The first thing that strikes you as you approach 60 Panagi Tsaldari Ave. in the Athens suburb of Keratsini — before the in memoriam graffiti, before the modest shrine of candles and flowers — is that you wouldn’t murder anybody here unless you were convinced you could get away with it.
The street is an oasis of commercial activity in a neighborhood brought low by Greece’s economic crisis. Piraeus, of which Keratsini is one of five municipalities, used to be a separate city, and it remains economically and culturally distinct: a tough, blue-collar region, reliant on heavy industry and the shipyards known as The Zone until the crash came and pushed unemployment over 90%. Panagi Tsaldari feels different. The broad, well-lit avenue is lined with bars, cafés, boutiques, and chain stores. Crowds of young people drink at sidewalk tables while cars cruise past blasting hip-hop and Europop.
No. 60 is a narrow doorway between a children’s clothes store and an upscale patisserie. This is the unlikely spot where, just after midnight last Sept. 18, Greek rapper Pavlos Fyssas, aka Killah P, was stabbed to death. “It was a big shock because we never have something like this here,” the patisserie owner tells me a few weeks after the murder. “It happened when people were walking around. It’s very weird, the whole thing.”
One of Fyssas’ signature songs, “Piraeus on My Back,” was a boisterous celebration of the place where he spent every one of his 34 years. It was here where he left high school and began working in The Zone. It was here where he formed his first group, Kaka Mandata, or Bad News, with fellow metalworker Petros Pountidis and became an unusually well-liked figure in Greece’s restive hip-hop scene. It was here where he also became a union man, community activist, and outspoken opponent of the neo-Nazi party Chryssi Avgi, or Golden Dawn. And it was here where he died.
Despite the visibility of the crime scene, exactly what transpired is unclear: Media reports and witness accounts are incomplete and even contradictory. But the fundamentals, at least, are consistent. On Sept. 17, 2013, Fyssas was enjoying a night out with his girlfriend Chryssa and seven other friends and spent some time in a side-street bar during a soccer match between local heroes Olympiacos Piraeus and Paris Saint-Germain. Petros Pountidis, who has spoken to some of Fyssas’ companions since that night, claims that the rapper only ventured into the bar with two of his friends so that one of them, who was ill, could use the bathroom and get some water. Either way, a handful of the bar’s customers were members of Golden Dawn, and one of Fyssas’ group was overheard saying something disparaging.
The match finished just after 11:30 p.m., around which time Fyssas and his two friends left the bar to rejoin the rest. They saw a group of Golden Dawn members, including the men from the café, observing them ominously while calling and texting for reinforcements. Dozens of men began arriving quickly, some on motorcycles, shadowed by eight members of the Greek police’s DIAS motorcycle force, who had been alerted to the gathering crowd by a member of the public. The new arrivals were dressed in the familiar Golden Dawn outfit of black T-shirts and camouflage pants, and they were armed. “Baseball bats with nails and screws at the end — like Viking weapons, the stuff you see on Game of Thrones,” says Pountidis.
The mob began taunting and threatening Fyssas’ group, which ran toward Panagi Tsaldari. According to the account Pountidis heard, once his friends were at a safe distance, Fyssas, who had a muscular laborer’s build and a strong nerve, stood his ground and confronted the mob. Some of the Golden Dawn members set upon him while Chryssa pleaded, in vain, for the DIAS officers to intervene. According to one witness, the assailants “were acting as if there was no police around. They just did not care at all.”
At this point, a gray Nissan crossed lanes at high speed and pulled up a few feet away. The driver, a pudgy middle-aged man, got out. At least one witness claims that Fyssas’ attackers pointed him out to the driver and shouted, “It’s him! It’s him!” The driver walked straight up to Fyssas with a calm expression, moved in close as if to embrace him, stabbed him twice in the chest, and returned to his car. Fyssas remained on his feet just long enough to lift his shirt to show the police his wounds, and indicate his assailant. At last, a young policewoman sprang into action and handcuffed the driver, but it was too late. Fyssas was taken by ambulance to the local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
One doctor who treated him said the wounds had the hallmarks of a “professional hit,” but everything else about the murder was bafflingly inept. The killer, a 45-year-old unemployed truck driver named Giorgos Roupakias, acted in front of dozens of witnesses, threw the knife bearing his fingerprints on the ground, and made no attempt to escape. He told police that he had been driving home after watching the second half of the soccer match with a friend when his car was ambushed by a mob and he struck out in self-defense. He also denied any connection to Golden Dawn. Within hours, it was established that none of this was true.
Roupakias was proven to be a Golden Dawn member who worked part-time at the cafeteria in the party’s office in neighboring Nikaia. His own wife told police that he had been at home watching the soccer match on television for most of the evening before he received a phone call and got into his car. Inspection of cell phone records found that Roupakias had spoken several times that night to Giorgios Patelis, leader of the Nikaia branch. Shortly after the murder, Patelis called Ioannis Lagos, parliamentary deputy for Piraeus, who then contacted Golden Dawn’s leader, a squat, bulldog-like 56-year-old former commando named Nikos Michaloliakos. It remains unclear who decided to eliminate Fyssas, and exactly when they decided, but it backfired spectacularly.
At the time of the killing, Golden Dawn had 18 deputies in Greece’s 300-member parliament and a poll rating of almost 15%. Conservative pundit Babis Papadimitriou had even suggested that the ruling center-right party New Democracy welcome “a more serious Golden Dawn” into its coalition government.
So the whole country was astonished when, just two days after the murder — the first of a native Greek following many similar attacks against immigrants — the minister of public order requested that the Supreme Court declare Golden Dawn a criminal organization under anti-terrorism legislation, and produced files outlining 32 separate criminal cases against party members. Police arrested key figures in the Golden Dawn leadership, including Patelis, Lagos, and Michaloliakos. Raids on deputies’ homes uncovered caches of weapons and Nazi paraphernalia. With breathtaking speed, the government moved to transform the party that might have been its ally into a pariah.
Twelve days after the murder, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras told an American Jewish Committee reception in New York: “We are dedicated in completely eradicating such a shame. We must do it within the context of our democratic constitution. But we have to go all the way and do whatever it takes.”
There is little doubt about what happened outside 60 Panagi Tsaldari Ave. The puzzle is why it happened and how Golden Dawn made such a catastrophic miscalculation.
I visit Syntagma Square, in the heart of Athens, on an ordinary weekday afternoon in late autumn. The square slopes gently up toward a flight of steps, at the top of which a plaza leads to the impressive parliament building. At the foot of the steps, commuters and shoppers pour into the metro or idle in the shade of lemon trees. A trio of young men break-dance to Prince. Two dogs lie on a patch of grass, dozing in the sun. Syntagma Square is a modest, welcoming space surrounded by chic boutiques and fine hotels, but whenever tempers boil over in Athens, which is often, it becomes a noisy hub of protest.
For several weeks in summer 2011, the square was occupied by thousands of Greeks protesting the austerity measures demanded by the troika of the European Union (EU), the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Beginning in May 2010, the troika had agreed to bail out the teetering Greek economy with billions of euros in emergency loans in return for dramatic concessions, including cuts to public spending, labor rights, and the minimum wage. If Greece had defaulted on its debts, it would have dragged the entire eurozone down with it. The deal averted a collapse, but the fiscal starvation diet pushed the Greek economy even deeper into recession and led many citizens to feel as if the troika, not the government, was running the country. When you’re trying to save a currency shared by 18 nations, the living standards and democratic rights of the people who are threatening it are secondary concerns.
So, on May 25, 2011, Syntagma Square sprouted a ramshackle village of tents, banners, and PA systems — a forerunner to the Occupy movement. The occupants called themselves the indignados, after the anti-austerity protesters who had thronged public squares across Spain earlier in the month. Broadly speaking, the square itself was dominated by protesters on the left, many of whom had never participated in political action before, while the plaza outside the parliament building was home to nationalists waving Greek flags. After the encampment dispersed in August, newly energized leftists allied themselves with the anarchists or the radical left coalition Syriza; many of the nationalists found a home with Golden Dawn. This bifurcation was a case of history repeating itself.
During World War II, Greece had the most successful resistance movement in Europe. Thanks to the tenacity and ingenuity of the partisans (one of whom, Manolis Glezos, is now a 91-year-old Syriza deputy), one-third of the country remained free of Fascist occupation. But even during the war, there were clashes between rival factions of the resistance. In 1944, after the Nazis fled, Communists mounted an armed insurrection against the new government. When that was crushed, they regrouped and prepared for a bigger assault.
So, while the rest of Europe was being rebuilt along Cold War lines, Greece was plunged into a bloody civil war between the U.S.-backed government and the armed wing of the Communist Party (KKE). Between 1946 and 1949, 158,000 Greeks were killed. The conflict destabilized the country so badly that, in the 22 years following VE Day, Greece had 26 different prime ministers. Between 1967 and 1974, a military coup suspended democracy altogether. When the U.S. ambassador in Athens complained that the coup was “a rape of democracy,” the local CIA chief retorted, “How can you rape a whore?”
“We didn’t get a chance to enjoy peace like everyone else,” the Greek rapper Nikitas Klint tells me, smoking roll-up cigarettes in Exarcheia Square, the epicenter of left-wing dissent in Athens. “The civil war is a trauma in the Greek soul. That’s why we can’t get along. That’s why we’re not tolerant. That’s what fucks it all up.”
These long years of conflict and oppression left Greeks with a profound distrust of institutions, and with good reason. The credibility gap between a government and its citizens is often a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, but none of the Greeks I speak to display paranoid inclinations. They believe the police force is overwhelmingly right wing and they are right: Around 50% voted for Golden Dawn in the 2012 elections. They believe the media has a heavy conservative bias that means many stories go unreported, and they are correct. They believe political corruption is commonplace, and not without reason: To give just two examples, last year, a former defense minister and a former mayor of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second biggest city, were jailed for embezzlement and bribe taking to the tune of several million euros each. There are so many documented outrages in Greek society that there is no need to invent new ones.
“The state itself has historically had a very low degree of legitimacy,” Jerome Roos, a Dutch academic based in Athens, tells me. “There’s still this climate of extreme opposition.” We are sitting at a sidewalk café in Exarcheia. The neighborhood has many of the hallmarks of any bohemian enclave — lively cafés alongside hip stores selling vinyl, books, and organic food — but this is an anarchist neighborhood unlike any other in Europe. Contrary to their media reputation as masked thugs, most of Exarcheia’s anarchists spend their time building an alternative society in microcosm. One café off the main square houses a community radio station. Another, based in a squatted government building, raises money for political prisoners and offers free health care from a clinic in the basement. Since the economic crisis, many unemployed anarchists have set up DIY farmers’ markets, urban gardens, soup kitchens, and food cooperatives.
Away from the bustling main square, the devastation wrought by the crisis is spelled out in rows of metal shutters on once-busy shopping streets. I’m given a guided tour by a 38-year-old anarchist filmmaker who asks that I call him simply Alex. “Just empty streets and closed shops,” he says as we walk. “It gives you a feeling of loneliness and isolation. And this is in the heart of Athens. If you go to other areas, it’s like a ghost town.”
On almost every wall, graffiti makes Exarcheia’s political affiliations vibrantly clear. As you enter, slogans declare it an “ANTIFA [antifascist] AREA.” A stencil of Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz from Django Unchained reads: “Django: bullets and dynamite to every cop and fascist.” One narrow street, Mesologgiou, is dominated by an ornately calligraphed “FUCK THE POLICE” and “3121,” alphanumeric code for ACAB, as in All Cops Are Bastards. A few feet away, a somber black plaque marks the spot where Alexandros Grigoropoulos died and all hell broke loose.
On the evening of Dec. 6, 2008, police clashed with a group of youths in Exarcheia and shot dead Alexis Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old student from a wealthy family. Within an hour, there were street battles in Exarcheia. Overnight, demonstrations sprang up across Greece, beginning the country’s worst unrest since the 1973 uprisings that brought down the first junta president. For more than a month, Athens was paralyzed by riots, rallies, strikes, campus occupations, arson attacks, and so many confrontations with the authorities that the police almost ran out of tear gas. Even the Christmas tree in Syntagma Square was set alight.
“Symbolism when it comes to politics is not secondary, it’s the main thing,” reporter Matthaios Tsimitakis tells me at the busy, chaotic office of the Syriza-affiliated newspaper Avgi amid an aromatic fug of coffee and cigarettes. “People burned down the city to produce a symbolic image on television. That image became dominant in the media for a month and destroyed every other image the system could produce.”
The unrest put to the torch the impression that Greece had spent billions of euros projecting to the outside world — a stable, responsible, prosperous country that could hold its own in Europe — but then that was always an illusion. In order to meet the targets required for entry into to the eurozone in 2001, Greece had cooked the books to a mind-boggling degree, concealing billions in debt, waste, tax evasion, cronyism, and corruption. Its determination to punch above its weight led to vast overspending on the Athens Olympics in 2004, after which then-Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis admitted, “The public debt exceeds even the most pessimistic of estimations.” But as long as the money taps were running, the country and its citizens continued to live in the red. “It used to be a country that consumed a lot: new cars, new cell phones, new clothes,” Alex says with contempt. “We’re Europeans! We have to buy things! And of course the bank system was giving loans. Christmas? Have a loan. Holidays? Take a holiday loan.”
Even on a continent where the economic crisis has hobbled several economies, from Ireland to Iceland to Portugal, the scale of Greece’s disaster is staggering. “There’s no other developed country that has undergone such a dramatic economic collapse since the second world war,” says Roos. “You’ve seen it a lot in the developing world, but now it’s come to the heart of Europe. The social consequences have been devastating.” The latest numbers, from October, show that unemployment currently stands at an all-time high of 27.8%. For those under 25, it is 58%, the highest in the eurozone’s history. The national health service lacks money for drugs and supplies. Rates of suicide, alcoholism, and HIV infection have soared. Prime Minister Samaras has said that social cohesion is “endangered by rising unemployment, just as it was toward the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany.”
Today, most of the Olympic venues are crumbling husks, surrounded by security fences and jungles of weeds, but there is one image that sums up Greece’s reversal of fortune even more sharply. As a PR exercise, Golden Dawn used to hand out food parcels to struggling citizens, provided they were native Greeks. Last summer, a TV camera followed one couple as they carried a sack of food around the corner and loaded it into a black Jeep Cherokee, presumably bought on credit in happier times. In that tragicomic moment, the aspirational fantasies of boom time Greece collided with the grim reality of life after the crash. Hubris, after all, is an ancient Greek word.
In Greece, even before the crisis, very few people made a living from hip-hop. Of those, a minority recorded political material. At the point where the Venn circles overlap stands the imposing figure of Michalis Mytakidis, aka BD (as in Big Daddy) Foxmoor, founder of the group Active Member. Pretty much everyone in Greek hip-hop has an opinion about BD Foxmoor.
“He controls whatever he does, financially and artistically,” says Nikitas Klint. He belonged to Active Member between 1993 and 2002 under the name Xray and now fronts a rock-rap crossover group called Wheels. He is a gaunt, bearded 38-year-old with a frowning demeanor and a tinder-dry sense of humor. “He was something like a mentor to many people,” Klint continues. “He’s very weird and strict.” (Foxmoor did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Foxmoor was born in Perama, Piraeus’ poorest neighborhood and home to The Zone. When he formed Active Member in 1992, the Greek hip-hop scene consisted of just a few dozen people, all of whom knew one another. Although FFC (Funky Fresh Concept) had been rapping in English since 1987 with little success, Active Member’s 1993 debut was the country’s first hip-hop album. It was called Diamartyria, or Protest, and the group rapped about issues such as corruption, prejudice, and lack of faith in the state. In 1995, they signed to Warner Music Greece for several years and released their most famous single, “Prosfigas” (meaning “refugee”), which addressed Foxmoor’s immigrant origins. In their wake, pop-rap crossover acts such as Imiskroubia and Going Through established Greek hip-hop as a mainstream force. “We were always in a battle to make hip-hop known to the Greek people,” says Klint. “It wasn’t in their culture. But that slowly became natural.”
Foxmoor called his music, which is slow, bass-heavy, and socially conscious, “low bap.” Songs such as “Prosfigas” recall the New York classicism of DJ Premier; others sample the melancholic strains of traditional Greek music. He established a talent stable called Freestyle Productions, with several subdivisions and branches nationwide, structured more like a political party or a conglomerate than a hip-hop clique. “It was a big company of people from all over Greece,” says Klint. “It was kind of like a school and BD Foxmoor was like a teacher of hip-hop. As you grew up, you wanted free space. Everybody scattered and made their own thing.” I ask him if Foxmoor tolerated defections and he laughed. “No, no! After I left we had some problems communicating.”
“Whenever someone leaves, Foxmoor’s like, ‘He betrayed us! We had a dream!’” says Petros Pountidis, who belonged to Active Member between 2001 and 2006. Known as Totem, he’s a shaven-headed giant who now raps with the group PsyClinic TactiX. “Foxmoor’s OK, but he’s like the old guys in The Muppet Show.” (Foxmoor is 46.)
Like many hip-hop scenes, Greece’s is fractious, but it divides along ideological rather than regional lines, with the political rappers disdaining the pop stars and the gangsta wannabes. Some anarchist emcees, such as EKM, are so purist that they refuse to make money from their music or speak to the media. “Foxmoor wanted to talk about Greek issues while other rappers were like, ‘No, I’m gangsta’ — bitches and cars and stuff,” says Pountidis. “I was like, ‘Dude, you work in a warehouse. You don’t have anything to do with that stuff.’ That’s how the friction started. Then some other bands came out and did diss songs and it was all battle rap.”
Pavlos Fyssas joined Freestyle Productions in 1997, during its glory days. He was born in Keratsini on April 10, 1979. After high school he became a metal worker like his father, starting out as an assistant welder at a factory manufacturing tanks. Pountidis, whose father was the president of the metal workers union, met Fyssas when he was recruiting new members for the union’s youth committee. He encouraged him to take a better-paid job in The Zone, and for the next few years they were co-workers as well as fellow rappers. As junior members of Freestyle Productions, Kaka Mandata played regular shows but only recorded a couple of songs, including “For Uncle Sam,” a stern critique of the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. “If we recorded one song and people can relate to that, they don’t need more,” Pountidis says with a shrug. “We were more like friends and colleagues than actually a band.”
Leonidas Oikonomakis, a Florence-based academic who belongs to the Greek leftist rap group Social Waste, met Fyssas while they were both in Freestyle Productions. They bonded over politics and the soccer team Olympiacos. “He was a very smart and funny person,” he tells me via Skype. “He was always the heart of whatever group was there. Of course we had different camps, but he had good relations with everybody.” Nikitas Klint remembers Fyssas as “a vibrant, funny bloke — a free spirit.”
In 2001, Fyssas left Kaka Mandata and Freestyle Productions and rechristened himself Killah P. The alias was not as fearsome as it seems. It meant “kill the past” — let go of negative experiences and don’t repeat your mistakes. He was known as a peacemaker, facilitating collaborations and organizing festivals and shows. He had a financial incentive too. After leaving the shipyards in 2003, he struggled to make money from his music and had better luck promoting other people’s shows. “He wasn’t famous but everybody knew him in the hip-hop scene,” says Klint. His songs sometimes dealt with corruption, consumerism, police violence, and fascism, but he wasn’t exactly Chuck D. Pountidis estimates that only one in five Killah P songs were political; the rest were about “love of life.” As an emcee, Killah P had a tough but likable everyman appeal. “Working-class people could relate to him,” says Pountidis.
Before the crisis devastated The Zone, allowing Golden Dawn to siphon off disillusioned unemployed voters from the communist KKE, Piraeus was staunchly left wing with a strong trade-union culture. Fyssas’ father, Panagiotis Fyssas, known as Takis, was a union stalwart, widely admired for his generosity and loyalty, and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. “Pavlos was class-aware but you couldn’t call him a leftist or a communist,” says Pountidis, who worked alongside Takis until 2011. “He had solidarity — with his co-workers, with his friends, with his neighborhood. When we were gathering food for the unemployed last February, Pavlos brought two boxes of pasta and rice. If the guy across the street is a single parent and the bank confiscates his house because he’s two months late on a payment, the first guy who would help out was Pavlos.”
It was decency, rather than ideology, that made Fyssas an antifascist. To him, Golden Dawn was a group of divisive bullies who were poisoning his hometown, and he was quick to speak out against them and perform at antifa demonstrations. “The Nazis hate hip-hop because it’s black music,” says Leonidas Oikonomakis. “Greek hip-hop has had lyrics against Golden Dawn long before Golden Dawn became big, so Pavlos was a problem for them in that neighborhood. He made comments through his Facebook page and his radio show. He is — he was — a very brave person. He was not scared to express his opinions. He was not afraid of anybody, not even Golden Dawn, and for that they killed him.”
Oikonomakis’ partner in Social Waste is a political pollster named Chris Staikos, a tall, skinny man with a warm yet intense manner. I meet him one evening in the courtyard of the central Athens bar that he co-owns, and we talk about his late friend over beer, bread, and olives. Staikos last saw Fyssas at an antifa demonstration several months ago. “He believed what he said. He didn’t write things for the crowd, he wrote things that he believed. When someone dies, people always say, ‘He’s a nice guy,’ but Pavlos was a nice guy, believe it.”
He frowns as he recalled another conversation with Fyssas when they were among the indignados occupying Syntagma Square in 2011. “He told me that he doesn’t like violence in general. He prefers to change the world through songs, through love. And I disagree. I’m not a terrorist, but sometimes we need violence to avoid the attack. When I heard that Golden Dawn killed Pavlos, I thought about that. It was something like a sacrifice. I hope a lot of people wake up from all this. He wanted to fight fascism, and he still fights through his death.”
In one of his best-known songs, “I Won’t Cry, I Won’t Fear” Fyssas rapped: “To those that threatened me with burning chains / I want them to know that I will not bother with fear / Let them come and find me at the mountain top / I’m waiting for them and I will not bother with fear.”
“It says: If you want to find me, you know where I am. Let them come,” says Pountidis. “So they came.”
Until the Greek economy imploded, Nikos Michaloliakos looked like just another impotent extremist destined to spend his political life on the disreputable fringe. In 1974, at the age of 16, he had joined the radical nationalist 4th of August Party, named after Greece’s pre-war dictatorship. Two years later, he was arrested for assaulting journalists at the funeral of a notorious policeman who had been assassinated for his brutality during the junta years. While serving as a special forces commando, Michaloliakos was imprisoned for illegal possession of guns and explosives and dismissed from the army. Upon getting out of prison in 1980, he founded a magazine called Golden Dawn. Five years later it spawned a movement, and in 1993 it became an officially recognized, if insignificant, political party.
Although it purports to embrace democracy, Golden Dawn has values rooted in admiration for Hitler, the junta, and Greece’s autocratic past. Two years ago, during a TV interview, Michaloliakos denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz. In December 2012, the police found on confiscated computers photographs and videos of a 2012 oath-taking ceremony, in which members clearly employed Nazi insignia and salutes. Michaloliakos was filmed declaring, “We are the bad fascists, the nationalists, the truth is they are not wrong, we are all of the above mentioned. Our purpose is not to improve those who are today in the parliament or to rectify the corrupt and exhausted political forces, but to do away with them altogether.”
For years, Golden Dawn was electorally irrelevant, scraping together only 0.3% of the vote in the 2009 general election. Just a year later, however, it shocked the establishment by winning 5.3% of the vote for the Athens city council, polling especially well in working-class neighborhoods with large immigrant communities: In the impoverished area of Agios Panteleimonas, it hit 20%. To many Greeks, it appeared to have come out of nowhere.
“They were something like an urban legend,” says Leonidas Oikonomakis of Social Waste. “You knew they existed somewhere but they were so few and so irrelevant that nobody cared about them. It never crossed my mind that we would have a single neo-Nazi deputy in the parliament.”
The crisis upended the political status quo in Greece. In the 2012 general election, the conservative New Democracy scored a narrow victory and formed a pro-austerity coalition government with the center-left parties Pasok and Democratic Left. But Syriza, a coalition of radical leftist parties united and rejuvenated by its youthful, charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras, became the main opposition party, while Golden Dawn came third with 7% and entered parliament for the first time.
Chris Staikos has interviewed Golden Dawn voters in his day job at a polling company. “They tell me all the others are the same; this is something new,” he explains. “They say, ‘I like the way they speak. They speak in our argot.’” He sighs. “I don’t think all the voters are fascists. I don’t want to believe it.”
Alex takes a less forgiving view. “After the Olympic Games in 2004, Greece was living the dream. There was money, and money has a tendency to cover up things. What the economic crisis did was to uncover which of us are fascists. The mask fell down and broke. Greeks have this notion that they’re superior to other people — ‘We’re the ancient Greeks!’ and all this crap. The economic crisis wounds their bravado because they don’t have money to spend so they start screaming, ‘Immigrants!’”
Like Syriza, Golden Dawn rejects the bailout conditions imposed by the troika, “the international usurers who are drinking the blood of the Greek people with a straw,” to quote a recent website statement. Unlike Syriza, it seeks scapegoats closer to hand. Because of Greece’s position in the southeastern corner of Europe, it is an obvious entry point for immigrants and asylum-seekers — it is estimated that 95% of Europe’s undocumented migrants come through Greece and many get no further, turned back by countries with less porous borders. Previously unaccustomed to ethnic diversity, and slow to find practical solutions, Greece has been overwhelmed by the influx. Most newcomers live in virtual ghettos or internment camps, in appalling conditions that have been condemned by Amnesty International and the European Court of Human Rights. Many Greeks, encouraged by the media, blame the new arrivals for rising crime.
The combination of an economic crash and an immigration crisis opened the door to Golden Dawn. In 2009, gangs of far-right vigilantes began terrorizing neighborhoods such as Agios Panteleimonas, eventually making them no-go areas for immigrants. A bomb was thrown at a group of Iranian asylum-seekers on hunger strike. Worshippers gathering for the Muslim festival of Eid were pelted with eggs. Mosques and synagogues were firebombed. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” the head of the Muslim Association of Greece told the New York Times in 2010. “I used to be treated like an equal. Now I’m getting death threats.”
In May 2011, the murder of a Greek man during a street robbery triggered three days of violence as nationalists swept through immigrant communities, looting shops, beating people to the ground with fists and bats, and stabbing Bangladeshi migrant worker Alim Abdul Manan to death.
“These guys operated with full immunity,” says Matthaios Tsimitakis. “Nobody touched them.”
“I’ve seen it with my eyes,” says Chris Staikos. “I’ve seen members of Golden Dawn hit immigrants and the cops next to them do nothing.”
It’s well known that far-right movements flourish during an economic crisis. What’s shocking and unusual about the Greek situation is that the establishment chose to tolerate Golden Dawn. Before Fyssas’ murder, citizens had to learn about attacks on immigrants via social media or international news sources because the Greek media practically ignored them. The police made few arrests and blamed the climate of violence on immigrant criminals and leftists as well as fascists. The actual number of racist attacks is hard to confirm because many immigrants are too scared to report them. A recent report by a government ombudsman connected 71 violent incidents to Golden Dawn and 47 to police officers.
So while most European far-right parties endeavor to conceal their more thuggish features behind a mask of respectability, Golden Dawn didn’t bother. Michaloliakos praised the 1967 coup on the floor of parliament. Another, Ilias Kasidiaris, read out parts of the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion in parliament and attacked two female left-wing politicians on live television. They hardly look like politicians — Ioannis Lagos, the man suspected of approving Fyssas’ murder, resembles a feared club doorman, with a bodybuilder physique and handlebar mustache. Before his election, he was under police surveillance.
Antonis Samaras, the New Democracy prime minister, is no fan of Golden Dawn. On the day the German army conquered Athens in 1941, his great-grandmother chose to commit suicide rather than live under Nazi occupation. He has also been under growing pressure from foreign governments to act. He is, however, brutally pragmatic. After his narrow victory in 2012, when around 4 in 10 Golden Dawn voters were former New Democracy supporters, he was neurotic about losing any more support to the right, and his conservative advisers urged caution. His cabinet includes figures as right-wing as health minister Adonis Georgiades, who has publicly complained of Jews “controlling the global banking system” and has said that Muslim immigrants have turned Athens into “Taliban-land.” Last summer, the government blocked a proposed anti-racist law that would have penalized Golden Dawn. One unsettlingly candid senior New Democracy official recently told the Wall Street Journal, “We didn’t pay too much attention to stabbings of immigrants, because they were not in the press, and prosecutors didn’t pay enough attention [either]. It was not a priority.”
At the same time, the government has instituted a number of draconian right-wing policies. It rounded up prostitutes, forced them to take HIV tests, and named and shamed any that tested positive. It cleared a well-known anarchist squat called Villa Amalia. It shut down the Greek branch of the left-wing media organization Indymedia. It brutally suppressed protests against the construction of the controversial Skouries gold mine in northern Greece. It launched Operation Xenios Zeus, named for the Greek god of hospitality, to purge the country of undocumented migrants, housing them in detention camps prior to deportation. The police abused their stop-and-search powers so widely that only 4,200 of the 60,000 people stopped during the first five months were actually arrested.
Yet the harder the government tried to co-opt Golden Dawn policies, the more popular the party became. “Golden Dawn is something the conservatives created,” says Matthaios Tsimitakis. “They did so by adopting and legitimizing their agenda. Greece has turned from a welfare state into a police state to an extent. If this is the rhetoric, what do you expect? People turn to the most authentic, genuine political source of that rhetoric. The proper racists.”
“The more power they got, the more cocky they became,” says Nikitas Klint. “Most of them were plain criminals using this ideological racist thing to get votes from people that were tired of getting robbed.”
Unmolested by the police, Golden Dawn grew bolder. In June 2012 they beat a group of Egyptian fishermen in Piraeus so badly that afterward, one could eat only through a straw. In January 2013, 26-year-old Pakistani market worker Shehzad Luqman was stabbed to death on the way to work and a 17-year-old student was knifed in the face and neck for writing “antifa” on a classmate’s desk. Five days before the attack on Fyssas, Golden Dawn finally turned on native Greeks. A 50-strong group from Nikaia, armed with bats and crowbars, targeted a group of communist union members who were pasting up flyers in Perama. Nine were hospitalized, including Pountidis’ father.
“They were practicing on immigrants all that time,” says Pountidis. “They thought they could get away with it. And they did, because nothing happened.” The next morning, he exchanged Facebook messages with Fyssas. “He told me, ‘You’d better be careful.’ And I told him that it wasn’t about me, we should all be careful. He said, ‘They’re getting out of hand and I’m going to tell them next time I see them.’” That was the last time the two friends spoke.
Pountidis believes that Fyssas’ murder was related to the Perama attack. He mentions long-standing rumors of a 2012 meeting in an Athens strip club at which employers operating in The Zone allegedly agreed to fund Golden Dawn if the party’s goons intimidated union members and enabled the employers to curtail workers’ rights. A witness recently told Greece’s Financial and Economic Crime Unit that “two important Greek ship-owners” financed Golden Dawn. The party’s expenses far exceed the 500,000 euros it receives from the state, and the unit is currently investigating the shortfall.
Shortly after Fyssas’ murder, an ex-member of Golden Dawn spoke at length to the Ethnos newspaper and depicted something between a criminal gang and a paramilitary group. He said that a new member had to participate in half a dozen “actions” in order to gain entry to the group known as “the open Nucleus.” Members who impressed the leadership were then admitted to the inner circle called “the closed Nucleus.” In Nikaia, George Patelis orchestrated these core members into assault groups, dispatching them to attack immigrants, anarchists, and antifascists. They wore black T-shirts and combat pants and were armed with helmets, shields, and clubs. They were macho, looked like steroid users, and were unquestioningly loyal.
This is why most people find it hard to believe that Giorgos Roupakias acted without approval from above. According to the whistle-blower, nothing was meant to happen without the green light from Patelis, who reported to the parliamentary deputy Ioannis Lagos, who in turn consulted party leader Mihaloliakos. It was Hitler’s Führerprincip, or leader principle, to the letter.
“[Lagos] supported all this,” said the ex-member. “He was aware of everything. Whatever we said, whatever happened, Lagos knew. Friends who publicly spoke about this were beaten. They went with evidence, beat them, and excluded them afterward. They said that they were liars and undisciplined. If you see something bad and talk about it — this is the end for you, you’re out. Thus, he created the clique of gangsters and assault groups, as he wanted to, which resulted in a murder.”
He recalled Fyssas’ name being mentioned during meetings of the Nikaia branch, although he thought it was related to his music rather than his union role. “I know that he was in the firing line, because he had antifascist songs. There were verses which offended Golden Dawn. He was antifascist and sang about it, and they knew it.”
After the murder, Chris Staikos of Social Waste was interviewing a female Golden Dawn voter for his polling company employers when grief made him snap. “You have a little bit of responsibility,” he said. “Because if it wasn’t for you and half a million voters, they wouldn’t have so much power, so maybe Pavlos would be alive.”
Alex, the anarchist, learned about Fyssas’ death from a leftist doctor at the hospital in Piraeus before it was officially announced. He immediately spread the word and around 40 antifascists headed to Piraeus in the middle of the night. “Nothing happened,” he says, shrugging. “We were so uncertain about how to react.”
For hours, Athens held its breath, waiting to see what the authorities would do. A large, tense demonstration was held in Keratsini the next day with similar rallies in other Greek cities, but outrage didn’t immediately translate into violence as it had in December 2008.
The media, which initially framed the murder as the unfortunate result of a fight between soccer hooligans, quickly changed its story and pointed the finger at Golden Dawn. “I think if they didn’t, we would have a far more serious questioning of the political situation than we had in 2008,” says Matthaios Tsimitakis. “People would believe for good that there’s no justice, no equality, that the state is broken, and that we need to rethink it in a fundamentally different manner. It would be a massive crisis.”
Fyssas’ ethnicity was a key factor. “If Pavlos Fyssas was an immigrant, nothing would happen,” says Alex. “I think Golden Dawn thought, We have the power to kill a Greek m