How Greece’s democracy withstood a fascist threat

Anti-fascist protesters outside an Athens court where the trial of leaders and members of the Golden Dawn far-right party was taking place on Wednesday. (Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
Anti-fascist protesters outside an Athens court where the trial of leaders and members of the Golden Dawn far-right party was taking place on Wednesday. (Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

It was a rare moment of unalloyed collective joy, in a year that has offered precious little of it: On Wednesday, the Athens Court of Appeals found the leadership of Golden Dawn, a racist group with Nazi roots that became Greece’s third-largest party in 2015, guilty of being the ringleaders of a criminal organization. A crowd of thousands outside erupted in celebration. Dozens of the organization’s top thugs were found guilty of multiple charges, including murder and attempted murder.

For Greece, it was a fitting, happy ending to a nightmarish decade, but the outcome wasn’t assured. It’s hard to overestimate the danger of flirting with such extremists — and the ease with which it can lead to consequences beyond anyone’s control.

Golden Dawn had been around since the 1980s as a group of Nazi apologists and nostalgists for the colonels’ junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. For decades, they existed on the margins of political life, occasionally making headlines for some brutal act of street violence but attracting minimal support — they got a mere 0.3 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary election before Greece plunged into a devastating crisis in October 2009.

The subsequent collapse of the Greek economy; the international bailout and the harsh terms that accompanied it; the plummeting appeal of the old political and media establishment; and the rising numbers of immigrants coming into the country created the perfect opportunity for Golden Dawn. In November 2010, pledging to rid Athens of migrants crowding into underprivileged neighborhoods, the “party” managed to gain a seat on the city council.

In May 2012, in the first parliamentary election during the crisis, its support jumped to 7 percent — from fewer than 20,000 to nearly 450,000 votes — thanks to the group’s belligerent rhetoric against the bailout, the political class and the immigrants turning Greece into a “social jungle.” In an unhinged TV address that night, Golden Dawn’s leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, hailed the “proud boys in the black shirts” — the group’s stormtroopers. In the cradle of democracy, which suffered nearly four years of Nazi occupation during World War II, Hitler’s ideological descendants had managed to gain parliamentary representation.

Their victory only emboldened them further. They combined outrageous antics inside Parliament with a campaign of increasing violence on the streets. Their popularity kept growing, to the point where they established themselves as the third-biggest party in Greece. Even after the group’s entire leadership was arrested, following the killing of Pavlos Fyssas, a left-wing musician, on Sept. 18, 2013, its base kept the faith. In the European parliamentary election the following May, it received 9.4 percent of the vote.

The old establishment was unsure how to react. Investigative pieces in the press about Golden Dawn’s criminal operations failed to impress the group’s supporters, while the exclusion of its members of Parliament from news shows invited charges of censorship and helped burnish their anti-systemic credentials. Some ultraconservative commentators gave them a platform, and a few media reports portrayed them as stalwart patriots helping old ladies with their groceries on streets made dangerous by the influx of foreigners. Some figures in the center-right New Democracy party saw them as potentially useful interlocutors — if only they could be housebroken. Even the coalition government of 2015 to 2019, despite being led by the leftist Syriza party, kept some lines of communication open. The two parties were on the same, anti-E.U. side in the bailout referendum of 2015; Syriza accepted Golden Dawn votes on crucial bills and even amended the criminal code in 2019 in ways it knew would shield the extremists from heavier sentences.

And yet, the vast majority of mainstream politicians and journalists shunned the group and savaged those who flirted with them. Greek voters, brutalized by a depression that saw the Greek economy shrink by a quarter and unemployment skyrocket to nearly 30 percent, lost their taste for a Greek remake of the Weimar Republic once things looked less desperate. Last year, the group narrowly missed the 3 percent threshold required to gain seats in Parliament. On Wednesday, the court completed Golden Dawn’s demise. The message was clear: In a liberal democracy, those who violently reject its premises will be rebuked at the ballot box and put in the dock.

Americans should not take for granted that this message will be heard in their country. American white supremacists such as Matthew Heimbach, who promoted the fateful “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, made no secret of their admiration for Golden Dawn. A week ago, asked directly to condemn America’s “Proud Boys” on the debate stage, the president of the United States instead instructed them to “stand back and stand by.” The cordon sanitaire that has kept such groups at bay has noticeably frayed in the Trump era. Greece came to the brink — and turned away. Will the United States?

Yannis Palaiologos is the European Union correspondent for the Kathimerini newspaper in Athens. He is the author of “The 13th Labour of Hercules: Inside the Greek Crisis.”

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