More than 5,000 black-clad neo-Nazis peacefully rallied in Athens Saturday night in support of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party, in the movement's biggest show of support since it emerged from obscurity to win 7 percent of the vote in last June's general election. Supporters marched past the U.S. Embassy, chanted anti-immigrant slogans and held burning torches in commemoration of the 1996 incident that caused a clash between Greece and Turkey.
Reuters Around 5,000 hardline Golden Dawn supporters gathered in Athens in memory of three pilots killed in 1996.
Billed as a remembrance rally, the event in central Athens on Saturday attracted a crowd of 30,000 to honor three "fallen heroes" of the party. Men dressed in military fatigues, baseball caps and swastikas lit torches and fired flares, chanting anti-immigration slogans.
"We are winning the hearts and minds of the people, because we say it as it is," Golden Dawn MP and spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris told supporters.
"These politicians who have ruled us for decades are crooks. They have betrayed our national interests. They have led us to humiliating defeats," he said, referring to a 1996 dispute with fellow NATO member Turkey, when three Greek air force pilots were killed in a dispute over an Aegean island before the U.S. intervened, forcing both sides to back down.
"This is a day of remembrance," Kasidiaris added "It's a day to remember that Golden Dawn is here to stay. And so long as it does, there will be hope for the country."
But for hard-core Golden Dawn supporters, the retreat was seen as a capitulation, and the party gained traction with the country's young and unemployed in the context of economic disaster at home and the increasing control wielded by foreign creditors over Greece's failing finances.
"They calls us fascists, thugs and criminals," Vassilis, a 23-year-old recruit who joined the party because of his disenchantment with the country's political elite, said.
"We're nationalists. We're patriots. And if these guys who ruled the country for decades had a fiber of the nationalism we're running on, they would have never brought the country to its current predicament."
Hundreds of riot police and security officials were deployed on the march, which took place near the prime minister's office and the Turkish embassy in Athens. Surrounding roads were cordoned off by police, bringing traffic to a halt.
"For a nation that suffered dearly under the Nazis, neo-Nazi gatherings like these should be banned," Sofia Laniti, a 47-year-old saleswoman, said.
The vigilante far-right movement has begun spreading its anti-immigration message in schools and youth clubs and through online social media networks, according to recent reports in the international press.
The party has been able to capitalize on the harsh austerity that has been imposed as a condition of Greece maintaining its euro zone membership. As Greece's economic fortunes have plummeted, so Golden Dawn's fortunes have soared.
Standards of living have diminished for the middle classes, while the nation has seen its sovereignty ceded to foreign creditors.
Campaigning on a platform of expelling immigrants, Golden Dawn took 7 percent of the vote in general elections last June, having polled just 0.2 percent in the previous election in 2009. This gave Golden Dawn 18 seats in parliament.
That marked a breakthrough for the party, which was founded in 1993 but had long been regarded as too extreme. Since then, it has seen its popularity double again, currently polling in third place behind the conservative New Democracy and the main opposition party, the radical leftist Syriza.
The collapse of the ruling conservative-leftist coalition could leave the route open for Golden Dawn to capture second place in a snap election, pollsters say.
The party has attracted votes from across the political spectrum, wiping out the more moderate nationalist LAOS party and winning support from the communist KKE party.
It has also stolen a march on New Democracy, which appeared indecisive on the international bailout keeping Greece afloat, and later lost popularity when it imposed harsh spending cuts instead of relief measures.
Golden Dawn's core supporters are disaffected urban men, but the party is gaining ground among women and the elderly, particularly the unemployed.
Mobilising grassroots support is the party's preferred method of gaining recruits, with Golden Dawn taking a close involvement in neighborhood initiatives, particularly those in areas with rising crime or high numbers of immigrants.
Gyms and athletic and martial arts clubs are seen as ripe recruiting grounds, while the party now boasts a patriotic supporters' club, known as Galazia Stratia, or the Blue Army.
Its trademark campaigns of violence and intimidation now appear to be spreading to the playground, with nationalist graffiti, slogans and swastika emblems beginning to appear around schools.
"It's the feature of vitality, a need to show they're strong, young and fresh and are creating something new -- be it a new party, a new country," Vassiliki Georgiadou, a professor at Panteion University and an expert in far-right nationalism who has studied Golden Dawn for years, said. "They discard the label of Nazism and instead play up the nationalist card. They use ancient Greek history as a camouflage to hide their true identity: that they're fans of Hitler, anti-Semitism."
More than 50 teachers, parents and teenage students from schools in Athens have backed up his claims, telling the Independent that the party's increasingly fashionable image meant it was gaining a fan base among young people.
One youthful supporter, Stavros, 16, admitted to the paper that he had thrown rocks and fruit at the homes of Pakistani immigrants.
"I did this to get them to respect our country, because I love Greece so much," he said. "Golden Dawn kids are not killers but people who are worried that we won't be able to find jobs because of all those illegal immigrants."
Another young supporter, Evdoxia, 16, told the paper: "Golden Dawn is not a descendant of Nazism. Whoever thinks it is doesn't know what the party's really about. Golden Dawn is trying to offer solutions amid difficult times. Contrary to other parties, they actually do what they say they will."
Ernesto, a youth of Albanian origin, described how his classmate Kostas fell in with the shaven-headed, black-vested youths who support Golden Dawn.
"Kostas felt he was different by hanging out with them. They were the mean, cool guys that everyone was afraid of. They hated immigrants and even taught their dogs to growl at Africans. It was crazy."
The party denies it advocates Nazi-inspired racial violence, but several of its MPs recently participated in a coordinated attack on immigrant market vendors, whose stalls were smashed up in Athens.
The daughter of the party's leader was arrested over a racist attack last June, while Kasidiaris achieved notoriety when he was filmed slapping Liana Kanelli, a communist MP, across the face.
Ioannis Vouldis, the Golden Dawn MP who heads the party's youth branch, refused to comment directly to the media. "At present, there is a decision not to talk to the press," he said.