Face to face with Greece's neo-Nazis.
I will say one thing for the neo-Nazi’s of ‘Golden Dawn’: they don’t try to hide what they are about.
They do not use code-words or euphemism. “What is your policy on immigrants to Greece?” I asked. “Send them home. Give them travel papers and let them leave to any European country they want”. “And if they chose not to go?” “If they have no house to live in and no medical care and no income, they will want to go”.
Welcome the most recent arrivals in the Greek Parliament.
Golden Dawn have just won 7% of the vote in the General Election and will have 21 MP’s in the new Parliament. Their electoral success was no accident.
They have exploited the poverty and unemployment of a recession - now in its fifth year - and convinced one in 14 Greek voters that it is the fault of immigration, that without, what they describe as 2.5 million “illegal” immigrants, there would be jobs and houses for all ‘Greeks’. By which, of course, they mean white skinned Greeks.
Their headquarters is in a middle-class suburb of Athens, only distinguished by the large Greek flag and a swastika like symbol outside.
Spokesman Theodoros Koudounas also insists the large statue of an eagle sitting on his desk is nothing like the eagle of the Third Reich. “Lots of countries have eagles. America, Poland, Russia. The eagle is a beautiful bird”. Perhaps he doth protest too much.
Choosing to conduct interviews wearing a black shirt and black wrist bands, though, was surely not a coincidence.
Their media strategy is not sophisticated, but they know what they are doing. As with so many far right groups, they want to appear reasonable and yet slightly menacing at the same time. On first impressions, I would say that this lot are slightly overdoing the menacing part.
“Are you fascists?” I asked. “No. Fascists were Italians who wanted to restore the Roman Empire. We are not Italians, so we can’t be fascists”. “Nazi’s then?” “Certainly not. They were Germans, and German nationalists. How could we be Nazis?”. “So how would you descibe yourselves?” “Popular nationalists”.
They are certainly nationalists. They speak about ‘illegal immigrants’ to Greece, but they are not talking about recent arrivals or asylum seekers.
To Golden Dawn, anyone who has arrived here since the Colonels were thrown out in 1974 is an illegal. “They were not legally allowed to come here under the constitution”, this black-shirted constitutional scholar tells me.
“What about immigrants from the rest of the EU? Can they stay?” “Yes, we have no problem with other Europeans coming here”. “But what about someone whose family originally came from Africa, was born in Britain, has a British passport and is a full EU citizen? Can they stay in Greece?”
Suddenly constitutional niceties didn’t seem quite so important.
“I am talking about the blood in their veins”, he said, more passionate than at any time in our conversation. “I am talking about a history that goes back thousands of years, about their ancestors.
Is this not more important that just a stamp on a piece of paper? What does a piece of paper or a passport mean compared to blood?” The one thing he wouldn’t mention, of course, was skin colour.
The disappointing thing was to understand just how the current crisis is playing into the hands of extremists of both left and right.
When I suggested to Koudounas that the worst it got in Greece, the better it got for him, he could not help but agree.
He envisages building on their electoral success, and one day taking power in Greece, though he agrees that things are going to have to continue downhill for some time before that can happen.
But no one thinks the Greek economy has hit bottom yet, so why shouldn’t he think that for Golden Dawn the only way is up.
It seems that there will be another election here very soon. Can they do as well again?
There is, sadly, no reason to think not. It is true that the thuggish swagger of the last few days has upset the sensibilities of may Greeks who now look at them and say “People will realise what they have elected, and will never make that mistake again”.
But these are not Golden Dawn’s voters, and, as I said at the beginning, you could never accuse this party of trying to conceal its essential nature.
Austerity on a scale rarely seen in peacetime has had many unintended consequences, and one of them has been to breathe new life into the far right. Getting rid of them again may not be easy.