Analysis

Greece's neo-Nazis Lost, but the Far-right Party That Won Has a Dark anti-Semitic Past

Before you start celebrating the demise of the Golden Dawn neo-Nazi party, take a look at some of the lawmakers in the just-elected New Democracy

An eldery man arrives at a polling station to vote during Greek general elections in Athens on July 7, 2019.
AFP

It’s official: In the snap general election held in Greece on Sunday, the notorious neo-Nazi thugs of Golden Dawn failed to pass the 3 percent electoral threshold and crashed out of parliament after seven turbulent years. At the same time, the conservative New Democracy party led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis comfortably won an outright majority and formed a new government, pushing the left-wing Syriza party of outgoing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras into the opposition.

Now see if you can guess where most of those who abandoned Golden Dawn have found a welcoming political home.

It has been common knowledge for several years that the road that would bring New Democracy back to power would pass through Golden Dawn and the far-right party’s declining popularity.

The reason was obvious: Golden Dawn’s shocking 7 percent of the vote in four national elections between 2012 and 2015 did not come from aliens who had suddenly landed in Greece. Most came from voters who previously backed New Democracy, which had traditionally been a safe harbor for both far-right politicians and voters since the civil war that tormented the country following World War II — and also after the seven-year military regime ended in 1974.

In order to win back Golden Dawn voters, New Democracy had to pursue a double-edged strategy: First, reaching out to far-right voters by addressing their traditional concerns — public order, a strict immigration policy, a welfare system for “genuine Greeks” only, conventionality and patriotism (if not outright nationalism). And second, to stand in opposition to Syriza’s left-wing policies toward migrants, the LGBTQ community, marginalized citizens and minorities, and also its recent decision to reach an agreement with neighboring North Macedonia, ending a 30-year dispute about its constitutional name (it was formerly Macedonia).

New Democracy conservative party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis speaking outside the party's headquarters, after the election in Athens, Greece, July 7, 2019.
ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS/REUTERS

In both cases, you need a few loud politicians who will inspire the far-right voters — and New Democracy was never lacking in that regard.

After the Greek Civil War ended in 1949, many Nazi collaborators had sought refuge in the ruling conservative National Radical Union party (aka ERE) founded by Konstantinos Karamanlis. Then at the end of the ’50s came the Max Merten scandal, when the Nazi commander of Thessaloniki (aka Salonika), who was responsible for the transfer of some 45,000 Jews to death camps, was given an amnesty by then-Prime Minister Karamanlis following a controversial trial in which he was sentenced to 25 years’ hard labor.

After the “Rule of the Colonels” ended in 1974 and with political parties no longer outlawed, the National Radical Union morphed into New Democracy, under the same leadership, and played the exact same role as before — but this time for the “orphans” of the military junta: It provided them with a safe and comfortable shelter.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and right up until the start of the Greek financial crisis a decade ago, New Democracy’s far-right lawmakers always maintained a rather modest presence. They had a low-key public stance, walked hand-in-hand with the Greek Orthodox Church, whispering their thoughts and ideas to political supporters, and engaging in cronyism (or as the Greeks call it “rousfeti” — the long-standing Ottoman term meaning “political favors”).

Their characteristics were the same as ever: Pro-monarchy, old junta sympathizers, nationalist, anti-left and anti-Semitic. Still, since such ideas were completely out of fashion until the dawn of the new millennium, they were just a small, silent current flowing within New Democracy — far from the then-leadership that was strategically oriented toward the center-right.

Supporters of New Democracy celebrating outside the party's headquarters after the official results of the elections were announced, Athens, July 7, 2019.
AFP

‘Three musketeers’

The first public figure to prominently address far-right issues in the 1990s and 2000s was the charismatic populist Archbishop Christodoulos. Along with a few prominent clerics in the Orthodox hierarchy, he voiced clearly anti-Semitic, nationalistic and xenophobic sentiments in his sermons and in the media. This proved a seamless way to bring extremist ideas back into mainstream politics, as the late Christodoulos (he died in 2008) had a fairly lengthy list of friends and supporters in New Democracy and was also extremely popular among the party’s base.

The result, in 2000, was the formation of the populist Popular Orthodox Rally (aka LAOS), led by a well-known anti-Semite and former lawmaker in the New Democracy party called Georgios Karatzaferis,. It was through his party — which gained its first seats in the Greek parliament in 2007 — that the Greek public heard for the first time the names Makis Voridis, Adonis Georgiadis and Thanos Plevris.

Considered the Popular Orthodox Rally’s “three musketeers,” all three had inglorious pasts: Voridis reportedly formed a fascist student group in the 1980s whose members allegedly greeted each other with Hitler salutes, and then led the youth wing of a far-right political party established by the former head of the junta; Georgiadis went on television to promote nationalistic books, including one called “Jews: The Whole Truth,” a collection of conspiracy theories written in a pseudo-scientific manner by the most notorious Greek anti-Semite and Holocaust denier Prof. Konstantinos Plevris — who just happened to be the father of Thanos Plevris.

>> Ignoring pleas of local Jews, Greece swears in anti-Semitic minister ■ Fascism seeps into Greek politics <<

A supporter of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party waving an old Greek national flag with the party's emblem during a protest against Turkey in Athens, March 2018. The party failed to clear the electoral threshold in Sunday's election.
\ ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS/ REUTERS

In 2011, all hell broke loose in the Greek economy following the government debt crisis. As the second-largest party, New Democracy — along with the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement — was widely held accountable for the country’s collapse and bankruptcy. The Popular Orthodox Rally saw an opportunity and jumped at the chance to back a unity government of technocrats in order to “save the country.” A year later, though, the Popular Orthodox Rally also collapsed due to the government’s austerity measures, crashing out of the parliament.

It was during this 2012 election that Golden Dawn emerged as the far right’s new political force. Many Popular Orthodox Rally voters moved en bloc to Golden Dawn, along with angry far-right voters who had previously supported New Democracy — making the neo-Nazis Greece’s third-largest party.

Yet Voridis, Georgiadis and Thanos Plevris headed in the opposite decision: Rather than enlist with Golden Dawn, they joined New Democracy under the stewardship of Antonis Samaras, who promptly hailed them as his “new talents.”

Voridis and Georgiadis were appointed ministers in Samaras’ government between 2012-2015 (Voridis succeeded Georgiadis as health minister), almost as if they were being rewarded for their ultranationalist background and fiery political presence.

Their popularity rose within the party and after Mitsotakis — who is from one of the country’s best-known political dynasties — became New Democracy’s leader following its poor showing in the September 2015 election, he immediately named Georgiadis the party’s new vice president. Voridis, meanwhile, became the party’s parliamentary spokesman.

This sent a very strong and clear message for far-right voters to “return home” — especially with various Golden Dawn leaders on trial and facing jail sentences if they are found guilty of murdering an anti-fascist rapper in 2013 and for dozens of violent attacks.

A supporter of the New Democracy party ring a bell and shouting slogans in Athens, July 7, 2019.
Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

What came next was pretty predictable: A host of conservative politicians started feeling more comfortable projecting their far-right political agenda within New Democracy. These include Angelos Syrigos, a member of the nationalist think tank Network 21, who once said that “refugees are dreaming of bringing the Arab Spring to Greece”; former TV presenter Constantinos Bogdanos, who just said “the amount of votes” he took “means that some ‘patriots’ voted for us instead of Golden Dawn”; Konstantinos Kyranakis, who stated that “subsidies for parents should be given only to children that are born of Greek parents”; former basketball star Vassilis Kikilias, who has equated Syriza with terrorism, and many others at all levels of the party.

This was exactly what Mitsotakis needed to win voters back from Golden Dawn and return to power. The result is that many populist politicians were elected on New Democracy’s slate; Georgiadis was appointed development and investments minister; and Voridis is the new agriculture minister. Thanos Plevris remains a parliamentarian.

In the meantime, another far-right populist party, Greek Solution, has just made it into the parliament, led by Kyriakos Velopoulos — another prominent figure from the Popular Orthodox Rally and former comrade of the “three musketeers.” His party’s policies include building a 200-kilometer (125-mile) wall along the Turkish border to keep migrants out, and getting rid of overseas nongovernmental organizations.

If you were to ask those “musketeers” today about their anti-Semitic or hard-core nationalistic past, they would all no doubt deny it. Georgiadis recently joined a protest at a Jewish cemetery in Athens after it was vandalized, where he and apologized for his promotion of the Holocaust-denying book, calling it his biggest mistake. Furthermore, he appears to have become a fan of Benjamin Netanyahu, retweeting Haaretz’s May 2018 story about an infamous “Fuck Turkey” Instagram post by the prime minister’s son, Yair Netanyahu. Quite awkward, but not completely unprecedented.

Is his seeming reversal sincere? Maybe he really has decided to change his mind-set? Well, it may have sounded more honest and acceptable if he had also renounced racism, xenophobia and his far-right agenda, which still remains identical to the days of yore — and not just the anti-Semitism. Otherwise, it might be taken as just another strategic maneuver in the dark of far-right politics.

A parliamentary session in Athens, Greece, March 2019. Although the Golden Dawn party will not be returning, another populist far-right party, Greek Solution, will be represented.
COSTAS BALTAS/REUTERS