PARIS - It was the night of May 6 - tens of thousands of people were heading for the Place de la Bastille to celebrate Francois Hollande's victory in the presidential election. Over at the newspaper Liberation, journalists clinked glasses of red wine. Reporter Maria Malagardis sat at the international news desk and nodded her head. The previous day, Malagardis, an Athens native who came to Paris with her parents at age 3, had covered the elections in the city of her birth.
It had been hot and tense, she told her colleagues at the newspaper, but look at the results. The two largest parties are collapsing and the party Chrysi Avgi - Golden Dawn - has entered parliament. With 21 seats!
No, no, she insisted, when an editor said it was like the Le Pen story. No. Marine Le Pen is Snow White compared to Nikolaos Michaloliakos. This is a very scary neo-Nazi movement; it should have been outlawed.
The Nazi occupation left scars on Greece that have never healed, and the current economic crisis has stoked extreme hostility toward Germany. As the pressures on Greece have increased over the past year and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her country have become a phantom for the Nazi tyranny, the economic demands faced by Greece have come to echo the suffering, persecution and famine of the occupation. The prime ministers George Papandreou and Lucas Papademos have been depicted as collaborators with the enemy.
But Greece is the only country in Europe that doesn't celebrate victory day over the Nazis, because while free Europe was licking its wounds, Greece went straight from the occupation to a bloody civil war. Instead, every October 28 Greece celebrates Oxi Day.
It sounds better in French
Oxi means no. The "no" Greece is so proud of was delivered by its prime minister, Gen. Ioannis Metaxas, to Mussolini via Italy's ambassador to Athens. Mussolini had demanded, on October 28, 1940, that Greece allow the Italian army free passage through Greece, and Metaxas answered, in perfect French: "Alors, c'est la guerre" - "Then it is war."
But because Greek mythology can't be written in French, the popular legend transformed the answer into a single Greek word: oxi. The French was more accurate. The next day at 5 A.M., the Italians started moving their troops from Albania and the battles began. Five months later, the German army launched Operation Marita and invaded Greece.
The Oxi celebrations, which symbolize nostalgic national unity, blur a number of important facts. For one, the king of Greece was of German origin, and "oxi" was the last word he wanted to say to Hitler and Mussolini. And the heroic general who spoke French was a nationalist dictator. He accused every second citizen of being a Communist and sent thousands of innocent Greeks to prison.
The dangerous nostalgia for Metaxas is the basis of the propaganda campaign Michaloliakos and his party Chrysi Avgi have been cultivating since the early 1980s. Back then, Michaloliakos was released from prison after being convicted of violent assault and illegal possession of explosives. (As a consequence, he was also was dismissed from his army commando unit, on grounds of moral turpitude.) He began spreading his ideas in a magazine called Chrysi Avgi.
The cover always featured provocatively bellicose photos, and above them a symbol that became the movement's emblem: a kind of swastika that forms a square. The movement's aggressive propaganda didn't immediately seep into the Greek consciousness, but as Greece opened to the world and labor migrants began moving there, racist ideas became more accepted.
In 2004, when Greece was celebrating the stunning success of the Olympic Games, Chrysi Avgi activists reminded the people that "too many foreigners have invaded our land." In 2007 their efforts bore fruit: In municipal elections, three of their people made onto the Athens city council. In neighborhoods where Greeks lived side by side with migrants, they won 20 percent of the vote.
As the economy worsened, and so did the crisis with the Turks - the worsening relations over Cyprus - Chrysi Avgi launched a new attack. Rumors that police officers had collaborated with members of the party increased the tension in the streets. Near the end of the term of Konstantinos Karamanlis' rightist government, in 2008, a 15-year-old boy was shot point blank by a policeman. Riots erupted, and two groups clashed violently: the anarchists and Chrysi Avgi.
Our beloved land
In his first formal television interview ever last week, the Chrysi Avgi leader displayed a large stack of his movement's magazine, saying it represented "the real, free, independent and nationalist Greece." The interviewers, two very experienced journalists, had prepared questions intended to confront him with embarrassing facts, but the 55-year-old Michaloliakos kept interrupting them hoarsely and harshly.
Every time they accused him of admiring Nazism, he waved cover photos of the magazine. When they mentioned a report citing his appreciation for Rudolf Hoess, he replied: "That was in the context of [his grave]. All the newspapers reported on it then, so why are you making a big deal? When the Communists write about Lenin, do you attack them?"
When they mentioned a huge report in his magazine on "Heroes of the Luftwaffe SS Corps," he said he wasn't responsible for every item that appeared there; Greece had a free press. When they asked him about pictures of Croatian girls wearing swastikas and giving the fascist salute, he just kept waving the old issues. The interview lasted nearly an hour; Michaloliakos also explained that, contrary to the moderators' charge that he was the party's sole leader who appointed all its representatives, his movement had held free internal elections.
A few days after this conversation, in the small town of Distomo, overlooking the Gulf of Corinth, Greeks marked the anniversary of the Distomo Massacre. On June 10, 1944, a Waffen SS unit under Hauptsturmfuehrer Fritz Lautenbach invaded the town. Within two hours 218 women, men, old people and children were murdered.
Entire families were slaughtered, and babies were impaled on bayonets in front of their parents. The official justification: revenge for underground activities. To this day, Germany hasn't compensated the families of the victims and the matter continues to be drawn out in an international legal debate.
In this week's election, Chrysi Avgi won 6 percent of the vote in Distomo. Mayor Ioannis Patsantaras issued a statement saying the vote attributed to his town actually reflected the entire electoral district. In Distomo itself, he claimed, no more than 44 people had voted for the extremist movement.
At the top of the mayor's press release is Life magazine's famous 1944 photo of a boy and a girl, orphans of the massacre. Even 44 people is a lot. And this is apparently only the beginning. At the end of the interview on Greek television, Michaloliakos was asked if he remembered that in 2005 he had said: "Chrysi Avgi is here, we are beginning to march, and when we march, the ground will shake under our feet."
"Of course I remember," replied Michaloliakos. "What's so special about that quote?" Well, said the interviewers, those were the exact words spoken by Goebbels near the end of the war.
Now really, Michaloliakos said. So what?