One evening in September 2011, Ali Rahimi, a 27-year-old Afghan asylum seeker, was hanging around with friends outside his building in central Athens when more than a dozen Greeks approached. Several men set upon Mr. Rahimi, one with a knife. Panicked, he fled into his apartment and fought back, managing to push the men out the door. He found blood gushing from just above his heart, one of five stab wounds in his back and chest.
Mr. Rahimi survived and is staying put for now. But his friend, Reza Mohammed, who was also injured in the attack, is considering what was once unthinkable: moving back to Afghanistan, which he feels would be safer than Greece.
Greece is the major entry point for Asian and African migrants and asylum seekers headed into Europe; there are about one million of them in the country today, thanks to the failure of successive Greek governments to establish a functioning migration or asylum policy, and a European Union regulation that allows member states to return asylum seekers to the country where they first entered Europe, which is often Greece.
Parts of Athens feel like a war zone. Racist gangs cruise the streets at night in search of victims. Themis Skordeli, a member of the group that is accused of stabbing Mr. Rahimi, ran unsuccessfully for Parliament on the ticket of Golden Dawn, a fascist group that is currently the third most popular party in Greece.
Golden Dawn was founded in 1985 under the order of the imprisoned leader of the Greek junta. The party entered the international spotlight after some of its members reportedly participated in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims. Its publication praises the Third Reich and often features photographs of Hitler and other Nazis.
By exploiting a security void and rising xenophobia, the party won a seat on the Athens City Council in 2010. In Greece’s election earlier this year, the party capitalized on widespread anti-immigrant sentiment and contempt for a political establishment that brought the country to the brink of economic collapse. It won almost 7 percent of the national vote and 18 seats in Parliament.
Recent polls show that its strength continues to grow, and its support runs as high as 50 percent among police officers, who routinely fail to investigate growing numbers of hate crimes.
Far-right ultranationalist groups are exploiting old enmities and new fears across the Continent. Although this is not the Europe of the 1930s, the disillusioned citizens of countries like Greece and Hungary have turned increasingly to simple answers, electing parties that blame familiar scapegoats — Jews, Gypsies, gays and foreigners — for their ills.
What’s at stake is the health of European democracy, and the values and institutions on which it rests. But while the euro crisis touched off a scramble to halt a financial meltdown, European leaders have done virtually nothing to reverse the union’s dangerous political trends.
Beneath the looming basilica of Athens’ largest church, middle-aged men and women in black Golden Dawn T-shirts were busy one bright September morning distributing food to needy Greeks. Kids ran across the courtyard, which was painted with the party’s unofficial platform: “Get foreigners out of Greece.” Clusters of fit, stoic young men in dark glasses ringed the perimeter.
Nikolaos Michos, a square-jawed Golden Dawn member of Parliament with the build and tattoos of a heavyweight boxer, leaned against a bloodmobile watching. He wore a black polo embossed with the party’s Swastika-like logo. “We’re fighters and we’re not going to back down,” he said, referring to death threats from leftists and the burning of a Golden Dawn office. “But they’re not striking fear into us because every center they destroy, we’ll build new ones,” he added.
Maria Chandraki, 29, an unemployed beautician, hadn’t heard of Golden Dawn until the last election. “Their positions may be extreme,” she said, holding plastic bags of food she’d just received. “But the situation is extreme as well. So we need extreme measures.” She went on, “We can’t have so many nations and so many different sets of values and ideals under the same roof.”
A few blocks down the street, a crowd was leaving a mosque after Friday Prayer. At the mention of Golden Dawn, immigrant men began lifting their shirts to show their scars. A short, sullen-looking young man with a cut across his nose and freshly sutured cheekbone, was pushed forward by the crowd. Just the night before, he said, he was beaten and cut with a knife by “fascists.”
“Go into the Omonia police station,” said another man. “You will see how violence is going on.” Several blocks away, I walked into just such a scene. As I stepped out of the elevator at the police station, I saw an officer screaming at a black man and backhanding him hard across the shoulder.
Nikos Katapodis, 69, can see the crossroads where his family has lived since 1863. A bald, chain-smoking funeral-home owner, Mr. Katapodis describes the Greek government with a string of expletives. The flood of immigrants over the last decade created ghettos in central Athens, he explains. Crime rates rose, property values dropped and bars appeared on second-floor windows. “It looks like a prison,” he said, nodding to the street. “Today it reminds me of the late 1940s,” he adds. “You see people scrounging for food in the trash cans.”
Although he didn’t vote for Golden Dawn, he sees it as “the only party that is actually doing things for the Greek people” — a cross between the welfare state and the Mafia. If he needed an escort to walk down the street or help paying for his cancer medicine, he’d call Golden Dawn. “They’re doing what the politicians should be doing,” he said. “There’s a hole, and they fill it.”
Authoritarian elements in the Greek government have a history of using far-right groups to outsource political violence against critics. Recent moves to rein in Golden Dawn came only after it grew too powerful to control and the state felt its own authority was challenged, explained Anastassia Tsoukala, a legal scholar. “They were bitten by their own snake,” she said. And Greece is not alone. Golden Dawn’s rise has parallels across Europe, and its significance should be of Continental concern.
In September, I sat in a Budapest courthouse as four men with tattoos and shaved heads filed past in handcuffs. Called the Death Squad, the men were charged with six murders during a wave of attacks against the country’s Roma minority, including one in which the attackers tossed a Molotov cocktail at a house and then gunned down a father and his 5-year-old son as they tried to escape the flames.
In the wake of the Death Squad murders, Kristof Domina founded the Athena Institute to monitor European extremist groups. The Budapest-based institute’s Web site features a map of 114 extremist groups active in 13 European countries. Although there are reports that these groups communicate and sometimes travel across the Continent in search of weapons or training, the problem hasn’t been dealt with at a Pan-European level.
Unlike Greece, Hungary has a history of fascist groups, including the Hungarian National Front, an anti-Semitic, anti-Roma group that established an annual international neo-Nazi event and regularly holds paramilitary training exercises on a former Soviet military base (“an incubator for the Breivik-type people,” says Mr. Domina, referring to the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik). Since Hungary’s economic crisis began, new extremist groups have emerged and the Hungarian National Front has gained national prominence.
In 2009, Jobbik, a self-described “radically patriotic Christian party” with an affiliated militia, entered Hungary’s Parliament. To rally its base, the party often relies on hate marches and intimidation campaigns that stoke racist fervor.
While Jobbik has traditionally tried to distance itself from more extreme groups, its true colors were on display at an August rally in the village of Devecser, where a Jobbik member of Parliament delivered the opening address. Subsequent speeches from other groups grew increasingly violent, climaxing in a tirade about “how the Roma people have to die and you have to kill them and we have to clean out the country,” as one witness recalled. The crowd eventually began throwing stones at Roma houses, chanting “you will die” and vowing to return.
Hungary’s ruling center-right party, Fidesz, is eager to win back some far-right voters it lost to Jobbik, so it won’t push back. Since being elected in 2010, Fidesz has pursued its own campaign of democratic rollback. Gerrymandered election districts, centralized control over the courts and the press and a new Constitution that dismantles checks and balances have caused discomfort in Brussels. In February, European Commissioner Neelie Kroes threatened to initiate proceedings that could strip Hungary of its European Union voting rights due to its controversial media laws. But that hasn’t happened yet — most likely because Brussels lacks enforcement mechanisms short of this “nuclear option.”
European leaders must not cede the battleground in the war of ideas. They should publicly denounce parties that espouse racist doctrines and spew hate-filled rhetoric and clearly define and defend the shared values of an increasingly integrated Europe.
To do so, they must develop a Pan-European approach to monitoring hate crimes and investigating right-wing extremist networks that operate across borders. And the European Union must ensure that all member states, old and new, respect the same criteria that countries currently aspiring to join the European Union are required to meet, especially maintaining the “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities.” Otherwise, Europe faces the specter of more xenophobic violence and the unraveling of the liberal democratic order that has drawn so many persecuted people to seek asylum and opportunity on European shores.
In Athens, Sayd Jafari owns a cafe frequented by fellow Afghans. It has been repeatedly ransacked by mobs of black-clad attackers wielding sticks, chains and knives and performing fascist salutes.
Like others who have been assaulted, Mr. Jafari is also contemplating returning home to Afghanistan. “There, maybe someone has a bomb hidden on his body that he detonates,” he says. “Here, you don’t see where the knife that kills you comes from.”
William Wheelera, a freelance journalist. His reporting was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.