ATHENS (AFP) – Nikos Michaloliakos, the founding chief of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, is a lifelong disciple of the far-right and a Holocaust denier who rode a wave of popular anger over austerity to steer his once-fringe party to finishing third in January elections.
Dubbed “the Fuehrer” by investigating magistrates, the heavyset 57-year-old with a fiery disposition goes on trial Monday along with 68 others linked to his party, facing charges of heading a criminal organization.
State prosecutors will try to prove that the openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic group operated as a criminal organization under a military-style leadership that allegedly encouraged the beating — and possibly the killing — of migrants and political opponents.
Handpicked by ex-Greek dictator George Papadopoulos to lead a far-right youth group after Greece’s ruling military junta fell, Michaloliakos went on to found Golden Dawn in the mid-1980s.
In the 1990s he took advantage of a flood of immigration from the Balkans to hone his racist message while violence against migrants and leftwing activists multiplied.
Yet at the time Golden Dawn only managed to capture one percent of the vote and did not hold a single seat in parliament.
Then came the economic crisis in 2008 and accompanying spikes in poverty, unemployment as well as rounds of punishing austerity. Michaloliakos was first elected to Athens City Council in 2010, then he and 17 other party members won seats in the Greek parliament in 2012.
He courted controversy at one of his first council meetings with a Nazi salute, though his group rejects the neo-Nazi label, saying instead it is Greek nationalist.
Even so, for many years Golden Dawn glorified Adolf Hitler in its party publications.
In a May 2012 interview Michaloliakos effectively denied the Holocaust, telling Greece’s Mega channel: “There were no crematoria, it’s a lie. Or gas chambers.”
Rhetoric glorifying the Nazis was later toned down as the party adjusted its message to better suit Greek voter concerns.
“Greece is disappearing, there are millions of illegal immigrants and among them are criminals who kill elderly people in their villages,” Michaloliakos said on the campaign trail in 2012.
He and his wife Eleni Zaroulia, along with 15 other Golden Dawn members, were re-elected to the 300-seat legislature in January, despite the criminal charges that will put him on trial Monday. The party finished third overall in the ballot.
Michaloliakos was born in Athens and trained as a mathematician. He joined the ranks of the far right at the age of 16, before being arrested and imprisoned four years later for possessing and using explosives.
It was in prison that he came into contact with Papadopoulos and his training began for a life as an extreme-right militant.
He was sent to prison in 1976 and again in 1978 for violent acts that resulted in him being kicked out of the military, where he was training to be an officer.
The trial, to be conducted by a panel of three judges, follows a 15-month investigation sparked by the fatal stabbing of Greek rapper Pavlos Fyssas by a Golden Dawn supporter in September 2013, a crime that shocked Greece.
The group was later also linked to the murder of a Pakistani immigrant and beatings of political opponents.
Michaloliakos was arrested a couple days after Fyssas’s murder and spent 18 months — the maximum under Greek law — in provisional detention.
“When we will be powerful, we will be ruthless. It’s then that we will show what assault militias stand for… what it means to sharpen bayonets on the pavements,” said Michaloliakos recently.
Some of the defendants on trial, who include police officers, face sentences of up to 20 years in prison if convicted.