Dusk Approaches for Greece's Golden Dawn: Fighting Fascism in Court
Written by Silke Atallah Hentze
“My Pavlos defeated them alone!” cried out Magda Fyssas, mother of slain rapper Pavlos Fyssas; the far-right party, Golden Dawn, was being ruled a criminal organization after five years of trial that came to an end on October 7th, 2020.
Golden Dawn, which espoused a neo-fascist ideology reminiscent of Nazism, had risen to prominence in the Greek political scene in the aftermath of the financial crisis by promising nationalist solutions to the many crises Greece was facing. Positioning themselves as representing the “downtrodden Greeks,” they managed to win support among a broad social base. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, they won a total of 18 seats. During their transition to the third largest party in Greece, violent behavior and rhetoric among party members and supporters was incessant. They targeted migrants and leftist activists; the most high-profile instance was the killing of Greek rapper Pavlos Fyssas. This violence continued to be part and parcel of the Golden Dawn ideology.
Pavlos Fyssas, an outspoken anti-fascist rapper, was killed in 2013 by a Golden Dawn squad. His murder quickly prompted arrests among the top leadership of the party. Although much of the leadership was shortly put into pre-trial detention, Golden Dawn still managed to win 10% of the vote in the European Parliamentary elections in May of 2014 and then 17 seats in the parliamentary elections of January 2015. Only recently has the support waned; Golden Dawn won no seats in 2019 and were forced to close their Athens office.
As the historic verdict was announced, ruling Golden Dawn a criminal organization, activists and Greeks alike celebrated in the streets of Athens, rejoicing in the enactment of the rule of law and the condemnation of violent fascist ideology. President Katerina Sakellaropoulou called it “an important day for democracy.” But what was it that had allowed such a group to flourish in the first place? How could it become the third biggest party in a country that had suffered directly at the hands of Nazis during World War II and then again under a right-wing military junta from 1967 to 1974?
World War II left an indelible mark on Greece, like it did many other countries. Having been able to push back Mussolini’s forces in 1940, the Greeks positioned themselves in the Allied camp. Hitler then assisted his Italian ally in 1941, prompting a three year long occupation of Greece. It was under this occupation that the Greek Jewish population was nearly decimated, the Greek economy destroyed, and 100,000 Greeks were starved to death. Resistance groups, across the political spectrum, sprung up in response to these hardships.
When the war then came to an end and the Allies pushed Axis forces out, a new conflict erupted in Greece. One side was represented by a resistance group that had formed the National Liberation Front (EAM), a Communist faction with an armed wing. On the other side was the Greek Government army, part of the Government that had been in exile under Nazi occupation. The conflict continued in a Cold War context until 1949, and resulted in the defeat of the Communist armed faction.
However, WWII was not Greece’s only experience with an authoritarian regime. 1967 saw a coup d’état led by three right-wing military officers: Colonel Georges Papadopoulos, Colonel Nicolaos Makarezos, and General Stylianos Pattakos. Known as the Greek Junta or the Regime of the Colonels, this government ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. Constitutional protections of human rights were suspended and many politicians were arrested. The Colonels justified and legitimized their actions saying they were responding to a Communist threat. Following their right-wing beliefs, civil liberties were restricted, and arrests and torture of political opponents was common. Pressures from students and conflict with nearby Turkey over Cyprus eventually ended the dictatorship. This opened the space for regime change called Metapolitefsi, or transitioning into a democracy.
This political system would soon be called into question as Greece faced one of its worst economic crises in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.
More than an Economic Crisis:
The world was hit by one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression in 2008 which quickly saw a global recession. Greece was severely hit by the crisis because of its spiralling spending deficit; it had consistently borrowed a lot more than it could raise in taxes. Revealing its huge debt in 2010, amounting to 148.3% of GDP, Greece asked for a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. These bailout packages began in 2010, but also entailed several austerity measures.
These austerity measures meant years of economic hardships for all Greeks. The proposals called for pay cuts, pension and tax reform, and privatization. People within the public sector were set to lose bonuses, salaries, and jobs, while the private sector was also allowed to lay off more people (from 2% every month to 4%). Reforms regarding pensions sought to prevent early retirement, while tax reforms increased value-added tax from 19% to 23%.
However, as scholar Sofia Vasilopoulou points out, in Greece, unlike other hard hit countries such as Portugal and Spain, this economic crisis turned into a much broader crisis - both political and ideological, that rocked the very legitimacy of the system. As such, in Greece the party system which had been characterized by the domination of two parties, PASOK and New Democracy, was shaken. These two parties won jointly only 32% of seats in the May 2012 parliamentary elections. Accordingly, those elections saw the emergence of smaller parties, often anti-bailout, anti-establishment and populist, embodied in parties like the left wing SYRIZA which won 16.8% of the vote, and Golden Dawn which won 7%. The political scene at that point was split, not along right or left, but along the pro and anti-bailout camp. Mainstream parties like PASOK and New Democracy approved of the bailout and austerity measures, but on the other hand fringe parties like SYRIZA, KKE (the Communist party), DIMAR (Democratic Left), ANEL (conservative party), and Golden Dawn opposed the bailout.
The financial crisis therefore “altered the dynamics of party competition, opening political opportunities for parties of the fringe belonging to the anti-bailout camp.” The crisis revealed how poorly the Greek state was equipped to deal with and respond to a crisis of this magnitude. Trust in government was declining rapidly as Greeks “saw the government as highly unstable; its effectiveness to provide public services limited; its ability to regulate the private sector constrained; the justice system unable to enforce law and order; and the state as partial and controlled by private interests.” Ultimately, this explains why Greeks increasingly questioned the very legitimacy of the system upon which the state was built.
It was in this context that Golden Dawn was able to forcefully emerge onto the political scene, winning seats in parliament. The crisis enabled them to paint themselves as a “viable alternative” to the Greek political establishment and an alternative provider of collective goods. Moreover, they emphasized a nationalist solution that rested on the purging and exclusion of foreigners. Although their political success only really came in 2012, they had been operating for decades, consistently using the same violent nationalist, fascist and xenophobic rhetoric.
“There was no crematoria, it’s a lie”:
Is what Golden Dawn leader and founder, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, once informed a TV station talking about World War II and the Holocaust. This is just one of the many examples that illustrate the very open admiration Michaloliakos has for Nazi ideology and sets the stage for the Golden Dawn platform.
At the age of 16, Nikolaos Michaloliakos joined the August 4th Party of Konstatinos Plevris - a homophobic nationalist and open supporter of the military junta. He las later was imprisoned several times and ultimately thrown out of the army for his politically motivated violent outbursts. In 1980, he first established the Golden Dawn magazine, which praised Hitler and fascists on a regular basis; this evolved over the years into the Golden Dawn political party, officially recognized in 1993.
It occupied a very unique place within right-wing ideology because of its espousal of Nazi ideology through its approval of National Socialism. National Socialism is the combination of adopting nationalism and envisioning the state as an all-powerful actor; it was widely considered to be at the core of the Nazi ideology. Furthermore, through symbolism like the Greek meander and the principles of blood and honor, Golden Dawn further evokes Nazism. The group defines blood in “racial terms” and honor in “moral terms as the supreme ethical value.” It clearly embraces white supremacy and conceives the Greek state as being composed only of individuals with specific ethnic identifiers, making citizenship very exclusive.
It is also clearly a neo-fascist group in its rejection of communism, liberalism, and elitism. The party openly saw liberal democracy and communism as “the ‘enemies from within’” and a “key source of internal threat to the nation.” Unlike other right-wing and conservative political parties at the time, Golden Dawn fiercely rejected elitism and instead framed itself as a mass popular movement. The leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, embodies the masses, and demands absolute authority over the Greek people. It is clear how the organization of Golden Dawn is militant by nature and has been defined by violence since its inception. Members are expected to stand and salute the leader, often describing themselves as “street soldiers.”
Before delving into the more recent violent attacks that were prosecuted during the trial, it’s important to understand that these brutal politically motivated acts have always been part of the party’s modus operandi. Since its establishment in the 1980s, Golden Dawn has targeted “people because of their ethnic background [...] and political persuasion.” This meant that during the 1990s, they attacked Turkish and Kurdish refugees, Albanian immigrants, and immigrants of African origin. They would, through the 2010s, target small-shop owners of non-Greek origin, causing both bodily harm and property damage. Starting in the 1990s, they also assaulted left-wing students that were part of youth groups like the Communist Youth of Greece; going so far as to be accused of attempted murder of Dimitris Kousouris- a student, in 1998. Most of these acts of violence were perpetrated in public spaces, further terrorizing the targets of the Golden Dawn hate.
However, only recently did these violent practices come to the forefront. Questions regarding the party’s use of violence arose in 2013 after the killing of Pavlos Fyssas, ultimately resulting in a massive trial spanning five years.
Dimitri Psarras, a journalist who has followed Golden Dawn since the 1980s, remarked that “in 2012, when they first entered the parliament, many thought they would change and become a normal political party, far right, of course, but normal, [...] But this did not happen. On the contrary, they gained courage and began to be more violent and more criminal.”
Indeed, as the country was ravaged by an economic crisis that turned into a political one, Golden Dawn increasingly appealed to traditional values and nationalist solutions. The party projected itself as an alternative to the current system, which many Greeks were actively losing confidence in, and they continued, if not intensified their violent behavior. On the one hand, Golden Dawn was setting up blood donations, soup kitchens, alternative health-care options exclusively available to Greeks who were asked to present a Greek identity card upon reception of services. On the other hand, that same year they won their first parliamentary seats, a Golden Dawn squad beat a group of Egyptian fishermen, almost killing them.
Instances of violence continued, and in 2013 the murder of Greek rapper Pavlos Fyssas, also known as Killah P, brought the violence of the party into the limelight and generated a national outcry. On September 18th, 2013, Fyssas was outside a bar watching a football match in the Keratsini neighborhood, when a group of Golden Dawn members confronted him. After being stabbed by Giorgos Roupakias, one of the squad members, Fryssas was pronounced dead upon arrival to the hospital. A little over a week later, party leadership was arrested - 22 members in all, six of them being MPs. At the time they were charged with running a criminal organization, which included accusations of murder, assault, and money laundering. Only a few days earlier on September, 12th 2013, Golden Dawn members had been involved in the attempted murder of members of the Greek Communist party and its trade union, PAME. Golden Dawn was also linked to the 2013 murder of Pakistani immigrant, Shezhad Luqman.
How could it have taken so long for an organization that was so openly violent to be arrested? To face prosecution? Critics have remarked that police only sprung into action once a well-known Greek citizen was targeted; prior to that they had seemingly let the violence against migrants and refugees go on for decades. As one woman who attended a Golden Dawn meeting explained, she saw members openly talk about “beating up gay and dark-skinned people.” In fact, a member offered told her she could “break someone's arm and leg for 300 euros [£250]. Set a car on fire for 1,000 euros. Put someone in hospital for a month for 1,500 euros." How could an organization, whose call for violence was so explicit, never have faced investigations and been barred from running in elections? Many have pointed to the fact that Golden Dawn actually enjoyed a lot of support from the Greek police forces. Greek newspapers estimated, after the 2012 elections, that 50% of the Greek special service police officers in Athens had voted for Golden Dawn. Shockingly, it seems members of Greek Special Forces, DIAS, were present at the scene of Pavlos Fyssas murder, before, during and after his death, and failed to intervene. This explains why the targeting of migrants and refugees also continued for decades, with impunity, as these victims were also often afraid to report assaults because of concerns regarding their immigration status.
The case against Golden Dawn involved 69 defendants - 18 of which had been MPs, and lasted over five years, with 454 days spent in court. The charges involved more than a hundred violent incidents, and 120 witnesses were called in to be a part of court proceedings. These numbers alone demonstrate the sheer scale of the trial, which amounted to the “biggest trial of fascists since Nuremberg."
The case involved the overall prosecution of Golden Dawn as a criminal organization, rather than a political party. But, judges also had to rule on three individual crimes: the attempted murder of Egyptian fisherman Abouzid Embarak on June 12th 2012, the attempted murders of members of the Greek Communist Party and the trade unionist affiliate PAME on September 12th 2013, and lastly the murder of Fyssas by armed Golden Dawn Squad on September 18th 2013.
The judges found Golden Dawn to be a criminal organization and found the leadership guilty of running this organization. Leader Michaloliakos and six former MPs were then “found guilty of joining a criminal organization.” Nikolaos Michaloliakos is facing 13 and half years in prison, with other members of the leadership facing similar sentences. With regard to the murder of Fyssas, the killer, Giorgos Roupakias, was found guilty and 15 others were convicted of conspiracy in this case. He was the only member of Golden Dawn to be given a life sentence. But, other defendants in the trial were also “convicted of other violent attacks on migrants and left-wing political opponents.” Finally, five Golden Dawn members “were convicted of the attempted murders of the Egyptian fishermen and four of the attempted murder of communist activists in the PAME union.” In total, the court sentenced defendants to over 500 years in prison, with an almost unanimous rejection of leniency pleas.
As the verdict was pronounced, a rare moment of unity gripped the Greek nation as people celebrated in the streets and at their balconies. Banners declaring “They are not innocent,” “Nazis out,” and “Life term to the murderers” were hoisted high, while slogans like “No acquittal for the Nazis” resonated among the crowd gathered outside the court. Politicians across the political spectrum welcomed the ruling and further condemned the Golden Dawn. Meanwhile, Golden Dawn continued to systematically deny any direct links to the attacks, and deemed the trial a “politically motivated” “conspiracy.” Lefteris Papagiannakis from Golden Dawn Watch commented that “‘it chills the face of Golden Dawn and gives a strong signal to whoever wants to take the place of Golden Dawn.’”
Although this is a historic moment of accountability that demonstrates the proper enactment of law and proper functioning of institutions, it seems too optimistic to think that this will be the end of neo-fascist and far-right groups in Greek political life. In fact, in 2019, as Golden Dawn was voted out of parliament, another far-right group, Greek Solution Party, won 10 seats. A leaked police report from October 2020 also indicated that “as many as 16 far-right groups were vying to fill the vacuum left by Golden Dawn.” The Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN) for their part reported that “incidents of organized violence have decreased since 2013,” but “it continues to record attacks with features of a structured organization or committed by organized groups.” What is clear is that this victory should be celebrated but must not be taken for granted.
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