How Hardcore Leftists in Greece Got Dangerously Enchanted with the Far Right
Below the green slopes of Mount Parnassus in central Greece, the small town of Distomo is unusually full of people. The visitors have come to mark the 70th anniversary of the Distomo massacre, one of the worst Nazi atrocities in the country in which more than 200 civilians were executed.
On a hill where a memorial to the victims stands, Greek and German high school students present the “Children of War”, a theatrical ode to peace. Photographs of Nazi troops on the Athens Acropolis and recent images of dead children in Syria are projected onto the backdrop. The audience watches in devout silence.
In the town’s cafÃ©s, the atmosphere is normally louder and more politicised. Sooner or later, Maria Sideri-Tsami’s name is mentioned.
Three members of Sideri-Tsami's family were killed in the Distomo massacre. Yet the 23-year-old was a candidate in regional elections in May last year for Golden Dawn, the party widely described as neo-Nazi that has risen to prominence in Greece in recent years.
Sideri-Tsami has blamed communist resistance fighters for the massacre, saying they provoked the Nazis by staging an ambush. "They knew the Germans would come back to the village to kill the people if they were attacked," she said in an interview with a local blogger filmed at the memorial.
Sideri-Tsami's embrace of the far right may seem extraordinary. But even people with ancestors killed by the Nazis or a family tradition of leftism forged in World War Two have joined Golden Dawn, which has tapped into anger at Greece's deep economic crisis and disillusionment with traditional political parties.
In the run-up to the May elections, Golden Dawn proudly displayed the video of Sideri-Tsami’s interview on its website. But her declaration met with less enthusiasm locally.
"It's shameful," says 84-year-old Maria Sechremeli, a distant relative of Sideri-Tsami.
Sechremeli survived the massacre by hiding under the body of an executed neighbour.
"The communists didn't kill Distomo, the communists were out to kill the enemy," she says.
The scar of a stray bullet from the massacre still marks Sechremeli's leg. Every year, she starts to feel unwell two days before the commemoration. On this anniversary, she has taken two aspirins by noon to tame her blood pressure.
Sitting at the table in her living room, Sechremeli says she never used to talk about the massacre with her grandchildren, not wanting to upset them or perpetuate the hatred from that era. But she changed her mind after becoming alarmed at the rise of Golden Dawn.
"Do they want the best for Greece? By killing people? Doing all these ugly things and swearing on TV?" she says of the party. "You can tell what kind of people they are."
After decades on the political fringe, Golden Dawn came to much broader attention in 2010 with a nationalist, anti-immigration and frequently violent agenda. Media and academics have labelled the party neo-Nazi or fascist but its members deny any links to National Socialism.
The party's rise coincided with an unprecedented increase in racist attacks against immigrants.
This violence went largely unpunished for years until a man with close links to Golden Dawn murdered antifascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in an Athens suburb in September 2013. The killer was arrested and the government launched a crackdown on the party.
Today, six high-ranking party members, including leader Nikos Michaloliakos, are in jail awaiting trial on charges of operating a criminal organisation. The trial, which the party sees as political persecution, is expected to begin later this year.
Despite the imminent trial, Greece's political scene has been in such flux that Sechremeli says she is afraid Golden Dawn could seize power and trigger a new civil war.
In the recent elections she voted for a leftist party, as always.
Her late husband joined the wartime guerrilla resistance to free Greece from German occupation. He espoused communism at that time and remained faithful to it for the rest of his life.
The family's story is typical of many in Greece - political traditions were established in World War Two and upheld for generations afterwards.
Ideological faultlines over old scars
Germany invaded Greece in April 1941. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks lost their lives over the next three years as a result of fighting, deportation to concentration camps, German reprisals and famine.
Resistance was organised by various groups but the communists were the most prominent, quickly establishing themselves in almost all parts of Greece. On the other side, as in the rest of occupied Europe, many Greeks collaborated with the Germans, including Nazi sympathisers and nationalists.
After the war, leftists and rightists started jostling for power. The political tussle soon led to a bloody civil war that ended in 1949 with the leftists’ defeat.
Dimitris Psarras, an investigative journalist who has been researching the Greek far right since the 1980s, has found many cases where the anti-communist ideology of collaborators was passed on to their children and grandchildren.
Some of these people were among the leaders of the military junta that ruled from 1967 to 1974 and some are on the political stage now with Golden Dawn. Party leader Michaloliakos comes from a family of collaborators.
But a small minority of Golden Dawn members and voters have a quite different family background.
Giorgos Germenis has very fond memories of his maternal grandfather, Panayotis Griziotis. He remembers him as a “modern grandpa” who was always close to the younger generations.
During the war Griziotis was a communist guerrilla leader in western Greece. When his daughter was 10 years old, he would send her to fetch the then illegal newspaper of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE).
She too became a communist when she grew up. She gave birth to Germenis and used to carry her infant son in her arms while putting up posters with party comrades for the annual May Day rally in Athens.
Her son is now one of Golden Dawn’s most prominent members of parliament and the first party executive to publicly acknowledge, in 2012, that his grandfather was a communist guerrilla.
His revelation came as a huge shock to leftists, who could not comprehend how someone with such family traditions could end up on the far right.
Germenis is currently in prison awaiting trial with the rest of the party leadership. For this article, he gave written answers to questions passed on by his wife when she visited him in the maximum-security Korydallos jail in Athens.
“The Communist Party has turned into a bourgeois party. After so many years in the political arena they have become professional revolutionaries,” he says.
According to Germenis, people who were once communists or socialists are among the most zealous Golden Dawn supporters.
"They feel that the parties they were following all these years betrayed them!" he declares.
Germenis joined the ranks of Golden Dawn in the early 1990s, when the ghost of nationalism was haunting the Balkan Peninsula. His parents found out about his ideological departure much later.
Read the interview with Giorgos Germenis here.
He says no one in his family tried to change his mind, nor did he try to change theirs. According to Germenis, his mother now believes that Golden Dawn is a truly revolutionary party.
"In our rallies she didn’t see the usual party henchmen and the politically appointed executives but people from next door, workers, breadwinners and that impressed her," he says.
A double paradox
Such ordinary people and their struggles have made a deep impact on Tasos Papaioannou. He says he has been shocked by a rise in suicides linked to the economic crisis in his home region of Corinth.
Papaioannou, who is in his early 40s, does not like to be called a taxi driver, unless he is driving Greek clients. For most of his day, he is a chauffeur taking wealthy foreign tourists to Ancient Corinth, about 80 km west of Athens.
His parents emigrated to Australia when he was two years old and he still remembers how difficult it was to be a foreigner there. Twenty years later he came back to Greece for a holiday and ended up staying.
Papaioannou now votes for Golden Dawn. His decision to vote for a strongly anti-immigrant party despite his experience of discrimination in Australia is not the only paradox.
His grandfather, Giorgos, was a communist guerrilla in the greater Corinth region during the civil war.
"I never met him. I wish I had, even though my views are entirely different," he says in a taverna next to the archaeological site at Ancient Corinth.
When the Greek economic crisis started, Papaioannou thought: “Boom! Nationalism! Let’s change things. There has to be a civil war."
His enemies? Immigrants, corrupt politicians who embezzled the people’s wealth, the International Monetary Fund, even those who have the same leftist beliefs as his late grandfather.
He says some extreme rightists in villages have boxes of Kalashnikovs stored in their houses. Just in case.
Further south, Nikos Kourakos is a senior official at the Golden Dawn office in the city of Kalamata.
His grandfather fought the Germans in the communist resistance and was executed by a member of the notorious Security Battalions formed by Greece's collaborationist government.
Kourakos casts his grandfather's decision to join the communists as a patriotic rather than a leftist act.
"The Germans were occupiers," he says. "The reasonable thing to do was to go and fight."
He does not feel his decision to join Golden Dawn more than 10 years ago offends the memory of his grandfather.
"For me, it's wrong to take an ideological stance because of what happened in the past," he says.
A family drama
For some families, however, a child's decision to break with long-held values and support the far right is a source of great anguish.
Giorgos Triantafyllou, a pensioner whose name has been changed here at his request, lives in a small community where the Nazis executed almost half the population, including one of his relatives, during World War Two.
His family has a long history of leftists, including resistance fighters during the German occupation, communist guerrillas during the civil war and victims of political persecution during the rule of the military junta.
Triantafyllou himself was a staunch leftist but became disenchanted with Marxism in the 1970s and turned to religion. After a meticulous study of the holy books of several religions, he became a Jehovah’s Witness.
He and his childhood sweetheart raised two children according to their values. They taught them to love, to be peaceful and tolerant.
But after turning 18, their older child denounced the family's religious beliefs and eventually joined Golden Dawn, standing as a candidate for the party in last year's regional elections.
Triantafyllou discovered the shocking news while surfing the internet. He was utterly devastated and he has not spoken to his firstborn since.
He says he can't bear to hear the statements that come out of the mouth of his own offspring.
“I grew up in a place full of war widows and orphans," he says.
His distress is heightened by the fact the Nazis persecuted and imprisoned Jehovah's Witnesses.
Golden Dawn over red strongholds
Triantafyllou keeps wondering how his own child could repudiate the family's history and join Golden Dawn. Likewise pollsters, political analysts and sociologists ponder why Golden Dawn has proved to be so popular in areas formerly dominated by the Communist Party.
Perama and Nikea, two districts of Athens long considered “red strongholds”, have seen a sharp rise in support for Golden Dawn in recent years.
Vassiliki Georgiadou, an associate professor of political science at Athens’ Panteion University who has been carrying out extensive research in these districts, says the impoverishment of the working class and local long-term unemployment - which hovers around 70 percent - have created fertile territory for Golden Dawn.
The party has blamed the local trade union’s political activity for the decreasing competitiveness of local shipyards and subsequent loss of jobs. Golden Dawn set up its own trade union and promised work. Some workers signed up.
By being active on the ground in these neighbourhoods, Golden Dawn managed to “become visible and achieved a certain degree of influence, especially over young people growing up without any prospects", Georgiadou says.
Politicised youths have used graffiti to turn the neighbourhoods’ walls into a battleground of ideologies.
“Our grandfathers were refugees, our fathers were immigrants and we are racists!” one leftist slogan proclaims.
“Free all jailed Golden Dawn members!” says another, not far from Korydallos prison where the party’s leadership is incarcerated.
In another part of Athens, an artistic piece of stencil graffiti offers an ironic commentary on the twists of history. An old man smoking a cigarette observes: "I fought the fascists so that my grandchildren could bring them back."
The Battle of Lenin Square
The seemingly never-ending struggle between left and right has echoes even outside Greece - in a Hungarian village 1,000 km away from Athens.
Beloiannisz in central Hungary was founded by Greek communist guerrillas who fled the civil war in the late 1940s. They named their community after Nikos Beloyannis, a Greek communist hero.
Zisis Vlachopoulos, a former mayor of the village, was born in Greece in 1942 and brought to Beloiannisz by his parents when he was four years old. Since the collapse of communism, he says, there have been numerous attempts to erase the village’s history.
The village had to change the name of its central square, which had been named after Lenin. Crosses have replaced red stars on gravestones in the cemetery.
“And what are they going to do with the red star on Heineken bottles?” Vlachopoulos jokes in fluent Greek.
Now Krisztian Bene, 31, a member of the local council from the far right Jobbik party, wants to move a memorial plaque in the square that honours the Soviet soldiers who liberated Hungary from the Nazis. Bene proposes replacing it with another plaque commemorating the anti-Soviet Hungarian Uprising of 1956.
In the square, Bene and his friend Szotirisz Kariofilisz chat to a visitor. Kariofilisz was born in the village 32 years ago to Greek parents. His grandparents were communist guerrillas.
He is unemployed, uncertain about his future prospects and votes for Jobbik. He insists the party is not as extreme as Golden Dawn in Greece.
“Jobbik doesn’t want to kill the Roma and the Jews, it only wants to assimilate them,” he says.
But former mayor Vlachopoulos is dismissive when local Jobbik members blame foreigners for problems in Hungary.
“Today the problem is the gypsies, tomorrow it’s going to be the Albanians and after that it will be the turn of the Greeks," he says. "I won’t be fooled!"
He is interrupted by a call on his mobile phone. The ringtone melody sounds familiar. The song plays until the lyrics of the Greek communist guerrillas’ anthem can be heard: “With my rifle on my shoulder, in the plains, in cities and in villages, I pave the road to freedom…”
The Loving Father
Back in Greece, Giorgos Triantafyllou lives a quiet life. He takes good care of his garden and occasionally logs on the internet to read the news.
He and his wife are thinking of going offline to avoid coming across articles about their firstborn, who rejected the family's values and joined Golden Dawn. They want to turn off what Triantafyllou calls “the switch of sadness”.
But his anger softens just before the end of the interview. A reconciliation may still be possible, he says, if his offspring repents fully and returns to a virtuous life.
He recites the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also known as the Parable of the Loving Father.
“The son left to seek vain riches and live a sinful life, he suffered hardships but his father waited for him. And when the son returned, the father hugged him. That’s what I would do too,” he says.
This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.