Athens is Burning

How did a militarist ultra conservative nationalist group like The Golden Dawn become so popular in Greece? And why won’t they just go away?


By Adrian T. Palaia

Case 1: Greece and The Golden Dawn

The Great Recession, Nationalism, And the Rise of The Golden Dawn

Nationalism is a flame; any number of events can spark a fire, its nature and path change according to the time, origin, and its surroundings, and most of dangerous of all, it can spread. As a flame can burn so hot that it can reduce itself to ashes, so too nationalism can become destructive onto itself. Despite its tendencies to smolder in seeming remission, embers of nationalism stoked with the right push grow into a flaming torrent. The act of stoking is important to note: neither fire nor nationalism happen in a vacuum and the encroaching nature of outside forces are often at play. This smoldering of nationalism, feed by the exacerbation of outside forces, is how the Greece’s Golden Dawn came to power.

I would like to take a moment to look at what was the Greek political party that was that was known as Golden Dawn and how its members defined ‘nation’, paying special attention to the global political and economic climate which lead to such a definition and how the general attitude of the Greek people played into such a definition. In all, the goal is to properly convey the Golden Dawn’s ideology, the context leading to its rise to power, and its tactics to try to determine if and to what extent it can be considered ‘militant.’ In doing so, this article will lead to more on about the growing tendencies of ultra-nationalism throughout the world and begin as a ground zero for where these modern movements have come from…accordingly, this one is alittle longer than the later installments so bear with me…

The Golden Dawn’s staunch anti-immigrant stance actually pre-date the current immigration crisis which is currently unfolding in the Mediterranean. Such circumstance make for amazing factors which when kept in mind is what makes looking at the views of the Golden Dawn and then looking at the reaction of their fellow Greeks today during such dire times so fascinating. Greece and its economic meltdown which helped fueled the global recession seem like that perfect starting point if we are going to look at the rise of ultra-nationalism in the world in the last decade. To me, it just seems like the spark that set the world on fire (but you’ll read, Bear Stearns provided the matches, dry wood, and gasoline).

“The cost to Greece, the cost to Europe and the cost to the entire global economy

In 2007, the collapse of two Bear Stearns hedge funds exposed a series of trading practices in the United States which would in time be referred to as the Sub-prime Mortgage Crisis. The surfacing of which brought an era that reintroduced the world to bank collapses, credit tightening, private defaults, stagnant or declining GDP, and, in time, massive layoffs; collectively referred to as the Great Recession. The ripples of the U.S.’s financial failings were felt around the world. Major banks, not just in the U.S., began to panic and no longer gave out the credit which years before was relatively easy to get. Once easy credit had disintegrated, many governments panicked and tried to act keep the mechanisms of international banking (and in turn, the world economy) moving. However, some governments which had been enjoying the benefits of the bull market were completely unprepared for sudden economic downturns. This is where the Greek government’s failings became all too clear.  

The Greek government had, for years, been spending outside its means: feeding a bloated public sphere which drained Greece’s inefficient, undiversified, and uncompetitive economy. In this context, Greece’s ruling elites traded perks to constituents for votes; perks such as pay raises without links to productivity, a significantly earlier retirement age than most other EU members, and huge pension obligations to go along with it. However, these ‘perks’ were only the tip of the iceberg that brought Greece to crisis:, significant tax evasion, an expanding government, growing military expenditures, ever increasing trade deficits, an $11 billion price for the 2004 Olympics, and a collective sense of entitlement all converged in Greece’s national debt. By 2009, the Greek government’s national debt amounted to 115 percent of Greek gross domestic product, nearly twice that of the amount allowed by the EU. A staggering amount to repay, however, with the global economic downturn and the slowing of Greece’s economy, the debt became an impossible amount to repay as GDP only shrank more.

In the Golden Dawn’s Party Program, the group actually sums up these events quickly and accurately (all be it oversimplified): “[Politicians] borrowed money from loan sharks and usurers and created a public debt bubble of unprecedented size in international financial history.” By 2009, with the world economies and businesses freezing credit, Greece could not pay back its 300 billion euros debt, the highest in modern history. The possibility of a Greek default was a frightening precedent for the European Union and the world; For Greece was not the money country in the European Union which was facing fiscal oblivion. If Greece went bankrupt and defaulted on its loans, it very well could have damned other heavily indebted countries like Spain, Ireland, or Portugal from receiving foreign investment. Soon, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, led by Germany, believed they had gave Greece a 110 billion euro bailout to keep the government running and to pay some of it’s debt. However the bailout came with strings attached; namely a major drive toward austerity. This included drastic spending cuts, high tax hikes, and labour market and pension reforms.The Greek government reluctantly accepted these terms; such measures made the environment in Greece prime for a spark to turn into a wildfire, a wildfire in the form of the Golden Dawn.   

Panic on the Streets of Athens

In 2010 the first round of budget cuts and tax hikes imposed on the Greek people were met with riots, but 2012, two years after,  the sting of the government cuts began to recede. As the sting went away, the Greek government began to prepare for the second round of austerity cuts mandated by the IMF and the European Union. Restless members of the Greek public, fully aware of the lack of impact they had in stopping the first round cuts with riots, looked at the second round of cuts and took a collective deep breath. Understanding that such cuts were the bitter pill needed to cure Greece’s woes, the Greek public sympathetically met the new round of cuts by…rioting again. Once more, as it was millennia ago in the Greco-Persian War, Athens was burning.


However, this time the Athenians could not blame Xerxes. Though second round cuts were the direct cause, the riots were a product of sheer frustration. The Great Recession and austerity cuts had hit Greek society hard: unemployment hit 27%, youth unemployment reached 52%, a third of all businesses in central Athens closed down, one-third of all Greeks lived below the poverty level, and a quarter of the population was teetering toward poverty. Compounding all this was an influx of immigrants, some illegal, looking for work, adding to an already densely populated job pool: A job pool which not only included Greeks but other Eastern European economic refugees and Middle Eastern immigrants. Optimism was in short supply, and as things went from bad to worse, hopelessness began to set in. As one observer noted upon returning  to the Greek capital at the time “there is a smell of fear in Athens, as well as one of numb depression.” However, Greece’s social and economic spheres were not the only part of Greek society in turmoil.

The political system was also in a turbulent state. The two long dominating parties , the center-left PASOK and the center-right New Democracy ( the two main parties in power when Greece’s debts were spiralling out of control), had begun losing members over the handling and fallout of the crisis. The two parties also lost public trust due to the revelation that the Greek government had been misconstruing its finances for years. Some Greeks had become so disenchanted and fed up, they renounced centrist parties all together and  moved toward more extreme fringe political parties. It was in this atmosphere that the Golden Dawn, arguably the most successful of those fringe parties, began to gain enough political momentum to start  “fighting to keep Greece for Greeks.”

Based on Blood: Origins and Ideas of the Dawn

Financial crisis, fear, a growing sense of hopelessness: There were a myriad of problems which conspired to rend Greek society into anarchy. History has taught that it is natural for people in such dire straits to look for answers and for leadership during such times. In their search for answers, driven by fear, some Greeks turned to the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn movement began around 1980 lead by a group of sympathizers of the military dictatorship that governed Greece from 1967 to 1974. Seven years after the movement began, Golden Dawn became a political party led by former Greek military commando Nikolaos Michaloliakos. The party itself was apparently an extension of Mr. Michaloliakos’ former career, organising the party “along military lines, with him as leader, as the supreme authority.” From 1987 on, for over twenty years the party can be considered socially and politically irrelevant: For example in the pre-austerity 2009 elections for parliament, Golden Dawn received less than 1% of the vote. That all changed quickly once the austerity measures were implemented; the cuts provided a spark in an atmosphere of frustration and fear, which would fan the flames of a blaze that would illuminate this obscure political party for the whole world to see.

Once understanding Golden Dawn’s origin, it is best to understand its ideology and the pillars such ideology rests on. Golden Dawn consider themselves Greek Nationalists” and zealously embrace their self appointed label. It outrightly states the main goal which the pillars support is to revive Hellenism and help Hellas become a central power of the geopolitically sensitive area of the Eastern Mediterranean.” While Aggressively asserting for the regional domination of Greece, Golden Dawn claims that such dominance is only capable with ‘Hellas,” or true Greeks. This begs the question of who can be considered true Greek? The first part to answer such a question is to understand Golden Dawn rejects the modern definition of a citizen being a member of a country simply because they are born there but rather state “National identity to us is based on blood….”


Golden Dawn is dedicated to their own definition of a “Hellena”; even putting forth a party tagline as “You are born a Greek, you do not become one.”’ This belief of citizenship exclusively by birthright puts it at odds with other major nations such as say France or Great Britain, for whom one can become a citizen simply by obtaining the proper paper work. On their website, Golden Dawn refutes these other countries’ notions, calling them a “fallacy”.  Instead they claim “A Greek to us is one who overwhelmingly carries the descent of the various ancient Greek tribes around the Mediterranean sea and the cultural legacy from them, through Orthodoxy up to the present day. This means that legal immigrants, or even first or second generation Greeks, could not be considered “true” Greeks.

By basing their criteria of citizenship on blood, the Golden Dawn’s definition of citizenship  and the inevitable rise of Greece’s homogeneity as a result of that definition of the Helena man (along with their actions which will be touched upon later) has made many to claim that the “Helena” pillar of Golden Dawn’s ideology is similar to the ideas of the Nazis. Greece’s Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, leader of the center left New Democracy party, went as far as to publicly describing Golden Dawn as “Nazi descendants.”  Though Golden Dawn denies the label as a neonazi group, even saying on its website “the only reason they call us ‘NeoNazi’ is because we are a country in Europe, the Occident, and they know if they use that term, they can get other Europeans to think we are crazed lunatics.” But being European is not the only reason: Golden Dawn’s physical characteristics alone have unmistakable inclinations toward nazism:  their party logo strongly resembles a swastika, party members dressed in all black, reports of copies of “Mein Kampf” and similar books on racial superiority on display in its Athens headquarters, and the tendency of its members, including those who are elected officials, to use the nazi salute.

Golden Dawn’s political beliefs also align with that of Nazi Germany as well as Germany’s WWII counterpart, Fascist Italy. Although Golden Dawn has used elections to gain power, they believe Democracy…is so easily corruptible for [politicians’] own purposes.” It may seem ironic that that Greece, the birthplace and cradle of democracy, should not be subject to the political system it is most associated with. Ancient Athens, now Greece’s modern capital, is considered the first real major democracy in the world. Golden Dawn wrestles with that historic fact, however, ultimately they align themselves with the other major city-state of Ancient Greece, Athens’ rival, Sparta. They claim that Sparta was able obtain the same great feats as Athens under the consolidated rule of a king, as did Alexander the Great in Macedonia. Under those political systems Greeks were able to achieve great things without an “externally imposed and corrupt Anglo-parliamentary system” as Golden Dawn puts it. Such ideas, along with actions which will be elaborated on later, have brought many to label the Golden Dawn as a neo-fascist group.

This sympathy toward Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy is all the more shocking when considering the history that surrounds the Greeks and their defiant and tragic attempts to upset and hinder the Axis Powers. The Greeks fought tooth and nail with the British to repel a second invasion wave led by the Germans (the first wave led by the Italians was pushed back and proved to be quite a humiliation). Under German occupation, the Greeks suffered from starvation, plundering, and various mass killings, but the Greek Resistance and exiled government fought the Fascists and the Nazis. The Greek Orthodox Church in Athens even urged parishioners and clergymen to take in jews to hide them from being taken or exiled from the country. The Greeks paid a great price for their defiance: 400,000 Greeks died during the war, the vast majority of them civilians. Understanding such a history makes it easier to understand how hesitant and viament the Golden Dawn is to distance themselves from the label of ‘nazis’ or ‘fascists’.     

As mentioned Golden Dawn believes that Greece’s destiny as a regional power is only possible when the Helenas come into power. They see leaving no room for immigrants in Greece; in fact, Golden Dawn believes that immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, are the cause of Greece’s current unemployment rate. As they state on their website “Every foreign worker equals a Greek unemployed: Deportation of all the illegal immigrants mean hundreds of thousands of new jobs for the Greeks. While the Golden Dawn claims this animosity toward immigrants is for economic reasons, there seems to also be an underlying fear of ancestral Greeks becoming marginalized in a country they claim is their own. “We are referring to the demographic decline of our nation. Simply put, in a few years we will be in a minority in our own country.” To Golden Dawn this makes sense, since a nation is based on blood, Greece is their country: hence immigrants (without Greek blood evidently) are taking from them a birthright earned for them by their ancestors.

Finally, this grand vision that is carved by the Golden Dawn’s ideology can finally be viewed in full: a Greece based on blood, with Greeks presiding in their ancestral home, completely devoid of anyone who does not fit that criteria. Politically this Greek nation is governed by an central, authoritarian, despot-like figure who dominates as a regional power. That is what the Golden Dawn believes the true nation of Greece should look like. The question then becomes much more pragmatic once the desired result is understood: how does one obtain such a Greece?

Capitalizing on Turmoil

No fire, regardless of how big the spark is or how dry the air is, can start without fuel. Depending on what the fuel is feeding the flame, either-whether it is moist timber or crude oil.

As mentioned before, in pre-austere Greece the Golden Dawn received less than 1% of the vote. Once the EU, led by Germany, and the IMF offered the massive bailout with strings attached, Golden Dawn quickly began gaining political momentum. They capitalized on the turmoil in Greece by using a proactive three tier strategy: exploiting the reticent anger at the EU, particularly aimed at Germany, running its own social services including food banks, and scapegoating immigrants for Greece’s troubles. It is important to keep in mind the ideology previously covered in the last section: such bigoted ideas behind such otherwise benign actions can often turn violent (as it is in this case). 

The political disintegration and economic chaos brought by the austerity measures has left Greece in a national depression, both economically and psychologically. In such a hard pressed situation it is easy to look at the EU’s push to protect the financial interests for the institution as whole and see it the Europe simply shafting Greece. History teaches that people in such situations often look to attribute their current situation on to forces larger than themselves, regardless whether if such claims are tangible or true. On this note, Golden Dawn would often weave fantastic conspiracy theories for the public, placing Germany at the center, vying for economic dominance at Greece’s expense. Such theories would produce the intended reaction of outrage, spurring nationalism, which in turn would play into the Golden Dawn’s hand.

While the anger of Greeks was palpable, no political party can seep into the mainstream based off scapegoating alone; there comes a time when reciprocity is needed. Golden Dawn was very well aware of this and set up various social welfare centers across Greece. These centers handled programs that included blood banks, food giveaways, family bonding sessions, and youth guidance; all these programs were available to the public, as long as the recipients could prove they were Greek. No undocumented immigrants were allowed, and Golden Dawn members would stand and check recipients ID cards to make sure they were giving out the resources to the ‘right’ individuals. It’s easy to understand that in a economic depression many people would need help from such programs and when the Golden Dawn appears there with help in hand, it creates goodwill and a broader constituency.

The first two prongs of the Golden Dawn’s election campaign were relatively harmless for the the people inside Greece: Its seemed highly unlikely that anything would come from the conspiracy theories that the Golden Dawn spoke of, and the social services they undertook seemed to help the people of Greece. However, it is the last prong of Golden Dawn’s technique which may be the most brutal aspect of the group: immigrants. While Golden Dawn may try avoid labels such as ‘neo-nazi’ or ‘fascists’, they are far more forthcoming to be labeled as anti-immigrant. The reason for their acceptance of the label is because the Golden Dawn is using the immigrants as scapegoats for Greece’s financial crisis.

Such a message as scapegoating immigrants for most of Greece’s woes did not work in Golden Dawn’s favor at first; in fact it didn’t work for the first twenty years of the party. However, once the austerity began to take hold, blaming immigrants became very easy for the public; simply pointing a finger at someone rather than explaining macroeconomics to a downtrodden people, it gives Greece an enemy to work against. Greece is located between the Middle East and Europe and it produces a route of the world’s superhighways between the two regions; however in 2009, once the recession hit many of the immigrants who were once just passing through, now had to settle in Greece. In time the population rose till immigrants made up 10% of all people in Greece; however the number could be more because many of the immigrants are undocumented. Golden Dawn was quick to whip up a fervor that united Greece against this designated common enemy.

For whatever reason, this three prong tactic resonated with the Greek population. After decades of gaining less than 1% of the vote, in 2012 the first national election after the austerity cuts were made and Golden Dawn was able gain 17 seats in Greece’s 300 seat parliament, have it’s founder elected to the city council of Athens, and have Golden Dawn offices began to sprout up around the country. Just like a wildfire, Golden Dawn was able to channel the anger and nationalism of the Greek people into party support which quickly spread.

Close or Burn

Once in power, the Golden Dawn immediately started to put their ideology into action. No longer did the Golden Dawn just say that they wanted immigrants out of the country, they literally began chasing the immigrants out. There are many reports of the Golden Dawn, or militants who strongly resemble members of the Golden Dawn, going into a villages. The NY Times gives an example of one episode: After gaining seats in Parliament “50 [Golden Dawn] members riding motorbikes and armed with heavy wooden poles roared through [the highly immigrant populated Greek town of] Nikaia, a gritty suburb to telegraph their new power. As townspeople watched… the men careened around the main square, some brandishing shields emblazoned with swastikalike symbols, and delivered an ultimatum to immigrants whose businesses have catered to Nikaia’s Greeks for nearly a decade. ‘They said: ‘You’re the cause of Greece’s problems. You have seven days to close or we’ll burn your shop — and we’ll burn you.”

Incidents like those are not simply just some rogue members of the party, but a single part of a alarming pattern: last year alone most of the 154 recorded racist attacks in Greece were attributed to Golden Dawn members, as well as over 100 in the first part of 2013. The question of how such a large group of individuals get away with so much is almost baffling; that is until one finds out that 45% of the police nationwide support Golden Dawn, however many members doubt that statistic and claim its more like “60 or more.” Between the members of parliament, the seats on the Athens city council, the growing support, and the tactite permission from the police, Golden Dawn looked unstoppable.

Yet for all the pain Golden Dawn caused for so many, for all the enemies they made, and for all the time people around the world watched in horror as it gained power, it took only one person to bring down the Golden Dawn:  Pavlos “Killa P” Fyssas. In 2013, the left wing rapper openly expressed his disdain for the Golden Dawn. One night as Fyssas left from performing he was by stopped several Golden Dawn activists and stabbed to death. This killing (although it was not the first death connected with Golden Dawn) started an investigation which led to the arrest of  six of the party’s elected members of parliament — including party leader Nikos Michaloliakos — who has been jailed pending trial on charges of forming and running a criminal organization. And in the end that is all that the Golden Dawn was. It was not militant, although it seems as though they tried desperately to be; no, Golden Dawn is a militant as an ordinary street thug, one willing to steal anything or hurt anyone to get what it wants, but not as dangerous or organized, as something relatively as respectable as a militant nationalist group.

 A Sun Without The Dawn

Now just because the Golden Dawn is dead as legitimate political party doesn’t mean that the cause is dead; in fact, in case of the flames of nationalism, the world is burning and it might be burning brightest in none other than the Mediterranean. With Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq gripped by poverty and violence, an exodus of people are flee from the region. In the last year alone, over a quarter of a million refugees from the region have fled to Europe; Of them, 161,599 have arrived in Greece.The Greek mainland, out of sheer lack of resources, has had to shut its door to more refugees, but its surrounding islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos are holding more than 10,000 migrants. The mainland’s closure makes sense when you consider that this year’s numbers are down considerably: last year’s August alone, 107,843 refugees arrived. Greece has becoming the first to the rest of the world for hundreds of thousands of migrants; in a way, creating the perfect atmosphere for the Golden Dawn to become resurgent, one would assume?

Well there is no doubt that the Greek government is struggling with the migrants, even more so as it seems more and more apparent that much of Europe simply wants to take the refugees which have made it to their shores and simply send them back to Greece. And while it holds no political power anymore, remnants of the Golden Dawn still exist, just as this sect cause a tense situation celebrating the famous Battle of Thermopylae which just so happens to be by several large migrants camps- the eeriness of the Golden Dawn member walking single file holding torches not being lost on onlookers. Yet the bigger demonstrations happened this week in Keratsini, Greece; Which just so happened to be the place where Pavlos “Killa P” Fyssas was murdered 3 years ago this week.


Hence we see a kind of dualism in Greece, as we will see in most places. One which has it hands open, trying take those from the outside, and another, trying to protect itself from those from the outside. Golden Dawn may no longer be a viable political party but the fire of nationalism have swept up far beyond Greece. France, Britain, America, Germany, The Netherlands, China, Japan, Italy, Russia; all these countries, not decades ago pan-continental alliances, now retreat to their own borders, while flames of nationalism grow brighter, and the future is internationalism only looks darker.


0 thoughts on “Athens is Burning

  1. Pingback: Hungary Is Playing with Fire- And It Might Just Set Europe Ablaze | NEW World BURNING

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