Buoyed by its meteoric domestic success, the far right party is planning to expand 'wherever there are Greeks'
Emboldened by its meteoric rise in Greece, the far-right Golden Dawn party is spreading its tentacles abroad, amid fears it is acting on its pledge to "create cells in every corner of the world". The extremist group, which forged links with British neo-Nazis when it was founded in the 1980s, has begun opening offices in Germany, Australia, Canada and the US.
The international push follows successive polls that show Golden Dawn entrenching its position as Greece's third, and fastest growing, political force. First catapulted into parliament with 18 MPs last year, the ultra-nationalists captured 11.5% support in a recent survey conducted by polling company Public Issue.
The group – whose logo resembles the swastika and whose members are prone to give Nazi salutes – has gone from strength to strength, promoting itself as the only force willing to take on the "rotten establishment". Amid rumours of backing from wealthy shipowners, it has succeeded in opening party offices across Greece.
It is also concentrating on spreading internationally, with news last month that it had opened an office in Germany and planned to set up branches in Australia. The party's spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, said it had decided to establish cells "wherever there are Greeks".
"People have understood that Chrysi Avgi [Golden Dawn] tells the truth," he told a Greek-language paper in Melbourne. "In our immediate sights and aims is the creation of an office and local organisation in Melbourne. In fact, very soon a visit of MPs to Australia is planned."
Golden Dawn MP Ilias Kasidiaris (centre) leaves an Athens court this month where he denied assisting in a 2007 assault and robbery. He has said the party will spread 'wherever there are Greeks'. Photograph: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP
But the campaign has met with disgust and derision by many prominent members of the Greek diaspora who represent communities in both the northern and southern hemispheres.
"We don't see any gold in Golden Dawn," said Father Alex Karloutsos, one of America's leading Greek community figures, in Southampton, New York. "Nationalism, fascism, xenophobia are not part of our spiritual or cultural heritage."
But Golden Dawn is hoping to tap into the deep well of disappointment and fury felt by Greeks living abroad, in the three years since the debt-stricken nation was plunged into crisis.
"Golden Dawn is not like other parties in Greece. From its beginnings, in the early 80s, it always had one eye abroad," said Dimitris Psarras, whose book, Golden Dawn's Black Bible, chronicles the organisation since its creation by Nikos Michaloliakos, an overt supporter of the colonels who oversaw seven years of brutal anti-leftist dictatorship until the collapse of military rule in 1974.
"Like-minded groups in Europe and Russia have given the party ideological, and sometimes financial, support to print books and magazines. After years of importing nazism, it now wants to export nazism," added Psarras. By infiltrating communities abroad, the far-rightists were attempting not only to shore up their credibility but also to find extra funding and perhaps even potential votes if Greeks abroad ever won the right to cast ballots in elections.
"[Golden Dawn] not only wants to become the central pole of a pan-European alliance of neo-Nazis, even if in public it will hotly deny that," claimed Psarras, who said party members regularly met with neo-Nazis from Germany, Italy and Romania. "It wants to spread its influence worldwide."
With its 300,000-strong community, Melbourne has pride of place in the constellation of Greek-populated metropolises that dot a diaspora officially estimated at around 7 million.
As part of its international push, Golden Dawn has also focused on the US, a magnet for migrants for generations, and Canada, which attracted tens of thousands of Greeks after Greece's devastating 1946-49 civil war.
A Golden Dawn election rally in Athens in April.
"It's a well-studied campaign," said Anastasios Tamis, Australia's pre-eminent ethnic Greek historian. "There is a large stock of very conservative people here – former royalists, former loyalists to the junta, that sort of thing – who are very disappointed at what has been happening in Greece and are trying to find a means to express it. They are nationalists who feel betrayed by Greece over issues like Macedonia, Cyprus and [the Greek minority] in Voreio Epirus [southern Albania], who cannot see the fascistic part of this party. Golden Dawn is trying to exploit them."
The younger generation — children of agrarian and unskilled immigrants – were also being targeted, he said. "They're the generation who were born here and grew up here and know next to nothing about Greece, its history and social and economic background. They're easy prey and Golden Dawn will capitalise on their ignorance."
Tamis, who admits that some of his students support the organisation, does not think the group will gain traction even if Australia's far-right party has been quick to embrace it. But the prospect of Golden Dawn descending on the country has clearly sent tremors through the Greek community.
"This is a multicultural society. They are not wanted or welcome here," said one prominent member, requesting anonymity when talk turned to the group.
Greek Australian leftists have begun collecting protest signatures to bring pressure on the Australia immigration minister, Brendan O'Connor, to prohibit Golden Dawn MPs from entering the country. In a statement urging the government not to give the deputies visas, they said the extremists had to be stopped "from spreading their influence within the Greek community and threatening the multicultural society that Greek Australians and other migrants have fought to defend".
The neo-Nazis have been given a similar reception in Canada, where the party opened a chapter last October. Despite getting the father of champion sprinter Nicolas Macrozonaris to front it, the group was quickly denounced by Greek Canadians as "a black mark".
The culture of intolerance that has allowed racially motivated violence to flourish in Greece – with black-clad Golden Dawn members being blamed for a big rise in attacks on immigrants – had, they said, no place in a country that prides itself on liberal values.
"Their philosophy and ideology does not appeal to Greeks living here," insisted Father Lambros Kamperidis, a Greek Orthodox priest in Montreal. "We all got scared when we saw they were giving a press conference. But it was a deplorable event and as soon as we heard their deplorable views they were condemned by community leaders and the church."
"We are all immigrants in Canada," added Kamperidis, referring to Golden Dawn's tactic of tapping into anti-immigrant resentment. "The conditions that apply in Greece do not apply here, so there is no justification for the party to flourish. The really bad thing is that in opening here it gives the impression, to people who don't know the situation, that it is supported by a lot of Greeks, which is not the case. It has hurt Greece, the Greek cause, and Greeks' reputation more than anything else."
Anti-racist activists outside the appeals court in Athens this month for the case involving Golden Dawn MP Ilias Kasidiaris. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty
Despite the resistance, the far-rightists have made concerted efforts to move elsewhere, with Golden Dawn supporters saying Toronto is next. But the biggest push by far to date has been in the US. As home to close to 3 million citizens of Greek heritage, America has the diaspora's largest community. At first, cadres worked undercover, organising clothes sales and other charitable events without stating their true affiliation. Stickers and posters then began to appear around the New York suburb of Astoria before the organisation opened a branch there.
But while Greek Americans have some of the strongest ties of any community to their homeland, senior figures have vehemently denounced the organisation for not only being incongruous with Greece's struggle against fascism, during one of Europe's most brutal Nazi occupations, but utterly alien to their own experience as immigrants.
"These people and their principles will never be accepted in our community. Their beliefs are alien to our beliefs and way of life," said Nikos Mouyiaris, co-founder of the Chicago-based Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC), whose mission is to promote human rights and democratic values.
The victims of often violent persecution at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan as well as wider discrimination (in Florida in the 1920s restaurant noticeboards declared "no dogs or Greeks allowed") Greek Americans proudly recount how, almost alone among ethnic minorities, they actively participated in the civil rights movement, their spiritual leader Archbishop Iakovos daring to march alongside Martin Luther King. "Our history as a diaspora in the US has been marked by our fight against racism," said Mouyiaris.
Many in the diaspora believe, like Endy Zemenides who heads HALC, that Golden Dawn has deluded itself into believing it is a permanent force because of its soaring popularity on the back of the economic crisis. "The reality is that it is a fleeting by-product of failed austerity measures and the social disruption this austerity has caused," he said.
In Greece, where Golden Dawn has begun to recruit in schools, there are fears of complacency. Drawing parallels with the 1930s Weimar period and the rise of Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' party, the historian Mark Mazower recently warned against underestimating the threat posed by a party whose use of violence was so disturbing. "Unfortunately, the Greek state does not seem to realise the urgency of the situation," he told an audience in Athens.
After spending almost 30 years following Golden Dawn, Psarras agrees. Only weeks ago, he claimed, Michaloliakos held talks in the Greek parliament with two German neo-Nazis posing as journalists. Golden Dawn rejected the claim as "old mud".
"It is an extremely dangerous phenomenon and do I think it will get worse? Yes I do," Psarras said, lamenting that, with living standards plummeting, the organisation was opening offices in traditional middle-class neighbourhoods. There remained a simple fact too big to ignore: in 2009 the party was a political pariah, gaining a mere 0.29 % of the vote; today it had global ambitions.
"Ten years ago, if you had said Golden Dawn would become the third biggest force in Greece, you'd be called crazy," said Psarras. "Now look where it is."