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Monday, July 07, 2003

Book Reviews

Filing Away November 17

Fakelos 17 Noemvrê (The November 17 File) by Alexis Papachelas and Tasos Telloglou. Estia, Athens, 2002, 314 pages, 16 euros.

In the preface to Fakelos 17Noemvrê, the authors declare that, “The November 17 file constitutes perhaps the most interesting journalistic issue of our generation.” It is disappointing, therefore, to this reader at least, that they proceed to treat this issue of singular significance in such a slapdash, summary, linear, and teleological fashion. The book was published in December 2002, approximately six months after the mystery of the November 17 terrorist group began to be revealed with the accidental detonation of an explosive device in the hands of one of its members, Savas Xiros. The volume betrays its hasty composition. Reading it, one cannot escape the impression that its authors rushed to be the first ones to tell a story that was eagerly anticipated and demanded by the public. The unceasing, and in most cases sensationalistic and unreliable, coverage of daily developments in the press, as November 17 quickly came undone last summer, made a comprehensive account essential. This is not that account, however. This is a “best-seller,” in the most mercantile sense of the term. In any case, if this is “the most interesting journalistic story of their generation,” Messrs. Papachelas and Telloglou belong to a dull journalistic generation indeed.

The book’s first chapter, entitled “The Resistance Years,” describes the Greek student left in Paris in the 1960s, and the emergence of several leftist factions whose radicalism posed a direct challenge to traditional communist and socialist groups. This first chapter would normally be an important introduction, as Paris was the place where many Greek students took — or at least discussed — their first (often hesitant) steps toward overt political engagement, if not, in most cases, urban terrorism. Paths first followed in Paris did in fact lead Greek and British antiterrorist services to Alexandros Yotopoulos, the leader of November 17, almost 40 years later. The political and historical developments that engendered this radicalism and from which it emerged, however, are not clearly defined. There are no clear distinctions made between the different factions of the left, or between the different personalities that eventually gravitated toward violence.

To read the first chapter, as a result, is to read a very familiar story. The essential context of Greek radicalism and its slide into violence and terror are described and perceived by the authors in ways that are very similar to the emergence of the same historical phenomena in Germany, Italy, Japan, Latin America, and the United States. Except that November 17’s actions — or, more precisely, the way it acted — proved to be fundamentally different from the corresponding realities in Europe, Asia, and North and South America. November 17’s “uniqueness” never comes through in this first chapter, however.

There is also an attempt here to draw a “psychological profile” of November 17’s leader. Although references to Yotopoulos’s character are few, they are striking and strategically placed in the book. Based upon the personal experiences of people who knew him in Paris, they are also presented in a way that attempts to “explain” his future voluntarism and vigilantism: “The people who remember him in the 1960s talk today about a man ‘seductive, attractive, quiet, a dreamer, decisive, and very successful with women’”(p. 14). Obviously lacking in depth, this almost cartoonish description accords with stereotypical psychological profiles of terrorists. As Walter Reich writes in “Understanding Terrorist Behavior” (Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind):

…[P]sychological accounts of terrorism are replete with explanations that ignore or blur the variety and the complexity. Blanket statements…tend to be made that attribute certain characteristics to “terrorists” with the implication that all terrorists, of whatever variety, possess them….It is always hard for writers to remind readers that only one particular group of terrorists is being discussed and not all of them through recorded history. But that is probably too generous an explanation for this penchant for psychological overgeneralization about terrorism. Too often, overgeneralization is a product of loose and weak thinking, a disregard for the need for evidence, and the habit, unfortunately endemic in so many areas of psychological discourse, of having a single idea and applying it to everything. (pp. 262-263)

As one continues reading, it becomes clear that Yotopoulos is the only member of November 17 who is, apparently, seductive, attractive, or decisive enough to merit the authors’ psychological attention. There is no attempt to present a psychological profile, even a rudimentary or stereotypical one, of any other member of the group. In truth, there is no attempt to examine any aspect at all of the personal or private circumstances that might have led the other members to the group. Even more inexplicable, however, is the lack of any reference to the possible political circumstances and conditions that might have drawn the so-called second-generation of November 17 into the organization. One can argue, of course, that the authors are focusing on the group’s leader, but a large part of November 17’s crimes were committed by the Xiros brothers, as well as by Dimitris Koufodinas and company. To ignore their goals, dispositions, and orientation is a serious omission that distorts a significant part of the November 17 story.

Chapters 2 to 4 focus on the post-dictatorship period, the assassination of Richard Welch and Evangelos Mallios, and the relationship between ELA (Epanastatikos Laikos Agonas, Revolutionary Popular Struggle) and November 17. This relationship is critical in understanding the terrorist landscape in Greece. The history of November 17 cannot be told without the history of ELA. The two groups come out of the same ideological, political, and historical background, and a number of their members have been involved in both organizations, both organizationally and in the execution of terrorist acts. The relationship between ELA and November 17, however, is not at all clear from this volume. The narrative is scattered and focused upon too many different things to be able to present a comprehensive picture of the two groups. A separate chapter focusing exclusively on ELA and November 17 would have given a much clearer picture of their collaboration. It is extremely difficult to attempt to provide a coherent chronological narrative of the various crimes of the two groups, while at the same time analyzing the political, ideological, personal, and historical elements that are common to both.

Chapters 6 through 10 follow the actions of November 17 in chronological order, starting with the assassination of Pavlos Bakoyiannis and ending with the events of June 2002, the arrest of Yotopoulos and the other members of the group, and, consequently, its decimation. These chapters are highly descriptive, without any analysis. Moving from chapter to chapter, it is evident that what one is reading, from beginning to end, is simply the November 17 “script,” as perceived by the Greek authorities. It is as if the authors have used police files to tell the group’s story. Their presentation, as such, is simply a reprise of that made repeatedly in the last year by Greek and foreign authorities. I suspect that “the November 17 file” is surely much more compelling than that.

Perhaps we just don’t have the information yet to tell a more complex and comprehensive story — but that’s why it was too early to attempt it. Fakelos 17Noemvrê succeeds in putting together all the information that has appeared over a long period in the Greek and foreign press and, from that point of view, is valuable. But the subject matter is too important to be told in such a way. It is only after the trials have been completed, and archival and confidential material becomes available to researchers, that we will begin finally to understand November 17.

In addition to being a co-founder of, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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