Greece’s Neo-Nazis Were Scarier Than Anyone Imagined

Greece’s Neo-Nazis Were Scarier Than Anyone Imagined

ATHENS, Greece — In the prosecutors’ 697-page case file, he is known only as Witness E — a Golden Dawn ex-member turned state informant. And what he has to share about the neo-Nazi political party — its ideology, its training methods, and its plans for the future — is terrifying. 

Golden Dawn recruited a butcher to train its members in the art of using a knife effectively, in order to "neutralize opponents," Witness E told prosecutors. Party members participated in the mass slaughter of sheep in various farms around the Attica region, which encompasses Athens and its suburbs, to learn the best technique for "striking directly at the jugular." He’d heard, Witness E said, that the same butcher supplied guns to Golden Dawn members, as well. Other evidence prosecutors uncovered seems to back up his claim: The case file is littered with photos of members in military clothing carrying knives, swords, handguns, rifles, and, in one case, even a bazooka.

All this training was "in preparation to overthrow the Greek government," Witness E suggested to prosecutors — a jarring reminder of how little the Greek public truly understood the operational capabilities of Golden Dawn, or what the party even aimed to be. "They kept telling us that we’ll break into the parliament with tanks," he said.

The prosecutors’ report — a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy — was prepared in advance of the trials of dozens of members of Golden Dawn on charges ranging from assault to human trafficking to murder. On the eve of the first of the trials, slated to start mid-November, the investigation has revealed a group that had bigger, scarier ambitions than even their most cynical enemies imagined — and, despite its revolutionary goals, had far closer ties to the ruling coalition than much of the public realized.

Founded in the mid-1980s, Golden Dawn originally started out as a small fringe discussion group — one that only later developed electoral ambitions. Even after entering politics, Golden Dawn remained a bit player for much of its existence, in some elections winning less than 1 percent of the vote. Its breakthrough came in 2010, in the wake of the global financial crisis. With unemployment rates in Greece that would eventually reach as high as 28 percent in November 2013, the group rode a wave of government-directed anger, scoring its first electoral breakthrough in 2010 when one of its candidates won a seat on the Athens City Council. In the following years, the group continued to generate headlines for its violent attacks on immigrants and leftists, its fiery nationalistic rhetoric, and, finally, its electoral success: Golden Dawn sent shockwaves throughout Europe in 2012, when it won 18 seats in parliament with nearly 7 percent of the vote.

The party’s share of support has now fallen to around 6 percent in the polls — its lowest since it 2012, but likely still enough to win more than 10 seats in parliament for a group that, according to prosecutors, was less a political party than a full-fledged criminal organization.

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The downfall of Golden Dawn began with the September 2013 stabbing death of a Greek anti-fascist musician named Pavlos Fyssas by a man named Giorgos Roupakias. Roupakias initially denied he was a Golden Dawn member, but photos and videos of him at party events quickly demonstrated otherwise. The crackdown that came next was swift and unprecedented: All of Golden Dawn’s MPs and more than 60 party members are facing a range of criminal charges, and more than 30 members of the party leadership are currently detained, including the party’s founder and historical leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos.

The police operation against Golden Dawn may have started with a murder investigation, but photos, videos, and phone records in the case file show party members were involved in a web of criminal activities that ranged from possession of firearms and explosives — illegal in Greece — to money laundering, running protection rings, human trafficking, and aggravated assault. Several members face charges related to the stabbing, including one MP, Ioannis Lagos, who prosecutors say directed the murder. There is also at least one case of sexual assault in the offices of the Sparta branch of Golden Dawn that was reportedly covered up by local officials.

Golden Dawn’s party leaders have long officially denied any link to Nazism, despite appearing to draw inspiration from Nazis for their imagery, songs, and rhetoric. But videos and photos obtained by the authorities from confiscated laptops and hard drives belonging to various party members and officials appear to belie these claims. They show party leaders dressed in S.S. uniforms, giving the Nazi salute. In one of the videos, swastika-draped Golden Dawn members train with firearms, under the instructions of MP Ilias Kasidiaris and other elected officials. Another shows groups of activists in paramilitary uniforms marching, their faces covered with motorcycle helmets. In at least one case, these paramilitary-style groups reportedly participated in attacks against immigrants in 2011, with Kasidiaris and press officer Ilias Panagiotaros barking orders from the sidelines. But the most damning evidence concerns the days leading up the death of the anti-fascist musician on Sept. 18, 2013, and its aftermath.

In a Sept. 13, 2013, text message exchange between Golden Dawn MP Lagos and the leader of the local Golden Dawn office in Nikaia, a suburb of Athens, Lagos appears to sign off on an attack on a group of leftists affiliated with the shipyard unions of Perama, a port city west of Athens. "The commies are in for a beating in Perama," Lagos’s text reads. "Take 30 guys and drop by." Around 50 party members carried out the attack that night, which sent nine people to the hospital. No one was immediately arrested after the violence. One of those attacked confirmed to me earlier this year that "they were hitting us with sticks that had nails in the end. They were looking to kill someone."

A week later, a chain of command that led right to the top of Golden Dawn appears to have sanctioned, or at least known about, the attack on Fyssas, the musician. Union officials say they believe Golden Dawn, having failed to cow the leftists a week earlier, staged the attack to solidify the party’s dominance in the shipyards of Perama and in Nikaia as a whole. Prosecutors have mapped out a web of phone calls that show that party leader Michaloliakos himself was contacted both before and immediately after the stabbing. Michaloliakos is currently being charged with belonging to a criminal organization.

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The sitting government, led by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, has been quick to celebrate its role in saving Greece from the neo-Nazi threat, but in bringing down Golden Dawn, the government has exposed itself to a series of potentially embarrassing revelations about just how close the relationship between New Democracy, the senior coalition member in parliament, and the neo-Nazis had become.

A few months before he was detained, Kasidiaris — the 33-year-old Vice once dubbed "the playboy of the Greek far-right," who, before the arrest, was positioning himself as the natural heir to Michaloliakos — attempted to blackmail a prominent member of Greece’s New Democracy party, the senior partner in Greece’s coalition government. Kasidiaris released a tape in which he appeared to be discussing details of the case and possible outcomes with New Democracy’s cabinet secretary, Takis Baltakos, a few months after the arrests. On the tape, Baltakos can be heard telling Kasidiaris that "there is no evidence against you" repeatedly and telling him that the crackdown was politically motivated — that Prime Minister Samaras was worried that Golden Dawn’s popularity was a threat to his conservative ruling coalition. The scandal led to Baltakos’s resignation.

Even so, it now looks like the links between Baltakos and Golden Dawn were gravely underestimated. According to the most recent revelations, from further recordings Golden Dawn itself has leaked and phone records intercepted by government investigators, Baltakos was more than a sympathetic ear. Not only did he publicly suggest that New Democracy form a coalition with Golden Dawn in order to attract right-wing voters, but he was also in contact with Golden Dawn’s MPs, directing them how to vote on crucial matters in parliament, essentially aligning them with the coalition’s goals.

A series of text messages between an unnamed aide acting as a link between Baltakos and Kasidiaris contain instructions for various votes on matters ranging from drug policy to military schools. They also show that Baltakos sent his "congratulations" on the behavior of the party’s MPs in the parliament, including on one instance when a Golden Dawn MP, during an argument on the floor, called members of the opposition party Syriza "goats" and "filthy" people before getting kicked out of the chamber. Throughout, the text messages show a familiarity between the two politicians: "Takis … came in and wants to see you," one of the messages read, using the secretary’s first name. The problem is that Baltakos was not just anybody inside New Democracy: He was close with Prime Minister Samaras and his personal advisors.

New Democracy has always had mixed feelings toward Golden Dawn, an ambivalence driven largely by the view of a "specific nuclei" within the party, said Yiannis Mavris, a Greek political analyst, in an interview earlier this year: People like Baltakos and other close advisors to the prime minister see them less as thugs and more as misguided comrades. The two parties competed for some of the same voters, and New Democracy saw Golden Dawn as a threat on its right flank. But for some, like Baltakos, the far right was a natural extension of New Democracy, Greece’s main center-right party. Reports in the Greek mainstream media now suggest that Baltakos, who is still in public life, is trying to set up a new, "serious" Golden Dawn, potentially with Ilias Kasidiaris at the helm if he’s acquitted, and with the co-operation of Michaloliakos’s brother, Athens lawyer Takis Michalolias — who, the same reports suggest, has been quietly recruiting new members since at least last year. Golden Dawn was already trying to present a new, respectable face during the 2014 European elections, where the party managed to garner 9.4 percent of the vote. During those elections, the party ran retired army officials — in contrast with their parliamentary slate which included heavy metal musicians and bouncers.

The political consequences of the trials may be far-reaching. With the Greek economy showing only marginal improvements, and with the opposition calling for early elections next year, Samaras seems likely to try to capitalize on the unfolding prosecution. The prime minister has boasted of being the man who brought down Golden Dawn, dubbing them "Nazi sympathizers" in a talk earlier this year and denouncing their ideology, saying, "blood, sacrifices and our memory of history are violently insulted by those who today bear the symbols of Nazism."

"New Democracy can’t back down," said Dimitris Psarras, a veteran investigative reporter and expert on the Greek far right. "It’s profiting from what’s happening."

But the trials also threaten to expose further links between New Democracy and the far right. Samaras so far has refused to answer questions on both Baltakos and other instances in which members of his party appeared to be sympathizing with the Golden Dawn and its voters. (Just this past week, one Samaras advisor told the newspaper Kathimerini that New Democracy should consider opening up to far-right groups.) That former Minister of Public Order and Citizen Protection Nikos Dendias was sitting on 33 cases involving various Golden Dawn members, but only filed charges against them after his hand was forced by the September murder, has also called into question Samaras’s commitment to stamping out the right wing.

But whether the trials, which will run concurrently, beginning with an assault case today and running through January, will succeed is a different matter entirely.* Should the trials go badly for the prosecution, Psarras said, they could easily backfire, he said, winning sympathy for the party. The trials could also take place in a particularly politicized climate, he said, should there be early elections; some Greeks might see the trials less as a means of delivering justice and more as a political power play.

For Greece, the next few months are crucial. Golden Dawn’s main body of activists has mostly gone silent. But smaller attacks are taking place across Athens, against LGBT activists and leftists, some allegedly by Golden Dawn supporters still roaming the streets. Whether this low-level violence eventually fades away and disappears — or whether it ramps up again — depends very much on whether prosecutors succeed where political officials failed: in disbanding what had grown into the biggest neo-Nazi party in Europe.

*This story has been updated to clarify that Dimitris Psarras did not say he believed there are serious gaps in the evidence against Golden Dawn. Rather, he said that if there were gaps, the trials could backfire. Return to reading.