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Ten years since Pavlos Fyssas’ assassination: A turning point in Greek antifascist struggle

Ten years since Pavlos Fyssas’ assassination: A turning point in Greek antifascist struggle

Just after midnight on 18th September 2013, a member of the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn stepped out of a car, took a few steps and stabbed a man in the chest. Pavlos Fyssas, a musician and antifascist, soon died of his wounds, but his death began the defeat of Golden Dawn. Until that moment, the fascists’ momentum had seemed unbreakable. Ten years later, and with the threat of the far-right still growing, it is important to remember both Pavlos Fyssas and this moment in antifascist history.

The Rise of Golden Dawn

September 2013 saw the Greek political party Golden Dawn at the height of its influence. Founded as a neo-Nazi group in the 1980s by Nikos Michaloliakos, a young supporter of the military dictatorship that had collapsed in 1974, the party had come a long way from its humble origins. Marginal, if dangerous, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, its ascent began with the onset of Greece’s decade long political and economic crisis in 2008. Riding the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, they were boosted by the state’s need for a counterweight on the streets following the anarchist inspired uprising of December 2008. Throughout 2009 and 2010, they joined “residents committees” in central Athens and started harassing and attacking non-Greeks, anarchists and social movements.

When the economic crisis brought the Greek state to the brink of bankruptcy in 2010, Golden Dawn was given another boost as an angry, humiliated, and fearful population looked for alternatives. The Greek state’s response to the crisis played into their hands. Unable to offer solutions to the economic depression Greece’s “rescue” by the European Union unleashed, the state turned to the right and targeted protesters, anarchists and especially migrants. A new coalition government formed in June 2012 headed by the conservative New Democracy party under Antonis Samaras talked of immigrants as invaders and migration as a greater threat than the capitalist crisis impoverishing the country. Fascists could not have dreamed of a better scenario. An established but now distrusted party was speaking its language and bringing its views into the mainstream. With further boosts from a sensationalist media and votes from the police, Golden Dawn burst into parliament in 2012 with 7% of the vote.

For the next twelve months, nothing slowed their growth. With access to state funding, they opened a network of political offices around the country. Their supporters and MPs could attack people in full view of the country and walk away without being stopped by the police. Its leaders could do Nazi salutes, have swastikas tattooed on their arms, and carry red and black flags imitating the Third Reich and still their popularity grew unchecked. By 2013, their supporters had been involved in at least one murder with the death of Shehzad Luqman. But with the coalition government weak and the police supportive, they knew they were untouchable. So, in late 2013, they took a step further. In September, one of their assault squads, groups of young members under the command of the party hierarchy, brutally attacked members of the Communist Party (KKE) in the working-class neighbourhoods of Piraeus. The slow police response could only be encouraging.

Days for Pavlos Fyssas

Then came the night of 17th/18th September. Pavlos Fyssas, a locally known musician and vocal antifascist, went to a cafe to watch a football match. The cafe was crawling with Golden Dawn members. When Fyssas and his friends left, they were confronted by an assault squad. Fyssas was singled out, isolated and stabbed to death. Only then did the police squad that had been present all along intervene.

When news of the assassination broke that morning, the reaction was immediate and decisive. Throughout the rise of Golden Dawn, antifascists, led by the anarchist and anti-authoritarian space, had been resisting their spread and warning of the danger. In 2012 and 2013, you could live in Athens and find a local group organising an antifascist march every few days. Neighbourhood by neighbourhood, a movement was built up. Antifascist patrols swept through areas of Golden Dawn activity. The fascist presence was challenged in the bastions the state had offered them in central Athens. People protested outside, attacked, burnt and occasionally bombed their offices. On the morning of the 18th September, there was a movement ready to respond.   

Immediately, pre-planned marches against the latest austerity measure were rerouted to march against the fascists. That evening, thousands headed to the spot in Kerastini, west of Athens, where Fyssas was murdered. Within minutes of a march to the local police station and Golden Dawn office getting underway, the crowd was attacked by the police. Hours of clashes and barricades followed, with Golden Dawn members spotted on the streets alongside the police joining the fight. The antifascist network continued the protests and the actions in the following days. A week after the murder, tens of thousands took to the central streets of Athens. This was the largest outbreak of unrest on the streets in 18 months, and the weak government had a decision to make.

It is no exaggeration to say that the most surprising moment of the autumn of 2013 was not the assassination of Fyssas but the reversal of the state’s attitude to Golden Dawn that followed. With unrest on the street and a general disgust with the fascists that now took over, the government had to act. So far, Golden Dawn had acted with impunity. They had no doubt hoped their escalation would not be challenged. This was a real possibility. Some Golden Dawn members would have to be arrested and charged, of course, but a story could be spun and had already been started in the early hours of 18th September, that this was a bar fight that got out of hand. The police would be slow and incompetent in their investigation, and by the time the justice system started working on the case at its usual glacial pace, years would have passed. That would not be possible if Samaras were to calm the unrest on the streets.

In a dramatic about-face, the state turned Golden Dawn’s impunity into imprisonment. Its leading MPs and party members were arrested. The obvious facts previously ignored, which demonstrated that Golden Dawn was a violent fascist group, were now evidence in the Greek state’s largest criminal case. It took until October 2020 for the trial to reach a verdict. Golden Dawn was ruled to be a criminal organisation. Its leaders were imprisoned, as were its members directly implicated in the murder of Fyssas. With the party having narrowly failed to return to parliament in the 2019 elections, Europe’s most prominent fascist party was defeated and began to fall apart.

The Serpent’s Egg

Even before the conviction of Golden Dawn was announced, the far-right had begun to find fresh impetus. With the left-led coalition governments of SYRIZA having failed to end austerity or reform, the state conservative forces became more and more prominent. Starting in 2018, several national issues began to dominate the agenda. The far-right was present in several large mobilisations against the Prespa Agreement, which ended Greece’s long running dispute with North Macedonia. Turkish President Erdogan’s aggressive and dangerous foreign policy saw a rise in tension against the Aegean. Domestically New Democracy, now under Kyriakos Mitsotakis, painted a picture of a society ridden by crime and fear under the left and calling out for law and order. Several years of implementing the EU’s border policy meant thousands of people were trapped in camps on the Greek islands under the threat of deportation. When New Democracy returned to power in 2019, they oversaw a crackdown on anarchist and refugee solidarity movements, bolstering police numbers and powers, rearmament for the military, and further tightening border control.

A decade after the assassination of Fyssas, the Greek far-right is probably more influential than at any time in the last half-century. There are fences at the borders and credible accusations of a policy of pushbacks. Hundreds can die at sea in one day, and it barely makes an impact. People can burn to death as forest fires devastate the country and then be blamed for starting the fires. Golden Dawn’s urban assault squads have largely disappeared, but since 2020, the border vigilantes have appeared. These first appeared in early 2020 when the Turkish state encouraged people to cross into Greece, and the government’s response, backed by the EU, was to declare this a hybrid war and the migrants and refugees merely weapons in the hands of the enemy. Far-right patrols started heading to the border region of Evros to join this so-called war. From that point, it is not much of a leap to blame the recent fire in the Evros on refugees. Current events are an early warning of how climate breakdown can reinforce reactionary sentiments.

The elections of 2023 confirmed the shift to the right. With the electorate shrinking, the left collapsed while the right and far right were renewed. Three parties to the right of New Democracy entered or returned to parliament. Amongst these, the most notable is the Spartans. Before the elections in June, the party was unknown, having not even run in the first round of elections in May. However, when an imprisoned member of Golden Dawn, Ilias Kasidiaris, gave his support to the party, they shot up to 4.68%. The overall electoral support for the far-right has not significantly increased over the last decade, but their relative weight has grown with the left in disarray. This is only likely to continue as New Democracy has little to fear to its left but would be worried about losing votes to its right. Just as in 2012, New Democracy’s hardline law and order and border policy, far from drawing the sting from the far right, is spreading the poison further.

The Greece of 2023 is one the far-right would recognise from its fantasies. The borders are fortified, and the prisons are filled with real and imagined smugglers. People can drown at sea, burn in the forest and be thrown back across the border to general indifference. The left is weak and blamed for everything that has gone wrong. The anarchists are being repressed. This is a world which emboldens fascism and its supporters.

Pavlos Fyssas Lives, Smash the Nazis

When Golden Dawn was convicted in October 2020, one of the defining images of the moment was the sight of Magda Fyssas, Pavlos’ mother, shouting in relief, “Pavlos did it”. The death of Pavlos was the turning point in the fight against one of the most dangerous fascist movements of post-war Europe. Ten years on, this victory over Golden Dawn is worth remembering, even if it was a victory over just one form of a far-right which continues to grow and evolve. Back in 2013, an antifascist movement that had been patiently built and developed over years could react to a fascist escalation. Doing so helped tip the balance against the previously untouchable far-right. 2013 shows that fascism can seem inevitable right up until the moment when people prove it isn’t.

~ Neil Middleton

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