Can Europe Make It?

Golden Dawn is defeated: the damage to democracy is harder to repair

In an historic verdict, an Athens Court convicted Golden Dawn leaders of running a criminal organisation, bringing its campaign of racist murders to an end. But the political climate that legitimised this is ever present.

Augustine Zenakos
8 October 2020, 8.54am
Magda Fyssa, mother of murdered Greek anti-fascist activist musician reacts after hearing the verdict of the court in Athens.
Marios Lolos/PA. All rights reserved.

In late November 2010, returning to work after lunch, I noticed a small crowd protesting in Platia Vathis, a run-down square in central Athens. As I came close, I saw Greek flags and banners reading “we want our neighbourhood back” and “no to the islamisation of Greece”; but I also noticed that the thin crowd of locals that chanted feebly in the middle of the square was surrounded by beefy men with shaved heads, standing at regular intervals and facing out towards onlookers.

This was Golden Dawn spreading its hateful gospel in the streets of Athens, barely a couple of weeks after its performance in municipal elections had secured a seat in the Athens City Council for its leader, Nikos Michaloliakos. Protests organised in a similar pattern that had been going on for over a year intensified.

Committees of “indignant residents” were organised, with Golden Dawn members posing as locals supposedly threatened by uncontrolled immigration. Golden Dawn thugs occupied central squares and declared them “immigrant-free”, chasing down and abusing immigrants and busting up their shops.

In May 2011, they orchestrated a three-day anti-immigrant pogrom, which resulted in the murder of 21-year-old Alim Abdul Manan, a Bangladeshi immigrant, as well as over 100 incidents of physical assault. A few months previously, Michaloliakos had stormed out of a City Council meeting, unabashedly giving the Nazi salute on camera, a gesture that epitomised the neo-Nazi’s arrival in mainstream politics.

Financial crisis

Golden Dawn had been around since the 1980s, waging its cowardly, low-key war against migrants and leftists, but it took the financial crisis to propel it to national prominence. Two years after its entry into the Athens City Council, in the June 2012 legislative elections, it got 440,000 votes and 18 seats in the Greek Parliament.

It immediately unleashed a wave of racist attacks, as documented by the office of the Greek Ombudsman and international organisations, which culminated in another murder, this time of a Pakistani immigrant, 27-year-old Sahjat Luqman, in January 2013. But it took another murder, that of Greek anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas, the following September, for the justice system to move against Golden Dawn as an organisation.

Yesterday, almost exactly ten years after that staged protest that I witnessed in Platia Vathis, an Athens Court of Appeals delivered an historic verdict: it convicted seven of Golden Dawn’s chiefs, including Michaloliakos, of leading a criminal organisation, and nineteen of its members of participating in it. There were also convictions for other grave crimes, such as the murder of Fyssas, the attempted murder of Egyptian immigrants, and grievous bodily harm against members of the Communist Party’s PAME Union. But what is most significant about the verdict is that the court considers these crimes a part of organised criminal activity, directed by Golden Dawn’s leadership.

But what is most significant about the verdict is that the court considers these crimes a part of organised criminal activity, directed by Golden Dawn’s leadership.

It is hard to overstate the importance of this verdict not only for providing some much delayed justice to the victims of Golden Dawn, but also for unambiguously condemning and finally dismantling the only openly neo-Nazi organisation in Europe that had managed to pose as a legitimate political party, convincing hundreds of thousands of voters, and wedge itself into the mainstream, democratic political system. This condemnation, implicitly but crucially, rejects the revisionist and denialist narrative of Nazi apologists in Greece, Europe and the world.

Still, focusing only on crime and punishment, we run the danger of underestimating the fact that Golden Dawn was only the overtly criminal expression of a proliferation of xenophobic and nationalist ideas which have been gaining ground in Greek society all through the previous decade and continue to be widespread today. In this proliferation Golden Dawn was only one player, and arguably not the most important one.

This is something different than saying that crisis conditions — insecurity, poverty, debasement — are the ground on which fascism flourishes, true though it may be. It is to say that specific players in politics and the media are complicit in creating a political environment where previously marginal discourse was legitimised, where it gradually became acceptable to discuss xenophobic or nationalist ideas as if they were only some among a number of equally viable possibilities, where policies that would only a few years earlier have been widely considered brutal, authoritarian, or even fascist, were now implemented with a democratic stamp of approval.

Governments centre-right and centre-left

Since the advent of the Greek debt crisis, in 2009, governments that nominally belonged to the centre-right or centre-left implemented a string of policies that included: a fence on Evros river, despite NGOs protesting that this would force refugees to cross from Turkey to the Aegean route, a dangerous sea route; push-backs in the Aegean, which resulted in migrant deaths; police “sweep operations” leading to arbitrary arrests of “foreign looking” people in the streets, detention, and beatings; concentration camps for refugees and migrants; massively overcrowded police detention cells, with highly unsanitary conditions; violent police attacks on street vendors, sometimes with flash-bang grenades; hugely violent suppression of public protests, with widespread use of tear gas and beatings; arbitrary arrests of female drug users, under the pretext of illegal prostitution, who were then forcibly tested for HIV and their personal data and HIV positive status disclosed to the media; torture of antifascist protesters in police custody; and the shutting down of Greece’s public broadcaster, ERT.

The implementation of these policies anticipated and then paralleled the rise of Golden Dawn, and so did the official state narrative: Prime Minister Samaras famously stated that we have to “reoccupy our cities”, implying that migrants have already occupied them, and Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias declared that it was as if we were “standing on the walls of Constantinople”, meaning that the Ottoman armies were about to launch their final assault.

“An authentic movement”

All the while, Golden Dawn was relentlessly platformed by the media in everything from political talk shows to lifestyle magazines showcasing members’ tattoos and romantic relationships. They were portrayed, often in absolutely invented stories, as “activists” protecting locals, and even helping the elderly with their shopping or to withdraw money from ATMs. TV gossip went on about this. Nikos Michaloliakos was interviewed by well-known journalists, who gave him a free hand in peddling his preferred image for his organisation — an image acknowledged by others, like Andreas Loverdos, a prominent PASOK MP and Minister, who called Golden Dawn “an authentic movement”.

When confronted with the fact that Golden Dawn was effectively extending the fight against “occupation” into a murderous street campaign, many mainstream politicians responded by sporting a “horseshoe theory” of two extremes, a rightist and a leftist one, that were equally dangerous to democracy. This idea became so popular in the media that the plain fact that racist violence only had one “extreme”, the fascist one, was all but absent from mainstream discussion. Even as late as 2017, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, current Prime Minister but opposition leader at the time, said in an interview to Politico that it was as if Golden Dawn “didn’t exist” and that “the violence has been almost exclusively from the left in recent years”.

Many mainstream politicians responded by sporting a “horseshoe theory” of two extremes, a rightist and a leftist one, that were equally dangerous to democracy. This idea became so popular in the media…

Support within the State

It was only after the highly publicised murder of Pavlos Fyssas sparked a sizable reaction leading to public protests that the government of the time was forced to act. In the process, it was revealed that Golden Dawn was in a friendly relationship with at least part of the government: Ilias Kasidiaris, the organisation’s second in command, leaked a video where he appeared to discuss details of the prosecution of Golden Dawn with Takis Baltakos, secretary of the Ministerial Council and a close confidant of Prime Minister Samaras. At the same time, an Internal Affairs investigation into the relationship of Golden Dawn to the police failed to address what has over the years been documented as a systemic problem of extreme-right police ideology, offering up instead a few isolated cases of misconduct.

Despite the trial and the historic verdict, Golden Dawn’s support within the State remains mostly unexplored.

It would serve us well, then, to consider Golden Dawn a part of this landscape of policies and ideas, a part which became vicious, as befits a gang of thugs, but is not separated by any major qualitative break. It was the whole gamut, which includes the ostensible centre and the mainstream media, that gradually trained a large part of society to accept brutality, oppression, xenophobia and nationalism as a legitimate part of democratic political discourse.

It was the whole gamut, which includes the ostensible centre and the mainstream media, that gradually trained a large part of society to accept brutality, oppression, xenophobia and nationalism as a legitimate part of democratic political discourse.

This goes some way towards explaining why in the elections of September 2015, after three murders and serious criminal charges already levelled against it, Golden Dawn came up third, with 480,000 votes and 18 seats in Parliament. Even in July 2019, with the ongoing trial eroding its public image, its unity undermined by infighting and defections, and its cash supply totally dry, it almost made it into Parliament: it got 270,000 votes, and with 2.93% of the total it was just short of the 3% threshold.

Greek solution

It also explains why the suppression of Golden Dawn has not meant a corresponding decrease of xenophobia and intolerance. The 2018 Prespa Agreement that resolved the naming dispute between Greece and North Macedonia was met with reactionary protests, oozing racism and nationalist bigotry. (Incidentally, these were tacitly endorsed by New Democracy, which would go on to win the 2019 election, only to implement the Prespa Agreement itself.) Anti-immigrant discourse in the media is as rife as ever, and incidents of “indignant citizens” attacking refugees, and even migrant children in schools, are frequent. Another extreme right-wing party, “Greek Solution”, secured 10 seats in Parliament in 2019.

Golden Dawn is defeated, thanks largely to the efforts of anti-fascist grass-roots movements, intellectuals, and lawyers that doggedly pursued the case. But the political climate that spawned its rise is ever present. And it was born not just out of the crisis in an abstract sense, but of the specific, oppressive policies and ideas devised and applied by the mainstream political system. It is high time we acknowledge that — in Greece, as in other countries.

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