Once a formidable force in Greek politics, Golden Dawn, a far-right, neo-Nazi group that acted as a political party, has been branded a criminal organisation. Leaders of Golden Dawn have been sentenced to 13 years in prison in a trial that lasted over five years and featured 68 defendants. Evidence presented at Golden Dawn’s trial revealed that the party planned violent actions, including paramilitary-style attacks, and was fond of chanting Nazi slogans.
At its height, Golden Dawn was a prominent voice for Greeks who were disillusioned with the political system. The party’s downfall marks the end of a decade of increased support for its nationalist and exclusionist agenda in a time of deep economic pain.
The History of Golden Dawn
Golden Dawn was founded in 1980 shortly after the demise of Greece’s right-wing military junta in 1974. It was recognised as a political party in 1993, but it was the 2008 financial crisis that led to its growth as a political actor. In 2012, Golden Dawn secured 18 MPs in the Greek legislature, before losing all of its seats in the 2019 general election.
At the peak of its popularity, Golden Dawn provided basic social services for ethnic Greeks in a time of economic despair. The party was a vessel for Greeks who wanted to reclaim their country from external actors such as the EU and Germany. Most notably, Golden Dawn’s vision of Greece did not include the foreign-born, and party members frequently engaged in violent attacks against immigrants. The most prominent attack by Golden Dawn members was the killing of an anti-fascist musician in 2013, which led to the criminal inquiry decided this month.
While Greece has a unique history of political violence and low-level bombing and assassination campaigns, the most potent extremist groups have been left-wing anarchist organisations. Many of the anarchist groups are anti-capitalist and have targeted the Greek state, as well as the EU, NATO, and symbols of Western, imperialist interests. In contrast, Golden Dawn’s core concern was not the imperialism of the U.S. or the EU, but rather the ethnic makeup of Europe.
Golden Dawn and Its Ideological Ally
Around the same time, Golden Dawn experienced a brief resurgence in support, its closest ideological ally in Europe was the Jobbik party in Hungary. Jobbik is also an ethnic nationalist party with strong neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic beliefs. Many of Jobbik’s platforms, including its demographic and racial concerns, were adopted by the Fidesz Party of Viktor Orban, which leads Hungary to this day. The Fidesz Party is openly anti-immigrant and in favour of a White, Christian Europe that preserves Europe’s “ethnic homogeneity.”
Jobbik now competes with Fidesz in local elections, but it has found a powerful ally in Viktor Orban. Orban has adopted Jobbik’s rhetoric of victimhood, assault, and submission to outside powers and groups, such as the EU, Islam, and multiculturalism. Fidesz does not attack migrants in the streets but uses its power to legislate for emergency immigration measures in parliament. Golden Dawn, Jobbik, and other far-right groups may be off the streets, but elements of their ideologies are deeply interwoven within existing national conservative parties. Both Golden Dawn and Jobbik are close to disbandment as they struggle to retain support, but their legacies remain intact and influential. Their most profound legacy is likely the replacement of more militant aims with a pragmatic and institutionalist approach that can be co-opted by the centre.
COVID-19 and Decreased Far-Right Support
COVID-19 has presented challenges for other far-right groups across Europe. As a result of COVID-19, support for Germany’s largest far-right group, the AfD, has fallen from 15% to 9%. In Italy, the League, which was briefly a coalition government partner in 2018, has seen its support drop 11 percentage points from summer 2019. As a new wave of COVID-19 is spreading across Europe, far-right groups are on the decline, either through legal means or by their own principles. Many of these parties have been against strict lockdowns and have also described the pandemic as a “hoax” while dismissing the role of science and expertise. A new far-right group in Greece called Greek Solution is under investigation for producing TV ads describing magical remedies from COVID-19.
Europe may have passed its peak populist moment, but the circumstances are ripe for the return of far-right and far-left groups in the future. Greece’s unemployment rate is still high at around 16% and the economic recovery from COVID-19 risks exacerbating pre-existing divisions between northern and southern Europe. Italy, Greece, and Spain have high levels of public debt, and creditor states like Germany often favour harsh austerity measures that are deeply unpopular.
As the pandemic continues, people will be out of work for some time and will likely search for a manifestation of their grievances. With Germany, the EU, and immigrants likely to be the scapegoats once again, the fringes of the political spectrum may be a viable vessel. The criminalisation of Golden Dawn likely sends a powerful message of deterrence while acting in favour of the rule of law. However, the volatility of COVID-19 and renewed economic uncertainty and inequity may provide the incentive for opposing parties to plant their flags.