Story by Isaac Feldberg ·
THESSALONIKI, Greece – The footage begins as Ilias Kasidiaris – a tall man with a forceful gaze and a swastika tattoo – berates Parliament over planned austerity cuts. Teeth bared and neck muscles bulging beneath the collar of a well-tailored suit, the spokesman for neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn tears through his sentences as if meting out blows in a boxing ring.
For Kasidiaris and Golden Dawn, ferocity is a strategy. With clenched fists and thundering voice, Kasidiaris is his party personified, a hyper-masculine symbol of the seething anger of those who feel a crisis-stricken Greece has failed them. In him and Golden Dawn, disillusioned voters have discovered an apoplectic release.
In the news reel, Kasidiaris flinches mid-tirade; a fellow Parliament member, of the conservative New Democracy, has crossed in front of him. Angrily breaking from his address to accost the intruder, Kasidiaris’ mouth curls into a sneer. “Δεν βλέπεις ότι μιλάω;” he asks, incredulous. “Can’t you see I’m talking?”
Chaos erupts across Parliament moments later, but the video, released in early May, has already cut away, too quickly to catch Kasidiaris shoving Dendias backward and unleashing a storm of profanities before he was ejected from the chambers.
As sensational as it is, the incident barely warrants a footnote in the expansive history of violence that’s long trailed Greece’s most dangerous extremist faction. Since its origins in the ‘80s and ‘90s as a fringe group entrenched in Nazi ideology and largely ignored by the political establishment, Golden Dawn has never been above getting its hands dirty.
For decades, members have been accused of carrying out hate crimes against marginalized populations. Its most prominent figures, including leader Nikolaos G. Michaloliakos, express support for the Third Reich. And multiple members of the group’s senior leadership remain on trial for crimes related to the 2013 murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas, stabbed twice in the heart and once in the stomach after a football match in Athens. A member of Golden Dawn’s Piraeus branch allegedly wielded the knife while 30 other members encircled and trapped Fyssas in place.
And yet, amid Greece’s ongoing economic malaise, support for Golden Dawn has expanded, moving the neo-Nazi group from 0.5 percent of the vote to 7 percent, securing around 500,000 votes and 18 MPs in a 300-seat Parliament. That increase has transformed Golden Dawn into the country’s third biggest political party – and ensured rivals can no longer afford to discount their presence.
Making Greece great again
Golden Dawn’s alarming ascension can be contextualized within a global wave of political populism that recently swept Marine Le Pen into the French presidential race, Great Britain out of the European Union and Donald Trump into the White House.
Inflamed by globalization, the far-right rhetoric weaponized across that wave has readily exploited a social fear that Greece’s refugee crisis has only intensified: that “rightful” citizens will become minorities in their own countries after ceding too much ground to dispossessed outsiders.
“It tends to be attitudinal,” says Daphne Halikiopoulou, co-author of “The Golden Dawn’s Nationalist Solution: Explaining the rise of the far right in Greece,” describing the motivations of voters rallying behind populist movements. “They all share some attitudinal variables in common like anger or dissatisfaction with the system, or lack of trust in institutions or the incumbent.”
Speaking by phone, Halikiopoulou, a University of Reading, England, professor, clarifies that there are many differences between the social conditions present in, say, America during Trump’s campaign and England ahead of the Brexit vote. And yet, nationalist politics thrive under particular social conditions, including rising globalization, economic hardship and disparate levels of education across a population.
“If you look at them all, one common denominator tends to be education,” says Halikiopoulou. “For the Brexit vote, that was important, and it was important for Trump voters as well as for members of the Golden Dawn and Marine Le Pen voters.”
From Thessaloniki, Mayor Yiannis Boutaris, noted for his leftist policies and support of the LGBT community, has watched with trepidation as populist movements have gained momentum across Europe.
“The extreme right is growing more and more, not only in Greece but in all of Europe. This is a huge disturbance,” says Boutaris, 74, who blames globalization, particularly the mass immigration it encourages, for exacerbating the divide between upper and lower classes.
“When you are promised something and you are desperate, you believe that promise,” says Boutaris. “You want to believe that promise.”
But Boutaris and his advisor, Leonidas Makris, remain skeptical that Golden Dawn will broaden its supporter base in the next election.
“Greece, for the first year after nine years, is going to have economic growth,” says Makris, noting that social conditions for Golden Dawn-style extremism may have already hit their nadir. With a slowly recovering economy, Greece could, he says, begin to once more climb back toward a pre-recession political climate.
Shadows of history
To Georgios Tsiakalos, professor of education at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Golden Dawn’s surge in votes is all the more troubling for how little effort the party puts into hiding its dark roots.
“They do think they’re the children of Hitler,” says Tsiakalos, 71, who is well-versed in Golden Dawn’s ideology and has traveled to more than 250 schools around Greece educating young people about its dangers. “They’re national socialists, and that’s why they always point out they’re not nationalists like the other right-wing groups; they are nationalists about race, not about nation.”
Nazi imagery is still entwined with Golden Dawn’s modus operandi; their logo resembles a swastika, and members sometimes greet one another with a Nazi salute. White men, many sporting bald or shaved “skinhead” aesthetics, constitute their most visible supporters. And their penchant for brutal gang violence stems from a deeply militaristic and totalitarian interpretation of political activism.
How is it possible that a neo-Nazi group has seized a foothold in modern Greek politics?
It’s a sign of the times, says Tsiakalos. Greece’s protracted struggle with debt, the size of which doubles its annual economic output, has caused civilians to suffer, especially due to brutish austerity measures passed in order to appease those demanding repayment. To make matters worse, memorandums – documents between Greece and external parties designed to outline financial aid programs – have been criticized by many as unnecessarily punitive.
The recent socio-economic tumult, combined with a rising tide of immigration, has created a fertile breeding ground for racist, xenophobic demagoguery. And while leading parties Syriza and New Democracy support austerity, as do most political organizations in Greece, the Communist party and Golden Dawn stand against such measures.
Greek citizen Panagiotis Slitas openly supports Golden Dawn and writes he has “for years” when he’s contacted through Twitter for comment. Calling the organization “the cleanest, most honest political party in Greece,” Slitas cites its opposition to all memorandums as the main reason for his continued allegiance.
“[This party] doesn’t sign any of the austerity measures,” writes Slitas. “People are so fed up with the austerity measures and the parties passing them that they turn to Golden Dawn… It’s a political party that thinks for Greek people and the future of the country.”
Slitas adds that anger toward undocumented immigrants in Greece has shaped his opinions. “[Golden Dawn] wants the borders to be closed and all the illegal immigrants to be deported,” he writes. “Greece has been converted into a ghetto of illegal immigrants.”
When Europe began slamming its borders shut last year, more than 62,000 refugees and migrants were left in limbo across Greece and its islands.
The influx, as well as the Greek government’s inability to deal with such an unexpectedly solidified increase in population, has heightened xenophobic tensions – and given Golden Dawn an ideal opportunity to unite the extreme and moderate political right in demonizing a vulnerable scapegoat.
Awaiting relocation for months – sometimes years – amid paperwork problems and infrastructural delays, many refugees and migrants have settled into some of Greece’s most destitute areas, feeding into a grim cycle of crime and poverty that provides far-right groups like Golden Dawn with ample propaganda.
As such, violence against immigrants has been on the rise, with Golden Dawn supporters, especially in major cities like Athens, reportedly adopting vigilante roles, intimidating and brutalizing immigrants in the streets. Last November, rocks and Molotov cocktails rained down on the Souda refugee camp, located on the island of Chios, injuring at least two. Molotovs and gas bombs have also been employed on the mainland, often aimed at temporary homes for refugees.
In another instance earlier this year, Golden Dawn MP Yiannis Lagos led supporters into a state-run elementary school in Athens, threatening and punching teachers and parents gathered for a meeting to discuss providing classes to local refugee children.
“They take voters’ insecurities and sell it as offering them protection,” explains the professor from Reading, Halikiopoulou, describing the group’s violent, nationalist policies. “That protection has to involve excluding outsiders from the collective good of the state.”
Immigrants aren’t the only targets. Golden Dawn espouses anti-Semitic ideology, sometimes directly lifted from documents composed by German Nazis prior to the rise of the Third Reich, and has consistently attacked Muslims, considering them a special danger in the age of ISIS. Leftists who oppose Golden Dawn’s politics are also often threatened, and beatings carried out by gangs have been documented across state media.
Golden Dawn supporter Manolis Stamatakis, 27, is especially incensed by the planned construction of Athens’ first mosque.
“Greece doesn’t have the money or resources to feed hungry Greeks – they are cutting wages and pensions, but yet they still find the money to build a mosque in Athens?” writes Stamatakis, who agreed to an interview over Facebook. “They call us racist, but when they give food and money and homes to foreigners and leave Greeks out in the cold to die of hunger, isn’t that racism [against the Greeks]?”
Though Stamatakis writes he can accept an influx of refugees with passports and papers from Syria, it’s the illegal immigrants, especially those who practice Islam, whom he cannot tolerate.
Of what he thinks should be done about the mosque, Stamatakis writes provocatively, “Should be blown up with TNT.”
Pressed as to whether Golden Dawn would ever carry out such an action, Stamatakis is quick to clarify.
“No,” he writes. “[Golden Dawn] is a legitimate political party, and not a criminal organization.”
An uncertain future
Ex-Golden Dawn member Stavvas Stavrakis, 30, now works the deli in a Thessaloniki supermarket. The part-time job, which pays 380 euro, or about $428 a month, is the only form of employment he’s been able to secure since his time in the military, where he received special training as a sniper. Applications to become a firefighter, so far, have led nowhere.
Stavrakis says he originally joined Golden Dawn more than a decade ago out of a sense of patriotic duty, but was especially disturbed by reports of crimes by Muslim immigrants, whom he saw as interlopers twice over in his country. “If you handed me a revolver, I would use it with no hesitation,” he says in an interview at a Thessaloniki cafe. “I considered them to be less than human.”
Despite such views, Stavrakis cut ties with Golden Dawn in 2007, two years after clashes with police led to his arrest. The group’s lack of organization, as well as constant conflict between members with varyingly extreme views, factored into the decision. Since leaving, he’s regarded figures like Kasidiaris with contempt.
“When I elect someone, I elect them to do a job, and nothing more,” he says. “This guy has a big mouth, but it’s filled with [expletive].”
Asked why Golden Dawn continues to gather political power despite leadership he views as discouragingly theatrical, Stavrakis both affirms that he believes the party will soon grow to become Greece’s second-largest and levels blame for this across the political spectrum.
“It is growing, only because the leading political parties are incompetent at doing their jobs,” he explains. “Not 0.001 percent of their voters believe they have the answers. But they believe they are far better than what we have now.”