After murder, defections and poll defeat: the sun sets on Greece’s Golden Dawn

Helena Smith
Photograph: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For years the five-storey building at 131 Mesogeion Avenue embodied the success of Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party that took Greece, and Europe, by storm. Today, its tattered flag, broken signage and shuttered doors have come to tell another story: of Golden Dawn’s rise and fall on the back of rage and economic crisis, hate-mongering, murder and criminal charges. “The people put them in, the people threw them out,” quips Giorgos Mavroeidis, the manager of a health-appliance shop two stores down. “We got used to the rallies in the end but they were extremists to be sure,” he says of the black-clad staff and supporters who would frequent the building, the party’s national headquarters. “It’s strange to think of us being so close to them now.”

Related: 'Their ideas had no place here': how Crete kicked out Golden Dawn

Last week, movers turned up, taking anything that could be transported from 131 Mesogeion and leaving only “Dawn” in the signage that had so vividly proclaimed the presence of one of Europe’s most violent ultra-nationalist organisations on Greece’s fractured political landscape.

For a party that had once been the country’s third-largest political force – polling close to 7% when it was first catapulted into parliament in 2012 – the move, symbolically, marked more than a change in fortunes even if Nikos Michaloliakos, its “supreme Führer”, as supporters are believed to have called him, insisted it amounted only to downsizing.

“If we could also owe millions we’d keep it,” he tweeted, alluding to the restricted finances that had followed Golden Dawn’s narrow failure to win a single seat in the Athens parliament in snap polls in July. The group was simply returning to its “offices of victory” – premises located in a much less salubrious suburb – from whence it had begun its rapid ascent, he countered.

Where once we had spoken of its rise, we can now speak of its fall. Golden Dawn is in its last throes

Dimitris Psarras, writer

But this month, amid feuds and factional infighting, the far-rightists were closing branches, one after the other, across Greece. An era defined by the politics of hate – epitomised by night rallies with flaming torches and Nazi salutes and hit squads sowing panic and fear with coordinated attacks on immigrants, trade unionists and political opponents – appeared to have come full circle.

For those who have long chronicled Golden Dawn, it was dissolving fast.

“Where once we had spoken of its rise, we can now speak of its fall,” said Dimitris Psarras, the leftist writer who has followed the neofascist group since its foundation in 1980 on the brittle landscape that emerged after the collapse of rightwing military rule.

“Golden Dawn is in its last throes. Several of its most prominent MPs have left,” he said, adding that the latest defection of the Euro MP Yannis Lagos, who has stated there was no evidence of wrongdoing against far-rightists, had sealed the party’s plummeting fortunes. “It’s being torn apart … If elections were to take place today it would get less than half of the 2.9% it managed to pick up in July.”

Psarras is in no doubt that the victory of Greece’s centre-right New Democracy partly accounts for the neofascists’ decline. At the height of the extremists’ appeal, as the debt-stricken nation wrestled with bankruptcy, 500,000 Greeks voted in favour of Golden Dawn. Most votes were cast in working-class districts by people who wanted to punish a political system they blamed for the country’s near economic collapse and their own impoverishment and despair. But the age of rage is now believed to have passed.

Worn down by years of relentless austerity – the price of successive bailouts from the EU and IMF – the deep wells of anger the neo-Nazis had tapped into have gradually dried up. Greeks, in contrast to other Europeans, have turned their backs on populism, abandoning fringe politics and the fiery rhetoric of Syriza, the leftist radicals in power since 2015, for a party that has promised to be tough on law and order and step up patrols on Greece’s porous borders.

Golden Dawn supporters protest against the building of a mosque in Athens in 2018. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Yet Psarras also believes the extremists fell victim to their own proclivity for violence. The cold-blooded murder of Pavlos Fyssas, a popular anti-fascist Greek rapper, by one of Golden Dawn’s senior operatives, sent a chill through Greek society and went some way to cutting the organisation’s well-documented ties with security forces in the “deep state”.

On Wednesday, thousands took to the streets of the gritty working-class suburb of Keratsini, where the 34-year-old musician died of knife wounds to the heart, six years ago.

“Until then, only immigrants had been targeted because they were ‘invisible’, ‘anonymous’ and ‘helpless,’” he said. “When a Greek was so brutally killed it ended the politics of tolerance towards the organisation’s crimes.”

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The assassination sparked an unprecedented investigation into the group’s embrace of the murderous violence inherent in Nazi ideology and is the basis for a trial that has placed 69 Golden Dawn members, including its entire leadership, in the dock. All stand accused of operating a criminal organisation, a charge that they deny.

More than four years later, as it enters its final stage, the hearing has exposed the group’s activities as never before. “Golden Dawn’s death is a natural death,” said Ilias Stavrou, a former member who had once run on the party’s ticket as a parliamentary candidate before also defecting. “As a political force it never managed to expand,” the 32-year-old lawyer told the Observer. “Less than 15% of its voters ever visited a party office and that’s because there was always the dilemma of whether it should open up about its real ideology, which was all about Hitler and national socialism, or reject it and risk offending its hardcore members.”

Greece’s rejuvenated anti-fascist movement is rejoicing. The defeat of the far-rightists – a blow for neo-fascist movements across Europe – has been attributed to the coordinated efforts of a diverse, anti-fascist and anti-racist movement that has also taken to the streets.

“Golden Dawn, as we know it, is over,” smiles the prominent anti-fascist activist Petros Constantinou. “Whenever they were on the streets, we too, were out in force. But the fight goes on. We still have to root out all those far-right people with links in the police and security services in this country. And lest we forget, please write about the victims. There were so many migrants, young people whose names we will never know, who died on these streets at the hands of Golden Dawn.”