Defeat of extremism in Greece holds lessons for the US and other societies


INTERNATIONAL cooperation is vital to tackling the rise of extremism in societies around the world, a global discussion held by SCI has heard.

The webinar co-hosted with the Ariadne Network and the Global Citizens Circle marked the launch of a new report capturing lessons on how an extremist movement in Greece was defeated by civil society.

Golden Dawn was an extreme far right political party which rose to prominence during a period of economic crisis in Greece, while its gangs were attacking minorities on the streets. In 2020 it was declared a criminal organisation by the courts after years of activism led by civil society groups.

The discussion ‘Tackling Violent Extremism: Lessons from Greece’ attracted an audience drawn from 14 countries. It heard from Eleni Takou, co-founder of Human Rights 360, who was centrally involved in the successful campaign against Golden Dawn.

The event was also addressed by Eric Ward, executive director of the US-based Western States Center, which works to strengthen inclusive democracy and has tackled violent far right extremism in the United States. He noted parallels with the experiences in Greece and appealed for civil society and funders to respond to “this very treacherous moment for American democracy”.


Golden Dawn rose from being political non-entities to winning 7% electoral support in 2012, securing 18 MPs. As economic chaos gripped Greece, the party attracted support in economically disadvantaged communities, organising grassroots campaigns, going door-to-door and staging PR events portraying Golden Dawn as the ‘protectors’ of communities abandoned by government.

Eleni said: “Golden Dawn was seen as a group of crazy, neo-Nazi people but fast-forward and what happens is, there is a mainstreaming of the far-right ideology in Greece which facilitates the sky-rocketing of Golden Dawn. There was a big rise in the number of migrants and refugees coming to Greece, which creates a scapegoating of migrants. At the same time, the country goes bankrupt. This is the perfect mixture for such a group to take the lead.”

While the Greek state effectively turned a blind eye to Golden Dawn’s violence, Eleni recounted how a diverse range of civil society groups formed a network which within two years gathered data on 383 racist attacks. The network documented the violence, which included fatal attacks. It found innovative ways to raise public awareness (including mapping the attacks), it gained allies and it ultimately forced the state to act.

“One of the good things that happened in Greece is that we didn’t wait until the last moment to coordinate, but we started reacting from the beginning,” Eleni said. “In the aftermath it seems that there was a strategy from the very beginning, but we just tried to navigate across a very brutal environment and do the best we can. But there were lessons, which are captured in the report."

The lessons from Greek civil society highlighted the importance of: gathering credible data on the activities of Golden Dawn, creating a broad coalition of support, working with national and international watchdog groups, and creating a narrative that gave a voice to victims.

Key challenges for others in similar situations to think about included influencing the media, gaining a deeper understanding of Golden Dawn tactics on the ground and 'following the money' to identify the financial interests motivating Golden Dawn as well as the wealthy individuals who benefitted from the party's actions.


Ultimately, the campaigning work culminated in a legal strategy to secure change.

Eleni said the civil society network gathered data on attacks without necessarily realising how important it would become, but she added: "Never underestimate the data...After three years, it proved to be precious to us at the court proceedings.”

In October 2020 a lengthy trial based on legislation akin to the ‘mafia-clause’ declared Golden Dawn a criminal organisation and jailed its leaders.

During the trial, which lasted more than five years, activists used social media to keep proceedings in the public eye.

Golden Dawn lawyers benefitted from the party’s political funding, but lawyers representing victims worked pro-bono.

The powerful testimony of those affected by Golden Dawn violence undermined the party’s claims that the hearings were a show trial.

Lawyers had given “an image and a name to the victims and to the families”.


Just as Greece’s history of violent upheaval had fuelled the emergence of Golden Dawn, Eric Ward told the event that the historic legacy of racism in the United States was one of the seedbeds for its current crisis.

But he also singled out the way in which the Trump presidency pushed the political mainstream to the right, creating a climate where extremism was encouraged and is now flourishing.

“For us at Western States Center the real horror of January 6 was not just the white nationalist, alt-right breach of the US Capitol, it was the willingness of our institutions including civil society to turn a blind eye to the white nationalist violence that had been building in this country over four years, in fact, over three decades.

“The racial bias of law enforcement that provided permission for that violence to proliferate, those dynamics had long been evident.”

Eric said that it was now believed that some of the tactics employed against peaceful protests, including snatching activists off the streets to be hooded, taken in unmarked cars and questioned in non-designated venues, was a trial-run for future activities by the Trump administration.

“The insurrection that started on January 6 in Washington DC, did not end on January 6. It still very much is taking place each, every day in communities around the country. The targets are local elected officials, health workers, educators and school board members who are being terrorised through physical violence and threats and intimidation.

“This insurrection is not yet going away. We still have much infrastructure and data that is needed to equip communities around the country in order to build tools.

“That’s why we believe this report is such a useful gift to those of us in the United States. We are under siege by authoritarian movements. We have no experience to help us guide through these moments and so we really are looking to those outside the United States who have this experience to help guide us through this very treacherous moment for American democracy.”


Eleni said flexibility from funders proved crucial to enabling activists in Greece to be responsive and innovative in dangerous circumstances.

But Eric said: “There is something happening within liberal and progressive philanthropy that is making it hard for them to accept the political moment that we are in right now. We really need to snap out of it. We need to understand, democracy in the United States is in crisis. Greece was able to face the challenges of Golden Dawn and to move past it. So can we.

”But we need that support to be able to invigorate local communities, state governments, to build that large civil society response and we need it now.”

In a message to funders holding on to resources for a major crisis, Eric added: “That day is now. American democracy needs your support.”

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