ATHENS — In October 2020, the leaders of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party were given lengthy prison sentences, helping quelch a yearslong rise of radical, violent ultra-nationalism.
But just a year later, the brutality — and the extremist views — have reemerged.
In Thessaloniki, a city in northern Greece, black-clad youths have orchestrated several attacks in recent weeks against students and activists, leaving two people hospitalized and dozens of students trapped in classrooms as the strikes took place. Videos showed several of the attackers giving Nazi salutes.
In Athens, members of an anti-fascist group were assaulted earlier this month with iron clubs and knives, leaving at least three people injured. One suspect was arrested after being identified from a Swastika tattoo.
And across the country, ultra-nationalist and sympathetic religious groups have joined anti-vaccine protesters in gatherings that are increasing, often leading to clashes with the police.
Street violence, open Nazi support — it’s an accelerating trend that has worried authorities and left researchers warning that while the undercurrent of radical, far-right views in Greece may have briefly gone dormant, it never left.
The Golden Dawn leaders are still cultivating an audience from prison while new far-right parties gain traction. And observers say tempered variations of these extremist views are seeping into more mainstream discourse, pointing to a recent open letter from legal, academic and military figures lamenting the erosion of Greece’s national identity and blaming, in part, a focus on LGBTQ+ equality.
Meanwhile, Greece’s conservative prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, stands accused of looking the other way in the hopes of keeping right-leaning voters in his camp.
“There is a super-conservative right in Greece, and particularly Central Macedonia, which is ideologically supported and nurtured by the church and is involved in the big issues of the political scene,” said Nikos Marantzidis, a professor of political science at the University of Macedonia in northern Greece, referencing the northern Greek region.
Marantzidis called these forces “a brake on any reform towards a modern European liberal democracy that is in line with the values of the enlightenment.”
Golden Dawn was founded in 1993, emerging from a tiny sect of Adolf Hitler supporters whose members were known for violence against minorities, migrants and left-wingers.
For years, the party barely registered at the ballot box. Then the 2008 financial crisis hit Greece. By 2012, Golden Dawn had become the third-most-popular party in the country’s parliament.
The party’s high was short-lived, however. In the 2019 elections, Golden Dawn failed to clear the 3 percent threshold required to enter parliament. Meanwhile, the party’s leadership was facing a reckoning. Last October, after a five-year trial, Golden Dawn’s leaders were found guilty of running a criminal organization and received up to 13-year prison sentences.
While the party went relatively quiet publicly, some of its leaders started finding ways to spread their message from prison.
Former MP Ilias Kasidiaris formed a new political party called “Greeks for the Homeland” and managed to organize party gatherings and protests. He even used a combination of his YouTube channel and what he says is the prison’s payphone to be “present” at some of the get-togethers. His efforts eventually caught the attention of Greece’s general secretary for anti-crime policy, Sofia Nikolaou, who told the prison administrators Kasidiaris should not be allowed to use the prison’s phone to make political statements “that go as far as inciting hatred.”
That hate has been seen in several places across the country recently, especially in northern Greece, where a mixture of ultra-nationalist, religious and far-right groups are traditionally more popular.
After the attacks on students and activists in Thessaloniki, a Golden Dawn youth wing issued a statement congratulating the perpetrators of the attack and expressing support. Similarly, the assaults in Athens brought to mind past incidents from Golden Dawn supporters.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said in a recent interview that the government acknowledged the country had seen “a resurgence of illegal activity … in the far-right by imitators or branches of the Golden Dawn, who apparently seek to exploit the insecurity caused by the pandemic and the widespread dissemination of conspiracy theories.”
A Supreme Court prosecutor ordered prosecutors in Athens and Thessaloniki to conduct more in-depth probes into far-right pockets, seeking to clamp down on nascent organizations with neo-Nazi and racist ideologies.
So by the time anti-fascists organized rallies to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Golden Dawn prison sentences, they were also protesting a possible resurgence of the far-right.
New far-right personalities
Amid Golden Dawn’s waning influence, a fresh crop of aspirational far-right leaders have emerged, often using racist, xenophobic, misogynist or homophobic rhetoric.
In the Greek parliament, Greek Solution has replaced Golden Dawn as the most prevalent far-right party, pushing a coterie of cruel anti-immigrant proposals and chest-thumping nationalist rhetoric.
More broadly within Greek society, an eclectic grouping of semi-public figures banded together to express anguish at the state of the Greek family structure and birth rate, the recent introduction of sex education into schools and the push for LGBTQ+ equality. The open letter, published in September, bore the signatures of 160 people from academia, judicial and military circles.
Numerous analysts saw the declaration as a step toward forming a new far-right political party.
“It is a union of extreme ultra-nationalists, ultra-conservatives,” said George Pagoulatos, head of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (Eliamep) think tank in Athens, and a professor in Athens and Bruges.
The group, he added, admires leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who promotes Hungary’s “Christian” identity and quarrels with European leaders over allegations of democratic backsliding and measures he has adopted targeting migrants and LGBTQ+ rights.
And, Pagoulatos said, these far-right “have a clear enemy: Liberal Europe.”
So far, however, the group is fragmented, Pagoulatos said, with “many personalities who see themselves as small Führers around whom the rest can unite.”
Too soft on the far-right
Left-leaning politicians in Greece are pointing the finger at Mitsotakis, the prime minister, arguing he is reluctant to crack down on extremism and risk alienating right-wing voters.
Mitsotakis’ fear, they say, is that a surging far-right force could pull critical votes from the ruling party, New Democracy.
“We are ruled by a prime minister who is constantly concerned about how to keep the far-right public, from which he is fishing votes, happy,” Alexis Tsipras, who leads the main opposition party Syriza, said in parliament recently.
Mitsotakis, who was also present, shot back: “Anyone who exceeds the limits will know that he has no place in the New Democracy parliamentary group.”
Occasionally, New Democracy has taken steps to police its ranks.
Earlier this month, it ousted MP Konstantinos Bogdanos, a former TV presenter well known for his inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric, from the ruling parliamentary group after he lambasted the Greek Communist Party during a parliament discussion on an unrelated subject. In another recent example, Bogdanos suggested European Parliament President David Sassoli take Afghan refugees into his house after the EU leader called on countries to offer persecuted Afghans asylum.
But many argued the punishment came too late, or that Bogdanos shouldn’t have been included on the party’s ballot list to begin with, as his views were well known in the country. And shortly after Bogdanos got booted, Giorgos Gerapetritis, a close aide to Mitsotakis, clarified that the MP had not been expelled from the party itself, leaving the option open for him to return to the parliamentary group in the future.
Other critics point out that three of the top ministers in the current Mitsotakis Cabinet also come from the former ultra-nationalist LAOS party, appointments seen as a way to keep right right-wing faction of the party from rebelling.
“The point is not to replace a criminal Golden Dawn with a law-abiding Golden Dawn,” said Marantzidis, the political science professor.
“In the name of integrating the far-right into New Democracy, we risk making the far-right agenda dominant,” he argued. “In such a case we will have eaten the basic values of a modern liberal democracy and we risk opening the back door to all kinds of right-wing populism and extremism.”