A few weeks ago, a well-known Athens theatre became a venue for the strangest of spectacles.
Supporters of the ultra-nationalist, far-right party Golden Dawn joined protesters clutching religious symbols and blocked the entrance of the Hitirio Theatre.
Together they shouted slogans against immigrants, atheists and homosexuals, while threatening anyone who challenged them with violence.
Although Greek police were on the scene they took little action, as if they were indifferent spectators of an actual play.
Meanwhile, video footage from inside the theatre showed rocks being thrown into the open-air auditorium, journalists being threatened and beaten by angry mobs, and the manager desperately trying to contact the chief of police to ask for protection.
The reason behind all this commotion? Theatre producers were staging a performance of the Terence McNally’s 1997 play, Corpus Christi, which depicts the relationship between Jesus and the Apostles in an entirely different – and homosexual – light.
If this incident had taken place a couple of years ago, one could have brushed it off as the actions of a small group of religious bigots.
However, in today’s Greece, extreme manifestations of violence from supporters of Golden Dawn has become a part of daily life.
With its Swastika-like emblem, Golden Dawn was first established in the late 1980s by the party’s current leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos.
Until the financial crisis broke out, it struggled to register a few thousands votes in local and national elections. However, in November 2010, Golden Dawn received 5.3 per cent of the vote in the local elections in Athens, securing them a seat in the city council.
Fast forward two years and Golden Dawn currently holds 18 seats out of 300 in the Greek parliament.
In June, it received seven per cent of the popular vote in the national elections on a decidedly anti-immigrant platform.
This is the first time since the fall of the country’s military junta in 1974 that an extremist party has entered the parliament, and yet Golden Dawn’s popularity has gone from strength to strength, with some opinion polls putting current support at 12 per cent.
Disturbingly, this means that Golden Dawn is probably the third most popular party in Greece, trailing only leftist Syriza (which currently has about 23-29 per cent of popular support) and centre-right New Democracy (21-28 per cent). Pasok and KKE (the Communists) have fallen significantly in popularity with percentages around 6-7.5 per cent for the former and 5-6 per cent for the latter.
Immigrants and other “others”
During its first five months in parliament, Golden Dawn supporters have embarked on a relentless campaign of terror and violence.
There have been daily attacks against foreigners who are beaten by men who wear black t-shirts and give Nazi-style salutes.
Mostly the violence focuses on immigrants from Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, although there have been one or two incidents involving Germans, or those suspected of being German, as anti-German feeling has run high in Greece since the beginning of the austerity measures.
Golden Dawn supporters will often stop people in the street and ask them to show their ID cards in order to verify their “Greekness”. Failure to do so results in verbal or even physical attacks, sometimes to the point where victims require medical care or hospitalisation.
In September, a video showing Golden Dawn members destroying the market stalls of immigrant traders in the eastern port town of Rafina went viral.
“We found a few illegal immigrants selling their wares without permits,” said one of the party’s MPs Giorgos Germenis, as means of justification. “We told the police, did what our party has to do and then went to church to pay respects to the Virgin Mary,” he added.
And recently, Golden Dawn MP Eleni Zaroulia, who is also married to Michaloliakos, described immigrants as “subhumans who have invaded our fatherland with the diseases that they lug around,” during parliamentary proceedings.
However, Golden Dawn’s ire is not restricted to immigrants. Following their recent popularity, the party’s devotees have also targeted leftists, atheists, homosexuals, artists, women and anyone who does not comply with their particular vision of religious, family-orientated, pure-blooded Greekness.
This includes other politicians.
In June 2012, Golden Dawn spokesperson Ilias Kasidiaris made headlines around the world after he attacked Liana Kanelli, a female Communist-party MP, on live television.
This happened just moments after he violently threw a glass of water on Syriza MP Rena Dourou.
Shockingly, in some quarters Kasidiaris’s popularity solidified after the incident. His Facebook page received 6,000 likes in the 24 hours after his rampage and numerous people interviewed by the media commended his behaviour.
Golden Dawn has also been responsible for several homophobic attacks and has begun engaging leftist and anarchist groups in street battles.
But for all the crimes they have committed, Golden Dawn has received almost total impunity from Greek society at large, as well as the police.
Police intervention in criminal acts involving Golden Dawn is minimal at best. Many suggested that the Greek police are in collusion with the party.
There have been many cases of people needing police assistance who have been instead referred to the neo-Nazi group.
And according to the Greek national newspaper To Vima, 50 per cent of police officers not only voted for Golden Dawn but are actual card-carrying members, particularly in the riot squad.
Extremism is a time of austerity
But what are the reasons behind Golden Dawn’s extraordinary rise? Three years ago, it only managed to secure 0.29 per cent of the vote; today, it represents over one million voters?
Clearly, Greece’s current economic climate provides an obvious answer.
Uniquely for a modern European nation during peacetime, the country is now entering its sixth consecutive year of recession.
Unemployment hit an all-time record this October: 25 per cent across the general population and a staggering 53 per cent among young people.
More than 250,000 people – many of them from the country’s formerly vast and prosperous middle-class – are being fed daily in soup kitchens.
And the government has just passed a law allowing supermarkets to sell expired food at discounted prices.
Homeless shelters have seen an influx of people whose homes have been repossessed, and the price of heating has tripled since 2009, forcing some households to go without, even during winter.
But despite all this, further austerity measures have been demanded by the European Union, the IMF and the European Central Bank, as a pre-condition for the extra €31.5 billion needed to prevent the country from going bankrupt.
As a result, Greeks have been left feeling utterly humiliated, having descended from relative prosperity to near-national bankruptcy in just five years.
In this climate, and amid growing fears of an imminent economic collapse, there is little wonder that violence has escalated against foreigners in Greece, particularly the country’s one million (according to government estimates) undocumented migrants.
According to the last census there are around 700,000 documented migrants in Greece, around 6.25 per cent of the country’s registered population.
The 126-mile border between Turkey, which is not in the EU, and Greece, which is, has become a gateway to the European Union.
Most of the migrants are asylum seekers but with the Greek system currently validating about 20 applications a week against a backlog of over 30,000, it is totally ill-equipped to deal with the flow of undocumented migrants from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.
Their visible presence is an unending source of resentment and fear.
Politics as usual
But the country’s economic decline and the upsurge in undocumented migrants only offers a part explanation for the rapid rise of the Greek neo-Nazis.
In fact, history would lead us to expect something different.
Greeks fought bravely against the Nazis during the Second World War and suffered greatly under Hitler’s occupation.
With many survivors still alive, memories of the war had remained vivid until recently, resulting in an aversion to extreme right wing ideologies.
But the willingness of the Greek people to forget their history lies in the complete loss of trust in today’s political leadership.
Greek public life has long been plagued by scandals of abuses of power, corruption, nepotism, money laundering and financial mismanagement of public funds.
From the early 1980s onwards, Greece had been ruled almost exclusively by PASOK and New Democracy, and in that time, hardly a day went by without a new political scandal emerging.
But while previously political immorality was widely tolerated because it allowed people outside of the political class to take advantage of the system, that attitude changed when the money ran dry.
In this crumbling political system and with the Greeks eager to punish their politicians, Golden Dawn has managed to build an image of social responsibility, re-inventing itself as the self-proclaimed protector of the Greek people.
The party’s various initiatives, such as creating blood bank for those with “pure Greek blood”, and distributing food and groceries to Greek citizens, have created a substitute for social welfare and have helped to bolster the party’s growing popularity in the mainstream.
In the same spirit, Golden Dawn supporters regularly escort elderly citizens to the grocery stores or to the bank in order to ensure that they are not robbed while collecting their monthly pensions.
Recently, a number of landlords turned to the party to help evict (immigrant) tenants who have been unable to pay their rent.
By attempting to offer an alternative to a broken political system and an overburden police force, Golden Dawn has established itself as a surrogate authority.
But while society’s growing frustration with Greek political leadership can partially account for the meteoric ascent of Golden Dawn, there is a third factor, too – and that is culture.
Even after the return of democracy in 1976, Greece remains a deeply conservative country where relatively few steps have been made towards equal rights and tolerance.
Homosexuality is still a taboo, especially for older generations, and the gay rights movement is widely viewed with suspicion, if not opposition.
Civil unions and legal rights for same-sex couples are generally opposed, both by the Orthodox Church and the vast majority of mainstream political parties.
Same-sex unions are illegal in Greece and there are currently no plans for legalisation.
At the same time, 98 per cent of the “native” population is Greek Orthodox, which is also the country’s official religion as the state and the church have never been officially separated.
In Greece, the Church is largely exempt from taxes, and the salaries and pensions of mainstream Orthodox clergymen are still paid for by the State.
Furthermore, all pupils in primary and secondary schools in Greece attend Christian Orthodox instruction, although there is an exemption system for those who do not want to attend.
In such an ethnoreligious culture, there is little evidence of acceptance or tolerance of other religious groups or even atheists.
Then there is the issue of discrimination.
Even before the economic crisis, Greece had failed to integrate its migrant populations. The majority – who came from neighbouring countries such as Albania following the fall of Communism – have long faced prejudice, mistreatment and negative stereotypes.
Albanians, who are not Orthodox Christian, were often associated with the rise of criminality in Greece and were accused of “stealing Greek jobs” as they accepted significantly lower payments for labour.
When it comes to gender, women in Greece are yet to enjoy full equality, especially in the labour market.
Women tend to be concentrated in low-income jobs, service work, the public sector and part-time jobs, while men take up to two-thirds of high-skilled jobs and nearly all board-level positions.
It is also worth mentioning that Greece currently has no specific legislation regarding sexual harassment.
Therefore it should be no surprise then that a country that has made such little progress concerning human rights – by Western standards – is eager to turn a blind eye to the activities of ultra-nationalist extremists such as Golden Dawn.
Golden Dawn’s popularity has even allowed the party to open offices in New York and Melbourne in order to reach out to the Greek diaspora.
Its expansion was facilitated by the election of its MPs in Parliament as all elected parties that hold seats in the Greek Parliament receive funding from the Greek state, proportionate to the seats that have been won.
All of this is evidence that Greece, a socially conservative country, is caught between a major socio-economic crisis, the collapse of old political certainties, and a growing number of immigrants, which, together makes for an explosive mix.
Of course, there are no easy solutions. But for a country which sent its men to fight Mussolini’s troops in the mountains of Albania during the Second World War and saw its people dying under the subsequent Nazi occupation; for a land that witnessed brother turning against brother in one of Europe’s bloodiest civil wars shortly afterwards; and for a people who sacrificed their youth to overturn the military junta in 1974, Greece should know better than anyone else the price paid for fascism.