“Golden Dawn is a criminal organisation,” declared an announcer from the top of the Court of Appeals in Athens on Wednesday, making public the landmark verdict in the biggest trial of self-professed fascists since Nuremberg. Thousands of anti-fascist protesters who had gathered outside the court burst into cheers, hugging each other in celebration at a decision they had been waiting for for more than five years. The mood, however, quickly turned sour as police released tear gas and used water cannon to disperse the crowd.
The brutal police response that followed the verdict was indicative that the anti-fascist fight in Greece is still far from over. Yes, the leaders of Greece’s neo-Nazi party, which terrorised the country for years, will be behind bars. Yes, the party’s name will be erased from the Greek political scene. But its dangerous, divisive and often deadly ideology is still well embedded in Greek society.
Golden Dawn was born from the ashes of the Greek military junta (1967-1974) in the early 1980s. The party’s founding leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, a Holocaust denier and Hitler admirer created a cult of personality and charmed those who leaned towards the far right and felt like their views were not represented by Greece’s political parties by promising to make their voices heard. His words were the law for the party’s members.
After silently growing its membership base for years, Golden Dawn was recognised as a political party in 1993. The Greek political elite and media, viewing the party as a caricature doomed to remain on the far-right fringes of Greek politics, refused to take it seriously. Nevertheless, the party’s members trained like an army for years and continued to expand their reach. During the day, they organised food distribution networks and blood donation events – of course only for ethnic Greeks. At night, they terrorised underdeveloped neighbourhoods of Athens, attacking everyone who did not fit into their racist ideals.
Greece’s devastating economic crisis was what finally allowed them to gain enough public support to become part of mainstream politics. As the economic devastation discredited Greece’s established mainstream parties, they used the growing public anger towards political elites to secure 18 seats in the country’s 300-seat parliament in the June 2012 elections.
After entering the parliament, they attempted to hide their neo-Nazi roots by portraying themselves not as violent racists, but Greek patriots. They created a narrative in which they were true patriots, ready to give their lives for the motherland and stand up to those who “ruined” the country with their pro-EU, left-wing or liberal views. They presented themselves as white, Christian nationalists who will do anything to protect the Greek people and Greek culture from external influences.
Despite these attempts to revamp their image, however, they never tried to hide their hate for anyone who did not fit their definition of an “Ideal Greek”. They continued their attacks on migrants, who they believe do not belong in Greece, and leftists who they accused of “not loving their country enough”.
In fact, Golden Dawn’s election success, which made them the third strongest party in the country, encouraged its members to unleash even more violence on the so-called “enemies of Greece”. After all, thousands of Greeks, by casting a vote for Golden Dawn, had legitimised the party’s stated goal of ridding the country of all non-Greek people and “unpatriotic” ideas.
Only a few months after the election, on January 17, 2013, two Golden Dawn members killed Sahzat Lukman, a Pakistani migrant, on his way to work. Nine months later, anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas was murdered. His death sparked a long investigation, which led to the start of the Golden Dawn Trial in 2015.
Greek media initially attempted to portray Fyssas’s death as the result of a fight between football hooligans. But the Greek anti-fascist movement refused to let this happen. Through the hashtag #antireport on Twitter, as well as other online platforms, they told the real story – Pavlos Fyssas was killed by Golden Dawn. They organised protests, campaigns and events on a daily basis until the day the authorities arrested the leadership of the neo-Nazi party.
As soon as their criminal activities became public, Golden Dawn lost political power and supporters. The ones who claimed to protect Greeks from foreigners had killed a Greek – albeit an anti-fascist Greek. Suddenly the group’s supporters realised they would be stigmatised if they continued to remain affiliated with a violent, fascist party. Golden Dawn no longer represented the Greek ideal. They were criminals. Golden Dawn was no more.
Ideologies, however, do not die with political organisations that represent them. They often find themselves other facades.
This is exactly what happened in Greece. After Golden Dawn’s fall from grace, other groups following fascist ideologies popped up – groups that promised to protect the country from the “refugee invasion”; groups that claimed they would take revenge for Macedonia; groups that said they were working to keep Greece as the homeland of Greeks and no one else. They refrained from using the name “Golden Dawn” even though many of their members were former members or supporters of the party. Meanwhile, some prominent members of the disgraced political party, including Michaloliakos’s henchman Ilias Kasidiaris, formed new political parties. And, perhaps most alarmingly, despite Golden Dawn leaders being branded criminals and murderers, Golden Dawn’s rhetoric has been adopted by many in the Greek political and media elite. The ideological stances that made Golden Dawn appealing to a large section of the Greek public – its anti-immigration rhetoric, jingoism, Islamophobia and racism – have become the new normal in the country.
So Wednesday’s verdict may be the final nail in Golden Dawn’s coffin, but the ideology that once allowed the party to enter Parliament is still well embedded in Greek society. The Greek fascism represented by the party can still find its way into the parliament under different banners and through other “patriotic” members of Parliament.
If we are to learn one lesson from the short history of Golden Dawn, it is this: Fascism will be defeated not in courtrooms or parliaments, but on the streets. Golden Dawn was brought down thanks to the relentless efforts of the Greek anti-fascist movement – they exposed the party’s crimes, its ideology, and violent nature when everyone else chose to look away.
Court rulings, as important as they may be, can eliminate political parties and groups, but they cannot eliminate ideologies. If Greece is to completely rid itself of fascism one day, it will be through the righteous struggle of Greek anti-fascists.
The Greek anti-fascist movement, despite its criminalisation by the Greek media and certain political elites, never stopped the fight. They have been and will continue to be, the first line of defence against fascism and the most vocal supporters of refugees, migrants and workers in the country.
Golden Dawn may be no more, but the Greek anti-fascist struggle continues.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.