“They were big and brawny and struck like a thunderbolt,” says Aphrodite Frangou, an activist and leftwing journalist recalling the moment a group of far-right Golden Dawn sympathisers went on the attack. “They kicked us and punched us and broke everything, tables, chairs, even the loudspeakers we had set up. Four of us spent the night in hospital.”
October was meant to be a month of celebration for Frangou and other members of Keerfa, Greece’s pre-eminent anti-fascist movement.
A year ago this month, Golden Dawn’s neo-Nazi leaders, including the party’s self-styled ‘Fuhrer’, Nikos Michaloliakos, were handed lengthy jail terms after a historic five-year trial hailed as a pivotal point in Greek political history.
Keerfa had been commemorating the anniversary when the assault occurred in a public square in Athens.
Days earlier similar scenes had unfolded at a vocational school in a downtrodden suburb of Thessaloniki. Black-clad youths in balaclavas, armed with clubs, knuckledusters, flares and knives had gone on the rampage targeting students, anti-fascists and trade unionists. In what would be a wave of far-right attacks that would leave the nation stunned, the assailants were filmed giving Nazi salutes.
For Petros Constantinou, Keerfa’s coordinator, the incidents are reminiscent of the worst days of Golden Dawn, when hit squads prowled the streets of Athens striking “immigrant scum” and other perceived enemies as Greece, gripped by economic crisis, became Europe’s first nation to vote neo-Nazis into parliament. “Nine years later fascists feel empowered by racist policies again,” he said. “We are witnessing their comeback precisely because they feel this is their moment, this is their time.”
Golden Dawn’s demise has left a gap to be filled. At its height, two years after being catapulted into Athens’ 300-seat house in 2012, the party polled at 9.3% in European elections, consolidating its position as the country’s third largest political force when about 500,000 Greeks voted for the ultra nationalists in 2015.
The 13-year sentences that the party’s entire leadership received after being convicted of operating a criminal gang disguised as a political group in the largest court hearing of Nazis since Nuremberg has ensured Golden Dawn is defunct in all but name.
But there are fears other extremist formations are now attempting to fill the vacuum.
The conspiratorial Greek Solution party is believed to have soaked up most of its base, garnering 3.7% of the vote in the last general election in July 2019.
“When the far right can’t hold sway at a national level it traditionally builds strongholds,” said Prof Vasiliki Georgiadou, a specialist in far-right militancy at Panteion University.
“Golden Dawn did the same in 2008 when it took hold in economically deprived areas of central Athens, which went unnoticed, and then won a seat in the city’s municipal council. Two years later it got into parliament. I worry that could be happening now with the creation of similar strongholds in northern Greece,” she said.
Thessaloniki’s recent street clashes, she said, had occurred in areas of high unemployment where Pontic Greeks whose families had emigrated from Russia were prone to radicalisation.
Greek security officials have noted the emergence of at least 16 new far-right groups since the collapse of Golden Dawn according to a police report that has not yet been publicly released.
Seven were recorded in the north of the country, where nationalist fervour – often fuelled by conservative clerics in the Orthodox church – has been amplified by opposition to the 2018 Prespa agreement, which ended the name dispute with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
While pale imitations of Golden Dawn, whose unhindered embrace of Nazi ideology and violent tactics were the source of embarrassment for like-minded parties in Europe, the new factions are no less racist, homophobic or antisemitic, and include ardent believers in the supremacy of the Greek race. Media reports citing the police inquiry suggest they have about 5,000 members and supporters in Thessaloniki alone.
“There is a stronger tradition of nationalism in northern Greece because the far right has been legitimised in the struggle over Macedonia,” said Kostis Papaioannou who directs Signal, a research group that studies far-right extremism.
“The emergence of these new groups has been linked to the anti-vaccine movement in the region because it is in northern Greece that inoculation rates are much lower. But there’s no doubt that some have had ties with Golden Dawn and MPs in jail.”
The rise in conspiracy theories with the pandemic has also helped bolster far rightists now able to tap into the ignorance and fears of a large part of the population.
Propatria, which started off as a martial arts school and has close ties to Golden Dawn and other militant organisations across the continent, is believed to be behind the Keerfa attack. “One of the assailants had the Black Sun [tattooed] on his elbow and I was able to recognise him,” said Frangou, referring to the symbol associated with Nazi Germany’s notorious SS units.
The man, who was arrested and given a three-year suspended sentence, was known to police after previously being detained for fomenting violence at a protest in Athens of virulent anti-vaxxers.
What worries Papaioannou is the slow response of authorities to the new threat.
In a move that prompted outrage last week, a court upheld an appeal by the imprisoned Golden Dawn cadre, Giorgos Patelis, allowing him to walk free on the grounds that his son was ill. As the party’s leader in the capital’s working-class district of Nikaia, Patelis was serving a 10-year jail term for ordering the killing of Pavlos Fyssas, an anti-fascist hip-hop artist whose death would eventually spur the group’s unravelling.
“After last year’s landmark verdict, parts of the judiciary appear to be questioning it,” Papaioannou said. “For many, Patelis’ release has put the tribunal’s decision in doubt even if, in a welcome step, a supreme court prosecutor has asked to review it.”
It was absurd, he said, that a year on an official investigation into police complicity with Golden Dawn had still not been conducted.
The prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has been criticised by Syriza, the main opposition party, of forging a climate that has facilitated extremists by giving senior cabinet posts to politicians formerly with the populist radical right Laos party.
While Mitsotakis belongs to the liberal flank of the governing New Democracy party, and has sought to appeal to centrists by also appointing figures from the centre left, he has been accused of kowtowing to the right by pursuing hardline migration policies and a tough law-and-order agenda.
“It has helped create a political climate in which outrageous decisions like the release of Patelis can occur,” said the Syriza MEP Stelios Koulouglou.
Georgiadou said the jury was still out as to whether the country was experiencing a far-right resurgence. “It’s too early to say if what we are seeing is a revival or an outbreak of far-right extremist violence,” she said. “But what we must not do is ignore what is happening – because the far right in Greece has not disappeared.”