My father-in-law remembers the Nazis. He lives across the road from us in downtown Athens now, but was brought up in the town of Megara 40 miles away. One of his clearest childhood memories is of the beatings he suffered at the hands of German soldiers, when he was just eight. “They would hit us for fun. It was a sport for them,” he told me. To this day he can’t watch war films.He wasn’t the only one that suffered in Megara and beatings were the least of their worries. Many died from starvation. “I spent 10 years going hungry,” he says. Everyone who lived through those terrible times had memories like his and many are alive to tell their stories. It makes what is happening now even more shocking.
Today, I find myself living in Athens’s Nazi neighbourhood. The headquarters of the extreme Right-wing party, Golden Dawn – which last week took almost 7 per cent of the general election vote, winning 21 seats in the Greek parliament – are around the corner from my house. One afternoon this week, while driving my son to football practice, I witnessed my first Sieg Heil. My father-in-law remembers the German Nazis – but this new breed of fascist is Greek born and bred. How can this have happened?
In retrospect, the warning signs came two years ago, when Golden Dawn won a seat on our local council. Soon, things began to change. Our neighbourhood, Agios Pandeleimonas, has a large square with cafés and a children’s playground. It used to be a very pleasant place to spend the evening. Until Golden Dawn took control. Its first act was to put a padlock on the playground gate. People muttered about preventing drug dealing – but the real reason was that the playground was being used by the children of immigrants. My own included, I suppose.
The next step wasn’t as subtle. One morning a giant message appeared in front of the church, painted on the paving stones in patriotic blue and white letters a metre high. It simply said: “All foreigners out of Greece!” It is still there. Not long after it appeared, my wife and I took the children for an early evening meal on the square. Two Pakistanis went to stroll across it and were attacked by half a dozen Golden Dawn thugs.
With the church square cleansed of foreigners, Golden Dawn started broadening their scope. The police seemed perfectly happy to let them get on with it. It meant they could sit and drink coffee, rather than have to tackle problems themselves.
Despite the hundreds of thousands of Muslim immigrants who have made their home here, Athens has no mosque. Instead, small make-shift mosques were set up in the basements of apartment blocks. Worshippers were careful not to disturb anyone and there weren’t any calls to prayer. However, this wasn’t good enough for Golden Dawn.
One such mosque was opposite my daughter’s nursery. When I took her to school one morning the fire engines were still there from the night before. It had been petrol-bombed. Over the next six months, many other mosques were also attacked. Riots broke out, the police used tear gas to quell protests – once I had to place wet towels around the doors of our apartment to stop the gas leaking in.
Throughout the turmoil, Golden Dawn’s message was clear: foreigners out.
So why has Greece, birthplace of democracy, succumbed to such a vile message? The first thing that should be pointed out – and most obvious – is that about 80 per cent of illegal immigrants entering Europe arrive via Greece. And Golden Dawn have been most astute at exploiting the tensions that accompany such high levels of immigration. They offered to escort old ladies to the bank in case they were mugged by ”foreigners”. They began distributing food parcels to pensioners, who were suffering under ever-increasing austerity. Landlords were given help in evicting migrants who could no longer afford the rent. Sometimes Golden Dawn would even decorate the vacated flats for free.
No one realised how much support Golden Dawn were getting until it was too late. Polls showing them with 4 or 5 per cent of the vote were shrugged off as inaccurate. The media largely ignored them, saying they didn’t want to give a platform to neo-Nazis – a foolish mistake, as they were never exposed as the fascists they are. On election night, supporters of Golden Dawn gathered to celebrate at their headquarters with flaming torches held high. A week later they are still jubilant.
With all the debate and soul-searching now taking place in Greece, it’s not surprising that even the children have heard of Golden Dawn. When I collected mine from the school bus yesterday, there was a lot of shouting among them. I asked my son what the fuss had been about. He told me that two boys were teasing another one, singing: “We are Golden Dawn and we’ll send you back to Bangladesh!”
These boys are eight; the same age as my father-in-law when he was beaten by German soldiers. This is a Greece he never imagined would exist.
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