With Greece’s Golden Dawn trial set to end on October 7th, writer Remco Van der Meer takes us through the sprawling trial and finds that the street protests that were crucial to getting the neo-Nazi group in court in the first place might be just as essential to the trial’s outcome.
Clad in camouflage pants and black shirts, several men form a circle around a bonfire. Some hold torches. “Raise your arm like me,” one of them commands as he demonstrates the Nazi salute. “I swear,” the others chant after him, “I will never forsake the leader, in his life nor his death!”
These men are recruits from the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, and a recording of this eerie ceremony is part of the evidence in the biggest trial against fascism since Nuremberg. The five-year case, in which Golden Dawn members have been tried for a number of severe crimes, is set to end on October 7th. Whether the end of the trial will mean the end of terror wrought by Europe’s most dangerous neo-Nazi group remains to be seen.
After spending decades on the fringes of Greek political life, the crisis of 2012 catapulted Golden Dawn to its forefront. While alternating centre-right and -left coalitions passed the first austerity measures imposed on the country by the EU and IMF, regular Greeks lost jobs, housing, and social security. It was under these conditions that Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos managed to present the party as an alternative to the ruling elite. The party gained popularity not only for its charity and food drives, but also for its violent attacks on scapegoats such as migrants and left-wing activists.
The party used its parliamentary faction to create the façade of a moderate nationalist party. In the streets however, Golden Dawn showed its true face. Using trained gangs, the group systematically intimidated and assaulted migrants and ideological opponents. Michaloliakos has always publicly denied the existence of these ‘battalions’, but confiscated documents, text messages, phone conversations and videos reveal a strict party hierarchy that left little to fate. At the height of Golden Dawn’s street terror, from 2012 through mid-2013, there were 281 documented incidents involving street gangs.
The far-right is on the rise all over Europe, but in the last decade it was in Greece where it was the most dangerous. For years that danger has led activists to call for a ban of Golden Dawn, which would require changing the Greek constitution.
Lawyer Kostas Papadakis does not see this as a solution. “Outlawing the party won’t solve the problem, if only because members can simply continue their activities under a different name,” he says. Papadakis is part of the trial against Golden Dawn, as the lawyer for an Egyptian fisherman who was assaulted by the group. “Even more important,” he adds, “is that such a ban could pave the way for [a similar ban] against the anti-capitalist left, like the one that used to exist in Greece”. For half a decade, Papadakis and dozens of other lawyers have worked as volunteers on the Golden Dawn case. Most victims lack the means to hire their own legal representatives.
The sprawling trial mostly revolves around four criminal charges: First and foremost, dozens of members of the neo-Nazi group, including its parliamentary faction, stand accused of organising and/or leading a criminal organisation. The other charges include the assault of a group of Egyptian fishermen in September 2012, and a similar attack on union organizers in the port of Piraeus in 2013. Finally, and most infamously, Golden Dawn faces murder charges for the killing of rapper Pavlos Fyssas that same year.
Fyssas’s antifascist activism made him a much-loved figure in progressive circles – and a target for neo-Nazis. One evening in September 2013, Fyssas and his friends were followed by a Golden Dawn ‘battalion’, before the rapper was surrounded and stabbed.
“The murder of Fyssas meant a turnaround in the social resistance against Golden Dawn,” explains Daphne Karagianni of Golden Dawn Watch, an organisation of volunteers that has been documenting the trial from the very beginning. In late 2013, mass antifascist demonstrations forced the Greek state to finally take the prosecution of Golden Dawn seriously. “Until that moment, the authorities had never really investigated the motives of members of Golden Dawn who had been arrested,” Karagianni says. “The significance of the Fyssas case doesn’t lie exclusively with the prosecution of his murderer, but also with the fact that a crime committed by a member of Golden Dawn is finally connected to the organisation as a whole.”
The murder of Fyssas also brought to light embarrassingly close ties between the Greek police and the neo-Nazi party. Giorgos Roupakias, charged with the murder of Fyssas and his ‘battalion’, were left to go about their business as eight armed policemen stood and watched. Two other police officers who arrested Roupakias even testified that he had expected them to let him go. “I’m one of you,” he pleaded in the police car. Roupakias was unlucky: these two officers were not sympathizers or members of the neo-Nazi group.
Pressure from above
After hundreds of witnesses and thousands of pages of evidence, the trial entered a shocking final phase late last year. The public prosecutor dropped some of the gravest charges and even proposed that Golden Dawn not be tried as a criminal organisation. If the public prosecutor’s proposal is accepted, the majority of defendants might be let off the hook.
It was up to Papadakis and his colleagues to refute the public prosecutor’s arguments. “We did our best,” he says. Regardless, he says activists and opponents of Golden Dawn should not invest all of their hopes in the justice system. “Just as important is public opinion, the movement in the streets,” he says.
Papadakis agrees that the authorities would never have taken the case so seriously if it hadn’t been for the mass protests of late 2013. “Those protests also pressured [former] Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to halt his thinly veiled protection of Golden Dawn,” he says. At the time, the ruling centre-right New Democracy party, in power again as of 2019, appeared to attempt to protect the neo-Nazi group from prosecution through an amendment to the legal definition of ‘criminal organisation’.
Such incidents involving officials reveal that Golden Dawn was never truly in opposition to those in power. Instead, the party was a useful lightning rod during the tremendous civil unrest prompted by the austerity measures the EU imposed on Greece. Additionally, Golden Dawn’s faction in parliament could always be counted on to vote along with any budget cuts, privatisations, and any other unpopular positions championed by Greece’s political centre. The party would also oppose new taxes on rich ship-owners, and supported the sale of natural reserves to private parties. No wonder then that the group could often count on wealthy backers such as the ship-owning Theodorakopoulos family. Such details have led to suspicions that Greek elites have pressured the prosecution.
If the judge follows the prosecutor’s recommendations, the future looks grim, says Karagianni from Golden Dawn Watch. “Golden Dawn would be able to say, ‘you see! It was all just a conspiracy against us!’” The party would also regain access to state funding, which is currently being withheld, and be able to open its offices again. The ongoing refugee crisis would also provide the party with the perfect opportunity to re-energise its far-right base.
Though the trial is not over, the neo-Nazi organisation and affiliated groups already appear emboldened. In spring of last year, reports emerged of masked Golden Dawners patrolling the coast of the Greek island of Lesbos, sabotaging the boats of refugees attempting to cross over into the EU. It had been a long time since Greek neo-Nazis had dared to commit such public acts of terror.
The months-long final phase of the trial due next month includes closing speeches by lawyers of both sides. Just before the pandemic temporarily closed the courts, Papadakis dedicated his closing speech to Hans Litten, a German lawyer who represented a group of workers assaulted by Nazi thugs in the interwar period. Litten famously called upon Adolf Hitler himself to testify. His Nazi party would never order its members to break the law, the NSDAP leader swore that day. “Hitler’s assertions were almost identical to those recited by Michaloliakos,” Papadakis said before the court. Both figures claimed, at one time, to lead respectable, moderate nationalist parties that abhorred violence. “The two SA-members under suspicion were ultimately acquitted. But imagine if the judge had seen through Hitler’s lies that day.”