Older Greeks Fear the Return of Fascism on Brink of Election

Nazi Echos
Supporters of the ultra-nationalist party Golden Dawn have allied with the populist left of the Syriza party to force early elections. The Greeks are going to the polls on 25 January. Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty

Below the green slopes of Mount Parnassus in central Greece, the small town of Distomo was unusually full of people. The visitors were marking the 70th anniversary of the Distomo massacre, one of the worst Nazi atrocities in the country during the Second World War, in which more than 200 civilians were executed.

On a hill where a memorial to the victims stands, Greek and German high-school students presented the "Children of War", a theatrical ode to peace. Photographs of Nazi troops on the Athens Acropolis were projected onto the backdrop. The audience watched in solemn silence.

In the town's cafés, the atmosphere was normally more boisterous. Soon, Maria Sideri-Tsami's name is mentioned. Three members of Sideri-Tsami's family were killed in the Distomo massacre. Yet the 23-year-old was a candidate in regional elections last May for Golden Dawn, the party widely described as neo-Nazi that has risen to prominence in Greece in recent years.

Sideri-Tsami has blamed communist resistance fighters for the massacre, saying they provoked the Nazis by staging an ambush. "They knew the Germans would come back to the village to kill the people if they were attacked," she said soon after the memorial ceremony.

Sideri-Tsami's embrace of the far-right may seem extraordinary. But even people with ancestors killed by the Nazis or a family tradition of leftism forged in the Second World War have joined Golden Dawn, which has tapped into anger at Greece's deep economic crisis and disillusionment with traditional politics. In the run-up to the elections, Golden Dawn proudly displayed the video of Sideri-Tsami's interview on its website.

But her declaration was met with less enthusiasm locally. "It's shameful," says 84-year-old Maria Sechremeli, a distant relative of Sideri-Tsami. Sechremeli survived the massacre by hiding under the body of an executed neighbour. The scar of a stray bullet from the massacre still marks her leg. Sitting in her living room, Sechremeli says she never used to talk about the massacre with her grandchildren, not wanting to upset them or perpetuate the hatred from that era. But she changed her mind after becoming alarmed at the rise of Golden Dawn. "Do they want the best for Greece? By killing people? Doing all these ugly things? she says. "You can tell what kind of people they are."

Haunting Memory
Skulls and bones in an ossuary in the Greek village of Distomo serve as a reminder of the Nazi massacre of 218 civilians. Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters

After decades on the political fringe, Golden Dawn came to much broader attention in 2010 with a nationalist, anti-immigration and frequently violent agenda. Media and academics have labelled the party neo-Nazi or fascist, but its members deny any links to national socialism.The party's rise coincided with an unprecedented increase in racist attacks against immigrants. This violence went largely unpunished for years until a man with close links to Golden Dawn murdered anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in an Athens suburb in September 2013. The killer was arrested and the government launched a crackdown on the party.

Today, six high-ranking party members, including leader Nikos Michaloliakos, are in jail awaiting trial for setting up and operating a criminal organisation. The trial, which the party sees as political persecution, is expected to begin imminently. Despite the proceedings, Greece's political scene has been in such flux that Sechremeli says she is afraid Golden Dawn could seize power and trigger a new civil war – in a country whose political traditions were established in the Second World War and which have been upheld for generations since.

Greece was riven by civil war after Germany's defeat in the Second World War. More than 100,000 people were killed in a brutal battle for power between leftists and rightists – an early Cold War conflict that ended only in 1940 with the defeat of the left. Many of Golden Dawn's leadership come from families that were prominent in Greece's post-war right. But not all. Giorgos Germenis has very fond memories of his maternal grandfather, Panayotis Griziotis. He remembers him as a "modern grandpa" who was always close to the younger generations.

During the war, Griziotis was a communist guerrilla leader in western Greece. When his daughter was 10 years old, he would send her to fetch the then illegal newspaper of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). She too became a communist. She gave birth to Germenis, whom she used to carry in her arms while putting up posters with party comrades for the annual May Day rally in Athens. Her son is now one of Golden Dawn's most prominent members of parliament and the first party executive to publicly acknowledge, in 2012, that his grandfather was a communist guerrilla.

His revelation came as a huge shock to leftists, who could not comprehend how someone with such family traditions could end up on the far-right of the political spectrum. Germenis is currently in prison awaiting trial with the rest of the party leadership. For this article, he gave written answers to questions passed on by his wife when she visited him in the maximum-security Korydallos jail in Athens.

According to Germenis, people who were once communists or socialists are among the most zealous Golden Dawn supporters. "They feel that the parties they were following all these years betrayed them!" he writes. Germenis joined the ranks of Golden Dawn in the early 1990s, when the ghost of nationalism was haunting the Balkan peninsula. His parents found out about his ideological departure much later. He says no one in his family tried to change his mind, nor did he try to change theirs. Germenis writes that his mother now believes that Golden Dawn is a truly revolutionary party. "In our rallies she didn't see the usual party henchmen and the politically appointed executives but people from next door, workers, breadwinners, and that impressed her," he writes.

Such ordinary people and their struggles made a deep impact on Tasos Papaioannou. He says he has been shocked by a rise in the number of suicides linked to the economic crisis in his home region of Corinth. Papaioannou, in his early forties, does not like to be called a taxi driver, unless he is driving Greek clients. For most of his day, he is a chauffeur taking wealthy foreign tourists to ancient Corinth, about 80km west of Athens. His parents emigrated to Australia when he was two years old. Twenty years later he returned for a holiday and stayed.

Papaioannou now votes for Golden Dawn, a strongly anti-immigrant party, despite the fact that he experienced discrimination as a Greek in Australia. His grandfather, Giorgos, was also a communist guerrilla in the Corinth region during the civil war. "I never met him. I wish I had, even though my views are entirely different," he says.

Supporters of Golden Dawn. Milos Bicanski/AFP/Getty

When the Greek economic crisis started, Papaioannou says he began to identify enemies: immigrants; corrupt politicians who embezzled the people's wealth; the International Monetary Fund; those who held the leftist beliefs of his grandfather. He claims that some extreme rightists in nearby villages have boxes of Kalashnikov rifles stored in their houses. Just in case.

Further south, Nikos Kourakos is a senior official at the Golden Dawn office in Kalamata. His grandfather fought the Germans as part of the communist resistance and was executed by a member of the notorious "security battalions" formed by Greece's collaborationist government. He does not feel his decision to join Golden Dawn more than 10 years ago offends the memory of his grandfather.

For some families, however, a child's decision to break with long-held values and support the far-right is a source of great anguish. Giorgos Triantafyllou, a pensioner whose name has been changed here at his request, lives in a small community of which the Nazis executed almost half the population, including one of his relatives, during the Second World War. His family has a long history of resistance fighters during the German occupation – and later, of victims of political persecution during the rule of the military junta in the 1960s and 1970s.

Triantafyllou turned to religion and became a Jehovah's Witness. He and his childhood sweetheart raised two children according to their values. But after turning 18, their older child denounced the family's religious beliefs and eventually joined Golden Dawn, standing as a candidate for the party in this year's regional elections. Triantafyllou discovered the shocking news while surfing the internet. He was utterly devastated and he has not spoken to his firstborn since. His distress is heightened by the fact the Nazis persecuted and imprisoned Jehovah's Witnesses.

Likewise, pollsters, political analysts and sociologists ponder why Golden Dawn has proved to be so popular in areas formerly dominated by the Communist party. In Perama and Nikea, two districts of Athens long considered "red strongholds", there has been a sharp rise in support for Golden Dawn in recent years. Vassiliki Georgiadou, an associate professor of political science at Athens' Panteion University, who has been carrying out extensive research in these districts, says the impoverishment of the working class and local long-term unemployment – which hovers around 70% – have created fertile territory for Golden Dawn.

The party has blamed the local trade union's political activity for the decreasing competitiveness of local shipyards and subsequent loss of jobs. Golden Dawn set up its own trade union and promised work. Some workers signed up.

Politicised youths have used graffiti to turn the neighbourhoods' walls into a battleground of ideologies. "Our grandfathers were refugees, our fathers were immigrants and we are racists!" one leftist slogan proclaims. "Free all jailed Golden Dawn members!" says another, not far from Korydallos prison, where the party's leadership is incarcerated.

In another part of Athens, there's a graffio offering an ironic commentary on the twists of history. An old man smoking a cigarette observes, "I fought the fascists so that my grandchildren could bring them back."

This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.