ATHENS — It is being called “the trial of the century.”
For four years, hundreds of witnesses, 69 defendants and almost 400 days of testimony and motions have riveted Greeks as no other trial in recent memory. It has become near daily fodder for local news media, social networks and cafe chat.
That’s because it’s the far-right Golden Dawn party on trial. Its leaders and members are accused of organizing and running a criminal organization that is responsible for numerous attacks and even two killings.
In the anticipated highlight, longtime party leader Nikos Michaloliakos testified this month in his own defense.
Now the trial is slowly winding down and the entire country is waiting for the verdict. Many hope it’s a reckoning for Golden Dawn.
“It’s high time that Golden Dawn’s leadership is held accountable for the crimes its members have committed,” said Kostas Papadakis, one of the lawyers trying Golden Dawn.
Golden Dawn’s rise serves as a template for a slew of right-wing nationalist parties that have become prominent across Europe in recent years, transforming the political landscape of EU countries. The party has existed since the late 1980s but for decades was a negligible force with only a few thousand supporters. It scored a major breakthrough in the 2015 elections by winning 6% of the vote and 17 seats in the Hellenic Parliament, emerging as the third-largest party in the country.
It was seven years after the financial crisis and the ensuing economic meltdown that hit Greece particularly hard, a time of EU-imposed austerity. Unemployment reached 27%, almost double that for the country’s youths.
It was also when almost 1 million migrants, fleeing crises at home, flooded into Europe from North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. Many of the refugees entered the European Union through Greece and put enormous strains on local services and governments.
“When the economic crisis hit the Greek society, which is still very traditional, it strove to keep its unity and cultural identity,” said George Pleios, a sociologist at the University of Athens. “It needed a scapegoat to explain the woes of the crisis, and it found it in the face of immigrants and the EU.”
Even before the party entered parliament in 2015, some Golden Dawn members were taken to court over physical attacks against political opponents. At the same time, prosecutors began building cases against 69 members of the party, including Mr. Michaloliakos and seven Golden Dawn lawmakers, for 60 charges that included murder in the death of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in 2013 and attempted murder of Egyptian fishermen and union members of the Communist Party of Greece. Prosecutors also investigating whether the party supported Nazi ideology and whether that spurred the physical attacks against leftists and immigrants.
Prosecutor Isidoros Dogiakos said in the indictment that Golden Dawn was a “militaristic criminal organization” under the total control of Mr. Michaloliakos, 61.
With the defendants’ testimony now on record, both legal teams are preparing concluding arguments. Legal observers say it will be several months before a verdict is rendered.
Some say the legal confrontation, while long in coming, is no surprise.
“Golden Dawn was created by a core of people that are neo-Nazi and followed Hitler’s example on how to climb to power,” said Mr. Papadakis, who is representing three Egyptian fishermen who say Golden Dawn members attempted to kill them in 2012. “Golden Dawn created groups similar to the Nazi’s paramilitary [SA], organized attacks against leftists and migrants, and cooperated with branches of the state, especially the police,” to quash investigations against its members.
Golden Dawn defendants deny all charges and say they are being persecuted because the right-wing government of New Democracy is losing voters to them. Mr. Michaloliakos and a number of Golden Dawn lawmakers have already spent more than 1 year in jail — the maximum for pretrial detention — in the wake of the killing of the rapper Fyssas.
“I believe we were framed for political reasons,” Mr. Michaloliakos told the inquiry last week. The party, he said, is “nationalist, not Nazi.”
Meanwhile, most members and former party lawmakers insist they know nothing of attacks on immigrants and leftists, military-style training of members or use of Nazi ideology.
When asked about the Nazi salute that many of its members use, the defendants say the gesture is an ancient Greek salute that the Nazis adopted.
“Greek soldiers and citizens used this salute,” Christos Pappas, a former lawmaker, said in his testimony. His confiscated hard drives containing dozens of photos of him doing a Nazi salute while wearing the swastika and teaching his children to say, “Heil Hitler.”
Some say the downfall of the party is a warning for far-right parties everywhere not to go too far, especially in emulating Nazis. Others dismiss such concerns and say the party is paying the price for speaking truth to elites.
Regardless, Golden Dawn’s fortunes have sharply receded. The party lost its parliamentary seats in July elections, replaced by a far-right rival called Greek Solution, and managed to secure one seat in the European Parliament, down from three in 2015.
The decline started after the anti-austerity stance of the ruling leftist Syriza party attracted many voters in 2015 and after the agreement to allow Macedonia to rename itself to North Macedonia, in what many saw as a betrayal of Greece. This rage produced a crop of far-right parties that siphoned voters from Golden Dawn, which became weaker as testimony from the trial started to hurt its standing with voters. Even so, many of the ideas it spread and the public debate it started still very much live on in Greece’s shifted political debate.
“Even the government’s latest bills have common grounds with what Golden Dawn supports, like making the asylum procedure harsher and cutting access to health care for asylum seekers,” Mr. Pleios said.
As the country awaits a verdict, Golden Dawn supporters are hoping for a comeback.
“The fact that the polls now show Golden Dawn at 1.5% support says that we’re not done yet,” tweeted Theodoros Kostopoulos, a supporter of Golden Dawn.