Schools in crisis-hit Greece are proving fertile ground for Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi group suspected of orchestrating attacks on migrants whose popularity is on the rise, anti-racism activists warn.
Once a secretive group on the fringe of Greek politics, Golden Dawn picked up over 400,000 votes in a June election dominated by anti-austerity anger.
Capitalising on popular anger with the perceived decades-old corruption of mainstream parties, the group elected 18 lawmakers in the 300-seat Greek parliament and is now the party of choice for one in 10 Greeks, polls show.
Still thin on numbers, Golden Dawn now seeks to spread the word to the next generation.
In November, a brawl broke out between Albanian and Greek high school pupils on the island of Crete over a Golden Dawn event advertised on Facebook, sending two of them to hospital.
A fight had previously broken out at the same school over neo-Nazi slogans found on a blackboard.
In various schools “there are organised gangs harassing foreign pupils and their parents, verbally so far but with an intensity that could at any minute turn into physical violence”, said Nicodemos Maina Kinyua, the 35-year-old editor of Athens-based African magazine Asante.
The Kenyan-born journalist, who has lived in Greece since childhood, says the country’s education system offers “fertile ground” for neo-Nazi influence.
“The dominant concept in school is that Greeks invented everything at the time when the rest of humanity was perched on trees, eating acorns,” he said.
Golden Dawn has taken a strong hand in enforcing the teaching of “accurate” history in schools.
The group denies that students were killed by security forces inside the Athens Polytechnic in 1973, a seminal event considered to have hastened the downfall of the army dictatorship then ruling the country.
And its leader Nikos Michaloliakos has publicly complained that Greek media are ruled by a “Red junta”.
During a recent school visit to parliament, one Golden Dawn deputy openly told pupils to resist the “terrorism” of the Left.
School authorities were already forced into action last month to halt the transfer of a maternity school teacher on the island of Lefkada, demanded by Golden Dawn after she decorated the classroom with both Greek and Albanian flags — in deference to her Albanian pupils — ahead of a Greek national holiday.
And a disciplinary procedure was opened in Athens against a high school principal who threatened to call in Golden Dawn to chastise his pupils.
“This threat is very much in fashion,” admits a high school teacher who was recently insulted by three of her pupils for her left-wing sympathies.
“What is worse is that two-thirds of my colleagues saw this incident as a justifiable dispute over politics,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another teacher, Artemis Kalogyri, said it was a constant struggle to keep neo-Nazi arguments and behaviour outside the high school in the working class Athens district of Kallithea where she teaches literature.
“Teens are being recruited, particularly those from poor families, and receive a training in theory and paramilitary tactics so that Golden Dawn can pass on the flame,” Kalogyri told a recent anti-racist gathering.
“Most of these youths want to change the world. They see the far-right as the guarantor of Hellenism against the threat of dissolution in which migrants are involved. Most of them want to join the police or the army,” she said.
Deputy education minister Theodoros Papatheodorou said the country must act “without delay”.
“There are sporadic attempts to penetrate schools and intimidate professors and pupils. It emanates either from parents who claim to be Golden Dawn members or from fully-fledged Golden Dawn cadres,” he told AFP.