in pre-trial detention. The evidence gathered by the authorities from their homes included never-before-seen videos of closed gatherings that took place in their offices, and even private meetings. Their content left no doubt about the nature of the organisation. In recorded speeches and conversations, a feverish and deranged vision unfolded. Whereas Michaloliakos was always careful to place himself as a Greek patriot in public, even if a far-right one, in private he would profess his love of Nazi Germany, which he called ‘motherland’ on many occasions.

He declared the Greek people weak and easily fooled. He bragged about the Nazi-inspired themes in his party, from the Führerprinzip — leader principle — that he enforced strictly to the directly translated Nazi-era chants that his party uses (such as ‘Blood, honour, Golden Dawn’, a direct translation of the Nazi ‘Blut und Ehre’). GD were, in his own words ‘the nationalists, the National Socialists, the fascists’.

The murder of a young Greek man, and the evidence that started surfacing, chipped away at the party’s image. Another far-right party, Greek Solution, less focused on violent activism and more in the vein of QAnon conspiracy theorists, stole some of GD’s voters and managed to enter the Greek parliament last year with ten MPs. New Democracy too brought less extreme voters back to its fold by giving more prominence to the hard right wing of the party under Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Kasidiaris, sensing the change in the wind, suggested a restructuring of the party to Michaloliakos. Michaloliakos would remain as honorary leader, while Kasidiaris would take over the day-to-day operations. The memorandum submitted by Kasidiaris to the party, though, reveals much more besides this internal rift.

Exposed by veteran investigative journalist Dimitris Psarras, the document establishes several damning facts as the Greek judges prepare to deliver their verdict. It establishes for instance that the party did indeed operate under the Führerprinzip, something which Michaloliakos tried to disavow. It also contains the phrase ‘Our ideology is Greek nationalism with a social character. We reject Nazism-fascism and any other non-Greek ideological current’ — essentially admitting that until now it adhered to German-inspired Nazism.

And by saying that ‘We will immediately remove elements that deviate from the party line and fully adhere to legal order’, it suggests that until now, convicted criminals weren’t kicked out of the party, something that the prosecution has supported throughout the trials.

But the führer is unwilling to loosen the iron grip he has on the party, even as it’s sinking. In an announcement, he addressed Kasidiaris and other former party officials jumping ship by saying: ‘My only mistake, that I acknowledge, was you!’

While the GD is unlikely to make a comeback, the danger is far from over. Kasidiaris is positioning himself not only as an heir, but also a moderniser, looking to take inspiration from elements in the US and Germany. He has already declared Covid-19 to be a conspiracy, echoing movements in Europe and the US. Through his YouTube channel, he also claimed that churches weren’t allowed to operate during the lockdown period, but mosques were open as usual — even though Greece has no operational official mosques.

His adoption of alt-right rhetorical points, combined with his past as a ‘hardcore’ street activist, might prove to be a potent mix, especially if the situation with refugees stranded in the Greek islands gets worse.

Whatever the result of the trial, little has actually changed on the ground. This dark chapter of Greece’s contemporary history could still prove to be much longer than anyone thought possible.