The Appeals Court ruling that Golden Dawn is a criminal organization follows on the neo-Nazi group’s political defeat in the July 2019 elections, closing a wretched chapter of Greece’s modern history. Golden Dawn managed to unite disparate political forces against it, so they could declare “No” to the fascist threat. To be sure, while that the danger has passed, we need to understand how a criminal organization could register its best electoral result, getting 536,913 votes (or 9.39%) in the European Parliament elections of 2014, when its leadership was in detention after the murder of rapper Pavlos Fyssas. We also need to understand what caused Golden Dawn’s demise, and whether a similarly dangerous organization could gain such a wide following in future.
The slow and very long judicial process against Golden Dawn had caused much consternation, as Fyssas was murdered in 2013 and the trial itself lasted five-and-a-half years. Today, though, it is clear that the trial’s careful management could strengthen citizens’ trust in justice and other institutions. Because many believe that laws and institutions exist only to serve powerful interests, state bodies and government can build on the good impressions left by the Golden Dawn trial.
If citizens continue to see the power and the beauty of the rule of law, fewer will be seduced by those who wave “antisystemic” banners so as to encourage and exploit aggression, suspicion and envy among society’s various groups. The “indignation” that is fed by the lack of trust in the state and in justice encourages arbitrary actions and the wish to “punish” someone. In Greece, the main targets were “mainstream” political parties. In Golden Dawn, the wish to protest and to punish found its most extreme expression, with voters bestowing political power on a gang of violent bigots. And Golden Dawn proved canny and resilient, so that even when everyone knew of the charges against its imprisoned leadership, the group still got more votes than ever. The organization, though, had began to crumble inside, after losing millions of euros in state funding. This, along with the judicial process, brought poverty, complaints and division. In 2019, Golden Dawn failed to return to Parliament. This was achieved not only by the laws being imposed, but by the Samaras-Venizelos government having the political will to pass a vote in Parliament stripping Golden Dawn of state funding.
The conditions that encourage violence by extremist groups have not disappeared. Golden Dawn’s fate, though, shows that the polity, citizens and politicians have the means to strengthen and defend democracy.