In early October of this past fall, the trial and condemnation of members of a fringe far-right political party in Greece concretised its reputation as a criminal association, headlining international news. Amidst the ongoing global health crisis and US electoral turmoil, this verdict comes to cleanse the stale air with a welcome breath of success and hope for better democratic governance in Greece, and the European Union as a whole.
Founded by Nikos Michaloliakos in the early 1980s, “Golden Dawn” originated as an openly extreme right-wing party, inspired by neo-Nazi ideals. Extreme right-wing groups gained some popularity in the early 1990s around the time of the “Macedonia naming dispute” (*). The extreme right was generally unpopular in Greece as it was linked with the memory of dictatorships and the extensive crimes commited by Nazi and Fascist occupation armies during the Second World War. Taking advantage of their unexpected relative popularity, propelled by the financial crisis and the widely uncontrolled flow of migrants into Greece, “Golden Dawn” leaders gradually softened the party’s extreme image in exchange for nationalist claims, as it steadily became an official political party.
While maintaining their symbol that bears a striking resemblance to the swastika, parading with their flags, drums and torches, the “Golden Dawn” party built their support base by exploiting nationalistic feelings within the most vulnerable section of the Greek population. They claimed to be the solution for those vexed by corruption, weak administration and rising criminality, as well as the previously mentioned mass illegal immigration and unprecedented economic crisis.
During their thirty years of political activity, “Golden Dawn” gained seats in the Greek and European parliaments. At one point, they were Greece’s third largest party. Throughout this period, the reputation of violence surrounding its members grew, alongside the list of criminal cases litigated against them in Greek courts. Many accusations connected “Golden Dawn”s members with attacks, beatings and attempted murders. It was, however, the 2013 assassination of singer Pavlos Fyssas that created the most turmoil in Greek society.
Pavlos Fyssas, also known as “Killah P,” was a Greek rapper, who became a target of “Golden Dawn” due to his openly anti-fascist political stance and his influence on the younger generations. His public murder in the streets of Athens sparked huge outrage in both public opinion and the press. Further investigations followed, linked to the violent activity affiliated with “Golden Dawn.” But, it wasn’t until seven years later, on the 7th of October 2020, that George Roupakias was found guilty of Fyssas’ murder. Over this past month, party leaders and other members in court have also been found guilty of various criminal offences, among them Nikos Michaliolakos himself.
Considered by some commentators to be the largest anti-facist litigation since the Nuremberg trials, the sentencing generated an outpouring of enthusiasm, as many took to the streets in big rallies across Athens and other major cities. Pavlos Fyssas had become a martyr for political justice.
The key question now becomes: how did this entity rise to such legislative power before justice exercised her duty? One can see this as a form of democratic failure, from two perspectives.
Firstly, due to the lack of sufficient political education in Greece, segments of the population, especially those most touched by the economic crisis, were relatively easily manipulated by the arguments of “Golden Dawn,” as well as their interpretation of history and xenophobic slogans. The party’s rise was surprising as their philosophy was in no way in line with the typical Greek political ethos and pride that Greeks hold in being perceived as the cradle of Western democracy. Considering the success of populists across the European Union, this lack of democratic education does not seem to be merely a local Greek issue but a more general problem.
To avoid similar developments, our societies must proceed in self-evaluation on this issue, and urgently introduce proactive policies in order to help citizens of all ages and origins to embrace democratic values. The level of education of an individual has been strongly linked to political knowledge, interest and participation. With adequate education, all members of society would be equipped to cultivate fully informed political opinions, whilst being armed against simplistic slogans and messages of hate.
Secondly, with such entities elected as legislators, there is evidence of a lack of solid safeguard mechanisms, both at the level of national legislative bodies, as well as the European Parliament. Fortunately, in the case of “Golden Dawn,” the number of their members elected as public representatives was not sufficient to successfully enact extremist legislation.
However, if the EU continues to recklessly follow the semi-religious conviction that some invisible hand will keep populist extremists at bay, if it persists in refusing to take appropriate measures to prevent extremists attaining power, we could wake up one day, as the German people did in 1933, with extremist, non-democratic principles reigning over our societies.
It would, however, be a fatal error to view “Golden Dawn” and its demise as just a Greek problem with a fairy-tale ending. Similar ideas and formations are lurking in all of the Union’s Member States, whose rhetoric mirrors that of the sentenced criminals. European leaders need to recognise these issues of undemocratic behaviour and act as a united body in order to adopt, across all levels of the EU, the necessary measures and legislative arsenal to protect its people. In the age of technology, it has never been easier for powers on the international stage to weaken the integrity of other states; we must protect our democracies from the foes of the Union, all the more from the inside.
(*) Note: The “Macedonia naming dispute” was a controversy between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) which had adopted the name “Republic of Macedonia.” After lengthy negotiations, the issue of the name was settled by “The Prespa agreements” ratified in 2018-19 and the current name of North Macedonia was agreed.