By Dora Illei and Zahava Moerdler
In this four-part blog series, Human Rights First is examining the crimes and trial of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a neo-Nazi terrorist cell whose crimes were left unsolved for over a decade. It will also preview our upcoming report on rising antisemitism, xenophobia, and intolerance in Germany, a trend underscored by structural racism and the inadequacy of state responses to hate crimes. Read part one here, part two here, and part three here.
The NSU trial demonstrates Germany’s clear need to better train law enforcement to address hate violence. The problems highlighted by the NSU trial, such as institutional discrimination among law enforcement, are not confined to Germany, however. For example, Golden Dawn’s continued operation in Greece raises similar concerns.
A comparison of the crimes and trials of these two groups illustrates common failures to address hate crimes and protect minorities. Parallel failures can be seen in the United States as well.
The Golden Dawn is a far-right, Greek nationalist party founded in 1985 and currently led by Nikolaos Michaloliakos. After gaining significant political support in 2012 in the wake of the Greek economic crisis, the party won 18 seats in the Greek Parliament. This rise is significant because of the nefarious personal and ideological ties of their leadership to Greek army officers who collaborated with the Nazis during WWII, fought with the British against Greek communists in 1944, and led “the Junta,” a U.S.-backed military dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974.
The Golden Dawn holds extreme anti-immigrant views, and party leaders have openly expressed their hatred of outsiders, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and political adversaries. According to one pro-Golden Dawn website, the party believes national identity is “based on blood, not the definition of any administrative government.” Alexandros Plomaritis, a parliamentary candidate for the party in 2012, said of immigrants, “We are ready to open the ovens. We will turn them into soap…to wash cars and pavements. We will make lamps from their skin.” Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panagiotaros once described Hitler as a “great personality, like Stalin,” and, in the same interview, denounced homosexuality as “a sickness.”
Such extreme language implicitly supports extreme actions among party supporters, who have been known to intimidate, harass, and assault immigrants. There have been incidents of supporters destroying immigrant traders’ stalls at street fairs, as well as physical attacks on immigrants, sometimes using dogs. In some cases, known representatives of the party are present during these attacks.
These violent crimes are often left unchecked, and police have, in some cases, refrained from intervening in violent situations or failed to investigate afterwards. Support for the Golden Dawn within the police force contributes to this problem. In parts of Athens, polls show police support for the party is as high as 19 to 24 percent.
It wasn’t until anti-fascist musician Pavlos Fyssas was murdered on September 17, 2013, that the Greek authorities took significant legal action to confront the party’s violence. As a result, sixty-nine Golden Dawn members are now on trial, including their leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos. The charges include operating a criminal organization. If found guilty, a dozen MPs face 10-year prison sentences.
When the trial began in 2015 it was expected to last a year. Over a year and a half later, the trial continues. From the beginning of the first court session, the trial has been marred by inefficiencies, a lawyers’ strike, and delays. With these developments, the public and media attention has since waned—which is worrisome. Similarly, the NSU trial has also struggled to keep the attention of the media, particularly the international press. Human Rights First has consistently called on the U.S. Embassy in Athens to send observers to the Golden Dawn trial, and will continue to do so. More international coverage of the trial will help provide pressure to bring this protracted trial to a close.
Both the NSU and Golden Dawn trials demonstrate the need for reform within German and Greek law enforcement. Following the decision to prosecute Golden Dawn members, two senior police officers resigned and several police officers were suspended for their ties with the party. However, this does little to address the deeply rooted apathy the Greek police force showed towards crimes committed by Golden Dawn supporters.
If immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups are to feel safe in their communities—whether in Greece, Germany, or the United States—they must trust local law enforcement to treat all citizens fairly and equally. Institutional racism, whether it manifests itself as tolerance of violence against marginalized communities as it did in Greece, or the use of racist stereotypes as the basis of investigations as it did in Germany, prevents that trust from forming.
The same is true in the United States; institutional racism has led to the over-policing of communities of color and has limited accountability in cases of excessive use of force by police officers. This leaves communities feeling unprotected or in some cases directly targeted by law enforcement. Both the NSU trial and the Golden Dawn trial must demonstrate to marginalized communities an effort to rebuild this sense of trust.
Additionally, witnesses in hate crime trials require protection so that their testimony can be ensured and their lives protected. While there have been no recorded threats on witness at the NSU trial, there have been concrete threats to both journalists and witnesses in the Golden Dawn trial. These threats must be monitored and accounted for in order to ensure fairness and transparency.
Both the NSU and Golden Dawn trials illustrate the need for judicial and law enforcement reform in these countries and highlight the existence of institutional racism within law enforcement structures. To fully confront these issues, both trials require greater international attention during their resolution.
Human Rights First calls on the U.S. government to send observers to both trials and to place pressure on the German and Greek governments to address the issues within their legal systems that allowed for the Golden Dawn and NSU to go unprosecuted for so long. The U.S. government should also continue to monitor the proceedings through its annual human rights reports, make public statements if due process concerns arise, and place pressure on the Greek and German government to protect the witnesses in the trials. Additionally, the U.S. government should use this as an opportunity for collaboration in the process of understanding and addressing the role of institutional racism in American law enforcement.