Greece’s Golden Dawn Aren’t Just Nazis — They’re Violent Mafiosi, Too

After a trial lasting over five years, tomorrow will see the verdict on murder and racketeering charges against 68 members of neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn. A lawyer representing some of the victims explains why Golden Dawn is a mafia organization — and why justice demands a guilty verdict.

Supporters of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party hold torches and wave national and party flags in Athens. (Milos Bicanski / Getty Images)

The five-and-a-half-year trial of Greek neo-Nazi organization Golden Dawn will conclude on Wednesday, October 7, when the panel of three judges issues its verdict. The judgement will resonate beyond Greece, where the trial has already played a big role in reversing Golden Dawn’s rise since the start of this decade.

The party fell from third place to losing all of its seats in parliament in last year’s election, and it has also suffered a number of splits and defections. The judgement will also impact the morale and confidence of far-right organizations across Europe which had seen Golden Dawn as a successful model of combining electoral advance with violent street-fighting aimed at controlling neighborhoods and intimidating opposition.

Also at stake is the reputation of the Greek state and judicial authorities. Prior to this trial, which resulted from popular anger at the murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013, Golden Dawn had been able to operate with impunity for decades. Will the authorities finally end this state of affairs — and send a necessary signal to the far right by issuing guilty verdicts?

This is not a trial of ideas or the limits of free speech. It is a criminal trial under the penal code — not under the kind of constitutional provision found in some countries that permits the proscribing of an organization if it threatens the democratic order.

The sixty-eight defendants have four cases to answer for between them: the murder of Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013; the attempted murder of communist trade unionists and their leader Sotiris Poulikogiannis that same month; the attempted murder of Egyptian immigrant fisherman Abouzid Embarak in his home in June 2012; and finally the overarching charge the Golden Dawn leadership face, of running a criminal organization.

A Neo-Nazi Criminal Enterprise

The last charge comes under Article 187 of the Greek criminal code, a law developed for the prosecution of organized crime. As with similar laws and procedures in other jurisdictions, this law is about demonstrating how the heads of mafia-like organizations direct, order, and inspire the criminal activity carried out by their foot soldiers.

The court has examined many thousands of documents and the verdicts of scores of previous cases of criminality by Golden Dawn members. There is also the testimony of many witnesses, ranging from experts on Golden Dawn to some who have left the organization and are now testifying against it.

The weight of the evidence is overwhelming in the three specific cases as well as in the main charge that Golden Dawn constitutes a criminal enterprise masquerading as a legitimate political party. The court also saw that, despite its protests to the contrary, Golden Dawn is and always has been an organization of neo-Nazis, not “merely” fanatical Greek nationalists.

Video clips show its leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos telling a private party meeting: “We are the seeds of the defeated army of 1945” — the army of the Third Reich. The court also saw the secret oath for Golden Dawn recruits, which identifies the organization’s chief enemy as “the Eternal Jew.” According to its original statute, brought to the court’s attention by investigative journalist Dimitris Psarras, Golden Dawn is structured on the basis of the Hitlerite Führerprinzip — one-man authority from top to bottom.

Whereas the primary functions in the branches of a normal political party would be secretary, treasurer, chair, and so on, these are mere formalities in a Golden Dawn “branch,” which is instead organized around “security.” The Greek term for them translates as “battalion squads;” they are modeled on Adolf Hitler’s Sturmabteilung or Benito Mussolini’s squadrismo.

They have uniforms, drills, train with weapons, have a distinct membership, are hierarchically organized to the very top of the party, and are the first unit established whenever Golden Dawn expands into a new neighborhood. They form the true core of the organization. The three cases of murder and attempted murder — plus the evidence from other attacks — demonstrate the operations of these battalion squads up to the highest level.

The Murder of Pavlos Fyssas

The thirty-three-year-old rapper Pavlos Fyssas was murdered on the night of September 17, 2013 as he sat with friends at the Coralli Café in his neighborhood of Keratsini, Athens, where he was well-known for his humanist and anti-fascist music. He was stabbed three times (once in the heart) by Giorgos Roupakias, a member of the five-man leadership of the Nikea branch of Golden Dawn, as other neo-Nazis held him down.

Branch members had recognized Fyssas at the café. Following a group text from their local leader Giorgos Patelis, the battalion squad assembled at the offices of Golden Dawn in Nikea within fifteen minutes. Equipped with sticks and knives, they were given clear instructions about their mission and their target. They left for Keratsini in one coordinated group — two or three cars and a dozen motorbikes.

They joined with another group of Golden Dawn members who were already there. A radio conversation between the base and police who were present during the attack recorded them saying: “Fifty people with bats, heading to the store called Coralli. Have you received?” But the police did not intervene. They only belatedly caught up to where the stabbing took place, saying it had taken them minutes to run there although it was on the main street just a hundred meters from the café. It was only because Pavlos was able to identify his murderer with his dying breath that Roupakias was arrested. Others were allowed to get away.

Tellingly, as he was arrested Roupakias told the police: “I’m one of yours. I’m Golden Dawn.” The logs of Golden Dawn mobile phones show the meticulous organization of the attack, during which calls went back and forth from national leader Ioannis Lagos, an MP for that area at the time and now a member of the European parliament elected on the Golden Dawn slate.

The Attempted Murder of Sotiris Poulikogiannis

Five days before the Fyssas murder in Keratsini, a gang of fifty Golden Dawn members set upon the leader of the metalworkers’ union in the shipyard zone and other members of the PAME union who were putting up posters in the neighboring area of Perama.

The court heard how they blocked off escape routes and called out for Poulikogiannis, another well-known local figure and Communist Party member. The modus operandi of the near-fatal attack was the same as all the other cases the court heard about: an organized, armed and purposeful grouping making its coordinated arrival in vehicles, with orders to attack, inflicting multiple serious bodily injuries, which are then followed by an order to disperse. Here, too, a chain of communication went up to Lagos and other senior leaders.

Poulikogiannis himself explained the immediate motivation to the court: Golden Dawn acted in alignment with the big employers of the shipyard who wanted to get rid of the militant union. Days after the attack, union members at one yard were sacked and replaced with workers provided by a labor agency set up by Golden Dawn.

In other evidence, the court heard how figures of the conservative New Democracy party had paid printing and conference costs for Golden Dawn. The chief of staff of the hard-right government of Antonis Samaras, Panagiotis Baltakos, maintained a back channel to communicate with Golden Dawn. Following the murder of Fyssas his government delayed for a crucial ten days before bowing to mass pressure to arrest Golden Dawn’s leader. During that time, crucial evidence was destroyed.

The Attempted Murder of Abouzid Embarak

Also in Perama, around 3:10 AM on June 12 2012, Abouzid Embarak and his compatriots were attacked by twenty armed Golden Dawn members in their home. Having first spotted Abouzid sleeping on the roof of the property, they assaulted him with clubs and iron bars, resulting in a double fracture of his lower jaw and nasal bones. They then attempted to storm the house.

Just a few hours earlier, on the afternoon of the previous day, Golden Dawn MP Lagos had told a meeting in Perama: “We have received complaints about … all these issues with the Egyptians who come here, do whatever they want, sell their fish in the way they want… and generally do not stand accountable to anyone. We tell them that from now on they will be accountable to Golden Dawn.” In other cases, immigrant shopkeepers — victims of arson and violent intimidation — have reported that Golden Dawn members ordered them either to leave the area or pay protection money.

The battalion squads’ campaigns to “cleanse” neighborhoods were both efforts at racist elimination as well as a mafia-style means of self-enrichment extending to the top of Golden Dawn. Its fracturing under pressure from the anti-fascist movement, which is represented in court by the victims’ lawyers, has led former rank-and-file Golden Dawn members to reveal the corruption of the leadership.

Yet it is not the only way in which Golden Dawn’s Nazi ideology is fused with its character as a criminal enterprise. The hierarchical organization of the battalion squads is a material expression of that ideology and its commitment to a conquest of power and elimination of all democratic space.

The Nazi ideology also explains the choice of victims — the overall criminal intent linking together each of many felonious acts: a rapper popular in progressive youth circles, a left-wing trade union leader, and immigrant workers. Other attacks have targeted left-wing social spaces, lesbian and gay people, socialists, outspoken and democratic public figures, and anarchist groups­ — all of which are identified as enemies of the neo-Nazi organization.

As part of the insurgency the leadership planned for September 2013, there were also physical attacks by Golden Dawn on leading figures of the nationalist right. They sought to send the message that the Nazis were going to occupy all of the far-right political space and not leave it to authoritarian “has-beens.”

What’s at Stake

This is the case we, the lawyers of the victims, have built over the last five years. The evidence is overwhelming. The defense has tried to delegitimize the trial through a combination of ridicule, contempt, and constant delay.

That is one reason why the trail has taken so long. When their delays ran out, the defense case cracked under strain. A court that had given defense lawyers every leeway grew impatient as witnesses contradicted their written statements, pleaded that they simply could not recall events, or claimed that “I wasn’t there” despite video and documentary evidence to the contrary. Some incriminated themselves or others, and defense lawyers ultimately cut short their witness list from 240 to 70.

If remaining Golden Dawn loyalists were hoping for their leaders to rally them, they were disappointed when Michaloliakos cut a rather dismal figure on the stand as he gave his “apologia,” or response to the charges at the end of the process. He stumbled and evaded, claiming at one point that Golden Dawn does not have members and thus he has nothing to be responsible for. He feigned ignorance of crimes committed as well as of direct perpetrators.

This is the same the tactic Hitler adopted in the trials of Nazi Party criminals in the 1920s and early 1930s. Perhaps most ludicrously, this Greek would-be Führer claimed not to know what was happening in his own militarily structured organization.

The only reason for any doubt concerning Wednesday’s verdict owes to the scandalous proposal made by the prosecutor representing the state’s interests in the case. She not only argued for the court to dismiss the charge of being a criminal organization, but even proposed that each of the crimes committed was done so by discrete individuals — they were members of Golden Dawn, but their crimes had nothing to do with the organization.

She went so far as to say that only Roupakias should be convicted in the Fyssas case, not those in the immediate group directly assaulting him. This would fly in the face of all criminal law. If accepted, it will mean the re-legitimization of Golden Dawn and the handing out of more than eight million euro withheld from its state funding until the end of the trial.

So, we await the court’s verdict. Greek society has already reached its own, in democratic spaces and events across the country. Nothing less than conviction on all counts and the jailing of the defendants will suffice. Thousands are prepared to march to the courthouse in central Athens on the day the verdict is announced. The decision is of profound interest for anti-fascists and democrats all over the world. Watch out for October 7.