The Far Right:
How Golden Dawn spun itself into a criminal organization
ATHENS — The crowd inside the courtroom was sparse. Riot police, clad in navy blue uniforms and tightly tied black boots, were the largest presence. Tucked away in a dimly lit back corner sat supporters of the defense: Greece’s far-right, neo-Nazi political party Golden Dawn.
It was day 139 of a historic, plodding trial. Sixty-nine members of Greece’s third largest political party, including high-ranking officers and their chief Nikolaos Michaloliakos, stand accused of participation in a criminal organization, allegedly linked to more than 100 violent assaults and murder.
That morning’s testimony by Mazhar Iqbal, a Pakistani man who earns a living working in greenhouses on the Island of Crete, recounted the party’s wrath against foreigners. Iqbal testified that one night in 2013 he came home to find 10 to 12 men hitting his brother with wooden beams. One of the men spotted Iqbal and hit him over the head with either a wooden or steel club – Iqbal said he couldn’t remember. But he said he knows who did it. “It could have only been them who attacked us, Golden Dawn.” Police later confirmed this.
In 2015, more than one million refugees and migrants fled to Europe, mainly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis travelling the so-called Balkan Route with hopes of arriving in Denmark or Germany. But in March 2016, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia closed their borders, effectively blocking migrants from entering Northern Europe. As a consequence, 60,000 refugees were stranded on Greece’s Aegean islands.
Golden Dawners — the de facto name of party sympathizers — ran a brutal fear campaign against foreigners, leveling vicious attacks against anyone who didn’t look Greek, according to court testimonies and the prosecutor’s 697-page damning case file.
The prosecution argues that Golden Dawn is what fascism looks like in the 21st century. The massive case file details a range of crimes committed by Dawners, including human trafficking, money laundering, possession of explosives and even the coordinated murder of an anti-fascist rapper. There are photos of Dawners in military garb, holding knives and heroically carrying rifles.
A former Golden Dawn member turned State informant — known only as Witness E — told prosecutors that the party recruited a butcher to train its members on how to use a knife in order to “neutralize opponents.” The guns and knives and military training, according to Witness E, was preparation to overthrow Greece’s government.
“They kept telling us that we’ll break into the parliament with tanks,” Witness E said.
Golden Dawn’s mantra, “We Want Our Country Back,” is highly potent among a growing group of supporters — second only to their fiercer, official slogan, “Blood, Honor, Golden Dawn.”
Blood, it turns out, is no metaphor.
Capitalizing on Crisis
Golden Dawn didn’t rise with the sun one morning. Rather, the party seized upon crisis in an atmosphere of tenacious national and religious identity to disseminate its toxic ideology. Nationalism enticed suffering Greeks seeking a solution to the refugee crisis, slashed pensions and rampant unemployment. What they got instead, according to the prosecution and hundreds of victim testimony backed by multiple witnesses, were Nazis, wrapped in Greek flags.
Golden Dawn was officially founded in 1980. The party was a fringe group of far-right nationalists for the majority of its nearly 40-year existence. They earned less than .5 percent of the votes in Greece’s 2009 election, with 23,500 votes. But they quickly gained steam by exploiting frustrations over the country’s numerous crises.
Their first target was Greece’s worsening economic situation. The country owes The Troika – the European Union, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – nearly $300 billion in euros. The Troika’s bailout packages come with strict austerity measures, which have caused tax hikes and depleted pensions that Greeks spent their whole lives paying into.
Everyday citizens felt fear, uncertainty and anger. Golden Dawn harnessed these emotions and saw its support rise.
In the 2010 election, Golden Dawn jumped to 5.3 percent of the vote in Athens, earning them a seat at the City Council. Exit polls showed them winning as much as 20 percent of the vote in neighborhoods with large immigrant communities.
Their power only surged from there. The 2012 election became Golden Dawn’s most successful electoral power grab, gaining 18 Members of Parliament.
“The atmosphere in Greece was ripe for Golden Dawn’s vision,” said Geoffrey Pyatt, the current U.S. ambassador to Greece.
Golden Dawn continued its campaign, bashing politicians from Greece’s left leaning party Syriza, for their role in the perpetually crashing economy.
“The Members of Parliament of Syriza have every right to be afraid that the approval of this bailout will conclude with a rise of Golden Dawn,” said Ilias Kasidiaris, a Golden Dawn Member of Parliament, in a fiery 2015 speech. “Golden Dawn will rise because Golden Dawn expresses the proud ‘no’ that the Greek citizens voted for.”
Kasidiaris, 36 years old and swastika-tattooed, was right. By 2015, Golden Dawn maintained an unshakeable bloc of support, consistently winning nearly 7 percent of votes despite allegations of murder and brutal assaults on refugees and migrants.
The atmosphere in Greece was ripe for Golden Dawn’s vision.
U.S. ambassador to Greece
Aside from taking aim at the economic crisis, Golden Dawn publicly lambasted politicians for standing by while Greece absorbed an influx of refugees fleeing the war-torn Middle East. With the 2015 election approaching, Kasidiaris, Golden Dawn’s spokesperson, told residents on the island of Kos that they have a choice: “If they choose to vote Syriza it will turn into Pakistan. If they choose Golden Dawn and Golden Dawn governs the land, Kos will become Greece again. And that is our goal.”
Golden Dawn successfully campaigned for Greece First. Their chant, “Greece Belongs to Greeks,” resonated with citizens increasingly wary of the other.
“I don’t talk to them,” Ambassador Pyatt said. “That’s one political force we have nothing to do with,” adding that their “thuggish” posture betrays basic political decorum.
People in Greece were vulnerable to Golden Dawn’s message, said Babis Poulopoulos, a professor of social work at the University of Thrace, who authored a book examining how the financial disaster upended Greek society. “People are worried. They’re stressed,” he said, adding that citizens were seeking a “magician” who could solve their numerous problems where status-quo politics failed. “You see that in the United States with Trump — to close the border, to send the immigrants out of the United States.”
Poulopoulos also points out that police in both countries favor the far-right option. Eighty-four percent of police officers who planned to vote in America’s 2016 election said they supported Trump, according to a poll conducted by Police Mag, a news outlet for law enforcement officers. Analysis of Greek exit polls showed Greek police support for Golden Dawn was as high as 50 percent.
Closing borders and scapegoating immigrants are old political tactics with newfound popularity throughout Europe and America. From Great Britain’s Brexit, to France’s far-right Marine Le Pen and America’s newfound economic nationalism in the school of Steve Bannon, the West is witnessing a populist pushback against a global economy that ordinary citizens feel has left them in the dust.
One sentiment all these far-right movements share is the tendency to spread blame for their problems on immigrants, foreigners, refugees and status quo politicians. Rather than learn how to move forward as a global community, each wave of extremism desires a global retreat.
An anti-Nazi Tribunal
The September 2013 murder of Pavlos Fyssas, an anti-fascist rapper from Athens better known as Killah P, sparked a comprehensive investigation into members of Golden Dawn.
Immediately after the murder of Fyssas, 69 Golden Dawners were arrested, including Giorgos Roupakis, who confessed to stabbing Fyssas. A police investigation into Roupakis found that he was in contact with Golden Dawn MPs at the time of the murder, which the prosecution called a “coordinated assassination.” Golden Dawn’s chief, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, was also arrested on suspicion of forming a criminal gang.
In retaliation for Fyssas’s murder, two of Golden Dawn’s members were shot dead in a drive-by on November 1, 2013 in front of the party’s Athens headquarters. A poster of the two deceased Dawners has hung outside the building ever since. The Fighting People’s Revolutionary Powers, a far-left anarchist organization, claimed responsibility for the killings.
The trial of Golden Dawn officially began in April 2015. Though the stakes are high, and the verdict could be a critical blow to the party, few in Greece appear interested.
Mainstream media in Greece has stopped covering day-to-day proceedings.
“There’s a lack of resources and also a lack of interest,” said Clio Papapantoleon, a lawyer who works closely with Golden Dawn Watch, an independent watchdog and digital broadcaster of all things Golden Dawn. “People seem to believe that the investigation and beginning of the criminal procedure was the end of the story,” Papapantoleon said. “We believe it’s only the beginning.”
Only a smattering of journalists, bloggers and concerned citizens are consistently present at the hearings. This is in part thanks to savvy Golden Dawn lawyers who deploy legal trickery that delay and thwart the proceedings at every step. The lag has proven effective at sowing disinterest among everyday Greeks and even the mainstream media. One Greek journalist passed time reading “Phenomenology of the Spirit” before nodding off in the middle of the proceedings.
This collective boredom scares Naim Elghandour, a Muslim activist in Athens and President of the Greek Muslim Association. But nevertheless he testified against Golden Dawn at the beginning of March.
“I couldn’t let the people down when the trial started,” Elghandour said. “I had to stand up. Me and other Muslims — we have to be united against hatred and racism.”
During his testimony, Elghandour pointed to Golden Dawn member Themis Skordeli, who is facing a variety of misdemeanor charges ranging from forgery to fireworks violations. Skordeli has delayed her court appearance seven times, citing psychological problems verified by “Golden Dawn’s psychiatrist,” Dr. Konstantinos Paraschakis.
“She wants Greece free of all immigrants,” Elghandour said in front of the judges. “Not just Asians and Africans — all immigrants.” Elghandour went on to say that “Golden Dawn’s ideology changes ‘by the hour.’ Today it’s immigrants, tomorrow will be someone else, and the day after still someone else.”
The rise of neo-fascist party Golden Dawn has become a moral test for Greece, where economic distress has stoked the country’s deep-rooted cultural nationalism. But nowhere has the response to far-right extremism been more ambiguous than from the conservative Greek Orthodox Church itself. The church’s silence at large leaves judgement to the courts alone.
The trial has prompted Golden Dawn to moderate its public image. Dimitrios Koukoutsis, a Golden Dawn MP, made video in 2015 that went viral where he denounces fascism and Nazism. Instead, he identifies Golden Dawn as nationalists who wish to preserve Greece’s Hellenic identity. Since then, the group has kept a lower profile.
I had to stand up. Me and other Muslims — we have to be united against hatred and racism.
Activist and president of the Greek Muslim Association
“The trial is of the utmost importance,” says Papantoleon of Golden Dawn Watch. “Its outcome will immediately and directly affect Golden Dawn’s functioning and activity.”
To this day, Golden Dawn’s chief Michaloliakos refutes any ties to neo-Nazis and criminal activities, despite massive evidence against him. Michaloliakos and other Golden Dawn members, including Roupakis, who confessed to stabbing Fyssas, were released in March 2016 after the maximum, 18 months of pretrial detention, ran out. They remain on house arrest until the trial is over.
While the trial will likely dismantle the leadership of Golden Dawn, Dawners understand that a conviction will not extinguish the potency of their ideology. After all, followers have remained loyal to the party despite the assaults and murders.
The prosecution cannot put Golden Dawn’s ideas on the stand, only its actions. For now, as the trial slugs along, the party is lying low.