After a trial that lasted more than five years, a Greek court ruled Wednesday that the Golden Dawn neo-Nazi party is a criminal organization. It convicted 68 party members of crimes including murder and attempted murder. Eleven defendants were present in the courtroom.
Huge crowds massed outside the courtroom in Athens, waving banners that read “Nazis in Prison.” The crowds roared after each guilty verdict was announced.
“It’s a victory because this means Golden Dawn as an organization does not have the right to exist anymore,” says Dora Oikonomidou, an Athens business owner and anti-fascism activist who was in the crowd. “This is the first significant trial of a neo-Nazi party in Europe after World War II. It’s not the end of fascism, because fascism is everywhere. But it is an extremely important moment for us.”
The party emerged some four decades ago. A Hitler-praising former army commando, Nikos Michaloliakos, founded Golden Dawn in the 1980s as a violent fringe party of racist, xenophobic Holocaust deniers.
Many Greeks were horrified as they watched the rise of Golden Dawn in the last decade. During Greece’s debt crisis, which destroyed the country’s economy, many Greeks were left destitute and angry. Golden Dawn tapped into that anger, rising from the fringes and winning 18 seats in parliament in 2012.
Golden Dawn members celebrated those political victories by shouting “Blood, Honor, Golden Dawn!” — adapting a Nazi slogan — as they flanked Michaloliakos, who compared himself to Julius Caesar. “I came, I saw, I conquered,” he declared. “You defamed me. You silenced me. I defeated you.”
The win emboldened party members who were already violently attacking migrants, saying Greece needed to be “cleaned” of foreigners. In 2012, Golden Dawn members broke into the homes of Egyptian fishermen and beat them nearly to death with wooden bats and iron rods. These attackers were convicted on Wednesday of attempted murder.
The following year, on Sept. 13, 2013, Golden Dawn members stabbed to death a Greek anti-fascist musician, Pavlos Fyssas, who sang under the stage name Killah P. After the 34-year-old performer’s murder, his grieving mother, Magda Fyssa, pushed for the government to open a criminal inquiry into Golden Dawn.
The trial began in April 2015. Fyssa attended all 454 sessions.
When the three judges convicted Golden Dawn members of murdering her son, she burst into tears and pumped her fists, looking up at the sky. “You did it, Pavlos! You did it, my son!” she shouted.
“She was there every day, even as the Nazis were taunting her, saying, ‘Where’s your son now?'” says Oikonomidou, whose own parents grew up when Greece was occupied by the Nazis and fought fascism in the years when Greece was ruled by a military junta from 1967 to 1974. “Magda Fyssa fought back all the way.”
Golden Dawn members claim they are victims of political persecution. Party loyalists portray themselves as patriots and even endorsed Donald Trump for U.S, president in 2016 because they believed he promotes, in their words, “clean ethnic states.”
The long trial of Golden Dawn choked the life out of the party. With its brutality on full display, the party hemorrhaged voters and was so broke it could no longer pay rent for its Athens offices. Infighting prompted resignations and defections. The party did not win enough votes to make it into parliament in elections last year.
Political leaders in Greece welcomed Wednesday’s verdicts. “Today’s decision is a confirmation that democracy and its institutions are always capable of fending off any attempt to undermine them,” said Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou.
Amnesty International’s Europe Director, Nils Muiznieks, said in a statement that the verdicts send “a clear message to political groups with aggressive anti-migrant and anti-human rights agendas in Greece and across Europe that violent and racist criminal activity — whether perpetrated by individuals on the street or members of parliament, will not go unpunished.”
Golden Dawn member Giorgos Roupakias, convicted of murdering Fyssas, faces life in prison. Party leader Michaloliakos and his deputies face up to 15 years of jail time.
But there is concern that “mainstream parties have been complicit in legitimizing xenophobic rhetoric,” writes Georgia Nakou of the political analysis site Macropolis. She adds that “anti-systemic, populist slogans adopted at both ends of the political spectrum will also continue to find fertile ground as long as living standards remain depressed.”
Golden Dawn’s ultranationalist ideology also lives on in parties like Greek Solution, founded by Kyriakos Velopoulos, a far-right, anti-immigrant journalist who wants to install an electric fence on Greece’s border with Turkey. Velopoulos admires the nativist policies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and President Trump. One of the party’s slogans is “Greece first,” modeled after Trump’s “America first.”
Human rights groups say there are also Golden Dawn sympathizers in the Greek police.
At least 2,000 riot police guarded the courthouse on Wednesday. They drenched the crowd with tear gas and shot a water cannon after some protesters eager to storm the courthouse pelted officers with firebombs and stones.
“After that, people just left,”Oikonomidou says. “We were like, go ahead and throw tear gas at us. It’s OK. We won.”