In Thermopylae, in the year 480 B.C., King Leonidas of Sparta and hundreds of Greek warriors made history by battling 300,000 invaders who made up the army of Xerxes, the Persian King of Kings. A bronze statue of Leonidas towers there now, and on a late August day in the year 2012, about 800 people crowded around it. Many were unsmiling men in army fatigues and black T-shirts printed with a meandros, an ancient Greek symbol that happens to resemble a swastika. Some had shaved heads and pork-chop sideburns. "Greece belongs to the Greeks!" the men in black chanted as they marched, giving Nazi-style salutes and waving giant Greek flags as ominous orchestral music blared. They flanked the statue, lit flares and yelled, "Blood! Honor! Golden Dawn!"
Cheers issued from the crowd, which included bleached-blond grandmothers in Black Sabbath T-shirts, young couples with babies and a priest carrying olive wreaths. "Traitors and thieves are everywhere!" screamed the party's leader, a mathematician and former army-reserve commando named Nikos Michaloliakos, 54. He accused politicians of plundering the country and allowing a flood of illegal immigrants from Africa and South Asia to "pollute" Greece. "We are being invaded, and we must clean our country of them!" he declared. "No more Hassan, Mohammad, Ali!"
That paranoid vision isn't coming from a fringe party. More potent than fascist and ultra-nationalist groups that have begun to thrive elsewhere on the continent, Golden Dawn has manipulated a weak Greek state and disastrous austerity management by European bureaucrats to become, according to recent polls, the third most popular political party in the country a noxious omen for the euro zone and a worrying challenge and counterpoint to the very idea of the E.U. itself, which received this year's Nobel Peace Prize.
Healthy democracies usually know how to blunt the appeal of such obvious fascism. But the birthplace of democracy hasn't been healthy for a while and it has been hobbled by an economic crisis that won't lift (if the optimists are right) till well into the next decade. Three years ago, Greeks ignored Golden Dawn, seeing its members as neo-Nazi thugs waging war against migrants and giving it a miserable 0.29% of the vote. This year, however, Golden Dawn rebranded as an anti-austerity party won nearly 7% and secured 18 of the 300 seats in Parliament. Its ascent has continued in opinion surveys despite its parliamentary deputies' being filmed attacking immigrant vendors and demanding that all non-Greek children be kicked out of day-care centers and hospitals. As the cash-strapped government struggles to offer its citizens basic services, Golden Dawn has set up parastate organizations to police the streets, donate to Greek-only blood banks and help unemployed Greeks find jobs. The party has also promised to cancel household debt for the unemployed and low-wage earners. "Soon we'll be running this country," says Ilias Panagiotaros, a beefy 38-year-old army-supply-shop owner who is now a Golden Dawn parliamentary deputy representing Athens. "The people love us."
Golden Dawn draws much of that love from fear. Greece is now the main entry point for at least 80% of the E.U.'s un-documented migrants. Frontex, the E.U. border-patrolling agency, estimates that 57,000 illegal immigrants slipped into Greece last year and more than 100,000 entered in 2010. Many travel through Turkey, often via a land border that Golden Dawn wants to plant with land mines. Some seek asylum, and because of E.U. rules, those who want to apply for refugee status must do so in their country of entry in this case, Greece which often takes years to review the applications. As Europe turns a blind eye to the immigration crisis, many impoverished foreigners find themselves trapped in an economically crippled country that can't sustain them.
Some Greeks no longer want to be hospitable. In the past year, gangs of vigilantes, many sporting Golden Dawn's black shirts, have beaten and stabbed hundreds of migrants, according to human-rights groups. In June a number of them broke into the Piraeus home of Abouzeid Mubarak, 28, an Egyptian fisherman, bashing him with iron rods until he fell into a coma. "It was a hate that was inhuman," says Mubarak, who is still recovering.