SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Two of the Greek-American community’s most prominent members, Californians Angelo Tsakopoulos, a noted developer, and former state treasurer Phil Angelides, said the continuing rise of the ultra far-right Golden Dawn party in Greece is alarming for a country that fought the Nazis so valiantly in World War II.
In an interview with the Sacramento Bee, they outlined their fears. Tsakopoulos said he’d seen the work of Nazis up close: as a 6-year-old in Greece, he said he watched his aunt dig her own grave before she was executed by them, and his father was a member of the Resistance.
He said villagers fought fiercely and tried to protect Jews, with scores of thousands paying with their lives in atrocities and executions.
Speaking before Golden Dawn – whose hierarchy has been arrested or jailed while awaiting trial of running a criminal gang – won 10 percent of the vote in the European Parliament elections to gain three seats in Brussels, they warned of the party’s notorious anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant stance and bigotry and hatred.
Human rights groups describe Golden Dawn as a neo-Nazi group and Tsakopoulos and Angelides have joined a chorus of Greek American leaders and elected officials in denouncing Golden Dawn.
Golden Dawn’s rise has been mirrored in other European countries, including France, where the far-right extremists National France won their country’s European Parliament vote, and in Hungary, with a similar group called Jobbik soaring in popularity as people oppressed by austerity measures have turned to them.
Angelides likened the rise of these groups to that of the Nazis in the 1920s and 30s. “People are looking for a scapegoat, which is right out of the Nazi playbook,” Angelides said.
Angelides said he and Tsakopoulos are trying to raise awareness and are urging the Greek government to make “every legal effort” to isolate Golden Dawn and prevent its participation in the political system.
Golden Dawn got 7 percent of the vote and 18 seats in the Greek Parliament in 2012 and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was accused by critics of allowing them to gain a stronger foothold by shelving an anti-racism bill in hopes of gaining some of its voters for his New Democracy Conservatives, who also oppose illegal immigrants being in Greece.
Golden Dawn’s slogans included “so we can rid this land of filth” and “revenge against the system,” according to a report released last year by the World Jewish Congress.
In December, nearly 50 people, including the leader of Golden Dawn, two police officers and five members of Parliament were arrested and charged with murder, blackmail, explosions and other crimes, Amnesty International reported.
“In the past three years, there has been a dramatic escalation in hate attacks against refugees and migrants,” the human rights organization said. “Hate crimes have also been recorded against the Roma (gypsy) community and the LGBT community.”
The Golden Dawn website declares that amid the economic crisis, “the need of REAL Socialism and solidarity between the members of our Race becomes critical. In a country that has 25 percent unemployment … Golden Dawn strengthens the unemployed, the sick, the poor, the big families.”
Tsakopoulos, 78, told the Bee said when he saw the Golden Dawn flag, an ancient Greek meander resembling a swastika, “The first thing that flashed through my mind was when the Nazis hung 18 people in a town a half-mile away from mine.” He said the lynching was payback for a Nazi soldier shot during a surprise inspection of homes in the town.
Both Tsakopoulos and Angelides have a history of championing Jewish causes. Tsakopoulos said he pressed Samaras to sign agreements with Israel in 2013. Angelides worked with the Clinton Administration to obtain $5.2 billion in restitution from German firms that forced Jews and others into slave labor during World War II.
Tsakopoulos told the newspaper that Golden Dawn’s condemnation of immigrants hits home with him in part because of his own experience.
Tsakopoulos arrived in California at 15, got a job shining shoes, learned to farm and waited tables. He said that teachers, farmers and customers went out of their way to help him, including one diner who taught him how to go into real estate. He subsequently amassed a fortune and become one of the region’s largest private landowners.
Approximately a million immigrants have come to Greece in recent years, including Bulgarians, Serbians, Albanians and Afghans, Tsakopoulos said. While Golden Dawn got its foothold blaming immigrants for the loss of jobs, “the cause of their problems is not the immigrants or the Gypsies or the Jews.”
Angelides said the dire economic situation in Greece is to blame, a situation exacerbated by austerity measures imposed by the government on orders of international lenders, driving down the popularity of New Democracy and its coalition partner, the PASOK Socialists.
“In Greece today, they are in desperate times, and there is no prospect of it getting better,” Angelides said. “We ought to be urging the European nations to stop this senseless policy of austerity that’s driving these countries down.”