The trial of 69 Golden Dawn members, including the top leadership, is set to begin in Greece on May 7. The group is known for its ultra-nationalist and racist ideology. Its members have been accused of targeting migrants, leftists, and gays through arbitrary violence. Indeed, a low rank member, Giorgos Roupakias, has confessed to killing Pavlos Fyssas, an anti-fascist activist, in Athens in September 2013.
The rise of the far-right group is largely the result of the Greek financial crisis. In the October 2009 parliamentary elections, the group scored only 0.3 percent of the vote. Yet, three years later, Golden Dawn managed to enter the parliament with an impressive 6.9 percent.
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The group got 9 percent of the votes in the June 2014 European elections and won three seats in the European Parliament.
Despite the arrest of senior members and many of its MPs, the Golden Dawn remained the third largest party in the Greek parliament after the January 2015 elections that brought to power the left-wing Syriza party.
But numbers do not reveal much about the group’s ideology and objectives. The Golden Dawn espouses racial hatred, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. It advocates the establishment of a national-socialist state which is almost modelled after Nazi Germany.
Actually, it is fair to describe the Golden Dawn as a “paleo-Nazi”, rather than “neo-Nazi”, type of party since most of Europe’s far right parties have distanced themselves from the Germany of the 1930s. In fact, they tend to be pro-Israeli because the bigger enemy is now Islam.
In other words, the Golden Dawn is rather the exception: A party of die-hard pro-Nazis in a country that suffered the most from the German occupation during World War II. Once I asked a prominent MP from the New Democracy, the main conservative party, why the Golden Dawn did not abandon its extremist doctrine to adopt a more moderate strategy following its electoral successes.
His answer was disarming: “Why should they bother? The Golden Dawn came out of the twilight zone with a sense of ideological superiority. If half a million Greeks vote for them now, many more can do so in the future.”
In spite of heavy media opposition, indeed, the party did not lose much support during the last elections in January 2015. This means that the huge majority of its voters are fully aware of the party’s ideology and tactics.
It is fair to describe the Golden Dawn as a 'paleo-Nazi', rather than 'neo-Nazi', type of party since most of Europe's far right parties have distanced themselves from the Germany of the 1930s. In fact, they tend to be pro-Israeli because the bigger enemy is now Islam.
There is a long tradition of anti-parliamentarism in the birthplace of democracy. During the first half of the 20th century, both monarchists and communists denounced parliamentary democracy as a sham.
While Golden Dawn is by far the most extreme political party in the Greek parliament, its anti-democracy views are shared by others. Only a few days ago, police removed anarchists occupying the administrative building of Athens University who protested against the new Syriza government.
Surprisingly, some of Syriza MPs expressed their sympathy for them. Indeed, the governing party includes individuals who believe in the dictatorship of the proletariat, and talk about establishing an army of workers. They admire Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro for their socialist achievements.
Therefore, dislike of parliamentary democracy is not exclusive to Golden Dawn. Moreover, members of the far right party are not the only ones harbouring anti-Semitic attitudes. Like almost every European society, Greece is not immune to anti-Semitism.
In fact, according to a study published by the Anti-Defamation League, a large portion of Greek citizens harbour anti-Semitic attitudes. There are several reasons that account for this: ignorance, religious fanaticism, and pro-Arab sympathies cultivated by the socialist PASOK party during the 1980s.
End of passivity
So what lies in the future for the Golden Dawn?
The trial will probably last many months. Some of the accused are likely to be convicted. In this case, the party won’t remain intact. Every Greek political party has faced dissent and infighting, and there are some indications that the Golden Dawn may soon follow the same path.
Indeed, it could soon break up into two parties: the moderates who would denounce extremism and adopt National Front-style rhetoric and the hardliners who will insist on racial purity and national-socialism.
No matter what the final verdict is, the trial of the Golden Dawn signifies the end of passivity towards political extremism. It is true that a liberal democracy can tolerate its enemies but not forever.
Despite its near financial collapse, Greece is setting an example for the whole of Europe in holding accountable those who use elections as a knife to stab democracy. And for this reason, the country deserves the utmost respect.
Emmanuel Karagiannis is a senior lecturer at King’s College London.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.