What a difference a year makes. Last September, Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-Nazi group that had exploded onto the national scene in the twin parliamentary elections of 2012, was flying high. Its poll numbers were consistently in the double digits, and it had established itself as the third most popular party in the country. In accordance with leader Nikos Michaloliakos’s vow to continue the struggle “inside and outside parliament,” the group’s “activists” were running amuck, beating and occasionally killing immigrants, terrorizing people who did not share their racist-nationalist worldview, organizing food distribution drives for Greeks only—the latter dubbed “soup kitchens of hate” by Athens mayor George Kaminis. Particularly active in Golden Dawn’s extra-parliamentary raids were its 18 members of parliament. Ilias Kasidiaris, their rabid young spokesman, explained the benefits of being an elected representative: “We can carry weapons with a permit, if there is an incident there is no in flagrante process, and we are a bit freer in our movements,” he told a crowd of supporters.
Today, all 18 parliamentary deputies of Golden Dawn are awaiting trial as suspected members of a criminal organization. Nine of them, including Michaloliakos, are in prison. Three more, including Michaloliakos’s wife, are under house arrest. But at the same time, Golden Dawn remains the third most popular party in most opinion polls. Last May, it came in third in the European elections with 9.4 percent of the vote—an increase of more than 30 percent compared to its parliamentary election tally.
To understand this paradoxical and ominous state of affairs, we must return to the tumultuous events of the previous fall. The arrests began on September 28 last year—ten days after the murder, in the working class district of Keratsini of Pavlos Fyssas, a 34-year old left-wing rap musician, by a member of Golden Dawn. Nikos Dendias, currently Minister of Development, played a central role in the authorities’ decision to go after Golden Dawn. As Minister of Citizen Protection, he watched the growing assertiveness of the group with mounting trepidation. “The alarm bells had already gone off a few days before the murder [of Fyssas] with the parade of Golden Dawn storm troops in Meligala”—the site of a slaughter of Nazi collaborators and civilians by communist guerillas in 1944—he tells me in his office overlooking Syntagma Square, opposite parliament. “We thought, what if they were to do this in Syntagma? What sort of an image would we project of the Greek state if storm troops were allowed to parade in front of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier?”
Until that point, the government had hesitated to go after Golden Dawn. This was in part because the Greek constitution—for specific historical reasons related to the long prohibition of the Greek Communist Party—forbids the banning of political parties. But the delay can also be attributed to reluctance on the part of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras—under the influence in particular of his close advisor Takis Baltakos—to take action against a party that had attracted many of the conservative New Democracy’s right-wing supporters—voters whom he hoped to win back. (Dendias, also a New Democracy man, calls the strategy an “illusion.”) Baltakos, a lawyer with far-right views, even promoted the idea of a coalition between New Democracy and Golden Dawn, to prevent the ascension of SYRIZA, the hard-left official opposition, to power.
Meanwhile, the situation worsened. Earlier that September, a group of Communist Party activists were out putting up posters, when they were surrounded and set upon by Golden Dawn thugs in their notorious black shirts. Eight communists had to be taken to hospital. The attacks took place in a once-thriving ship-repair zone in Perama, a small town near Piraeus where unemployment now hovers around 50 percent.
A medical centerin Perama, run by Medecins du Monde, which had been offering free basic medical care to immigrants working in the ship-repair zone or the fishing trawlers was also targetted by the fascists. As Liana Mailli, a local-born pediatrician and the head of the organization in Greece, tells me, this was despite the fact that “it was mostly Greeks who turned to us for help.” Golden Dawn made a number of visits to the Medecins du Monde, holding up wooden poles, chanting racist slogans, threatening everyone in sight. They were not even held back by the fact that, as Mailli notes, members of the group themselves had availed themselves of its services.
The fatal stabbing of Fyssas changed the political weather overnight. Prime Minister Samaras jettisoned the Baltakos approach. On September 19, Dendias sent a dossier with 32 cases involving Golden Dawn to the highest court for civil and criminal cases in Greece. The first arrests took place ten days after the killing. The case against Golden Dawn was based on article 187 of the penal code, which relates to the formation and direction of a criminal organization. The idea for this tactic was first aired by Nikos Alivizatos, Greece’s foremost constitutional law professor, in an article published in September 2012.1 The criminal justice system, awoken from its own blissful slumber, moved at lightning speed. The first arrests took place ten days after the killing. The trial of the party leaders and its top henchmen is expected to begin later this year.
After the arrests, the number of racist attacks across the country fell precipitously. In Nikaia, near where Fyssas was killed, the group shut down its offices. In Perama, the area in which Medecins du Monde is located, Mailli says, they laid low for a while.
But this past April, Golden Dawn came back to the medical center, “as aggressive as ever.” That day, she recalls, a Syrian man was there with his children. “The poor things had escaped hell and gone through hell to get here.” In the last month, Mailli says, immigrants have again been telling her about threats made against them at bus stops.
In the regional elections last May, one voting station in Perama, a few hundred yards from the site of the attack on the Communist union men, gave Golden Dawn its highest share in the country (19.9 percent). It’s now possible that there will be an early election in Greece in early 2015—as trial proceedings are fully under way—from which Golden Dawn will emerge as the third force in parliament, badly complicating the arithmetic of coalition-building.
I asked Minister Dendias how he accounted for the group’s continuing popularity. “A part of the electorate is so indignant about the crisis that it has decided to punish the political system by voting for Golden Dawn,” he says. “If the political system manages to steer the country back to growth, then they will become yesterday’s joke.” But, beyond economics, don’t the established parties need to do more to assuage voter anger about their own corruption and incompetence? “The prospect of renewed prosperity will dramatically shrink the appeal of Golden Dawn,” he insists. He may be too optimistic.
Alivizatos had his first run-in with Golden Dawn in February 2010 in an event on Greece’s citizenship law, which members of the group disrupted screaming “Greece belongs to Greeks.” “Some of my liberal friends have qualms about the case,” Alivizatos tells me. “They think Golden Dawn are being tried for their beliefs.” He clearly has no time for that argument. Indeed, the nine months of interrogations, overseen by two female interrogators which Golden Dawn have vilified at every opportunity, seem to have unearthed plenty of evidence of the militaristic structure of the group and of the central direction of criminal activity.
This piece has been updated.