Swastikas Over Athens

As teenagers, Manolis Glezos (left) and the late Apostolos Santas, took down the swastika from the Acropolis a month after the German invasion of Greece -- an act of defiance that has come to symbolize the country's resistance to Nazism. (Photo: AMNA)

The children and grandchildren of people who suffered the Nazi occupation of Greece now hail their own Hitler in Athens. They belong to Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi group that is seeking political legitimacy by participating in the upcoming national election. The latest polls suggest that they will get it by exceeding the 3 percent threshold for a place in parliament. The group, which is known in Greece as Hrisi Avgi, has long operated as a vigilante force against immigrants and junkies. But its program spans the full range of hatred: antisemitism, homophobia, anti-communism. The group’s ideology seemingly draws from the Third Reich, ahistorical notions of ancient Greece and the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the junta that ravaged the country from 1967 until 1974. In the hands of these people, the Greek key is transformed to a Greek-inspired swastika, the cradle of democracy into a cauldron of fear and violence. “Blood, honor, Golden Dawn,” chant members clad in black shirts.

I first encountered this group back in 2002 as a name next to a swastika spray-painted on a wall (see FACING ATHENS). Back then, its presence as a violent fringe group told me of an impending social crisis, but I never imagined that the group itself would become a threat. Now Golden Dawn does not seem like any other neo-Nazi group, whose existence we can bemoan but dismiss. As the economy worsens, Greek social and political institutions are eroding. The democratic system that ordinarily allows for, protects, and ultimately controls dangerous political forces, such as Golden Dawn, is now under attack. The New York Times reports that the country’s two largest political parties, rather than denounce this group, are co-opting its nationalist rhetoric. (If the Church of Greece has spoken out against the Golden Dawn’s use of the cross, I haven’t heard it.) Factions within the police have long been suspected of having ties to Golden Dawn, either shielding its members from arrest or using them to combat left-wing and anarchist protesters. That these Nazis can launch a national election campaign also suggests that they have enough financial backing to do it. It’s difficult to know if these are strong enough signs of greater danger ahead. But as someone born in the midst of dictators, I can’t help but worry.

UPDATE: Members of Golden Dawn launched an attack against supporters of the PASOK party during a pre-election rally in Athens on April 21, 2012 — the 45th anniversary of a coup d’etat that brought the regime of the colonels in power. The military junta of 1967-1974 was politically, socially and economically a disastrous period in modern Greek history. After the recent attack, the thug who leads Golden Dawn took credit for it publicly. From my perspective, that is legal grounds for prosecution. While political leaders denounced the attack, there were no reports of legal actions against Golden Dawn. Instead, the group received free national media attention just days before the national election. Clever. For a history of Hitler’s violent attacks against political opponents, see Operation Hummingbird.

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