There was confusion at Golden Dawn headquarters, a nondescript office block on a busy street leading out of central Athens. Young men, black t-shirts pulled tight over their muscled torsos, stood around in small groups, anxious frowns on their faces. They waved away with irritation any journalists who approached them. The enormous party flag with its swastika-like symbol hung limply from the second-floor balcony.
Golden Dawn’s leaders are likely to be mired in legal difficulties for some time to come. Without them, the rank-and-file are hopelessly lost. Much will depend on the strength of the authorities’ case. If the upcoming trials are botched, and if evidence is seen to be weak or unconvincing, this could yet backfire to Golden Dawn’s advantage. The fact that some senior Golden Dawn figures have already been released on bail or travel restrictions suggests the evidence may not be watertight. But for now the party, whose hateful ideology has done so much damage to this country’s reputation, is in deep trouble.
The Greek media is having a field day, covering each arrest, police statement and legal development in exhaustive detail. The Greek Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, who just happens to have had an important visit to the United States this week, has gone into meetings with the American government and the IMF basking in the favourable coverage. Governments and human rights groups across Europe are breathing a sigh of relief.
Amidst this orgy of self-congratulation, please forgive me for raising one or two awkward issues. Almost half a million Greeks voted for Golden Dawn in last year’s general elections. Not once, but twice. Whatever you may think of their choice, do these people no longer deserve democratic representation? I suspect the vast majority of these Golden Dawn voters have little interest in theories of racial superiority, any more than they believe in punching immigrants, or get overly excited by the paramilitary uniforms and Neo-Nazi imagery so beloved by the Golden Dawn leadership. But most of these voters are poor, and many are unemployed. Some, especially in central Athens, feel frightened by the dramatic influx of equally desperate migrants from Asia and Africa. In the grimmest neighbourhoods of Athens and Pireaus, thousands of Greeks have been fed and clothed by Golden Dawn throughout this economic crisis. These people feel that the party has looked after them better than successive Greek governments. And they feel let down by Greece’s traditional, more centrist political parties.
I’m also struck by the very different ways the Greek State responded to the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, and the earlier murders and countless beatings of immigrants in Athens. Why such energy and urgency in response to a vile crime this time, but never before? The charitable theory is that the authorities were waiting for Golden Dawn to make a serious mistake so that they could move decisively against it. Once they had all the evidence they needed, so this argument goes, they pounced. The less charitable theory is that the Greek State, and for that matter the Greek media, is simply less outraged by brutal violence against people with black and brown skins, especially if some of the victims happen to be in the country illegally.
There are good grounds for cynicism. The evidence of strong ties between parts of the Greek police and Golden Dawn is irrefutable. In Athens, the police voted for Golden Dawn in far higher numbers than the general public – (to watch our investigation from last year click here).
And what of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras? This is a man who is no stranger to whipping up nationalist sentiments when it suits his political agenda. In fact, he’s made a career out of it. He was at it again in the 2012 elections when, aware of the political threat from the far right, he used inflammatory language against immigrants. Since then his party has blocked anti-racism legislation, and has tried to make it more difficult for children of immigrants to claim Greek nationality. Never mind that many of these children were born in Greece, speak Greek as their first language, and have only ever attended Greek schools.
Of course, the blame for the rise of Golden Dawn goes much further than Mr Samaras’ New Democracy party. The Socialists, PASOK, did at least as much to bring Greece to its current sorry state. Other European governments have allowed ill-equipped Greece to struggle with an influx of immigrants, no doubt relieved that this is not their problem.
Much of what Golden Dawn says is nonsense. But even demagogues (and yes, it is a Greek word) speak truth from time to time. In fact, when demagogues exploit these truths with sufficient cunning, they become more powerful and relevant. When Golden Dawn says that the Greek political establishment is corrupt, they speak the truth. When they say that the crude austerity measures imposed by more powerful European countries have increased the hardships of ordinary Greeks, they also speak the truth. The challenge for Greece is to create new truths, of a more prosperous, less corrupt and fairer country. That would be the best way to defeat Golden Dawn.
You can follow Barnaby on Twitter at @barnabyphillips.