“They were big and strong and they hit us like lightning,” says Aphrodite Frangou, a left-wing activist and journalist recalling the moment when a group of supporters of the far-right Golden Dawn party launched their attack. “They kicked us, beat us and broke tables, chairs and even the loudspeakers we had set up. Four of us spent the night in hospital.”
The number two of the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, on the run for nine months, is arrested.
October should have been a month of celebration for Frangou and other members of Keerfa, Greece’s leading anti-fascist group. One year ago this week, the neo-Nazi leaders of Golden Dawn, including their self-proclaimed “Führer” Nikos Michaloliakos, were jailed with lengthy sentences after a historic five-year trial that was celebrated as a turning point in the history of Greek politics.
Keerfa was commemorating the anniversary in a public square in Athens when the attack happened. Similar scenes had already taken place a few days earlier at a school in a suburb of Thessaloniki. Young men covered in black balaclavas, armed with sticks, American fists, flares and knives, attacked students, anti-fascists and trade unionists. The wave of attacks stunned the nation and the assailants were filmed giving Nazi salutes.
For Petros Constantinou, Keerfa’s coordinator, the incidents are reminiscent of the worst days of Golden Dawn, when its hit squads roamed the streets of Athens to beat up “immigrant trash” and other perceived enemies as Greece, mired in an economic crisis, became the first European country to bring neo-Nazis into parliament. “Nine years later, fascists are again empowered by racist policies,” he says. “They are coming back because they feel this is their moment, this is their time.”
The disappearance of Golden Dawn has left a void. At its best, two years after reaching the chamber of 300 representatives in Athens, the party reached 9.3% in the European elections, consolidating its position as the third political force with the votes of nearly 500,000 Greeks in 2015.
The 13-year prison sentences received by the party’s leaders, convicted of coordinating a criminal gang disguised as a political party in the biggest trial of Nazis since Nuremberg, have ensured that Golden Dawn is no longer more than a name. However, it is feared that other far-right formations will try to fill the void.
The north, an ultra bastion
Although the Greek Solution party, which supports conspiracy theories, is believed to have absorbed most of Golden Dawn’s voter base, with 3.7% in the last general election in July 2019, the neo-fascists narrowly missed (2.93%) the 3% barrier to enter parliament.
“When the far right cannot impose itself at the national level, it tends to build strongholds,” says Professor Vasiliki Georgidau, a specialist in far-right militancy at Panteion University.
“Golden Dawn did the same thing in 2008 when it took over economically disadvantaged areas of central Athens, which at first went unnoticed and then earned them a seat on the municipal council. Two years later they made it to parliament. I worry that something similar is happening with the creation of similar strongholds in northern Greece,” he says.
The recent street clashes in Thessaloniki, he says, took place in areas with high unemployment rates, where Pontic Greeks, whose families emigrated from Russia, tend to be radicalized.
Greek security forces have recorded the emergence of at least 16 new far-right groups since the collapse of Golden Dawn, according to a police report that has not yet been published.do.
Seven have been registered in the north of the country, where nationalist fervor – often stoked by conservative Orthodox Church priests – was amplified by opposition to the 2018 Prespa agreement that settled the name dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Despite being mere imitations of Golden Dawn, whose absolute embrace of violent Nazi ideology and tactics was the shame of their allies in Europe, the new factions are no less racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic and include believers convinced of Greek racial superiority. News reports referring to the police investigation suggest that they number about 5,000 members and followers in Thessaloniki alone.
“In the north there is a stronger nationalist tradition because the far right has legitimized itself in the fight for Macedonia,” says Kostis Papaioannou, director of Signal, a research group that studies far-right extremism.
“The rise of these new groups has been linked to the anti-vaccine movement in the region because in northern Greece vaccination rates are much lower. But undoubtedly some have had links to Golden Dawn and the imprisoned members of parliament,” he says.
The rise of conspiracy theories in the wake of the pandemic has also strengthened the far-right, who can now capitalize on the ignorance and fears of a large part of the population.
Slow response from the authorities
Propatria, which began as a martial arts school and maintains close ties to Golden Dawn and other mainland organizations, is believed to be behind the attack on Keerfa. “One of the attackers had the Black Sun tattooed on his elbow and I could recognize him,” Frangou says, referring to the symbol associated with Nazi Germany’s infamous SS units.
The man, who was arrested and given a suspended three-year prison sentence, was already known to police after he was arrested for inciting violence at an anti-vaccine demonstration in Athens.
What worries Papaioannou is the authorities’ slow response to this new threat.
In a movement that has sparkedt outrage last week, a court upheld the appeal of the conviction of a Golden Dawn cadre, Giorgos Patelis, who was freed on the grounds that his son is ill. As party leader in Nikaia, a working-class Athens neighborhood, Patelis was serving a 10-year sentence for ordering the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, an anti-fascist hip-hop artist whose death would trigger the group’s collapse.
“After last year’s landmark verdict, parts of the judiciary seem to be questioning it,” Papaioannou says. “For many, Patelis’ release calls into question the court’s decision, although a Supreme Court prosecutor has requested a review of it.” It is absurd that a year later there has still been no investigation into police complicity with Golden Dawn, he denounces.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was criticised by Syriza, the main opposition party, for creating a climate conducive to right-wing extremism by giving senior posts to politicians who belonged to Laos, the populist far-right party. Although Mitsotakis belongs to the liberal flank of the ruling New Democracy party and has sought to appeal to centrists by appointing centre-left figures, he has been accused of prostrating himself to the right by implementing tough immigration policies and a law-and-order agenda.
“He has contributed to creating a political climate in which outrageous decisions such as the release of Patelis can be taken,” says Syriza MEP Stelios Koulouglou.
Georgiadou says it is not yet possible to define whether the country is experiencing a resurgence of the far right. “It is too early to say whether we are seeing a resurgence or just an outbreak of extremist violence,” he says. “But we should not ignore what is happening because the far right has not disappeared from Greece.”
Translation by Ignacio Rial-Schies