Mainstream executioners

In 1989, the Polish-born historian Zygmunt Bauman wrote, «We live in a type of society that made the Holocaust possible, and that contained nothing which could stop the Holocaust from happening.» The Holocaust, he said, was not the story of European civilization gone awry, rather, modern society contained the seed, soil and water that made it possible. Yiannis Pretenderis’s view on the birth and life of the November 17 terrorist group is intellectually disquieting in a similar way. This is not the history of society victimized by terrorism, but of society as the moral agent. Society is presented as the incubator, if not the instigator of terrorism. Pretenderis paints a frustrating portrait: Greece is a country where the people never protested against terrorism. A country where people, even though a small minority, actually demonstrated in favor of the victimizers while chanting revolting slogans insulting their victims. A country where the dismantling of the terrorist gang was met with suspicion, skepticism, even grief – not only among ordinary people but also among intellectuals and political cadres. A country where, 14 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the official communist party is still standing on the wrong side of history. In such a fertile context, the author asserts, it should come as no surprise that the November 17 urban guerrillas remained elusive for 27 years. «The Confrontation: The Life and Death of November 17» (Estia, 2002) is not concerned with the details of the summer crackdown on November 17. Pretenderis, a journalist at To Vima newspaper, rather tries to interpret the birth and the life but, above all, the longevity of the phenomenon – especially in the light of later evidence showing the group’s often embarrassing amateurism. «November 17 remained elusive so long as anachronism had the upper hand. And it ended up in Korydallos [Prison] when anachronism lost the broader conflict,» Pretenderis writes. November 17 is not seen as an anomaly but as a sign of what our society had become in the post-1974 period. November 17 was the product, the expression, and the secret pride of an anachronistic society. Perhaps, the writer says, November 17 would have existed anyway. But it would, by no means, have lasted for so long had it not been for Greece’s particular social conditions. There was nothing abnormal or extremely radical about November 17’s ideas. November 17 rode on the back of society’s ideological mainstream. Its proclamations contained more or less what most people said in private conversation. November 17 discourse even followed the nationalist shift in the rhetoric of Greece’s left-wing circles. The sons of Che Guevara ended up being the staunchest defendants of Slobodan Milosevic. Although not always condoning the means, the majority of the public felt at home with the ends of the terrorists. Many a sympathizer saw November 17 as a threat to society’s otherwise «undeterrables.» Violent acts of retribution were deemed useful in the sense that they embodied a type of legitimate violence that the State was unwilling, or unable, to exert. This notion sat well with those who saw themselves as the losers in an unjust system that is controlled by the rich and powerful. As a result, these invisible gunmen enjoyed the status of «popular avengers.» What’s left? Following the first wave of arrests, many people remained skeptical of official reports, as the ordinary and earthly appearance of the suspects did not fit the pattern of the superhuman rebel they had conjured in their minds. Greece is a country were myths often prove stronger than facts. Leftist pundits immediately jump on any remarks that dare hint at a connection, however flimsy, between terrorism and the Left. However, family resemblances are hard to veil. Pretenderis has no trouble exposing them. November 17, he says, was clearly a leftist organization – but not only because it saw itself as such, nor because its proclamations were penned in left-wing revolutionary lingo. To be sure, its open letters invoked communist values and were imbued with a leftist analysis of the world. However, the main reasons were historical. November 17 sprang out of leftist sects during a time of radical upheaval when the talk about «armed revolutionary struggle» was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Nevertheless, the Left deserves no finger-wagging, says Pretenderis, simply because there is no such thing as a unified, monolithic leftist movement. The Left cannot be held guilty as a whole, in the same way that it cannot be held wholly innocent. Jean Jaures bore no responsibility for Lenin, as Bernstein cannot be blamed for Stalin. Similarly, Andreas Papandreou had nothing in common with Nikolaos Zachariadis, while Francois Mitterrand had nothing to do with the Tupamaros. Hence, Pretenderis says, the Left need not apologize for terrorism. Societal tolerance was beyond its control. And at the end of the day, it would be unfair to accuse the Left of passivity for the Left never came to power. Still, some self-criticism would be appropriate. None of the leftist parties in Greece showed the slightest enthusiasm when the urban guerrillas were caught or gave themselves up this summer. Instead, they showed a reflex for skepticism and good old communist propaganda. Pretenderis quotes Communist Party leader (KKE) Aleka Papariga, after the outpouring of revelations last July, as saying that «[the crackdown on] terrorism is necessary to justify the repression against the [communist] movement.» Communists underestimated the threat posed by terrorism because of their complacent belief that terrorism is used as an alibi to attack the Left. Subsequently, they slammed the counterterrorism campaign as an orchestrated attempt to curtail civic liberties. The crisis was obviously an existential one as far as the Left is concerned. The Left, Pretenderis writes, «wants to believe that ‘the system’ continues to conspire against it, for this is the ultimate proof that it is still seen as a threat to ‘the system.’» In the end, of course, the measures introduced to clamp down on terrorism proved to be both effective and democratic. Politically speaking, there is no better proof of open society’s tolerance than the fact that 14 years after the collapse of the communist system, the victims of the most devastating political defeat in history still have their goods for sale. And there is no better proof of the vigor of the open society, Pretenderis says, than the fact that its bitter enemies now invoke its democratic principles. Even those who strove to replace democracy with their bombs and. 45-caliber pistols now invoke their right to a «fair trial.»