Antonis was a fellow student of mine at high school back in 1984. He believed in the superiority of the Greek race and belonged to a strange political organization called Golden Dawn. He and his like-minded friends were not violent, at least not at school, and some were even excellent students. But they used to do crazy things. For example, they occasionally greeted each other by raising their hand while shouting "Heil Hitler." One of them once told me that his life changed when he read Hitler's Mein Kampf.
Of course, I realise that adolescence may be for many a difficult period. Still, this seemed to be going a little too far. Greece, after all, had suffered enormously from the Nazis during the course of World War II. Many soldiers were killed while defending their country against Italy and then Germany. Many civilians were executed, often in small scale "holocausts." Our Jewish communities were decimated. Thousands of people in big cities, including children, died from starvation. The country was devastated.
To hymn Hitler and Nazism in Greece could only be regarded as gallows humour. A popular Greek comedy in the 1950s bore the title "The Germans Return," with the subtitle "a satirical nightmare." The movie was about somebody's dream that Hitler had somehow survived and was invading Greece for a second time. Golden Dawn could not but be a political comedy - because, otherwise, it would be a nightmare. But that is precisely what it turned out to be.
Nearly twenty years later, Antonis - who by that stage had become second in command under Golden Dawn's Fuhrer, Nikos Michaloliakos - was arrested for having nearly killed Dimitris Kousouris, an anti-fascist university student. He was convicted to serve 21 years in jail. Golden Dawn tacitly disowned him. But no one seemed to care. Around 2006, Golden Dawn used to attract something like 0.2% of the vote in the national elections. The emergence of Neo-Nazism in "the country that gave birth to democracy" seemed to most of us as a logical impossibility. Surely there was no cause for worry.
But a few years later, the nightmare came true. In the latest national elections in June 2012, Golden Dawn took 6.9% of the vote and saw 18 MPs elected to the Greek Parliament of 300 seats. Worse was yet to come. The polls kept showing that support for Golden Dawn was steadily rising. Until a few weeks ago, it was estimated that, if national elections were held, Golden Dawn would come third and could take between 15% and 20% of the vote, when the first party was expected to get less than 30%. As we began to realize what this might mean, many of us held our breath in horror: Neo-Nazi admirers of Hitler might run the Greek State. What happened in Germany back in the 1930s could happen again in Greece!
Golden Dawn has been operating for a few years now as a paramilitary, racist, criminal organization, orchestrating terrorizing raids and attacks on immigrants, but also on Greeks who support or employ them. The use of verbal and physical violence has been typical of their behaviour. One of the highest ranking members of the party, Ilias Kasidiaris, punched Lianna Kanelli, a female MP of the communist party, during a live television broadcast. Many members of Golden Dawn go to gyms and take anabolic steroids in order to present strong and impressive male bodies. Some even bear guns (illegally). They often go out in large groups wearing black uniforms in an attempt to occupy the pavements of the cities. But they also "protect" Greeks from illegal immigrants by beating, stabbing and probably even killing the latter. They are vociferous critics of the financial measures imposed on Greece by the European Union and the IMF. They are against the system and the governing political parties, which are widely held responsible for the financial crisis.
In the eyes of many, Golden Dawn are heroes. Their supporters, unfortunately, include many policemen, who have either turned a blind eye to Golden Dawn's illegal activities or have even been complicit with it. Golden Dawn's leaders pretend to be Christians, but they aren't. Their ideology (Nazism) is deeply anti-Christian. Their practice to give food only to Greeks bluntly contradicts the practice of the Orthodox Church to give food to everyone who needs it. And yet a Greek bishop went as far as to claim that Golden Dawn may prove a "sweet hope" for the future of the nation. Thankfully, many other Greek bishops, as well as priests and lay theologians, have condemned Golden Dawn in unambiguous terms.
A few of weeks ago, something truly dreadful happened. Pavlos Fyssas, a 34 year old anti-fascist singer (known also as Killah P), was stabbed to death by George Roupakias, a Golden Dawn member. The whole nation froze, as at long last its eyes were opened to the obvious: the nightmare has come true. It quickly transpired that the attack against Fyssas was part of a raid, authorized by the leadership of the party, as is the usual practice in Golden Dawn's paramilitary structure.
The reaction of the Government was swift, determined and masterfully organized. Overwhelming evidence of the criminal activity of Golden Dawn was sent to the highest ranking judicial officers of the country. Upon careful examination of the evidence, their legal conclusion was this: the leader, five MPs and some thirty members of Golden Dawn will have to be arrested on several charges, including that of forming and running a criminal organization. On Saturday, 28 September, early in the morning, the police began to arrest them. Since then, additional evidence has emerged, linking Golden Dawn leaders and members to further illegal activities.
To arrest the leader and five MPs of a political party is exceptional in a Western democracy. It may appear to be an attack on democracy itself. But the Prime Minister's position was crystal-clear: they are Nazis, there is no doubt about this; yet, no one is to be arrested for their ideas, whatever these may be, but only if there is compelling evidence of criminal activity. On the basis of the aforementioned evidence, the green light was given for their arrest. Golden Dawn's popularity has by now fallen by something like 40%. Many believe that 28 September will be remembered as a great day for democracy, and for justice.
It goes without saying that those arrested are entitled to a fair trial. So, if the charges are found unconvincing, these people - or at least some of them - may go out triumphant. This is unlikely, but not impossible. And this is only one of the reasons why the solution to the problem of neo-Nazism cannot be primarily, let alone exclusively, a legal one. Christianity and democracy should act together. The Christian message of peace and love, especially towards the stranger and the weak, should go hand in hand with the promotion of democratic ideals in the ideological battle with the "values" and practices of neo-Nazism.
It is true that the Orthodox Church in Greece has had the tendency to be too interested in defending or promoting the interests of the Greek nation. Moreover, due to the overwhelming anti-religious rhetoric of leftish politicians and intellectuals, many Church members are instinctively inclined to see the right with a degree of sympathy and to view the left with suspicion. This, however, does not turn Orthodox Christians into Golden Dawn sympathizers, let alone supporters.
The Church is nowadays responding to the financial crisis by preaching the Gospel - for instance, by retelling the parable of the Good Samaritan and by reminding that Christ identified himself with the immigrant and the poor. Moreover, it is responding to the social tensions associated with austerity with distinctive forms of Christian praxis - for instance, by feeding the immigrants, illegal or otherwise, as much as it feeds the Greeks. It is in this way that the Church is waging a peaceful war against Golden Dawn, which is often in stark contrast with the violence that prevails in many Greek anti-fascist rallies.
This silent and yet resounding praxis is contributing to forging and sustaining social bonds in the face of anti-immigrant paranoia and financial hardship. It is also changing hearts and minds. Many people, including politicians, journalists and intellectuals with long-held anti-religious prejudices have only now begun to see the Church's true face in a better light. Newspapers of the left have published articles by Orthodox bishops (for instance by Metropolitan Pavlos of Siatista) that castigate Golden Dawn. Radio stations publicize and support the Church's philanthropic activity. It is being gradually recognised that the Church is not an enemy of democracy and of human rights, but an ally against Neo-Nazism.
The vile weed of Nazism has grown, once again, on the poisoned soil of financial catastrophe. This means that, unless the Greek economy recovers, Golden Dawn will probably either survive or be replaced by other extremists - and we have already many of them around. It is true that the Greek political system, and its numerous "clients," behaved irresponsibly, immorally or even illegally, and thus led Greece to the brink of financial disaster. But to punish the entire country is not the solution. Today, youth unemployment in Greece is around 60%. This is a lost and desperate generation. It is clear that the financial recipe imposed on Greece has failed tragically.
It is equally clear that Greek people have already suffered greatly. Unless Germany, the real financial leader in the European Union, heeds the America's advice to implement measures contributing to the recovery of Greek economy, Nazism in Greece will probably have a future - as was the case in Germany itself. And this will be catastrophic, not only for Greece, but also for Europe and democracy as a whole.
Demetrios Bathrellos is a parish priest in Athens. He teaches theology at the Hellenic Open University, Athens, and at the Institute for Orthodox Christians Studies, Cambridge. He is the author of The Byzantine Christ: Person, Nature, and Will in the Christology of Saint Maximus the Confessor.