Reclaiming Xenophobia: The Rise of Ultra-Nationalism in Greece

Golden Dawn is not the only manifestation of paranoia stemming from the economic crisis. Anti-immigrant sentiment is now part of the political mainstream

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Myrto Papadopoulos

Rallying at Thermopylae, members of Golden Dawn would eventually shout party slogans in unison: "Greece for the Greeks" and "Blood! Honor! Golden Dawn!"

An alarming consequence of Greece’s economic meltdown has been the rise of the virulently ultra-nationalist political party, Golden Dawn. In this week’s issue of TIME, we report on the group’s tactics and ideology as well as the political climate that feeds Golden Dawn’s anti-immigrant drive.

The group is led by Nikos Michaloliakos, 54, a small, paunchy mathematician with Brezhnev eyebrows and a perpetual scowl, who founded the movement in 1985. During an interview Wednesday with the private TV channel SKAI, Michaloliakos denied that the party was trying to push the country into the left-right divisions of the civil war that ravaged Greece after the end of World War II, declaring that the Greeks had to be united to face the economic crisis. He got angry when the Greek journalist interviewing him asked about the party’s Nazi links, dismissing it as “old mud” from 20 years ago. “We are nationalists, not Nazis,” he said, adding that the Greeks don’t care to rehash Nazi history and instead want to get rid of political corruption and illegal immigrants so the country can recover from the economic crisis. He claimed that support for his party will grow because Golden Dawn is not corrupt and identifies with common Greeks.

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And yet, Golden Dawn’s slogans, salutes, symbols and gatherings distinctly echo images and words from the Third Reich, says Dimitris Psarras, an investigative journalist who spent more than 20 years chronicling the party in his new book Golden Dawn’s Black Bible. “The leaders of this group don’t practice an ideology that is simply the loud ultra-nationalism practiced by other European far-right parties,” he said. “It is very clearly a Nazi group.”

Psarras says Golden Dawn has tapped into anti-immigrant resentment that has been slowly building since the 1990s when the first big wave of foreigners—Albanians—came to Greece en masse. As the economic crisis has stripped Greek institutions of trust, that resentment has metastasized into outright fear that is defining mainstream political and social debate, he said.

Indeed, Golden Dawn holds no monopoly on the idea that all undocumented migrants are menaces to society. Many of Greece’s leading politicians, including Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, 61, have said as much. Though Samaras, a patrician , Harvard-trained economist, has also described Golden Dawn as “neo-Nazi,” he has labeled undocumented migrants “the tyrants of Greek society.” He leads the conservative New Democracy party, the main partner in a fragile three-party coalition government that’s been governing Greece since June.

(PHOTOS: On the Road with Golden Dawn)

In Athens, where most of the approximately 350,000 undocumented migrants in Greece live, Samaras and other mainstream political leaders have accused them of spreading infectious diseases and contributing to the sharp rise in crime in the city center. Samaras has also said he’s concerned that the children of undocumented migrants are crowding Greek children out of state-run daycare centers. Ilias Panagiotaros, a Golden Dawn MP who represents Athens, goes even further and says he wants to kick out the non-Greek children. He’s already asked the Ministry of Interior for the names of “foreign infants and young children, by country of origin, who are in nursery school.” (The Ministry refused).

Many migrants say Greeceis now a hostile place for them. In Athens, gangs of vigilantes, many sporting the black Golden Dawn T-shirts, have attacked hundreds of immigrants in the last year, according to human rights groups. The gangs often single out the poorest immigrants, cornering them at night and beating them with brass knuckles, beer bottles, wooden bats–and in the case of Egyptian fisherman Abouzeid Mubarak, 28–thick iron rods. In June, 20 people broke into Mubarak’s suburban Piraeus home while he was asleep and beat him into a coma. In August, another gang stabbed a 19-year old Iraqi man as he walked in central Athens. Issa Ahmed Agboluaje, a slight, shy 20 year old from Ghana survived a similar attack by another gang in black this spring. “They put the knife in my stomach and said, ‘Get out of here!'” Agboluaje says, pulling up his shirt to reveal a four-inch scar on his belly. Like many immigrants, he said the Athens police ignored his complaint.

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Even immigrants who have not been attacked sense the dramatic change in many Greeks’ attitudes. Jagwinder Singh, 38, a Punjabi Sikh and trained electrician from India, slipped out of the cargo ship where he worked when it docked in the nearby port city of Piraeus 16 years ago and then made his way to Corinth. He soon got a job at a factory that makes wood products, then received a work permit four years later. For 12 years, he worked long shifts, paid into the Greek social security system and supported his wife and two children.  But a year ago, he lost his job at the factory, which downsized from 130 employees to 20. Now he says he faces angry stares when he collects his unemployment check. “For so many years, the Greeks were so kind to me and my family,” he says. “But now, these last few months, everything is different. People look at me with cold eyes. They call me a xenos (a foreigner), and say they will bring in Golden Dawn to sweep us all out of Greece.”

Human Rights Watch has documented the growing violence against immigrants in Greece and is beseeching the Greek police to step in. Jan Egelund, HRW’s Europe Director, says authorities cannot use the economic crisis as an excuse to look away from the violence. Europe, he says, must help—not isolate—Greece. “If we give up on Greece, this cradle of civilization, philosophy and humanism, how can we make progress in the Congo , or Afghanistan or Syria?” He adds, “Europe has to treat this not only as a border control problem. Europe has to see it as a systemic failure of protecting human rights of migrants and minorities.”

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