Greece’s neo-fascists are on the rise... and now they’re going into schools: How Golden Dawn is nurturing the next generation

In a special investigation, Nathalie Savaricas reveals the tactics used to recruit children to its far-right political beliefs

On a recent Thursday night, seven teenage boys in the central Greek city of Larissa decided to have what they described as “fun”. Armed with rocks and wooden batons, the group of 15-year-olds attacked the shop of a Pakistani resident. His son was treated for head injuries.

Attacks by children are rare, but there are fears that they are on the rise as a harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric with undercurrents of violence takes root in the malleable minds of patriotic youths as they watch their country's sovereignty being eroded by foreign creditors.

The potential to tap into this dissatisfaction and win over Greece's future voters has not been lost on the controversial Golden Dawn party: an investigation by The Independent found the neo-fascist party gaining ground among the country's youth, aggressively spreading their anti-immigrant, far-right message through social media, the internet, and youth clubs.

The vigilante, truculent and anti-establishment features of Golden Dawn offer a seductive alternative to the radical left or anarchist movements that have traditionally appealed to Greece's teenagers. Over 50 teachers, parents and teenage students from schools across Athens interviewed by The Independent agree that the party is slowly becoming fashionable, when three years ago it was barely known.

"It's the feature of vitality: a need to show they're strong, young and fresh and are creating something new: be it a new party, a new country," explains Vassiliki Georgiadou, professor at Panteion University and an expert of far-Right wing radicalism who has studied Golden Dawn for years. "They discard the label of Nazism and instead play up the nationalist card. They use ancient Greek history as a camouflage to hide their true identity: that they're fans of Hitler, anti-Semitism."

Sixteen-year old Stavros doesn't see his parents often as they work hard to put food on the table. His mother is a fervent supporter of the left wing Syriza party, but Stavros was drawn to the nationalist rhetoric of Golden Dawn. He admits that he has in the past thrown rocks and fruit at the homes of Pakistani residents.

"I did this to get them to respect our country because I love Greece so much," he boasts. "Golden Dawn kids are not killers but people who are worried that we won't be able to find jobs because of all those illegal immigrants."

Evdoxia, also 16, wants to be a lawyer. She wears pink glasses and her manicured little finger sports a golden ring with a sparkly heart. Her nails and clothes are black – the favourite colour of many adolescents, but also of her favourite political party. "Golden Dawn is not a descendent of Nazism," Evdoxia insists, playing with the cherry shaped pendant dangling from her neck. "Whoever thinks it is, doesn't know what the party's really about."

She is typical of the new Golden Dawn supporter. The punishing austerity programme that has gripped Greece as it struggles to cling to its eurozone membership has radically eroded her middle class quality of life. The weekly supermarket shopping became monthly. Birthday and Christmas gifts vanished. Evdoxia is extremely worried about her future.

"Golden Dawn is trying to offer solutions amid difficult times and contrary to other parties, they actually do what they say they will," she eloquently explains. The Zoro-style saviour tactics of this party is what also appealed to Evdoxia, who says her cousin was attacked and robbed by an African immigrant.

She discovered Golden Dawn on the internet – the far-right movement actively uses social media to expand their presence. A few months ago, Facebook removed the profile pages of Golden Dawn MPs and other related pages for breaching the site's terms on racism and promoting violence, but there are plenty of other websites hosting their views.

The party is reaping the fruit of its tireless campaigning. Grassroots mobilisation is its main recruitment technique, and the party is actively involved in neighbourhood initiatives, especially in areas that saw a rise of crime and strong influx of migrants. One teen told of how party members sometimes hand out mobile phone numbers to youths, claiming they are to help protect them from crime when they return late from school.

Gyms, athletic and martial arts clubs are easy ground to recruit youngsters and there is even a patriotic supporters club, Galazia Stratia (Blue Army), which draws its membership from the youth. Music is also influential in attracting young followers. Two of Golden Dawn's MPs are musicians. One of them, Artemis Matthaiopoulos, was the bass player of white power rock band Pogrom which sang the praises of Hitler's Auschwitz death camp. Another nationalist song of theirs is entitled "Speak Greek Or Die."

The problem for teachers and other officials is how to tackle the rise of the far-right. A mainstream political party trying to recruit new members is not illegal, and Golden Dawn is no longer a fringe movement. After emerging from obscurity to win 7 per cent of the vote at last year's elections, the party has seen its popularity nearly double. If elections were to take place soon, polls predict the party would likely come into third place.

While Ioannis Vouldis, the Golden Dawn MP who heads the party's youth branch, agreed to receive The Independent at their offices, he refused to answer any questions about its activities, saying only that: "At present there is a decision not to talk to the press."

Golden Dawn denies ties to any racist violence, although immigrant organisations strongly contest this, while analysts say their rhetoric has prompted many of followers to act on slogans like "clean up Greece of the stench" – in reference to illegal immigrants. A few months ago, Golden Dawn MPs smashed the stalls of immigrant vendors who failed to provide the necessary permits for selling goods at street markets. The daughter of the party's leader was also detained over a racist attack last June.

These culture clashes appear to be spreading into the playground. Graffiti of Greek flags, nationalist slogans, and signs that bear a resemblance to swastikas have started appearing around schools. Nikiforos, 12, blames Golden Dawn for the recent rise of violence between his Greek and foreign schoolmates. "We've turned into Age of Empires," he shyly jokes, making reference to the popular computer war game where kingdoms clash in an effort to expand their civilisation.

Ernesto, 17, is an Albanian who grew up with his Greek friend Kostas in central Athens. They shared their food, discussed girls and played football. But a few years ago, Kostas started spending his time with a group of black-clad youths with shaved heads who claimed to support Golden Dawn.

"Kostas felt he was different by hanging out with them: they were the mean and cool guys that everyone was afraid of," he recalls. "They hated immigrants and even taught their dogs to growl at Africans – it was crazy".

The widespread anger that Greeks have experienced since the beginning of the economic crisis has been channelled to children and is shaping their psyche, experts say. Child psychologist Amalia Louizou explains that in such an environment, children are the easiest recipients of extremist messages.

About 50 teachers set up the Anti-Fascist Front of Education to deal with the rise of right-wing extremism, but with deep cuts to the education budget, there are few resources to help them win the fierce battle for the minds of youths. Concepts like Nazism, fascism and prejudice need to be endowed with significance to youths who can't relate to them, experts say.

"Kids need to start loving people who are different in colour and religion and this can only really happen from schools," argues Mr Georgiadou from Panteion University. "They're being taught about ancient Greece instead of what is a democracy and the benefits of living in it instead of a dictatorship."

Meanwhile, at a Golden Dawn youth festival at the foot of Mt Ymittos in Athens, a few months ago, the party's leader thundered to thousands of supporters: "They've called us thugs, fascists, racists but we answered: we are the future, you are the past."

"We are the Greece that is coming."

Golden Dawn: Exploiting austerity

Until recently, Golden Dawn was a fringe party – thought of by most Greeks as too extreme. But as the economy has worsened, the party's fortunes have improved.

Founded in 1993, the party's breakthrough came in the 2012 elections – marked by deep economic recession and budget cuts. Golden Dawn took around seven per cent, vowing to expel both legal and illegal immigrants. In the previous election it polled just 0.2 per cent.

Golden Dawn denies that it is a neo-Nazi party, preferring to call itself nationalist. But its members are accused of acts of violence against immigrants and ethnic minorities. The party's flag is an ancient Greek symbol similar to the swastika and its leader, Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, gave a Nazi salute at an Athens city council meeting in 2011.

The party made headlines last year when Ilias Kasidiaris, a high-profile member, slapped a female MP on live television.

Richard Hall

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