Greece: More far-right violence than any other country in Western Europe
In recent years, Greece has experienced more severe right-wing violence per capita than any other country in Western Europe. It is long past time for a more comprehensive and effective response to far-right extremism.
Golden Dawn activists and Greek riot police in February 2008
Source: wikimedia commons
Only a few months ago, on July 2, a 49-year-old man was sentenced to 5 years in prison for two serious racist offenses, including an arson attack against the Afghan community center in downtown Athens. Additionally, he received a 15-months verdict for a bomb threat, public incitement to hatred, and illegal weapon possession. The man, a former translator and university employee, had been identified as the leader of a small fascist organization called Krypteia, named after an ancient Spartan state institution, which, most likely, functioned as a secret police. The group, which emerged in the shadow of the parliamentary turn of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn (GD), was responsible for several attacks targeting migrants and left-wing activists between 2017 and 2019.
This example of far-right extremism is far from unique. In fact, in recent years, Greece has witnessed violence carried out by members of the GD, increased far-right vigilantism on the islands, as well as organized right-wing militancy resulting from the naming dispute with today’s Republic of Northern Macedonia. Therefore, if anyone was in doubt, far-right violence clearly continues to be a major challenge in contemporary Greek society.
A new report
A recent report from Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX), University of Oslo, shows that Greece has experienced more severe right-wing violence per capita between 2016 and 2019 than any other country in Western Europe. Although few have been killed in these right-wing attacks, there have been as many as 3.1 severe violent incidents per million inhabitants in Greece compared to 1.3 in Germany, the other far-right hotspot in Western Europe. In other countries with relatively high levels of violence, such as Italy and the UK, the ratio is 0.7 and 0.6, respectively.
The report, which is based on the unique RTV-dataset developed by C-REX, aims to cover all severe forms of right-wing violent attacks and plots in Western Europe since 1990. This includes all cases in which the perpetrator(s) appear determined or willing to inflict deadly or physically disabling injury on the victim(s). Because there will be many right-wing attacks that are less severe, also in Greece, the dataset only covers the ‘tip of the iceberg’. However, it does so in a systematic way, allowing us to compare levels of violence over time and across countries.
The report shows that while many countries have very few cases of severe right-wing violent attacks and plots between 2016 and 2019, there were no less than 33 such events in Greece. Most of these events took place in Athens, including neighboring places like Villa and Piraeus (17 in total). However, several severe violent events in 2018 and 2019 also occurred in major cities like Thessaloniki, on the isle of Lesbos and in region of Macedonia.
The nature of far-right violence in Greece
While Greece has a long history of political violence in general, the country has experienced the surge of right-wing violence since 2011 in particular – marked by the racist riots in the center of Athens, which coincided with the rise of Golden Dawn. In a comparative perspective, the nature of this violence from the far right in Greece during the last decade seems rather unique: the most common perpetrator type resembles other Southern European countries, while typical target groups are more similar to Northern Europe.
In Greece, far-right violence is typically more organized and so-called ‘lone actors’ hardly exists. In fact, this type of violence is not only far more organized than in most other countries, it also seems largely premeditated rather than spontaneous (as in for example Spain). In other words, violence is part of deliberate political strategy. The existence of a successful neo-Nazi party GD is the key factor. Although this party was well represented in parliament between 2012 and 2019, it never stopped acting as a movement characterized by violence and other forms of confrontational activism. Only in 2019, there were four severe attacks committed by organized groups and their affiliates, of which three involved GD-members.
Moreover, GD is not the only organization carrying out severe violent attacks. As GD’s general extra-parliamentary activism has gradually declined, partly due the ongoing trial that may lead to the banning of the organization and partly because it started cultivating a bourgeois image in order to appeal more to moderate right-wing constituencies, other violent groupuscules have emerged, most notably AME-Combat18, Apella and, the already mentioned group, Krypteia. From 2016 to 2018, these three groups were behind nine of the 25 registered events, according to the RTV dataset. The action of these groups cannot be understood without considering their close ties to GD. In several communiqués, they explicitly aim to radicalize GD-members who are disappointed by supposedly moderate turn of the party.
When we look at victims of right-wing violence, however, Greek far-right extremists have a lot more in common with their counterparts in Northern Europe compared to Southern Europe. In the north, ethnic minorities and immigrants are disproportionally victims of right-wing violence, as in the recent high-profiled attacks in Hanau and Halle in Germany, whereas political opponents in general and anti-fascists in particular, are common targets in the south. Although attacks on political opponents certainly also takes place in Greece, almost all severe attacks in recent decade target immigrants, particularly refugees. Seven of the ten events registered for Greece in 2019 targeted refugees and migrants. This is particularly striking on the islands close to the Turkish border. In one event, a mob of several dozen people attacked a refugee facility, kicking inhabitants, among them children, in the head and beating them with a fire extinguisher. As there are few reports of the incidents on the islands, there may very well be more events than the ones discovered by the RTV team in cooperation with Greek country experts.
Contemporary far-right violence in Greece is also rather unique as it seems related to an ongoing regional conflict, though something similar is going on in Spain where far-right extremists frequently attacking Catalan independentists. In Greece, this form right-wing violence has been especially apparent during the protests concerning the conflict over the naming of the Republic of Northern Macedonia. In January 2019, mass violence took place during some of these protests, culminating in Golden Dawn affiliates seriously wounding three journalists and the formation of new militant groups like the Hellenic Resistance Department. In contrast to racist violence targeting migrants, this type of violence is typically directed at politicians or other state representatives. While the mayor of Thessaloniki has already been the target of a nationalist mob in May 2018, 50–60 people from the far-right group Ptolemies of Macedonia attacked and injured four police officers and one civilian protester during a graduation ceremony, in which the Syriza cabinet minister Olga Gerοvasili was participating. The extremists seemed to target Gerovasili due to Syriza’s involvement in the naming treaty between Greece and North Macedonia.
Studying right-wing violence in Greece in a longitudinal and comparative perspective provides us with three important lessons. First, it shows that far-right violence is a complex phenomenon that very often requires different explanations – not only between different regions or between countries, but also even within the same country. As in other Southern European countries, relatively high levels of far-right violence in Greece seem correlated with the combination of socioeconomic hardship, nationalist-authoritarian legacies, and extensive left-wing militancy and, in the case of Greece, also terrorism. This combination intensifies an already polarized left-right divide, which occasionally result in spirals of violence, as was seemingly the case after the murder of the anti-fascist activist and musician Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013.
However, the fact that most victims of severe violence were immigrants suggests that other factors plays in an important role too. Previous research indicates that extensive far-right violence in Northern Europe seem related to the combination of high immigration, widespread public repression of far-right opinions, and low electoral support for anti-immigrant parties. In these countries, the extreme right seems able to motivate activists, particularly so-called ‘lone actors’, to carry out violent attacks, partly because the elites are predominantly pro-immigration and perceived as hostile towards people with anti-immigration concerns. The situation in Greece has been slightly different due to the presence GD, which amplifies rather than abates violence. But it also seems obvious that the ongoing ‘refugee crisis’ continues to spark violent reactions from the Greek extreme right, reinforcing existing patterns of far-right violence.
Second, the Greek experience also shows how far-right extremists quickly adapt to new political, social and legal circumstances. While right-wing violence used to be more dispersed and related to so-called ‘everyday racism’, the rise of the GD made it more organized. GD’s takeover of local resident committees – most prominently in the district of Agios Panteleimonas in downtown Athens – is indicative of this trend. And when GD became less active, other groups stepped in and continued the party’s violent strategy. However, now that GD failed to re-enter the parliament and the Greek police ramped up arrests of activists from extreme-right militant organizations, organized violence seems to have lost traction. Consequently, we may very well witness yet another process of restructuring in the militant Greek far right. Most likely severe right-wing violence will once again become more decentralized as GD-renegades have formed new parties. This contributes further to the weakening of GD’s gravitational force in the militant right-wing subculture.
Third, far-right extremism has clearly received far too little attention by the authorities and the Greek police, the latter, which since long has been plagued by racist behavior. Not surprisingly, this has emboldened some of the groups to take action. In case of AME, for example, most of their attacks have been self-videotaped and published online – with the blog and the propaganda material still accessible today. Repeatedly, attacks have been conducted in broad daylight and appeared on public protests, which shows that the attackers felt quite safe from prosecution. Moreover, public institutions often fail to provide sufficient support to victims of racist violence, though there has been increased cooperation between the Hellenic police and the NGO Racist Violence Recording Network. As a recent report suggested, ‘the connections across the system between the police and victims, the prosecution service and relevant government ministries are relatively weak’. It is long past time that Greece adopts a more comprehensive and effective political, social and legal response to far-right extremism.
This blog post was first published in Greek by To Vima's printed version August 31 and online September 5, 2020. It is the fourth op-ed based on the RTV Update 2020. The other op-eds have been addressing the development in Spain, Germany and Norway.
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