3 years on: What the trial against Golden Dawn tells us about Greek society

©Michalis Karagiannis/Reuters

On 20th April 2015, a trial began against the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn – one of the largest and most controversial trials in post-dictatorial Greece. A total of 69 Golden Dawn members are accused of leading and participating in a criminal organization and are at the same time charged for several different legal infringements such as the possession of illegal weaponry, extortion, bodily harm and – last but not least – murder. While the ongoing marathon-trial reveals serious evidence of criminal activity within the organisation, Golden Dawn is burgeoning in the polls and has renewed its violent street activism. How is this possible?

Golden Dawn: Neo-Nazism in a Western Democracy

Things are always not so easy to explain in Greece. A country that suffered hardest from National Socialist occupation during the Second World War accommodates one of the most notorious neo-Nazi organization in Europe in the national parliament since June 2012. Despite state repression and strong anti-fascist mobilization, the party has oscillated ever since between 6 and 8%, very recently reaching a peak of about 9% in the polls in the context of the Macedonian name dispute that stoked nationalist sentiment. To make things even more complicated: Notwithstanding its documented violent action including the instigation of anti-migrant pogroms, homicide and participation in armed conflicts as well as the involvement in international neo-Nazi subcultures of hooliganism and white power music, the party enjoys strong support from the military and the police. It has also maintained contacts with high-ranking politicians of the conservative party.

In September 2013, the Golden Dawn leadership obviously miscalculated their ambitions – encouraged by a peak in the polls at around 13% and the gradual attraction of the conservative electorate. In concerted actions the party’s battalion squads provoked an escalation of violent conflict which ended in a mass assault on communist syndicalists and the killing of Pavlos Fyssas, an antifascist musician. Both incidents happened in the suburbs of the port city Piraeus, a stronghold of Golden Dawn. Retrospectively, the killing of Fyssas was a turning point in the state’s attitude towards Golden Dawn but also for civil society as a whole. A wave of antifascist mobilizations crossed the whole country leading to mass demonstrations, violent clashes and the closure of Golden Dawn offices. The target of these demonstrations was not just Golden Dawn though. Greek authorities were also tainted for passively standing-by. In the same vein, human rights organizations repeatedly called for not turning a blind eye on racist violence as perpetrators were barely held accountable. While there were few attempts to lift the immunity of single Golden Dawn MPs for specific cases, on 28th September 2013 the Golden Dawn leadership was taken into custody – accused of leading a criminal organization. After spending 18 months in pre-trial detention, the leadership was released and continued its parliamentary work.

On Trial

It should be mentioned that the Greek constitution does not include the possibility of proscribing political parties. Once a political party pledges loyalty to the constitution, it enjoys broad protection. It is therefore the first time that a political party in Greece has been  taken to trial for constituting a criminal organization (§187). The hierarchical structure, the violent record, cases of burglary and illegal weapon possessions provide heavy burden of evidence for these accusations. In fact, documents found during the house searches indicate an unchanged hierarchy for decades. However, the trial indictment identifies the year 2008 as the starting point of the formation of a criminal organization. Violent assaults that happened prior to this year are not taken into account – even though such activities were well documented since its foundation in 1980.

All in all, we can say that the trial is organized on three levels. On the top level, the 18 MPs of the 2012 parliamentary period are accused of directing a criminal organization besides individual charges of possessing illegal weapons. On the second level, local branch leaders are accused of organizing coordinated attacks. On the third level, the actual perpetrators of the three specific crimes are to be charged. The gathered evidence is overwhelming. At least 110 witnesses testified, 25,000 pages of materials and 800 pictures were or are to be examined. Additionally, there are dozens of trials that relate to the main trial. The insights from testimonies confirm initial appraisals: Violent assaults on political opponents and ethnic minorities are part and parcel of the repertoire of Golden Dawn, executed by militias that were directed by the party elite. There is hardly any violent event that was not approved by Golden Dawn MPs. At this moment, the phase of interrogation in the trial has ended and the analysis of documents has started. Closure of the trial is expected in next spring.

The Wider Picture

This trial is hardly to separate from the political situation in Greece, the dealing of media and mainstream parties with the relatively new phenomenon of a neo-fascist mass movement and the question of how state institutions could tolerate the violent acts by Golden Dawn for more than three decades. Overall, the expectations for this trial from migrant communities and anti-fascist initiatives go far beyond the conviction of Golden Dawn as a criminal organization and aim to address those politically responsible as well as the institutional racism that created the fertile ground for Golden Dawn’s actions in the first place.

The conviction on the basis of the §187 is neither a given nor is the problem of neo-fascism in Greece solved with the ban of a party. Golden Dawn may consider a rebranding as the platform for local election, Greek Dawn, is ready to operate in case of prohibition. On the other hand, the option of a militant backlash by the party might be another dystopian scenario. Many members have a tight emotional bond to the organization that may trigger a violent response. There have been numerous threats of revenge as one by party leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, states: “If they really dare to illegalize Golden Dawn, they will open the gates of hell.” Hence, by decapitating the head of the Golden Dawn Hydra, this may bear another, more violent face of Greek neo-fascism. In any case: the criminal trial may just be the beginning of a longer, more difficult process of tackling the polarization of Greek society that Golden Dawn was planting well before the trial had ever begun. It seems that, even with the eventual conclusion of the trial, therefore, the party’s effects will still be felt in the years and months to come.


Mr Maik Fielitz is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR, and a Doctoral Candidate at Goethe University, Frankfurt and Research Associate at the Jena Institute for Democracy and Civil Society. See his profile here.

© Maik Fielitz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).