Alexander Clapp

In Kalamata I introduce myself as an American neo-fascist with a strong interest in Greek history. Sceptically at first, later with fervour, a few members of the Golden Dawn invite me to attend meetings. Their offices tend to be located off main squares, usually in residential buildings in quiet neighbourhoods. Large Greek flags hang on the walls, along with news clippings and redrawn maps: Greece in possession of Skopje and bits of Bulgaria, Greece in possession of northern Turkey, Greece in possession of Cyprus and southern Albania. Swastikas (‘ancient Greek symbols’) are everywhere: on pencil-holders, clock faces, a paperweight. On the walls of a room in Gytheio there are reproductions of Hitler’s watercolours. Last autumn, two Dawners were gunned down by Athenian anarchists. Their profiles are pasted on refrigerators and desk drawers. No one says their names. They are just the Athanatoi, the ‘deathless ones’. Kala palikaria itan, the older Dawners murmur. ‘Those were good lads.’ They cross themselves.

Meetings last two hours. Dawners spend the first hour talking and drinking instant coffee; a lecture follows. Some offices will play black metal albums by Naer Mataron, the unofficial party band. (Giorgos Germenis, a Golden Dawn MP, is the bassist; Dawners call him ‘Kaiadas’, after the gorge where the Spartans tossed their unfit newborn.) We gather in a few rows of chairs. The Dawn hymn is handed out, sometimes accompanied by a recent article by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, Dawn’s founder. The party’s website has been revived – WordPress shut it down after it kept posting threats to journalists – but the Dawners prefer print. There are two party weeklies, the Wednesday Chrysi Avgi and the Saturday Empros, as well as the Maiandros, a monthly cultural review. Each has a circulation of roughly 3500. Most Dawners wear black at meetings; shorts and sandals are prohibited. About one in four attendees is a woman; I’ve seen kids on two occasions: three teenage girls in Athens and a family of five in Gytheio. The men are big. Dawners like to stress the importance of exercise: they run martial arts camps in the Taygetos Mountains, send a team to the Athens marathon, and claim not to watch television.

Small talk wheels around percentages. The average Dawner can rattle off the party’s electoral results in every Greek prefecture; ‘536,442’ is pinned to a wall in many offices: it’s the number of Greeks who voted for the party in May’s European elections. For all their contempt for democratic procedures, the Dawners believe they will one day take over Greece by democratic means. They are not putschists. Their power will come from a grass-roots movement. ‘Every election, the media writes us off,’ the Dawn MP Ilias Panagiotaros told me in Athens, ‘and every election we prove them wrong.’ The Volos Dawners ferry out to the Sporades to discuss policy in grocery stores. The Megarans make speeches in the village square. The Athenians distribute flyers to tourists on the Acropolis.

The party pushes its anti-immigration programme not simply because it believes in it, but because it’s popular among Greeks generally. Dawners ambush immigrants about once a week. They call these raids krypteia, ‘secret things’. Most attacks are ordered by the top brass and pinpointed by hour and neighbourhood. Party violence is rarely random. Dawn texting groups and Facebook threads are used to home in on three or four immigrants. A Bangladeshi barber I met in Metaxourgeio said that Dawners mimic the Greek police: they roll up in pairs on white motorcycles, helmeted and decked out in black armour. The party doesn’t go after the illegals in immigrant neighbourhoods; it targets those who have strayed into middle and upper-class areas, where the residents are less welcoming. Dawners generally don’t kill. They break a few limbs in lightning-quick strikes. Last September a Dawn truck driver stabbed an Athenian rapper named Pavlos Fyssas to death in Piraeus. The uncharacteristic murder of a Greek – immigrants don’t count – triggered a government investigation into the party. Sixty top Dawners are now facing criminal charges in trials which began in November.

Achilles, a burly hull inspector from Piraeus, invited me to a meeting on Salamis. Some time after eight o’clock, the chapter head entered the room. We rose, bolted our arms to our sides and clapped our right heels against the floor. In came the guest lecturer, a boxy, middle-aged Athenian lawyer called Tasos Dimitrakopoulos. He nodded to the chapter head, adjusted his wire glasses and stepped up to the podium. His black blazer was studded with swastikas. Agapimenoi mou Sunagonistes kai Sunagonistries. ‘My dear brothers and sisters-in-arms.’ Within 15 minutes he’d carefully unpicked the legacy of Konstantinos Karamanlis, the man who restored Greece’s democracy in 1974. What did Karamanlis actually do for Hellenism? First, he rooted the nationalists out of parliament. Then he cosied up to the West. Cyprus was left to fend for itself, the old communist guard was reintegrated, and taxes skyrocketed. Seven years later, the left came to power. Debt and immigration soared. Education was secularised. The military was de-clawed. ‘None of those problems existed under the Junta,’ Achilles whispered to me. ‘The Colonels just built roads.’

We stood up and recited the three Dawn dicta: zito o Archigos! (‘long live the Leader!’); zito i Chrysi Avgi! (‘long live Golden Dawn!’); zito i Ellada! (‘long live Greece!’). We sang the Greek national anthem, then the Dawn hymn. ‘Trackers of ancient glories, Sons of brilliant struggles, We are the New Spartans!’ Then we dispersed and headed home. On the stairwell I passed Dawners changing out of their black party garb into street clothes.

At each of Dawn’s 62 chapters there are four or five ‘members’. These are the party busybodies: village lawyers, family doctors, shopkeepers. For the first hour they stay together in a side room. During the lecture they weave in and out of the periphery, taking photos or monitoring the Q&A session. ‘What about the Polytechnic rising? Didn’t the university students first derail the Junta?’ someone asked Dimitrakopoulos. ‘No,’ he answered, drumming his fingers against the podium. ‘That was a bit of New Democracy revisionism.’ Every chapter also has a few ‘soldiers’. They are uniformed – green cargo pants, laced-up boots, black swastika T-shirts – and aren’t necessarily the toughest Dawners. Some are unshaven, grizzly former police officers, their teeth stained by tobacco. One is tasked with guarding the front door. Another scouts the street from the office balcony. Ordinary Greeks have a habit of honking their car horns in protest outside party offices.

Dawn money doesn’t leave Athens. Trucks bring the countryside chapters office supplies and groceries for the party’s food handouts. The Dawn’s role as a social movement is often passed over in press accounts, but historically it’s typical of any fascist party infrastructure. The party provides bodyguards to pensioners going to cashpoints. There are blood-donor drives for ethnic Greeks. It gives prescriptions and medical aid to the homeless. Dawners assault employers who hire immigrants in preference to Greeks. In a country with ineffective – or vanishing – public services, these measures are important enough to make many Dawn voters look past the party’s veneration of Hitler.

The Dawn also instils pride in being Greek at a time when many Greeks would like to leave the country. This lends credibility to its anti-immigrant stance. Chapters throughout Greece have attempted to buy patches of historic land – a beach facing the straits of Salamis, obscure battlefields from the Balkan Wars – and erect national monuments. They offer to do this out of their own pockets, though local mayors almost invariably deny their requests. Four times a year Dawners from all over Greece gather in Athens and Thermopylae for historical commemorations. The chapter head leads the cohort, waving the office flag. The Dawners from Arcadia parade next to those from Lacedaemonia, who march beside the ones from Messenia. It’s a fascist Catalogue of Ships.

Golden Dawn is run from the top. Nikolaos Michaloliakos issues all major commands. He’s currently awaiting trial in Korydallos Prison outside Athens. His framed portrait presides over every meeting. No one refers to him by his name. He is o Archigos Mas, ‘Our Leader’. Around him is a tight circle of relatives and longtime associates. Below this rung sits the Council, approximately sixty Dawners who oversee the opening of new party cells and the refining of the Dawn’s ideology. Every three years they’re elected by the Congress, composed of the roughly three hundred chapter members from all over Greece. The Council in turn votes in two further vertebrae of the party: the ethics and audits committees. The former disciplines Dawners who publicly fail to adhere to party ideals. The latter drafts the party budget. There’s also a political committee – five Dawners handpicked by Michaloliakos to manage the party’s day-to-day operations – and a five-man task force in charge of background checks.

A disproportionate number of those in the top ranks come from the Mani, a small spit of land in the southern Peloponnese, roughly half the size of Cornwall. Golden Dawn has close ties with the region. Michaloliakos is descended from a famous Maniot clan; a great-grandfather was a hero in the 1821 Revolution. Maniots have nicknamed the Dawn the Maniatiko Komma, the ‘Maniot Party’. Priests in Gytheio blessed the opening of the town’s Dawn chapter; the bishop of Sparta enjoins his parish to vote Dawn. When Dawn MPs travel to Areopoli, they are welcomed as celebrities; approving crowds attend their meetings; shots are fired from antique pistols. In some parts of the Mani, 50 per cent of the villagers have voted for the party. ‘Maniatika’, a section of Piraeus settled by Maniot families in the 1950s, is probably the most Dawn-heavy neighbourhood in the whole of Greece. No other far-right Greek party – LAOS, Independent Greeks – has a regional backing of this sort.

The guiding ideology of the Dawn is rooted in the Greek Civil War. At that time the great division in Greek society – broadly speaking, between Venizelists and anti-Venizelists, or republicans and monarchists – was overwhelmed by a more brutal conflict between communists and anti-communists. The Peloponnese has always been staunchly royalist and anti-communist, more vehemently so as one goes farther south. It was politicians of the right who reconstructed the state after the Civil War, which all but destroyed the left. Many were from the Peloponnese, and had collaborated with the Nazis. They were funded and rearmed by the British and Americans to finish off what the Germans had started: hunting down the communist andartes, the Elas bands who did the lion’s share of the resistance. Many of the Dawners’ fathers were present at the Dekemvriana, the first skirmish on the streets of Athens in 1944.

In many ways the Junta, which ruled from 1967 to 1974, marked a return to the Nazis’ wartime regime in Greece. Several Colonels had served in the German ‘security battalions’; Georgios Papadopoulos, the head of the Junta, had been one of the chief Nazi collaborators in the northern Peloponnese. Golden Dawn represents the Junta’s last gasp. In 1973, when Michaloliakos met Dawn’s current ideologues, he was a member of the 4 August Party, a fringe movement named after the day in 1936 when Ioannis Metaxas, the prewar fascist dictator, seized the state. Michaloliakos joined when he was 16. The members of 4 August tended to be former German sympathisers and Nazi nostalgics (Metaxas himself was neither). Ten years later, Michaloliakos put together Golden Dawn. ‘We started in a Leninist way,’ he once told a reporter: ‘We decided to issue a newspaper, the Golden Dawn, and to build a party around it.’ There were 12 contributors. Until the mid-1980s, it remained a highly secretive neo-Nazi club. It took cues from other Third Reich revivals around Europe – notably Cedade, a fascist gathering in Spain. But it also had a legitimate link to the Junta. Michaloliakos had founded the Dawn under the guidance of Colonel Papadopoulos, his boyhood hero. The two met in Korydallos Prison after Papadopoulos had been overthrown and a young Michaloliakos had been caught attacking anarchist cinemas with grenades.

Golden Dawn has done its best to reactivate Greece’s mid-century tensions. Dawners everywhere have attempted to rehabilitate Metaxas – when they discovered a statue of the dictator in a sewer on Kefalonia in 2012 they tried to haul it to the central square of Argostoli. They’ve rallied more effectively around the Civil War. Last autumn columns of Dawners in black shirts and boots marched into the cemetery at Meligala, a small Messenian village where a ceremony was being held to honour the Partisans. They entered in military step, shoved the mayor from his podium, called him a karagiozis – ‘jackass’ – and delivered their own version of events. ‘Those who govern us now are traitors to the fatherland,’ Kasidiaris announced. Dawners have wreaked havoc on other Civil War ceremonies and hold an annual rally for Georgios Grivas, the Cypriot commander of the ‘Chi’, a Civil War militia that patrolled the Peloponnese knocking off suspected communists. When party thugs file into Athenian neighbourhoods to crack leftist skulls, it isn’t dressed up as ‘street cleaning’. It’s called emphulios, ‘civil war’.

For Golden Dawn, the Civil War isn’t over. For the Mani, nothing is over. The region is a pre-modern bubble or oasis, depending on your view: it’s monitored by a single police officer and remains virtually untouched by industry and tourism. A variety of historical epochs converge there – ancient Sparta, the Byzantine revival at Mystras, the Civil War – but the region is most revered for having resisted the Turks. The concept of adouloti, ‘un-slavery’, is found everywhere: in the names of Maniot stores, squares, the Areopoli newspaper and the local Dawn newsletter. This partly explains the regional fixation with ethnic purity. Maniots call themselves ‘clean Greeks’, uncontaminated by foreign rule. If the idea of everyone belonging to the same race ‘means “racism” then yes, we’re racists,’ Kasidiaris told an audience in Gytheio last March.

Even today Maniots are like characters out of Kazantzakis novels who growl audibly and gnash their teeth at outsiders. This summer I hitchhiked to Michaloliakos’s house in Korogonianika, a tiny smattering of stone towers somewhere in the Deep Mani. I was picked up by Romanos, a 22-year-old Maniot who claimed to be Michaloliakos’s nephew. We bounced over dirt roads in his agrotiki, a pickup truck used to haul boulders and cattle. He smoked and slugged back a few cans of beer as we made our way down to the southernmost crag of continental Europe. The Maniots, Romanos explained, are a ‘single family’ and an ‘open mafia’. To leave the Mani is to ‘turn Vlach’ – ‘to become an idiot’.

The Mani’s peculiarly violent and nonconformist culture has infused Golden Dawn. For centuries Maniot families feuded among themselves – one reason the region’s villages are mostly empty today. The vendettas dragged on for generations. The last official feud ended forty years ago, with a shot to the head near Dimaristika, but one still reads of knifings in Piraeus alleyways and sighs of Maniatika pragmata, ‘Maniot matters’. When they weren’t killing each other, Maniots were leading battalions to recover Greece’s ancestral lands. Maniot vigilantes, frequently acting out of range of Athenian oversight, won many of Greece’s victories over the Turks in the Balkan Wars and the Cretan insurrections.

How do Maniot nationalists who obsess over Greek sovereignty reconcile their views with the German Army’s onslaught on Greece in the Second World War? It requires an acrobatic retelling of history. First, ‘Greece’ is an idea, not a physical place – ‘Hellenism’. It is Orthodox, Greek-speaking, neither Oriental nor Western, capitalist nor socialist, let alone communist. Next, Dawn points to a lineage of heroes, military figures, generally from the Peloponnese: the Spartan king Leonidas, the Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, the Revolutionary captains Kolokotronis and Mavromichalis, Metaxas, Colonel Papadopoulos. Many of them were undone by fellow Greeks, which makes for a neat counter-lineage of traitors. As long as there have been Greeks who’ve fought and died for Hellenism, there have been Greeks determined to undermine it. The latter group includes, above all, communists. They are everything true Greeks shouldn’t be – atheists and internationalists. In the Second World War, Greece’s enemies weren’t those who administered the country on behalf of the Nazis. They were the Elas irregulars who banded together to convert a broken state into a Stalinist fiefdom. It’s a charge similar to the one the Dawn now brings against Syriza and the European Union.

The Dawn’s current Hitlerism is a reduced version of what it was in the party’s early years. The name ‘Golden Dawn’ derives from a misreading of Nazi mythology. The earliest Dawners believed that Hitler was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society associated with Yeats and Aleister Crowley. In the 1990s Michaloliakos shifted to a more nationalist rhetoric, looking to draw votes with a hard-line stance on the Macedonian issue. But the Nazi fascination never entirely went away. ‘The fact that we now use the terms “nationalism”, “popular nationalism” and “social nationalism” does not mean that we have changed our ideas,’ a 2006 Chrysi Avgi article says. ‘It is simply that we consider it more acceptable to use these terms … given the ocean of propaganda over the last sixty years.’ The party’s Nazism was also mixed into an obsession with ancient Sparta. In July dozens of buses packed with Dawners descended on Thermopylae for the party’s annual commemoration of Leonidas’ last stand. There were fire-lit swastikas and knights’ crosses, fog machines, flares, organ music, prayers for the martyred Athanatoi and a ludicrous roll call of the ancient Greek dead. But Dawners will coyly deny that the celebration had any fascist or Nazi implications. The party’s ‘Nazism’ – the Hitler salute, the youth columns, the translated SS chants, the swastika – is just an attempt to reclaim what Germany’s fascist intellectuals lifted from the classical Greeks: ancient Dorian gestures, Spartan training camps, pagan hymns, vase decorations.

Present-day Germany, boxed into another intellectual category, which some Dawners call the New World Order, is a quite different thing, a conglomerate of banks, corporations and international governing bodies. Merkel is the mistress of that order. Golden Dawn stands for Greek self-sufficiency; other parties – even those who claim the mantle of the far right – are conspiring with the Order to sell Greece’s assets to foreign competitors.

I became a Dawner in order to find out more about the party than I could from reading the Greek press. When I’m not going to meetings, I work part-time at the Greek newspaper, Kathimerini. If you’re in the press, and you want to meet members of the Golden Dawn, you have to undergo a long, tedious process of introduction. Only a few freelancers have any sort of amicable relationship with the party. They gave me the names of some possible contacts. I called and waited weeks for the chance to interview anyone not in jail. Finally, Ilias Panagiotaros, the husky Maniot who currently administers the party day to day, slotted me in for a half-hour appointment at parliament. I asked specific questions about the party’s earliest known members. He shrugged and claimed never to have heard their names. His description of Dawn operations contradicted much of what I’d read. Then I arranged to have a press tour of Dawn’s headquarters on Deligianni Street. The office was empty. I was handed a bottle of water and sent away with a couple of party pamphlets.

Covering Golden Dawn can be dangerous for Greeks. In April 2012, one of my colleagues at Kathimerini wrote an article arguing that the party should be outlawed. Five days later, some Dawners posted a 2500-word response on the party website. ‘They knew every detail about my life,’ she told me. ‘My age, the age of my daughter, where I was born, where I’ve worked, my previous articles. It concluded with a direct threat, written in German, because I was born in Hamburg: “Watch out. We’re after you.”’ This isn’t unusual: there are dozens of accounts of party members – even MPs – either openly calling for journalists’ heads or punching them in public. The old guard of the Junta remains well-entrenched in the Greek deep state; in part, this explains how Dawn has been able to indulge its habit of street violence. Even as the Dawn trials commence, the Greek police, secret services, military and justice systems remain reluctant to take serious action against the party. There is fear in parts of the judiciary that a drawn-out trial won’t conclude in convictions and that the Dawn will successfully present itself as the target of an unfair political system. The deep state has stood in the way of any kind of wide-ranging discussion about Golden Dawn – or the Junta legacy – in Greek society. It has also allowed the Dawners to exercise some control over the story that’s told about them. At Kathimerini, we’ve only had tepid editorials on the party, or investigative pieces written almost exclusively from the immigrant perspective.

In July I went to an office in the Piraeus to sign up for Golden Dawn’s Thermopylae rally. They asked for my name – I gave a fake one – and then, unexpectedly, my passport. I claimed not to have it. They found it after searching my bag. During the Leonidas lecture, I saw the chapter head Googling frantically in a closed back office. A few members marched back and joined him. Something was loudly discussed. The lecturer stumbled through the rest of his Herodotus sermon. Then I saw the chapter head pick up the phone. I grabbed my bag, dashed past the soldiers, out the stairwell and ran down the street. I took three different cabs home. I haven’t been back.