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Building Castles: Neo-Nazi fight clubs on the rise in Athens

Karim Zidan delves into Propatria Festival, an annual extreme right MMA tournament and rock concert that takes place in Athens and how it is used as a recruitment tool for white supremacists. 

A short distance away from the Ministry of Justice in Athens stands a five-storey building at 131 Mesogeion Avenue that once symbolized the success of Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party that dominated Greek politics for several years. Yet following investigations into murder, a trial on suspicion of forming a criminal organization, and their eventual collapse at the 2019 Greek legislative election, the building is no longer a status symbol for fascism. Instead, its shuttered doors and crumbing facade tell the story of the political party’s recent demise.

Despite forming in the 1980s, Golden Dawn began to gain popularity amid those who opposed immigration following the 2008 economic recession. This led to an increase in violence against those segments of Greek society. In 2010, they won a seat in the Athens City Council. By 2012, the party ran during the Greek national elections and won 7% of the popular vote, which gave them 21 seats in parliament. Three years later, Golden Dawn had risen to become the third largest party in parliament with 18 seats.

However, during Golden Dawn’s rise in Greek politics, the xenophobic and violent party targeted migrants, Muslims, left-wing celebrities, and political opponents. Hundreds of assaults were reported and several migrants were killed. An attack on anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in 2013 was also fatal and led to the eventual arrest of Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos, as well as many of the party’s prominent MPs. The group is now classified as a criminal organization and the trial is currently ongoing.

In July 2019, Golden Dawn was dealt a significant blow when the party failed to win a single seat in the 2019 legislative elections. The party achieved 2.93 percent of the votes, failing to clear the three percent hurdle needed to secure any seats in the 300-member House. While Greece’s new prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, referred to it as a “great victory for Greek democracy,” it was not the final nail in the coffin of far-right politics in Greece.

New far right party Greek Solution — a group that wants a 200km wall built along Greece’s border with Turkey — secured 10 seats in parliament. There is also a growing concern about the rise of neo-Nazi fight clubs in Athens and the lengths they will go to to recruit disenfranchised youth. One such group is Propatria, a neo-Nazi inspired MMA tournament that attracts white supremacists and ultra-nationalists from across Europe.

Pro Patria Festival

Founded by a small group of extreme right-wing martial artists in 2014, Pro Patria is a neo-Nazi fight club based in Athens that hosts MMA tournaments for like-minded fighters across Europe.

Pro Patria’s founders emerged from various ultranationalist backgrounds, including the collapsed Golden Dawn political party, the Blood & Honor white supremacist group, and local armed militias such as Combat 18 and Anentaxtoi Maiandrioi Ethnikistes (AME). The group held its first show in 2014 at an unknown location in Athens. They later began to use nationalist slogans to name their events, including Spirit of Our Ancestors and Sons of Macedonia.

Much like other neo-Nazi MMA tournaments in the region, Pro Patria grew its brand and fanbase by associating itself with other notable neo-Nazi MMA groups such as White Rex, Pride France, and Kampf der Nibelungen (KdN). They invited fighters from these groups to participate in their annual showcases. Tomasz Szkatulski, the founder of Pride France, was a regular competitor on Pro Patria’s shows. Others who took part in the Pro Patria events include Lucas Hartmann, an activist for Junge Nationalisten (JN) which is the official youth organization of the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany, and “Hammerskin” Joël Moret from western Switzerland.

The group also traveled to other MMA events across Europe and quickly became a staple in the Pan European Martial Arts Network taking shape among neo-Nazi fight clubs. In 2015, Pro Patria was represented by fighter Themis Kanaris at White Rex’s Duh Voina event in Rome, as well as the ‘Day of Glory’ event hosted in France. In 2018, several Pro Patria members traveled to Ostritz, Germany to attend the Battle of the Nibelung show at the Sword and Shield festival.

The 2019 Pro Patria Festival, which took place on April 6 in a warehouse outside Athens, was arguably the most successful one to date. What once began as an events with a few dozen supporters had developed into an annual showcase that attracted several hundred spectators. The event garnered groups from France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Among the participants were several key members of the KdN fight club, including Dortmund’s Marvin Esterholz. Once the fights were completed, a concert took place featuring neo-Nazi bands such as Battle Dogs, Green Arrows, and Terror Orpha.

In the aftermath of the show, Pro Patria released a statement thanking its supporters among the “European Nationalist Movement:”

Another festival has come to an end. After weeks of preparation and hard work Propatria and Pride France presented you with the biggest martial arts festival in Greece to date. We hope that this will be the start of many other international events and collaborations among the European Nationalist movement. We would like to thank all of the participants, the athletes and the bands and hope to see you next time with an even bigger crowd and more activities! Until Victory! Propatria

Outside of their MMA tournaments, Pro Patria also holds annual “summer camps” known as “Building Castles,” where members gather for a two-day retreat filled with combat sports training, ideological discussions, and archeological site visits. These retreats coupled with the festival offer exclusive spaces for like-minded extremists to find self-assurance and camaraderie, recruit new members, and expand their militant network. However, the rise of fascist fight clubs such as Pro Patria lead to a counter-reaction from left-leaning gyms and fight clubs that promise to fight fire with fire.

Fighting Fascism

For the past few years the White Tiger Muay Thai Camp has held the reputation as one of the most prominent anti-fascist gyms in Athens. Founded by Ilias Lamprou, a Muay Thai expert with an extensive history of combating oppression and attending solidarity movements in places like Palestine and Genoa, is home to over 100 students who share his vehement distaste for fascism and ultranationalism.

If you ask Lamprou about the role of martial arts in the anti-fascist movement, he would inform you that Greece has a long history of fighting Nazis. The mass killings of Greek jews, communists, and social democrats created an environment ripe for resistance and paved the way for decades of clashes between the far-right and the left. In short, Greek anti-fascism arose from the destruction caused by fascism — a violent antidote to combat radical authoritarianism.

“Historically and socially, there is only one way to deal with fascism…violence.” Lamprou told BloodyElbow.

However, instead of pitting his own students against those representing neo-Nazi fight clubs, Lamprou teaches his students to deny platforms to fascists. He does not allow them to complete in matches against opponents who either support or are affiliated to far-right movements such as Golden Dawn, as he believes it would only provide them with a platform to spread their propaganda.

“You can’t separate anti-fascism from the bigger view of things that happened socially in Europe, America or even further. Historically, the state used fascism as a useful tool to hold back progressive changes. We need to overcome these obstacles in order to clearly see the way to personal or social emancipation.”

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Greece — a country with a longstanding history of resisting fascism — is facing its latest ultranationalist challenge. Given that both sides of the ongoing struggle are using martial arts to further their interests — whether it be as a recruitment tool for disenfranchised youth, or a mechanism for self defence in the face of extremists — it is evidently clear that combat sports will continue to play a significant role in both the fascist and anti-fascist movements.

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