When a wave of right-wing extremism hit Greece in 2012, few would have predicted that Golden Dawn, one of the groups involved, would grow to become the third largest party in the Greek parliament. This was the beginning of a long period of turmoil in Greek politics that saw a violent street movement become a viable political force.
But this neo-fascist “fairy tale” ended in what was considered the biggest Nazi trial since Nuremberg. Golden Dawn has been declared a criminal organisation and its leaders jailed, because of their involvement in unlawful activities – including murders, attacks on migrants, illegal possession of weapons and racketeering.
The leadership was also found guilty of ordering the murder of leftist rapper Pavlos Fyssas.
Prior to that, another murder attempt on Egyptian fisherman Abuzid Embarak in 2012, showed that the party was deliberately trying to incite violence, something that has been previously described by a number academics and journalists as an attempt to target minorities.
The trial lasted more than five years due to numerous delays and setbacks that turned the whole process into a never-ending chaos. In the meantime, the party was free to stand candidates in general and local elections without restrictions.
In total, 37 members of Golden Dawn were convicted – including leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos and 17 MPs – who have now been convicted and sentenced by the Greek court. Ioannis Lagos, Golden Dawn’s only remaining member of the European parliament, is likely to have his parliamentary immunity revoked any day now. Lagos is best known for ripping up a Turkish flag during a debate.
Why Golden Dawn was different
Every European country has fringe groups like Golden Dawn. They are often part of larger right-wing extremist networks with small but loyal bases.
Golden Dawn went mainstream soon after announcing its first major election campaign. Timing was crucial. The growing political instability in the country meant three general elections were held between 2009 and 2012. All major parties were losing public approval over their handling of the fiscal crisis.
On top of that, the only active far-right party in parliament back then (the Popular Orthodox Rally) had agreed to participate in a provisional coalition government organised by Lucas Papademos to get the country out of crisis. This move was seen as a betrayal by supporters.
The Greek far-right scene seemed weak, allowing Golden Dawn to step in and fill that gap without facing competition. Its monopoly allowed it to act in the most politically aggressive way. It embraced national purity, anticommunism, and promised mass migrant deportations. This rhetoric and an obsession with the refugee crisis started to pay off very quickly.
Calls for more aggressive migration policies became central to its election campaigns. Recent academic findings showed that exposure to the refugee crisis in rural Greece increased support for Golden Dawn.
The party secured a shocking 9.4% of the vote in the European Parliament election of 2014, while in September 2015 it peaked nationally with 7%.
Who fills the void?
During the early years of the Greek economic crisis, it looked as though the public was trying to punish the political system through the ballot box. It is widely believed that this age of anger had passed by 2017, which was when Golden Dawn’s downfall began. Greece rejected populism and abandoned fringe politics, allowing mainstream parties to become popular once again.
In the general election of 2019, Golden Dawn lost all its parliamentary seats and had to shut down most of its branches to survive financially.
However, the party casts a long shadow and continues to shape Greek politics. The more mainstream New Democracy, for example, has opened its doors to a number of far-right politicians, who ran successful campaigns in the recent election. Some of them had previously expressed strong xenophobic and antisemitic views.
Kyriakos Velopoulos’ ultranationalist party Greek Solution, meanwhile, won ten seats in the Greek parliament after a long period of campaigning against migrants. Golden Dawn’s spokesperson Ilias Kasidiaris has formed a new movement called Greeks for the Fatherland – even though he, too, is now in jail.
Kasidiaris has attempted to distance himself from neo-Nazi ideology in the wake of the Golden Dawn trial but his commitment to that change is yet to be tested. The same voters who embraced violence and legitimised Golden Dawn for its violent practices could support a similar movement. We might expect any such party to be less aggressive and neo-Nazi than Golden Dawn, but its values will be similar.
Greece has shown us how to deal with neo-Nazis. But when it comes to extremism, it is important to recognise the years of antifascist activism during Golden Dawn’s rise. It was a fight that, at times, seemed like a lost cause.
Democracy managed to pass an important test in the prosecution and sentencing of this criminal organisation. The court ruling was enough to eradicate Golden Dawn, but fascist remnants are still out there, reorganising and planning their next move.