If Excharia is the stronghold of the Greek antagonistic movement, Ayios Panteleimonas a kilometre or so North, is the base of the fascists. Approaching the square it looks just like any other area of Athens with only half ripped down anti-fascist posters indicating that there may be something unusual about this area. The square itself, set in front of a large and impressive church has none of the atmosphere of Excharia. While Excharia is lively, lived in and chaotic, Alyios Panteleimonas is clean, ordered and empty.
Police in ordinary uniforms stand relaxed on the street corner, while at the front of the square men with shaven heads sit on the benches. The area was practically deserted when I arrived, with a few old men sat inside reading newspapers, while the playground which had been the site of considerable discord after Fascists stopped all non-Greeks using the facilities, empty, desolate and overgrown. Around the square was graffitti, not the colourful artworks or the bold slogans that adorned other areas, but ugly black writing, multiply painted and postered over. While an electronic sign at the front of the square showed a circle/cross.
I wandered round the square, before settling in a cafe nearby. Almost deserted, I settled myself next to a small group of older, respectably dressed people and asked for a light. On hearing my English, one of the men turned round and started chatting, while obtaining a lighter from an older man in the group – asking me where I was from, how I liked Athens: the usual tourist small talk. On passing the lighter back to the older man, he laughed and said “It is good that you gave the lighter back, for he is our leader. He turned to the rest of the group and translated. They all laughed. He turned back to me saying, “He is a general” and pointed to his shoulders. “A general“.
Hearing the word “General” in a country which had a military dictatorship of the Generals up until 1974, spoken by someone in the heart of a known fascist area in its capital made me feel a little queasy. “You mean he was a soldier,I said “In the Second World War?”, feigning ignorance. Yes he said, turning back to the group. They talked among themselves for a while while I ordered coffee.
After a short time, he turned back to me, asking me how long I was in Greece, and what I did in Scotland. On hearing I ran my own business, he turned back to the group and they nodded approvingly. While we were talking, the older man who had given me a light started fumbling in his wallet, he took out a card, which looked to be some kind of military card and passed it to the man talking to me who showed me it. “See – a general” he said. The card was obviously very dated, with a picture of the old man taken when he was perhaps in his thirties. He passed it back to the old man who put it back in his wallet.
They chatted some more as I drank my coffee. And then the rest of the group got up to leave, introducing themselves to me and saying goodbye at the same time. The man turned back to me and started telling me about the Greek Islands, I complimented him on his English and he told me that he had spent two years in Manchester working there. I asked him what he did, and he told me he was a journalist, he had been working for the BBC there, and now worked for television in Greece behind the camera. I told him that it must be an interesting time to be in journalism with the elections coming up, and asked if he thought that the results would make any difference to the situation in Greece. No, he told me, elections would not make any difference, only other changes would.
I mentioned that I had heard that things were difficult in Greece, that I had met people whose wages were not getting paid and who were struggling to get by, particularly with the new electricity tax. He acknowledged that things were difficult. I said that things were starting to get difficult in the UK as well, with lots of cuts to services and people not being able to find a job, and mentioned that many people didnt like the current UK Prime Minister, David Cameron.
“Ah yes”, he said “David Cameron. He is a Jew”.
“Oh, no”, I said brightly, “He’s not new, he’s been in power for a few years now”.
No, No, he said, A JEW, from Israel.
“No, he’s definately British”, I replied, putting on my brightest smile.
“You dont understand me, he is a Jew, like the people from Israel. Many Jews came to Athens during the war”.
“To get away from the persecution in Germany?” I asked most innocently. His lip curled.
Although anti-immigrant sentiment ran high in Athens, this was the first time that I had heard outright racism, and I was quite surprised to hear it in the form of anti-semitism. I’m not old enough to remember the anti-semitic feeling that ran through Europe prior to the Second World War. Racism to me has always been a “colour” issue, rather than an ethnicity issue. Although Islamophobia has been rife for the last decade, the dark skin of most Muslims makes them more easily identifiable and it is somehow easier to think of it as a colour rather than a religion issue. Anti-semitism to me, seems a rather quaint form of racism.
“I have heard some people in Athens say that there are too many people coming into the country just now”, I said. “What do think?”
He looked about him before responding.
“It is not allowed to talk about these things” he said. “I will give you my email address and when you come back to Athens I will show you round the Greek Islands and we can talk about this by email”
I took his email address made my excuses and left the square, away from its cold, clean paving stones and back to the bustling busy streets. Walking away, I felt significantly uneasy. Not speaking Greek I was unable to follow the conversation that had taken place within the group and wasn’t entirely sure of what I had just encountered. These weren’t skin-headed tattooed Nazis, but respectable men and women, in expensive and neat clothes, who it would seem had a level of affluence amid a sea of poverty and, very possibly, a war criminal.
With the Golden Dawn – an explicitly fascist party – expected to take between 5-8% of the vote in tomorrow’s elections which could give them up to 12 seats, the austerity being imposed on Greece may have a nasty backlash. There is undoubtably a significant radical presence from both the anarchists and the communists and the fascists are being robustly challenged on the streets as well as in the parliament, with the recent destruction of their party headquarters, the fact they exist at all is a worrying sign in a country where politically, all bets are off.