The conviction of neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn in October 2020 was hailed as a victory for democracy in Greece and momentarily seemed to rally the whole political spectrum – even those political parties that maintained direct relationships with Golden Dawn, like the right-wing governing party, New Democracy. Golden Dawn, initially a fringe party which emerged in the 1990s, became the third-largest parliamentary party during the 2010s, receiving around 7 per cent of the vote during the Greek financial crisis.
Enjoying legitimacy in some of the most crisis-hit social strata and certain parts of the right wing elites as well as the tacit toleration of law enforcement, electoral success emboldened Golden Dawn members to inflict even more violence on those their propaganda described as enemies of Greece, particularly migrants and anti-fascists. In 2013, Sahzat Lukman, a Pakistani migrant, and Pavlos Fyssas, a well-known anti-fascist rapper, were murdered by Golden Dawn supporters. Fyssas’s killing led to increased pressure by the anti-fascist movement and eventually to the Golden Dawn trial in 2015. The trial ended in October 2020 with the conviction of 57 of the 69 party leaders and the recognition of the party as a criminal organisation by the Athens court.
With the mainstream media reluctant to call Golden Dawn’s actions by their name, Fyssas’s murder was presented as a fight between football hooligans. It required the anti-fascist movement to fight relentlessly until the real story emerged and the Golden Dawn leadership was arrested by the authorities.
The fall of Golden Dawn
The anti-fascist movement in Greece has a long history, dating back to the interwar years and re-emerging in the 1980s in response to the rise of nationalist student groups in universities. Gaining momentum in the 1990s to respond to anti-immigration ideologies and the so-called Macedonia name issue, the movement made further inroads in the 2000s and 2010s in the neighbourhoods of Athens.
Here, new anti-fascist formations and coalitions emerged, bringing together pro-migrant activists, migrant associations, human rights organisations, students, trade unions and academics. The Racist Violence Reporting Network enabled the recording of racist violence by victims who feared deportation by the authorities, thus contributing to the systematic documentation of the racist profile of Golden Dawn’s actions. The vibrant anarchist movement also countered the local vigilantism and violence of Golden Dawn.
Following the arrest of Golden Dawn’s leaders, it was again the anti-fascist movement that kept the focus on the trial and exercised pressure against efforts to whitewash Golden Dawn. Two initiatives were instrumental in the eventual conviction of the neo-Nazi party as a criminal organization: the JailGoldenDawn network of anti-fascist lawyers, who launched a civil action suit against Golden Dawn, and the Golden Dawn Watch, a joint initiative of several anti-fascist and human rights organisations to monitor the trial.
The children of Golden Dawn
While in 2020 it seemed that fascism was defeated in Greece, recent experience has shown that Golden Dawn’s ideas have made breakthroughs in impoverished Greek society and ideologies of hate gained further acceptance. Indeed, just three years after the conviction of a neo-Nazi party, three far-right parties were voted to the parliament in the July 2023 elections, with the heirs of Golden Dawn, the Spartans, gaining 4.7 per cent, the ultra-Orthodox Niki (‘Victory’) gaining 3.7 per cent and the conspiracy theory-prone party Elliniki Lysi (‘Greek Solution’) gaining 4.4 per cent. In total, far right formations received 14.2 per cent of the vote.
The Greek experience shows that while recognising the indisputable significance of Golden Dawn’s conviction, fascism cannot be defeated in courtrooms and parliaments alone
Meanwhile, the relationships between the far right, the police and the judiciary – partially the consequence of Greece’s turbulent recent historical past, including a vicious civil war from which the right emerged victorious under a ruthless military junta – allowed for privileged imprisonment conditions for the convicted Golden Dawn leaders.
As a result, Elias Kassidiaris, Golden Dawn’s second in command, was able to broadcast on YouTube from his prison cell to mobilise support for the Spartans, a party which appeared out of the blue only two weeks before the elections, and then to get elected to the Athens municipal council in October 2023, with his party Eleftheroi Athinaioi (‘Free Athenians’) scoring 8.3 per cent of the vote.
Greek fascism today
So, after a decade since the brutal murder of Pavlos Fyssas, it seems that Greece has come full circle. Golden Dawn leaders are running successful political formations; the presence of far-right parties in parliament has multiplied; the self-proclaimed ‘centre-right’ governing party has appointed three notorious far-right politicians in key ministerial positions for a second term; and fascist ideas are being mainstreamed as the softer alt-right profile of those who compete in the ever-growing pool of authoritarianism makes far-right ideologies more appealing. In this bleak historical moment, the anti-fascist movement in Greece is faced with urgent new political duties.
With an appeal court challenge to the outcome of the Golden Dawn trial continuing, the work of Golden Dawn Watch is extremely valuable, as are the independent grassroots media that cover the trial, in a country that found itself in 107th place in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) freedom of press index for 2023.
But with fascism making a comeback on the streets as well, responses cannot be limited to institutional battles. Anti-semitism is on the rise again with new attacks on Holocaust memorials, while recent attacks with knives, iron bars and clubs against immigrants and antifascists have also been reported. Infiltration of the far right into high schools and football clubs has culminated in violent attacks on anti-racist and anarchist social spaces and attempts to attack the Athens Pride that took place this summer. The pogroms against refugees which took place on the island of Lesbos in 2018 were repeated in summer 2023, when local vigilante groups captured and imprisoned migrants close to the Greek-Turkish border after fake news that they were responsible for the wildfires that raged in the region for over 15 days spread via social media.
The Greek experience shows that while recognising the indisputable significance of Golden Dawn’s conviction, fascism cannot be defeated in courtrooms and parliaments alone. Bans and court rulings alone cannot fight ideologies, nor counter the violence that far-right groups are inflicting on those they perceive as their enemies. It was the anti-fascist movement that brought down Golden Dawn, and it is anti-fascists who continue their relentless daily struggle on the streets.