Politics Society

Golden Dawn: The Rise and Fall of Greece’s Far-Right Insurgents

By Adam Bennett

Foteini Vassilopoulou is worried. A retired teacher living in one of Greece’s suburban neighbourhoods, she’s fearful of her trip to withdraw her pension from the local bank given recent reports of purse-snatchings. Ms Vassilopoulou’s community has seen a large uptick in immigration over the past few months, leaving “senior citizens feeling concerned”. 

Fortunately, a new local action group has sprung up amidst the uncertainty. Looking to provide assurance for elderly citizens, the group puts Ms Vassilopoulou in contact with a man from a few streets over who offers to accompany her on her trip to the bank. She takes the opportunity at face value, and withdraws her pension with no trouble.

That was almost ten years ago, and the local action group was the far-right political party Golden Dawn. Fast forward to 2020, and the leaders of Golden Dawn have been found guilty of leading a criminal organisation, and are awaiting their sentences at the time of writing. Foteini Vassilopoulou, for her part, is no political firebrand – she’s quoted in the FT as not having realised that “the group had a violent side”. She was simply an 82-year-old woman with concerns over rapid changes in her community. Under such conditions, however, the soil in which extreme political ideas grow becomes fertile. 

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In the May 2012 election, Golden Dawn soared from zero to 21 seats in the Greek parliament, earning the status of an official opposition party. At a time of well-documented economic hardship in the country, Golden Dawn looked set to precede later examples of far-right success across Europe, potentially reshaping Greek society in its desired image. Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the party’s leader who denied the existence of Nazi gas chambers during the campaign, hailed the result as a mere “beginning”. The sun did indeed appear to be rising for Golden Dawn. At least, that was until Pavlos Fyssas was murdered. 

A Bloody History

In 2013, Pavlos Fyssas was watching a football match with his friends at a cafe in the port city of Piraeus. Mr Fyssas, known also by his stage name of Killah P (meaning “killer of the past”), was a rapper and, crucially, a notable anti-fascist campaigner. Unfortunately for Mr Fyssas, he’d been spotted on his day off. 

Just before midnight of that evening, the local Hellenic Police received a tip off. The word was that a group of around fifty men, armed with bats, had assembled in one of the city’s suburbs and headed towards a cafe. By the time a squad of eight policemen arrived on motorbikes, Mr Fyssas had already been chased out of the cafe and into another onrushing group of armed neo-Nazis. Soon after, police discovered him lying on the ground with stab wounds. Mr Fyssas was immediately transferred to the General Hospital of Nikea, where his condition deteriorated. He was later pronounced dead.

Before his death, My Fyssas was able to identify his attacker as Giorgios Roupakias, a known far-right political activist. This account was corroborated by eyewitnesses. Mr Roupakias, it soon transpired, was a Golden Dawn employee. He worked at the cafeteria in their headquarters and, a jury would discover years later, had been visited by party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos at his residence not long before Mr Fyssas’ murder. 

Over the course of the next few years, members of Golden Dawn were continually linked with violent, politically motivated attacks. Defendants in the eventual trial of 2020 were to be convicted of assault on targets such as migrants and left-wing political figures. Additionally, two Golden Dawn members themselves were killed in a November 2013 attack on the party’s office in Athens. 

The Search For Justice

Violence and Golden Dawn, it seems, are entwined. A criminal investigation which began in 2013 following Pavlos Fyssas’ murder expanded to include most of Golden Dawn’s leadership, as well as many who sat as its MPs in parliament. With the investigation still underway, the party lost all of its parliamentary seats in Greece’s 2019 election. Two months later, its offices were closed down and its website made inaccessible.

On the 8th October 2020, an enormous crowd gathered outside the court in Athens from which judges were now ready to give a verdict seven years in the making. A few hours later, it was official. Golden Dawn’s leadership was guilty of running a criminal organisation. As quoted by the BBC, Pavlos Fyssas’ mother was heard to exclaim “My Pavlos defeated them alone!”.

For many, the verdict symbolises a triumph for democracy. Over the past ten years, it transpired that Golden Dawn had, according to investigative journalist Dimitris Psarras, entered into contracts with the police, the army, and even the judiciary in order to shield themselves. This month, however, Golden Dawn ran out of places to hide. 

In total, fifteen Golden Dawn members and officials were implicated in the conspiracy to kill Pavlos Fyssas. As for Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the party’s leader since its first contested election in 1996, his crime is to have spearheaded a criminal organisation. With the severity of his sentence yet to be confirmed, Mr Michaloliakos’ case stands as a stark warning to those who seek to intimidate and bully their way into power. Though justice may take its time, even the most hardened criminals will struggle to outrun the truth.

Adam Bennett is the editor-in-chief of The International. You can find him on Twitter here.