(Reuters/John Kolesidis)

The images play on in an interminable loop: the helmeted riot police, the young men poised to run, the burning rubbish skips and skittering Molotovs, the tear-gas smoke and glint of metal against the night. Athens in flames again. A video that’s gone viral clearly shows gangs of men throwing stones beside the police, far-right irregulars fighting under the state’s protection. There are other images too, less hot on the Internet, of the thousands who gathered to protest and mourn the murder of leftist rapper Pavlos Fyssas Tuesday night by a member of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, and to stand against the fascist poison that seeps out everywhere: on the streets and on TV, in parliament and police stations, in odd things the neighbours say.

This is not the first time Golden Dawn has killed, but it is their first known murder of a white Greek national—and their first clearly political assassination. Fyssas was a well-known anti-fascist; he was ambushed by a group of about thirty men (some in the familiar black shirts and camouflage pants) outside a cafe in the working-class suburb of Amfiali and stabbed twice in the chest, allegedly by a man who later told the police that he is a member of Golden Dawn. (As ever, the official police statement tiptoed around the issue, coyly stating that material from “a particular political tendency” was found in his apartment.)

The murder feels like part of a deliberate escalation: it comes at the end of a week of political (as opposed to merely racist) shows of force by the neo-Nazis. Last Thursday, some fifty blackshirts armed with clubs and crowbars set on thirty Communist Party supporters leafletting in Perama, one of Athens’s poorest neighbourhoods; nine communists were taken to hospital with serious injuries. Over the weekend, leftists protested a wreath-laying by a Golden Dawn MP on the memorial to victims of the Nazis in a northern village; a member of the MP’s entourage responded with a fascist salute. On Sunday Golden Dawn supporters disrupted a memorial at Meligalas for the hundreds of collaborators and their suspected supporters killed by the wartime left resistance as the Nazis withdrew; two Golden Dawn MPs seized the microphone from the mayor and lambasted the “traitor” government, while their acolytes skirmished with members of less “pure” nationalist groups.

In Greece, history is a powerful symbolic battleground. Having drawn the government onto its territory on immigration, Golden Dawn is raising the stakes and moving more explicitly against fascism’s deepest enemy, which has always been the left (or, in the neo-Nazis’ term “Judeo-Bolshevism”). Most of the 15 percent of Greeks who recently told pollsters they would vote for Golden Dawn have no interest in such ideological niceties; indeed, some are former left voters who’ve bought the populist, anti-immigrant and anti-elitist packaging in which the party has wrapped its neo-Nazi core. Without the aid and comfort of successive governments—especially Antonis Samaras’ New-Democracy led coalition—there is no way Golden Dawn would have the support it now enjoys.

New Democracy has played a dangerous game with the neo-Nazis, trying to win back votes by adopting some of its rhetoric and policies while using it as a vigilante force against immigrants and leftists—with help from Golden Dawn supporters inside the police. Samaras and some of his close advisers, have long-established links with the old Greek far right; a few days ago a well-known TV journalist floated the notion of a coalition between New Democracy and a “more serious” Golden Dawn.

But Golden Dawn’s success depends on its being seen as an anti-systemic force. There are indications of tensions within the movement: some members apparently want to clean up the party’s image and recruit more “respectable” candidates, while others want to expand the stormtroopers on the streets. With Fyssas’s murder, the radical wing has reared its head to snap at those who nurtured it—and at a critical moment for the government. The Troika’s representatives are knocking at the door to measure Greece’s progress before releasing the next loan; there’s a forty-eight hour strike on against cuts and layoffs. Some of the balance sheets may be looking a bit less bad, but more people are going hungry. The Greek “success story” promoted in the European press is now painfully thin; and in Germany Angela Merkel is up for re-election.

Prime Minister Samaras has gone on television today to condemn the neo-Nazis, for once playing down the rhetoric of “extremes of left and right” which usually accompanies these soul-searching moments. Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias has vowed to defend democracy and to discuss changing the law that defines criminal organizations and armed gangs. Neither of these men are fascists by conviction (though some in Greece call them that), but they have made common cause with a dark force they can’t and never could contain. What they have to offer now is too little and too late.

What comes next is almost anybody’s guess. Pavlos Fyssas’s murder has brought Greece’s little problem to the world’s attention; there are calls inside and outside the country for Golden Dawn to be banned. I don’t foresee this happening in a hurry. The party’s more radical elements—and its leadership—would like nothing better; they have repeatedly challenged the government to do just that. And, with a paper-thin majority and more reforms to push through at the point of the Troika’s gun, I doubt the government will risk the elections that would follow, even in the eighteen seats that Golden Dawn now holds.

Unless, that is, the snake decides to slough off its rougher skin, changes its name, learns manners, worms its way still deeper into Greece’s heart.