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  • Societal Mobilization and the Fall of the Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece
  • Antonis A. Ellinas (bio)

The American capitol insurrection in January 2021 spotlighted one of the most troubling phenomena of our times: the rise of right-wing extremism. A phenomenon that has been troubling Europe for decades, the ascendance of extremist right-wing organizations and actors, poses significant challenges for democratic societies and adds to scholarly anxieties about the decline of democracy. This article explores how societal mobilization helped defeat one of the most extreme right-wing parties in Europe, the Greek Golden Dawn.

To many observers worried about the fate of global democracy, the day a Greek court convicted dozens of neo-Nazis was a good one: on 7 October 2020, more than 20,000 people who had gathered outside an Athenian court cheered and celebrated when the judge announced the conviction of Golden Dawn leaders, former legislators, and functionaries for their involvement in a criminal organization. A few days later, thirty-seven individuals were escorted to their prison cells to serve between five and thirteen years in prison.1 This was a major turnaround for a party that had become a symbol of resilience for extremists across the world—from Charlottesville in Virginia to Chemnitz in Saxony.2

Many of those convicted had, in the last decade, led one of the most extreme parties in Europe. They had mobilized hundreds of activists to cleanse neighborhoods of immigrants, bullied their political opponents, and publicized their hateful ideas to an increasingly receptive electorate. Some went further, using criminal violence to spread fear and signal their dominance.

Golden Dawn’s adoption of Nazi aesthetics, such as their symbols modeled after swastikas, flaming torches, and black uniforms, sent shock waves around the world. Amid one of the biggest and most protracted economic contractions in postwar history, an unemployment rate that in 2013 neared 28 percent, and a collapsing party system, the marching neo-Nazis drew global attention and encouraged comparisons in international media between Weimar Germany and crisis-ridden Greece.

The Golden Dawn and the European far right

From the early 1990s, when the party began intermittently participating in national elections, it was clear that it was different from most mainstream, far-right parties in Europe.

The first difference was ideological. The most studied and electorally successful European far-right parties, like the French National Front (since 2018, National Rally), the Austrian [End Page 61] Freedom Party, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Alternative for Germany, and the Belgian Vlaams Belang, tend to shy away from explicit aesthetic callbacks to fascism and from extreme nationalist appeals. The Golden Dawn openly adopted a racialized form of nationalism, akin to white nationalism in the United States and to ideological platforms of extremist right-wing parties like the British National Party, the Hungarian Jobbik, the People’s Party—Our Slovakia, the Casa Pound Italia, and the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). Its ideological platform makes and supports explicit references to racial hierarchies, making it more extreme than various other far-right parties that have, at times, contested elections in Greece.

In the 1980s, its mouthpiece was initially titled Nationalist Socialist Periodical Publication. The magazine published many stories that praised the positive attributes of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Rudolf Hess, Léon Degrelle, and other Nazis. The platform with which the party managed to enter the Greek parliament in 2012 referred to the need to respect “racial inequality.”3

The Golden Dawn’s approach to practical politics also differed from other far-right European parties. The party adopted street-level practices usually associated with left-wing social movements. Golden Dawn drew from this repertoire to grow roots in local societies by recruiting young men to run local cells and propagate their ideas. These activities included noisy motorcades in busy streets of Piraeus and Athens, military-like marches in migrant-inhabited neighborhoods, historical commemorations with flaming torches, and distribution of food to “Greek only” populations.4

Even more importantly, the party was clearly violent. Party leaders and functionaries were involved in criminal incidents in the 1990s, primarily against leftists. One of its former leaders, Antonios Androutsopoulos, was sentenced to twelve years in prison...