On October 7 2020, the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was declared a criminal organisation. For years, Golden Dawn had made international headlines for blatant references to historic fascism through its paramilitary violence and open animosity towards liberal democracy. In times of crisis, this (formerly fringe) organisation of the Greek radical right developed into the third most popular political party with as much as 15% support in the polls after its election to the Greek national parliament in 2012. The murder of the anti-fascist Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013, however, changed the state’s response to the neo-Nazi threat accusing prominent activists of leading a criminal organisation. This saw said members facing one of Greece’s most prominent trials in the post-dictatorship period. The trial, with its 453 sessions and 216 witnesses over the course of five and a half years, was the biggest against a radical-right extremist organisation since Nuremberg, and ended with 12 former Golden Dawn MPs in jail. Furthermore, a total of 57 Golden Dawn members and associates were convicted in October 2020. This 4-part CARR blog series grapples with different facets in the evolution of Golden Dawn, namely the roots of the party in occult neo-Nazism, the role of women in the organisation, the party’s ascendance to parliament as well as the future prospects for the Greek radical right after the ban of Golden Dawn.
The Years of Purity. Golden Dawn in the 1980s and ‘90s
It is uncommon in the research on the radical right to have the opportunity to study specific organisations over the course of several decades. Most radical challengers survive only few years; they split, transform and merge with others – “constantly producing new shoots as others die off in an unpredictable, asymmetrical pattern of growth and decay”, what fascism scholar Roger Griffin once characterised as the ‘groupuscular’ guise of the post-war radical right. Those radical-right parties and movements that have engaged in dissident politics over longer timespans, normally go through repeated changes in their leadership. They have traversed several cycles of inactivity and adapted their programs to political opportunities.
The neo-Nazi organisation Golden Dawn has been an outlier in this regard. Its rigidity in ideological references, organisational principles and action patterns proved that strategic moderation in tactics and appearance are not necessary factors for electoral success. In fact, Golden Dawn’s trajectory demonstrates that violent street activism can go hand-in-hand with parliamentary politics, with such brushes with extremism usually spelling the death of such parties. Its rise in the 2010s also showcases that the more or less open avowal to neo-Nazi ideology does not prevent political influential, something that again flies in the face of scholarship on radical-right extremist political parties.
Long before Golden Dawn enmeshed in electoral politics, it had been known for its esoteric neo-Nazism, its subcultural networks and its violent street gang activities. In fact, Golden Dawn activists of the first hour who cherished these ‘years of purity’ took an ambivalent stance towards the strategic choices the leadership made when obtaining broader popular support. Seen from today´s perspective, the early years of Golden Dawn appear as political ambivalence, an uncoordinated activism without clear strategy. Yet, these early years followed the playbook of groupuscular activism: aspiring ideological purity to purify society from malicious influences by all means.
Dissident ideology and practices
Golden Dawn began its activities as a bulletin in 1980 that has been published by times with the adjunct “National Socialist periodical edition”. The tiny group of militant supporters of the fallen military Junta aspired to contemporise Fascist and National Socialist theory and to become the flagship of Greek neo-Nazism. Built as an ideological circle, it concentrated its activities on the translation of historical texts by National Socialist race ideologues and international neo-Nazi pamphlets. It followed the idea that ideological education is the strongest weapon against a decadent society and democratically-elected governments allegedly in control of Jewish puppet masters.
Consistently, Golden Dawn called for the boycott elections and heavily criticised nationalist parties and movements to make compromises with the young Greek democracy. Already in the first issue of its bulletin, the permanent leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos argued that: “we consider politics a very dirty affair and ourselves too pure to get mixed with it.” For the die-hard National Socialists, there was no place for them in a corrupted political system which supposedly puts materialist values over national salvation. Considering engagement with the system as treason, Golden Dawn followed the path of violent dissidence advocating a revolutionary overthrow.
Looking back, Golden Dawn dropout Haris Kosoumvris named this early period of activism the “years of purity”. He cherished the straightforwardness of the leadership, the absence of opportunism and the clashes with leftists and the police that would strengthen the camaraderie and make ‘Golden Dawners’ into political soldiers. In parts of the movement, this spirit has never vanished throughout all the years. Yet, when Golden Dawn gradually opened to more moderate nationalist circles, several “purists of the first hour” – to speak with Robert Paxton – left the organisation and withdrew to autonomous and subcultural formations. Nevertheless, Golden Dawn remained the first port of call for Greek neo-Nazis of different generations.
Plunging into the cultic milieu of esoteric Nazism
From the very outset, Golden Dawn oriented towards international neo-Nazi networks and has been eager to foster connections with like-minded groups globally. It made connections with the Italian neo-fascists of Ordine Nuovo who had found a safe hideout in Athens during the Junta years and it has been strongly inspired by Leon Degrelle’s CEDADE in Spain. The group joined New European Order in 1981 and later the World Union of National Socialists founded by George Lincoln Rockwell, Colin Jordan and Savitri Devi, whose writings they translated into Greek. It formed its own Blood and Honour Branch, had close connections to Russian, German and US-American neo-Nazis and organised paramilitary trainings with the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging in South Africa.
Ideologically, Golden Dawn has been inspired especially by esoteric, occult and metaphysical readings of National Socialism adopting Pagan and Traditionalist tendencies alike. In these spheres of “esoteric Nazism”, ideology takes a quasi-religious function with antisemitism acting as “a manichaean dualist heresy dividing the world into forces for good and evil”, as Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke has argued. Golden Dawn definitely belonged to this cultic milieu. For instance, members who wanted to ascend in the hierarchy to its “secret school” needed to take the oath of allegiance to the leader, swearing to fight as a revolutionary against the “true enemy of our race, which is none other than the eternal Jew.” The fact that the name Golden Dawn refers itself to the Hermetic Order of the eponymous secret society is by far no coincidence.
Going beyond the fringe
This blog made the case of understanding radical-right extremist groups in their specific historical condition by considering the dialectic of continuity and change as inherent feature of extreme organisations with a ravenous will for power. From today’s perspective, it is stunning how an organisation with such a historical baggage could ever gain popular support. Back in the 1980s, most of the ‘Golden Dawners’ probably had neither imagined nor aspired to build a robust party base one day. When Golden Dawn had been endorsed as the militant flank of the nationalist protests around the Macedonia naming dispute, the leadership realigned its power ambitions. Having registered as a political party in this period, it began to participate in elections which deepened the schism between idealists and pragmatists. For the later developments, this has been a crucial phase to understand how Golden Dawn became integral part of the Greek radical right. Hence, studying the roots of radical-right extremist groups is all the more important in cases where strategy but not structure and ideology change. Golden Dawn remained faithful in National Socialism – even now in jail. The following parts of the blog series give an idea how the organisation reconciled its power ambitions with its ideological steadfastness and how it appealed to new audiences.
Keywords: Golden Dawn, Greece, neo-Nazism.
Maik Fielitz is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Researcher 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).