The rise and fall of Golden Dawn

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons: Steve Juvertson

Brianna Walsh reports on the largest trial of fascists since Nuremberg

Dawn has risen and finally fallen for far-right fascists in Greece. A three-member Athenian court delivered a landmark verdict recently, holding the seven members of Golden Dawn’s political council, including its leader and self-confessed Hitlerite, Nikos Michaloliakos, guilty of directing a criminal organization. The court also found a further eleven MPs of the party guilty of participation in a criminal organization. In a world where racism and discrimination can feel closer to home than ever before, the result is a triumph. A thorough investigation into the background of the party and the details of the five-and-a-half-year suit give rise to acclaim from international Human Rights bodies. At the same time, questions remain as to the true impact of the trial, as its aftermath is observed with anticipation. 

Michaloiakos has dubbed Golden Dawn a patriotic party of ultra-nationalists, rendering the trial itself a “witch-hunt”. Golden Dawn held seats in the Greek parliament from 2012 to the last general election in 2019. At the height of Greece’s debt crisis, the Holocaust denier led twenty-one seats in the 300-member parliament to become the country’s third-largest political force, although as The Irish Times noted, the Greek people have since rendered their rule a ghost of the past. Their initial surge in popularity can be traced to the significant austerity of the time. 

The faction was founded in the 1980s by an ex-Greek army commando, but violence began in the 1990s against immigrants, LGBTQ communities, Trade Unionists and political, leftist opponents. Assault squads of uniformed members have been reported to intimidate and attack local populations, sometimes armed, in pursuit of gaining control over entire neighbourhoods. Many killings of migrants and refugees went unaccounted for. The violence was open and unpunished - it took the killing of a young, popular Greek man for the right-wing government to take action. The brutality culminated with the fatal stabbing of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in 2013. 

The lengthy hearing was the largest trial of fascists since the prosecution of the Nazis at Nuremberg following the crimes of the Second World War. Judges in the court focused on specific cases, including the attempted murder of Abouzid Embarak and three other Egyptian fishermen in June 2012. Golden Dawn members had already been attributed to the death of a Pakistani fruit worker, Ssazad Lukman, in 2013, while senior operative in the party, Giorgos Roupakios, confessed to killing Fyssas that same year. His admission triggered an investigation and subsequent prosecution of the party. Javied Aslam, for The Guardian, disclosed that “nobody knows how many murders there really were. What we do know is there were more than 900 attacks, most in Athens.” 

The court explored a range of evidence. Testimonies were taken from both victims and Golden Dawn members in the witness protection programme. Incriminating videos were also shown from the homes of party leaders and the court heard that the attacks increased in frequency following the 2012 entry of the party into parliament. Golden Dawn officially denied being a neo-Nazi movement, but witnesses informed the court that members were trained to handle weapons and used Nazi symbols. The pivotal verdict rendered the party a criminal group and found its leadership guilty, including Michaloliakos, second-in-command, Christos Pappas, and five other MPs. Along with the murder of Fyssas, the defendants were convicted of other violent attacks against minorities. A week after the trial’s historic conclusion, pleas for leniency were dismissed and the criminals were condemned to thirteen years in prison. Pappas, however, is on the run. He evaded arrest following the trial in attempts to steer clear of his sentence until an appeal is allowed. 

The general response to the verdict has been positive, with tens of thousands of Greek citizens celebrating outside of the court complex when the news broke. Many burst into applause and punched the air, while Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis highlighted how the independent judiciary had followed suit from the people, who were the first to expel the corrupt party from parliament; “Democracy won today. It is up to us that it wins every day.” (The Guardian).

Amnesty International’s Europe Director, Nils Muižnieks, stated; “Golden Dawn’s activities exposed a fissure that exists not just within Greek society but across Europe and beyond. Today’s landmark ruling is a recognition of the systematic threat posed to our societies by a violent, racist group and a commitment that this threat must not be allowed to continue.”

While the result has been widely commended, questions have arisen as to whether it has been enough to combat the insidious spread of fascism across Europe and further afield, especially given it took a string of murders to convict the offenders in the first place. Greece suffered terribly under Nazi occupation during WWII, which is why the very existence of a Nuremberg 2.0 raises concern. The question has been raised as to why assaults were allowed to escalate before authorities took action? Greek law enforcers were revealed to have strong links with Golden Dawn and would assign blame for the violence on inter-ethnic fighting. Amnesty International further highlighted the indiscriminate use of tear gas by police forces against thousands of peaceful demonstrators gathered outside the Athens Appeals Court.

Yet more discouraging for the opponents of the far-right, recent police reports have indicated the emergence of around sixteen new groups in Greece with ideologies similar to Golden Dawn’s, vying to fill the gap left behind. Free speech and anti-establishment rioters have been assigned the blame for unrest, but there appears to be a lot more to the debate given that supporters of the party were also in attendance outside the trial, awaiting the result. However, Muižnieks remains hopeful; “Today’s verdict is the first step to deliver justice for the victims of hate crimes and discriminatory attacks and must serve as a stark reminder of the dangers of demonizing and scapegoating entire populations. We hope this judgment will mark a turning point to deter racist violence and hate crimes in the future.”

It may have taken time, and there may be a long way left to go, but the rule of law stood firm in Athens on October 7th. Looking forward to the future, there is hesitant optimism that this is the beginning of a golden end for far-right extremists everywhere.