A dictator’s disciple and a woman who describes migrants as “sub-human” are the power couple behind Greece’s Golden Dawn, the neo-fascist party facing a police crackdown after the murder of an anti-fascist musician last week.
Party leader Nikos Michaloliakos, 56, arrested on Saturday, is a disgraced former officer cadet and devotee of former Greek dictator George Papadopoulos, with whom he spent time in prison in the late 1970s for an assault and bombing attack.
His wife Eleni Zaroulia, who joined her husband in parliament in June last year, turned heads when she appeared in the chamber wearing a ring in the shape of the Iron Cross, the military decoration of Nazi Germany’s armed forces.
The family hails from Greece’s southern Peloponnese Peninsula, a particularly right-wing area of the country, and even their daughter Urania, 25, has urged members to “give up everything” for the party’s “holy” ideology.
“Ask yourself, are you ready to die for what you believe ... ask yourself how far you are prepared to go,” she wrote in a Web posting this month.
Golden Dawn offices around the country have been subjected to police raids after anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas was stabbed to death by an alleged self-confessed neo-Nazi on Sept. 18.
Handpicked by Papadopoulos to lead the youth of far-right National Political Union, Nikos Michaloliakos founded Golden Dawn in the mid-1980s.
The party follows a strict military-style regimen. Its members conduct parades dressed in black shirts and camouflage trousers, and are required to stand to attention before higher-ranking members.
Michaloliakos’ first elected post was as an Athens municipal councilor in 2010, where he was filmed taunting a left-wing opponent with fascist salutes.
At the time of its inception and for years thereafter, Golden Dawn glorified Adolf Hitler and the warrior ethos of Nazi Germany in its party publications.
One of the party’s older texts, read in parliament by a leftist MP in May, called Hitler a “visionary of new Europe.”
“Faith in the words of the Fuehrer, and faith in victory, grows in our hearts. The fight goes on, the future is ours,” the text read.
This rhetoric was later toned down.
Even so, in an interview last year Michaloliakos effectively denied the Holocaust, telling Greece’s Mega channel: “There were no crematoria, it’s a lie. Or gas chambers.”
Formerly on the fringe of Greek politics, Golden Dawn went from 19,000 votes a few years ago to over 426,000 in June last year after pledging to “scour the country” clean of illegal immigrants.
Greece, which has a population of 11 million, has around 800,000 legally-registered immigrants — many of whom have come from Albania — and an estimated 350,000 undocumented immigrants, including Afghans, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.
Many Greeks blame migrants for a rise in violent crime as the country slogs through its sixth year in recession. More than a million people are unemployed, including almost 60 percent of young people.
Michaloliakos has called illegal immigration a “wound” for Greece, while his wife Zaroulia described immigrants as “sub-humans” in a speech to parliament, saying they had “invaded” the country bringing “all sorts of diseases.”
To the dismay of anti-racist activists and Jewish groups, Zaroulia was appointed in October last year to the committee on equality and non-discrimination of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly.
Golden Dawn denies any involvement in violence, though several of its lawmakers have been involved in assaults and are due to face trial.
Party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris infamously hit female Communist MP Liana Kanelli across the face during a heated talk show debate in June last year, and will stand trial for the incident. He was also arrested on Saturday as part of the crackdown.
The organization maintains it has been unfairly targeted ahead of European parliament and municipal elections next year.
Ethnos daily last year said Michaloliakos and Zaroulia had owned a sex hotel in central Athens until the eve of national elections.
Quizzed on the issue, Michaloliakos later admitted that his wife owned 15 percent of the hotel, but he insisted: “I don’t know what kind of hotel it is. We have nothing to do with its operation.”