The Parthenon looms over Athens. Image by William Wheeler. Greece, 2012.

Last week I was walking through a neighborhood of art galleries and brothels, having just passed an addict preparing to shoot up on the curb a stone’s throw from oblivious police watching an empty parking lot, when I turned a corner to hear my interpreter, a local journalist, blurt out an exasperated groan. He pointed up into the sky down the street. There between the tall buildings, perched atop the Acropolis, stood the Parthenon – a monument to ancient Athens at the zenith of its power and an iconic symbol of democracy. It was a bittersweet thing, he explained, to grow up beneath that looming sight: a source of pride that, 2,500 years ago, a great idea was born in his city; but it was also a lot to live up to, like growing up in the shadow of a famous father.

Especially today. The strains of the European project are particularly worrying in a country wracked by economic crises and the cultural tensions that a decade-long wave of immigration has produced. While democracy may often seem an abstract concept, especially when it works, the strength of democratic institutions and values are issues of life and death for many in Greece. All week I'd been interviewing people at the receiving end of a rising tide of anti-immigrant violence. Earlier that morning, I had visited a food distribution run by the ultra-nationalist party Golden Dawn whom many blame for inciting the attacks.

After interviewing immigrants, activists, analysts, Golden Dawn members and their supporters, here's what I learned:

The attacks are much, much more common than I had expected. Over the first half of 2011, a local NGO called Praxis, which offers medical services both to Greeks and foreigners alike, treated an estimated 200 people who had been victims of racist violence. Last year, they joined a network of NGOs in a pilot project to better keep track of such attacks, recording only 63 cases in the last three months of the year. Several involved with the network said the system is vastly under-reporting the actual frequency of attacks. Praxis’ president, Tzanetos Antypas, told me the problem was only increasing even though the number of reported cases was decreasing because of growing fear among immigrants and the (justified) sense that authorities will not investigate the incidents anyway.

As a comprehensive report from Human Rights Watch recently documented, and several victims confirmed for me, the Greek police often put the burden of investigation on the victims, requiring them to pay for a doctor’s visit and an official fee of €100 or more to file a complaint. Several said the police told them to simply fight back to defend themselves when they were attacked. In fact, it's hard to talk to any group of migrants without several people showing off fresh wounds or scars from recent encounters with groups they associate with Golden Dawn, whose growing popularity stems in large part from their nationalistic anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, anti-American posture. There are reports of fascist gangs cruising the streets on bicycles at night to stab migrants, like the 19-year-old Iraqi man stabbed to death in Athens in August 2012. Antypas also told me that Praxis has documented attacks on openly gay Greeks by fascist groups, a phenomenon he attributes to an expanding cast of scapegoated groups. “We expect there will be others,” he said.

As much as the financial crisis is to blame for the rise of Golden Dawn, so too are Greek authorities. Austerity measures haven't helped, sapping state resources and the provision of social services. But the view from outside Greece that austerity measures have “grown Nazis”—a view the Greek government has a political and economic incentive to promote—drastically oversimplifies the enabling role of several recent administrations. This surprised me. When I came to Athens I had expected to encounter more complaints from Greeks about the role of the “troika” in squeezing Greece’s troubled economy. More often what I found was a pervasive sense that Greek leaders were to blame for the lack of developments that predated the economic crisis. Similarly, the failure to implement any sort of coherent asylum policy—I met plenty of refugees and asylum-seekers who had been waiting 11 years for word on their applications—as well as the reluctance of other European neighbors to ease the burden on Greece by taking in migrants who have made their way inside the continent’s borders—have created a situation in which an estimated one million destitute migrants have flooded into poor communities in the center of Athens. In these neighborhoods, residents complain of the failure of local authorities to do anything about an attendant rise in crime. Local “citizen's groups” have sprung up to deal with the situation—often through violence—with the support of Golden Dawn, a party that has capitalized on this gap in the state’s capacity, supplanting it by providing security and even food distribution.

Golden Dawn is seen as a newcomer on the political scene, a fresh player untainted by responsibility for the status quo (a distinction reinforced when the party’s spokesman slapped two female members of the establishment on national television). Even those who don't share the party's ideology of racial superiority, or those who abhor its “violent streak,” say the group and its supporters deserve credit for cleaning up the streets (getting rid of the immigrant problem by replacing it with a knife-and-stick-wielding neo-Nazi problem). One resident described the party's role as something like a cross between the welfare state and the Mafia: if he needed help clearing out illegal immigrant food vendors, a security escort to walk down the street, or help paying the cost of importing his cancer medication, he could turn to Golden Dawn.

Compounding these problems, funding from the EU to deal with the migrant situation is further held up by Greek bureaucracy, and authorities routinely fail to investigate or prosecute hate crimes. In contrast, likely prompted by Golden Dawn’s popularity, police have instituted sweeps and checkpoints to try to detain illegal immigrants, pushing many into hiding in their homes. But immigrant groups, particularly among the Afghans, have also begun to organize themselves, holding a hunger strike that pushed authorities to issue a form of temporary legal status to some.

One potential implication of the Greeks' willingness to blame their own leadership is that there is a space for productive engagement on the issue from other European leaders. Representatives of the Anti-Nazi Initiative, a group that that was formed in 1997 in response to the rise of Golden Dawn, has been advocating for Europe’s leaders to strongly and publicly denounce the party and its fear-mongering rhetoric.

The other surprise was that Golden Dawn's popularity seems to be growing. After winning 7 percent of the national vote in June, public support for the party reached 12 percent in recent polls, and party members, their supporters and critics alike all argue that, rather than a short-lived phenomenon, the party is likely to keep growing.

Last week, some officials began to take action to crack down on Golden Dawn and to investigate its role in rising hate crimes. But several analysts warned there is a long history of collaboration between far-right elements in the political establishment and extremist groups like Golden Dawn and that the party may already have too much support within the police services, especially among top officials, for the state to prosecute its members. Irene Koutelou, a founder of the Anti-Nazi Initiative, doesn't believe it's too late. “The time is now,” Koutelou told me. “But there is not a lot of time.”

Project

Europe’s economic crisis has become intertwined with disturbing anti-democratic trends and the rise of extremist politics. Bill Wheeler looks at the fallout in Hungary and Greece.

Recently

September 4, 2013 / Untold Stories
William Wheeler
Hungary's intolerant slide continues.
June 27, 2013 / Untold Stories
William Wheeler
Fascism and ultranationalism are on the rise in countries across the EU. Greece and Hungary provide striking examples.