GULAM HUSSEIN, a 20-year-old Afghan with a bushy brush cut, hates Greece. He’d leave if he could—even if that meant returning to the imperiled village in eastern Afghanistan that he fled a decade ago. “Anywhere but Greece,” he told me one afternoon late this summer in Athens. “I’d heard it was bad here, but I didn’t know how bad.”
About a week before we met, Hussein had gone searching for scrap metal in a central Athens neighborhood near Attica Square. Collecting scrap is a hand-to-mouth job; it pays only a few euros a day. But with his poor Greek language skills—and a sick wife and a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter to support—scavenging for other people’s junk was Hussein’s only option.
As he crossed a bridge on his way to a friend’s home, a group of four men called out to him. They had two dogs at their feet, and they were dressed in black t-shirts. To Hussein, black clothes meant one word: fear.
He ran. The dogs chased him. One caught him by the neck, the other by the leg, and knocked him down. The men beat Hussein around the head, hitting him with sticks, kicking him with their boots. Lying on the pavement, his skull streaming blood, he screamed for help. He remembers seeing people peering at him from their balconies, doing nothing. Then he blacked out.
When Hussein woke up, he had been shoved inside a shipping container. He poked his head out and called for help. But the people on their balconies only gestured to him to be quiet, to run. A few blocks away, he found a police officer who returned to the scene with him, but by then the men in black had gone. “The officer told me there was nothing he could do,” he said.
A week after the beating, Hussein was still too terrified to leave the four-by-five-foot storage closet he shares with his wife and daughter in a five-room apartment that houses 17 other Afghans. When I visited, the place reeked of sweet, cheap cooking gas and of rotting vegetables. For the closet and the use of a kitchen, Hussein pays 100 euros a month to an Afghan go-between, who in turn sublets the apartment from a Greek slumlord. His rent was due in a few days, and he had no clue how he would pay it.
On the streets of Greece, it’s now common knowledge among immigrants like Hussein that black clothes are the unofficial uniform of Golden Dawn, or Chrysi Avgi—a kind of cross between Hezbollah and the Tea Party. Since 2008, Golden Dawn supporters have assaulted immigrants with brass knuckles, knives, and batons. There have been nearly 500 attacks this year alone, according to the Migrant Workers Association, some of which have been captured on video and proudly posted on Golden Dawn’s YouTube channel.
But Golden Dawn is not just a gang of radical right-wing thugs. It is now the fourth-largest party in Greek politics. In elections this year, it won 18 of 300 seats in parliament on an explicitly anti-immigrant platform. Its growing constituency includes many ordinary Greeks who fear that waves of impoverished foreigners are draining the state’s dwindling resources and taking their jobs in a country where nearly a quarter of the population is unemployed. And as the country’s economy continues to collapse, Golden Dawn is becoming increasingly entrenched in the mainstream of Greek political life.
THE POPULARITY of Golden Dawn marks a new turn for Greece, which has a long history of accommodating the disenfranchised. In the middle of Athens stands a monument to Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou, who fought against the persecution of Greek Jews during World War II, when the country was occupied by Germany and Italy. Even amid the most bitter partisan battles of the postwar years, the country never viewed xenophobia as an acceptable rallying cry.
In a sense, it could not afford to. Greece is Europe’s most porous frontier, the gateway for refugees and immigrants seeking a better life on the continent. Since 2006, around 100,000 people have fled to Europe each year from places of much greater hardship: Bangladesh, Nigeria, Somalia, and Iraq. Ninety percent of them came via Greece. For years, Greek diplomats in Brussels have grumbled that Athens has been forced to foot the bill for these refugees, but the issue rarely exercised the Greek public. The financial crisis, though, has changed everything.
Greece has never been known for economic discipline, but its entry into the euro zone in 2001 enabled its worst habits, allowing the government to borrow rampantly against the good credit of its wealthier neighbors. In 2008, as the global financial crisis spread, the borrowing sprees ground to a halt. Then, in 2010, it emerged that Greece had been secretly paying millions of dollars to Goldman Sachs and other banks to hide the true size of its debt. Suddenly, Greece’s coffers were empty. The International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Union (EU) offered the government a series of massive bailouts, but in exchange, they demanded austerity.
In the past two years, Greece has slashed pensions and the minimum wage, introduced large tax increases, and promised to eliminate 150,000 public-sector jobs by 2015. To raise the additional capital required by the EU, it is also being forced to sell off $71 billion of its public assets—stadiums, casinos, airplanes, islands—to the highest bidder. As many economists had warned, this program only wreaked further devastation. The European Commission predicts that the Greek economy will contract by 4.7 percent this year, following four successive years of recession. The malaise is palpable. Roughly half of young people are out of work; suicides are up by 40 percent. Tear gas and homemade Molotov cocktails are de rigueur at the increasingly violent public protests against the government.
Golden Dawn is perfectly suited to exploit this rising discontent. It was founded as a political party in the mid-’80s by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, a former mathematician and would-be military man who served time in prison for assault and possession of illegal weapons. After his release, Michaloliakos started a magazine that espoused a National Socialist ideology, authoring articles with titles like “Hitler for 1,000 years.” His group remained on the right-wing fringe throughout the 1990s, dismissed for its insistence on a radical “solution” to the country’s immigration problem. But after the financial crisis hit, Michaloliakos and his supporters seized their chance.
First, Golden Dawn assumed some of the social services that had been abandoned by the bankrupt state. It provided supporters with legal and medical aid, procured hard-to-get prescription medicine, and escorted pensioners to the bank to prevent muggings. But from the very beginning, its efforts to help ordinary Greeks were accompanied by acts of aggression. One of its first popular moves was to “clean up” the streets of Athens, organizing vigilante groups to force foreigners out of public squares. (Since the state provides almost no food or shelter, new arrivals often sleep in trees and on park benches.) This program helped Golden Dawn win its first seat on the Athens City Council in 2010 with as much as 20 percent of the vote in neighborhoods with a heavy influx of immigrants.
The foray into electoral politics did not prompt Golden Dawn to tone down its act. On the contrary, the violence has only escalated. Last year, the group threatened on its website to kill a left-wing journalist. Its vigilantes patrol stores to ensure that they hire Greeks, not immigrants. In the town of Rafina, they overturned market stalls belonging to anyone who didn’t have white skin. This summer, Golden Dawn distributed flyers outside gay clubs in Athens that read, “AFTER THE IMMIGRANTS, YOU’RE NEXT.”
Michaloliakos, meanwhile, makes it clear that his group has only a tenuous allegiance to democratic politics. At a rally where his supporters chanted, “Blood, honor, and Golden Dawn”—an adapted Nazi slogan—Michaloliakos declared: “If they want us to, we can abandon it at any given moment and take to the streets. ... There, they shall see what the Golden Dawn is really about, they will see what battle means, they will see what struggle means, they will see what bayonets sharpened every night mean.” In June, spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris even attacked two female left-wing politicians on live television—flinging a glass of water at one and slapping the other repeatedly across the face.
And yet, despite its blatant displays of brutality, Golden Dawn’s approval ratings have climbed by ten points since last May, to 22 percent, according to the Financial Times. If you speak with Greeks, it’s not hard to understand why. People from all across the political spectrum—from teachers to car mechanics to smallbusiness owners—believe that their country has become the scapegoat for a wider crisis not of their own making. In their view, they are double victims: oppressed by northern Europe and overwhelmed by waves of immigrants who bring nothing but problems. Feeling bullied and trapped, the Greek public began to seek others to bully.
ONE AFTERNOON, I attended the meal at a crowded soup kitchen on Omonoia Square, a few minutes walk from Athens’s vegetable and meat markets. The kitchen was operated by a church that provides free meals to anyone in need, and Greek junkies and transvestites jostled with Afghan and Nigerian refugees for takeaway containers of pasta and bread.
Mary Pini, 54, a former journalist who became a full-time volunteer at the soup kitchen after her newspaper closed down, told me that the faces in the breadline had changed in the past year. Increasing numbers of Greeks were joining the immigrants, she said—especially elderly people, who were giving their pensions to their out-of-work families.
Christos Chrisakopoulos, a 50-year-old former hotel worker, told me that crime was increasing at the soup kitchen. He accused the immigrants who congregated there of stealing his wallet and threatening Greeks, saying things like, “Shut up or I’ll cut your throat.” The worst offense he’d witnessed, however, was an African volunteer asking a Greek man for identification. How, he demanded, could an African ask a Greek citizen if he had the right to eat?
According to polls, support for Golden Dawn is highest in neighborhoods like these—heavily trafficked by immigrants and the young unemployed. Many of the Golden Dawn supporters I met were would-be members of the middle class, who told me they didn’t approve of Golden Dawn’s brutality but supported some of its populist proposals, such as the eradication of household debt for low-income workers and the unemployed.
Outside the soup kitchen, the streets gave way to a warren of trading booths that sell everything from cheap clothes to batteries. This used to be a hub of Greek traders. Now, most signs are lit with Chinese characters, and on the crowded sidewalks outside the Chinese shops, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, among others, spread out sheets and sell trinkets and purses. Not long after the gates of the soup kitchen clanged shut, the police rounded up a small group of brown-skinned men on a street corner and demanded their papers. Those who couldn’t provide them were lined up near Bismillah Supermarket and BK Bollywood Travel Agency to wait for a prison bus. This kind of thing is now a common occurrence. In the past three months, the government has detained more than 20,000 suspected illegal immigrants as part of an ongoing operation named “Xenios Zeus,” after the god of hospitality and protection of strangers.
Manolis Vosdoganis has run a state lottery shop in the area for six years. In the past three, he has watched the neighborhood change, along with his clientele. The narrow, tiled gallery was crammed with African and Asian patrons, most of them there to play the numbers. Vosdoganis didn’t mind his foreign customers, although they bet less money than the Greek ones. But he felt that the state had failed in its duty to safeguard the interests of its citizens.
He told the story of his 80-year-old mother, whose monthly pension had dropped two years earlier from 690 euros to 490 (the equivalent of around $640): “She has Alzheimer’s and we have to buy her medicine. We don’t go out. We do less shopping. We use our car maybe once a week.” He had little faith that Greece’s existing leadership could turn things around—for decades, he pointed out, the country had been run by the same handful of wealthy families. This was why he’d voted for Golden Dawn. “I don’t like Golden Dawn’s violence, but I support their policies,” he said. “They’re interested in our country,” he added. “We have to support Greek people first.”
IT’S HARD TO SEE a way for Greece to escape its present predicament. It could reduce its debt by abandoning the euro and returning to a devalued drachma, but such a move would trigger unprecedented chaos. Instead, the government will continue to borrow from Europe, forcing it to impose austerity on its citizens, which in turn will only further corrode its legitimacy. Support for assorted minor parties already threatens to outweigh support for the two main parties that have dominated Greek politics for decades.
As the center collapses, the future of Greece is increasingly taking shape as a vicious struggle between the extreme left and right for control of the ailing state. It’s telling that, so far, the response to Golden Dawn from the political establishment has been muted—parliament has debated anti-hate speech measures but taken no concrete action. Instead, it has been left-wing anarchist groups who have stepped into the fray, sometimes employing tactics as disturbing as those of Golden Dawn.
This summer, I visited a Golden Dawn municipal office in a sleepy, middle-class neighborhood of Athens. On a wall outside, the left’s scrawled manifestos—Fuck Nazis, Fuck Fascists, Eat the Rich—had been spray-painted over with Golden Dawn’s deconstructed version of the swastika. (The group denies any neo-Nazi ties and claims the swastika is in fact an ancient Greek symbol called a meander.) The office had been firebombed just a few hours earlier, most likely by an anarchist group. The stench of char and gasoline hung heavy in the early evening air.
Two men from Golden Dawn soon showed up to survey the damage. One, in black trousers and a black polo shirt that read “Hooligans,” pulled up on a shiny black scooter, which he began to polish with squirts from a spray bottle. A few minutes later, Ioanna Kerasoviti, the office manager, arrived. Kerasoviti, who is 52 and has the face of a bulldog, was also clad entirely in black—Lycra stretch pants and sequined wedge heels. She smoked a tapered, brown cigarette as she inspected the wasteland inside. Shattered plate glass glistened on the linoleum floor. Under two air conditioners melted into a Salvador Dali sculpture, there was a pile of neo-Nazi pamphlets. On top of the stack, burned pages curled back to a map of World War II death camps, marked by skulls and crossbones.
Kerasoviti told me that two intruders had broken down the door with a crowbar. Before setting fire to the place, she said, they had also stolen 30 black t-shirts, and she feared that the theft would impede the group’s activities. “An assault on Golden Dawn is an assault on free speech,” she declared. The second man scuffed through the ashes and fingered the singed Greek flag. He clucked dutifully. “The worst tragedy is that they burnt the flag,” he said.
The smell of gasoline became overpowering, and we went back outside. Kerasoviti told me that it was a lie to say that Golden Dawn promoted violence: “Ninety percent of attacks against immigrants have nothing to do with Golden Dawn.” The group’s primary purpose, she explained, was social welfare. “People come to us for help—for food, protection, lawyers, doctors, even when their dogs disappear.” Dogs? “When Pakistanis eat their dogs,” she repeated.
This is one of Golden Dawn’s favorite urban myths: that Muslims eat Greek dogs. Never mind that keeping a dog is largely forbidden under Islam, let alone eating one. Behind Kerasoviti, the guy in the Hooligans shirt grinned and threw out his right arm in the Nazi salute. “Two years ago, there were lots of stray dogs around Athens,” Kerasoviti insisted. “Now, there are none.”
Eliza Griswold is the recipient of a 2010 Rome Prize and is also a fellow at the New America Foundation. She is the author of The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. This article appeared in the November 8, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Dawn of the Dead.”