There are few moments in a nation’s history when one decision can heal the wrongs of the past. But in Greece there is mounting hope that a panel of three judges will do just that when at 11am on Wednesday they deliver judgment on Golden Dawn, the neo-fascist party that took Europe by storm at the height of the country’s economic crisis.
“It will be good for the mental health of Greece,” said the leftwing writer Dimitris Psarras whose dogged investigations into the ultra-nationalist force helped expose its sinister ideology and embrace of violence. “We’re all looking towards three people to do what is right to protect democracy.”
Few verdicts have been as eagerly awaited. Even fewer have been as long in the making. The trial, the largest court hearing of Nazis since Nuremberg, began on 20 April 2015.
In proceedings both dramatic and banal, 68 people, including the party’s entire leadership, have faced charges of operating a criminal organisation while at the same time posing as a political group. Police officers who allegedly supported the far-right party are among those in the dock.
The accusations have been vigorously denied. Only Giorgos Roupakias, a Golden Dawn operative, has confessed to the stabbing of Pavlos Fyssas, a popular anti-fascist rapper whose death triggered the group’s unravelling.
MPs who represented the xenophobic bloc until its electoral defeat in July 2019 are accused of attempted murder, possession of weapons and employing violence to eradicate perceived enemies. Like Nikolaos Michaloliakos, a Holocaust denier who founded the neo-Nazi movement in the early 80s, they claim to be victims of political persecution.
Yet nearly five and a half years after the trial began, Athens’s normally divided political class is united in the belief that this week’s decision will be as cathartic as it is decisive. Writing in Saturday’s Syntakton newspaper, leaders from across the spectrum rejoiced in “the end of Golden Dawn”.
“Greece suffered as few countries from Nazism,” wrote the centre right prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “It mourned victims, it experienced tragedies, it endured destruction. That is why it fought Nazism. There is no place in our country for [its] mimics and followers.” Calling the trial’s conclusion “a historic milestone for Greek democracy,” the leftist former premier, Alexis Tsipras, said the extremists had been forced to confront their “horrible acts”. Neighbourhoods had been soaked in fear and blood. “Golden Dawners are no longer in parliament and after the trial’s conclusion the members of this criminal gang must go to jail,” he added.
The verdict is expected to be the denouement of Golden Dawn’s terminal decline. Riven by feuds, defections and factional infighting, the group has all but collapsed since narrowly failing to cross the 3% threshold into parliament in 2019. Yet no country in modern Europe has come as close to an overtly Nazi group strutting the national stage.
For a nation reeling for the past decade from the twin ills of austerity and economic despair – the by-product of wrenching budget cuts and tax hikes enforced in return for international rescue funds to eschew bankruptcy – the rise and fall of the fascist outfit offers a cautionary tale.
Not since the restoration of democracy with the collapse of military rule in 1974 has a party as ideologically extreme, thuggish or brutal been catapulted into Athens’ 300-seat House.
At its 2012 peak Golden Dawn won 7% of the vote to become Greece’s third largest political force. Its tattooed officials sowed fear and hate on the streets. The targets of attacks, often staged by specially trained hit squads, ranged from communist trade unionists and other leftist radicals to “subhuman” immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community. The politics of hatewere the glue that held its black-shirted supporters together – most in working class areas worst hit by EU-mandated austerity.
“Golden Dawn was the expression of blind rage, a primitive roar for people driven by anger and revenge,” said Fotini Tsaliloglou, for years one of Greece’s formost professors of psychology. “The crisis has ebbed and it has collapsed like a house of cards. I hope what we are about to see will be the end of the end.”
Party fanatics rarely questioned Michaloliakos, who allegedly demanded to be called Supreme Fuhrer, and whose love of Hitler was such he TV station: “There were no crematoria, it’s a lie. Or gas chambers.” Before Fyssas’s murder in September 2013, countless unknown migrants are also thought to have died at the hands of Golden Dawn. Such was its brazenness of its tactics that across Europe far right, including Marine Le Pen’s Front National, looked on with thinly disguised disdain.Its use of symbols inspired by the Third Reich – its emblem bears an uncanny resemblance to the swastika – its racist rhetoric and refusal to disavow National Socialism, despite casting itself in later years as a far-right patriotic party, were too much even for themfor most of the rest of Europe’s far right groups.
For the lawyers representing its victims, the goal is the conviction of the party’s leadership, not only low-ranking members who coordinated attacks and attended nights with flaming torches. The evidenceis overwhelming. The case file includes hundreds of incriminating videos and more than 6,000 documents of testimonies describing the party’s hierarchical and military structure. In one video clip Michaloliakos’ deputy, Christos Pappas, is seen teaching children to give the perfect Nazi salute and chant “Heil Hitler.” Among a host of Nazi paraphernalia discovered by police in his home, the videos form part of the case file against Pappas, the son of a military officer and close associate of the former dictator Georgios Papadopoulos.
Five Golden Dawn members, now in witness-protection schemes, have also provided rich insight into the party’s inner workings.
“The court’s decision is going to send a message to the whole of Greek society,” Chryssa Papadopoulou, the lawyer representing Fyssas’s family, told the Observer. “If we are to prevent this from happening again, it’s very important that everyone is convicted, not just those lower down the chain but the leaders who inculcated national socialism this ideology of hate, into the minds of so many people.”
Aliki Mouriki, a sociologist at the national centre for social research, also believes the court decision will help close the door on a dark chapter in the country’s recent past.
“Symbolically it’s going to be a very powerful moment,” she says. “Though it has taken so long to get here, this belated and protracted process has already united hugely disparate parties. There is a sense that democratic institutions can help remedy some of the racial intolerance and hatred cultivated during the crisis.”But like other observers Mouriki far from persuaded the court’s ruling will be the wrecking ball that smashes the allure of far-right extremism in Greece. A poll released by the Metron Analysis research agency last week showed a breakaway party, Greeks for the Homeland, led by Ilias Kasidiaris, one of Michaloliakos’ most trusted llieutenants, garnering almost 1.5% of the vote barely four months after its foundation. Among its central tenets is the belief that Greeks will soon become a minority, outnumbered by immigrants in their own country. “It’s not a good sign that so many hardcore far-right supporters are already flocking to this party,” shesaid . “What worries me is the failure of the Greek state to pursue any integration of the thousands of migrants and refugees who land on our shores. It has only focused on reception and that creates the space for extremist groups to step in. Golden Dawn may be over, but the poison of the far right may well not be.”