On 7 October, the Greek courts concluded a landmark case by deciding on one of the heaviest charges in the country’s penal law: that Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party was a criminal organisation masquerading as a political party, effectively putting an end to its almost 40-year history and its decade as a parliamentary party.
And what a masquerade it has been. In 2013, the murder of antifascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas by Golden Dawn member Giorgos Roupakias marked a turning point both in the organisation’s politics and public perception, and brought about a lengthy criminal inquiry into the organisation. Yet prior to 2013, the media had routinely presented Golden Dawn as “concerned residents” merely fighting back against the perceived problems immigration had caused in their neighbourhoods, whilst gossip shows and columns happily peeked into members’ private lives. The rhetoric surrounding Golden Dawn’s entry to the Athens city council in 2009 and subsequently to parliament in 2012 easily gelled with the tendency of successive governments between 2004 and 2015 to deploy anti-migrant discourse and policies, whilst using far-right parties to achieve short-term political goals.
But the practices they are now convicted of were hardly different at the time. Violence has been attributed to Golden Dawn since its beginnings in the early 1980s, and as the organisation rapidly grew after 2009, edging towards the parliament, its public performances, militaristic gatherings and group attacks on migrants made for great TV.
More violent escalations, such as the anti-migrant pogrom in the centre of Athens in 2011, the brutal murder of 28-year-old Pakistani Sakhzat Lukman, the nighttime invasion and attempted murder of a house of Egyptian fishermen, and the ambush of port workers hanging strike posters – all part of the years-long trial – barely made headlines at the time, leading much of the public, who willingly turned a blind eye, to believe that Golden Dawn’s public acts of violence were somehow moderate and an expression of discomfort – shocking, but limited.
When Golden Dawn first entered parliament in June 2012, it had gained 7% of the vote. Polls prior to prosecution showed its popularity still surging north of 10%. Questions of how then prime minister Antonis Samaras’s hard-right New Democracy government viewed the organisation were answered in 2014, when Golden Dawn spokesperson Ilias Kasidiaris leaked a video of a conversation he had had with the prime minister’s aide, Takis Baltakos, in which the two men discuss the details of the prosecution against Golden Dawn. The video appeared to reveal frequent coordination between Samaras and Golden Dawn, with Baltakos acting as an intermediary.
Since 2013, the arrest, prosecution and subsequent revealing of the inner workings of the organisation – including testimonies and photos from its military training camps, stored weapons, multiple associations with organised crime, and a vast collection of evidence showing the ideological and organisational influence of nazism – halted Golden Dawn’s rise in the polls, but left them cemented between 6% and 7% for both elections held in 2015, passing the 3% threshold for entry into parliament under the Greek electoral system.
Mass antifascist rallies held in every anniversary since Pavlos Fyssas’s murder, as well as the work of numerous political organisations and journalists, we crucial in raising awareness of Golden Dawn’s real nature and have no doubt played a role in its subsequent demise, with the organisation failing to enter into parliament in the 2019 general election.
However, these were not the only factors. Most significantly, polls have shown that in terms of electoral power, Golden Dawn’s voters have largely moved to the rightwing New Democracy party, which won by a landslide of 39% in July 2019, having successfully instigated an intensely nationalistic movement against the Prespes Agreement, the treaty by which Greece recognised the name of its neighboring country, North Macedonia. As for Golden Dawn’s social movement, it has now been routed to the various anti-refugee protests and riots all over Greece, which are still increasing both in number and intensity.
The Prespes Agreement was Golden Dawn’s last stand, even if the organisation was unable to take full credit, as it would have done before 2013, for events aligned with its modus operandi: violent attacks against journalists; arson and vandalism against squats, social centres, and other parties’ headquarters; multiple attacks on leftists and anarchists; slogans such as “a knife to the heart of every antifa” (a direct reference to Pavlos Fyssas’s murder); “wanted” posters hung from lampposts featuring MPs who voted in favour of the Agreement, as well as nighttime protests outside their houses.
In the end, all Golden Dawn could take credit for were its parliamentary theatrics: Ilias Kasidiaris’s physical assault against New Democracy’s former minister of police, Nikos Dendias, in the chamber of the Hellenic parliament, and a hopeless police car chase involving MP Kostas Barbaroussis, after he had called upon the army to arrest the prime minister and the president of the Republic for treason from the parliamentary stand.
Widespread revolt against the Prespes Agreement fuelled nationalistic frenzy, but Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s New Democracy was in far better shape to absorb it than Golden Dawn. Mitsotakis endorsed anti-Agreement protests as an opposition strategy against the former Syriza government, no matter how violent they turned, despite the bitter irony that in the early 1990s, protests against an earlier proposed agreement with North Macedonia were both Golden Dawn’s first mainstream outing and eventually responsible for ousting Mitsotakis’s father, who was prime minister at the time, from office.
New Democracy’s cynicism notwithstanding, throughout its opposition to the Prespes Agreement, Golden Dawn has been in a shambles due to the trial process. Since 2013 and still today, Golden Dawn has been plagued with internal conflict, factionalism and accusations between its members. At present, almost all of the organisation’s main lieutenants have split to form their own parties, and despite suspicions this was a strategy to undermine allegations of a rigid hierarchy – the type of which a criminal organisation would require – it has certainly affected its operational capacity nonetheless. Since 2014, its offices have been gradually closing down, and following its defeat in the last election, even the main headquarters in Athens has been evacuated.
Today, Golden Dawn is effectively over as an organisation. But while the trial’s conclusion may have come after Golden Dawn has already lost most of its political clout, this doesn’t mean its story is over. Golden Dawn’s connections to both the political system and organised crime, the embrace of its agenda by the governing party, and its deep influence in the army and the police cannot be uprooted easily. This will be the next challenge for the tens of thousands of people who today protested outside the Athens appeals court under banners reading “they are not innocent”.
Yannis-Orestis Papadimitriou is a freelance journalist based in Athens. He is a member of The Manifold, an investigative outfit with members in Athens, Nicosia and London.