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As Greek Nazis go to prison, their poison runs free

Oct 19,2020 - Last updated at Oct 19,2020

ATHENS — October 7 was a good day for democrats. The Greek Court of Appeals upheld the convictions of the leaders of Golden Dawn, the only openly Nazi party to have won seats in any parliament since the 1940s, on charges of murder, grievous bodily harm, and directing a criminal organisation. A crowd of 20,000 Athenians celebrated outside the court.

Our celebration lasted precisely 40 seconds, before the police dispersed us with teargas. Gasping for air, my wife and I tried to join hundreds of others struggling to escape via a narrow street leading to the safety of nearby Mount Lycabettus. A dozen riot police were there, firing gas canisters into the fleeing crowd. I pleaded with their commanding officer to stop. “There is no purpose in gassing people trying to go home,” I told him calmly. He swore at me. When I produced my parliamentary ID card, his response startled me: “Yet another reason to f*** you.”

The conviction of Greece’s Nazi leaders is a decisive victory against the revival of far-right extremism in Europe. But while they were being sent to prison, their ideas, manners, and hatred of parliamentary democracy were in police uniform, terrorising the streets.

A week later, a police internal affairs officer interviewed me as part of an investigation triggered by my testimony. I could not recognise the riot policeman’s face, because I was unable to breathe or see properly at the time of the incident. But I did recognise one thing: The look of calm loathing in his eyes, a look that reminded me of Kapnias, once a trained Gestapo interrogator.

I met Kapnias in 1991. I caught my first glimpse of him standing next to his goats, at the Southern Peloponnesian farm he shared with his wife, Yiayia Georgia, whom I was visiting for family reasons and whose life story deserves to be the focus of some talented dramatist’s masterpiece. Although Kapnias’s reputation had preceded him, I was not prepared for the quiet ferocity of that night’s welcome.

After settling into the bedroom that Georgia had adoringly prepared, and having broken bread with them, I excused myself and drove to the nearby town to meet up with local friends. Upon returning to the farmhouse, well after midnight, I could hear Kapnias’s distant snoring and an array of excited cats. Exhausted, I headed for bed. Two books had been placed on my pillow.

One was entitled Memoirs of a Prime Minister. Its author: the last prime minister of the fascist dictatorship of my youth, a puppet appointed by the brigadier who took the neofascist junta further into neo-Nazi territory after the student massacre of November 17, 1973. The second book was a small leather-bound edition, in an advanced state of disrepair, of Mein Kampf, published in Germany in 1934. Bedtime material to shock the visiting lefty, I surmised, courtesy of a semi-literate farmer trying to make a point.

As a teenager, Kapnias was an “untouchable” farmhand bonded to Georgia’s father, who was something of a nobleman in the mountain village of their origin. During the Nazi occupation, Georgia’s father acted as a liaison between British intelligence and the local leftist partisans, sabotaging in unison the nearby Wehrmacht brigade and several platoons of Italian soldiers. Georgia, the local beauty, fell in love and secretly married one of the partisans. Against the background of a harsh war, two children were born to the defiantly happy couple.

Meanwhile, Kapnias, the teenage menial, threw his lot in with the other side: He joined a paramilitary unit assembled by the local Gestapo and was sent to Crete for training in the dark arts of interrogation and counter-subversion. It was there that Hans, his instructor, gave him the leather-bound copy of Mein Kampf.

As the Germans retreated, Greece sank into the mire of a nightmarish civil war. Allies turned against one another, brother against brother, daughter against father. Georgia’s partisan husband found himself fighting the national army that the British supported and of which her father, having given his loyalty to the Brits, was now a local stalwart. Within two years, Georgia’s partisan husband was killed by the troops her father was working with. To complete the tragedy, her husband’s comrades killed her father. Widowed by her father’s nationalists and orphaned by her husband’s partisans, Georgia was left destitute with two small children.

It was Kapnias’s cue. Having made the transition from the Gestapo-organised paramilitary to the local gendarmerie, he was now in a position to exact revenge on the upper class of his small, quasi-feudal universe. He approached Georgia with a proposal: “You marry me, and I shall stop my ilk from ridding the land of you and your communist seed.” Believing she had no alternative but to acquiesce, Georgia was never to find respite until her death in 2012.

When I met him in 1991, I had assumed that figures like Kapnias were relics that would disappear one funeral at a time. I was wrong. A sense of permanent defeat, hopelessness, and widespread humiliation create an environment in which Nazism’s dormant DNA reawakens. Once Greek society was immersed in wholesale indignity, following our state’s bankruptcy in 2010, a new generation of Nazis, with Kapnias’s look in their eyes, took their seats in Parliament. Now, most of them are in prison for heinous crimes. But that look remains in the eyes of too many, not all of them in uniform.


Yanis Varoufakis, a former finance minister of Greece, is leader of the MeRA25 Party and professor of Economics at the University of Athens. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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