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Sunday, September 01, 2002


The Banality of November 17

Throughout the month of July, a series of amazing revelations shattered the mystique of November 17, the Greek terrorist group that has been in existence since 1975. The authorities say that even though the core of the organization has been eviscerated, they will need more time before they can claim to have eradicated it in its entirety and uncovered the full extent of its activities. In the meantime, however, what we have learned so far about November 17 is enough to explode several myths generated by its activities.

The first myth concerns the ideological nature of this organization, which did all it could to paint itself in the colors of left-wing radicalism. It appears, for the moment at least, that only a handful of founders had any connection with left-wing politics. They were the ones responsible for the turgid, long-winded recitations of canned Marxism-Leninism that permeated the proclamations through which the group sought to justify its assassinations.

The so-called younger-generation members whom the founders recruited in the early 1980s, however, do not appear to have had any ideological motivations. They were common hit-men, in it for the money and the high-octane joyride. Upon arrest, most of them admitted they were members of the organization and confessed their participation in various assassinations. Not one of them apparently even tried to offer a political defense or justification for his actions. And none of the younger generation appears to have been engaged seriously in political activities prior to joining November 17.

November 17 used images of Che Guevara and Aris Velouchiotis in its propaganda. The lives led by its members, young and old, however, do not evoke the heroic sacrifice of the guerrillas fighting in the Sierra Maestra against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista or of the partisans in the Greek mountains resisting the country’s Axis occupation. On the contrary, July’s revelations about the lifestyle of November 17 members included information about ordinary and comfortable lives, spouses and children, businesses and hobbies and real-estate holdings of apartments and one or more country houses in the provinces – all of them financed by substantial amounts of money acquired through armed robberies.

Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolf Eichmann as “terribly and terrifyingly normal” is an appropriate label for the November 17 hit-men. They were not ideologues, nor were they “perverted and sadistic,” a term used by Eichmann’s Israeli prosecutors during his trial in 1963 that led to his execution. They became operatives, willingly, in a killing machine whose ideology was relevant only in the sense that it was what the bosses and paymasters believed in. Arendt’s thesis, liberally transposed to November 17, can be as hard to accept as it was in its original form, a now-classic study of Eichmann’s trial (Eichmann in Jerusalem) that was subtitled, A Report on the Banality of Evil. The thesis is difficult to embrace because it offers a novel interpretation of the motives of persons committing egregious acts of violence, such as the murder of unarmed civilians. Such people are generally considered to be either monsters or, in a more rationalist, post-Enlightenment vein, persons whose extremist ideologies turn them into fanatics and mass murderers.

But Arendt’s Eichmann was neither of the above; instead, he was a dutiful bureaucrat, an ordinary little man carrying out orders. The point here is not so much the “duty” that November 17’s members felt toward their bosses, and which provided their lives with a new meaning (and income), but their lack of anything remotely approaching a particular philosophical and political credo. The rank and file of this infamous group turns out to be little men, mirror images of the petty-bourgeois Greek society that bred them.

The banality of these political terrorists is exceptionally difficult to accept for Greek society. Greece is mired in an ersatz form of “politicization” because of the stranglehold that government exercises on political life. The government and the civil service monitor, ratify, and legitimize most facets of public life in Greece. There can be no autonomous activity of local or professional groups, no initiatives of citizens that do not require, sooner rather than later, some sort of approval by the ubiquitous government services and their armies of bureaucrats. In order to gain access to and influence this cumbersome decisionmaking process, one has to use political connections. That is why so many Greeks are “political” – they are looking out for themselves, they are not intrinsically interested in government and politics. That is why news and media reports are mostly devoted to the activities of political leaders rather than to those of ordinary citizens. In such a climate, it is difficult to accept that this terrorist group that operated freely and brazenly for 27 years, and targeted political figures, included apolitical hit-men and petty criminals within its ranks. We still expect the other, ideological shoe to drop, of course – but we may be waiting in vain.

For the moment, at least, the organization’s leaders are not doing much to salvage the organization’s ideological bona fides. What, exactly, the bosses believed in might be something we will learn only when the trials take place. The alleged leader of the group, Alexandros Yiotopoulos, has denied all charges, and he may be planning a grandstand political defense of the organization’s goals during his trial. Until that happens, however, we await the words of wisdom of this theoretical mastermind to explain how and why November 17’s terrorist acts were supposed to promote democracy and social justice in Greece. For now, Yiotopoulos and company appear to be caught in the time warp of hyper-radicalism spawned by dictatorship-era Greek émigré politics in Paris – precisely that kind of hyper-radicalism that Lenin once described as an infantile disorder.

Before the façade of its ideological myth was shattered, November 17 had many people fooled. The Americans believed – some still do – that the organization was somehow linked to PASOK or to its predecessor, PAK (Panellinio Apeleutherotiko Kinima), formed by Andreas Papandreou during the colonels’ dictatorship. A longstanding, institutionally bred suspicion of Papandreou in Washington, DC, might be the source of this allegation; at any rate, innuendo rather than fact is all that sustains it. A month’s worth of revelations has not yielded a shred of evidence pointing to ties between November 17 and PASOK. As one journalist in Athens put it sarcastically, can’t the Americans understand the difference in style between the two organizations? The terrorists slowly attained petty-bourgeois respectability with their tiny country houses in out-of-the-way provinces and islands, while PASOK’s leaders always played in the big leagues, building houses on the most fashionable islands and amusing themselves on yachts in the summer and at ski resorts in the winter.

The opposite end of the ideological myth, generated by the Communist left, is also not doing well a month into the investigations. The communist theory about November 17 conforms to the standard view that “dark circles” outside and inside the country are exploiting and oppressing the Greek people. As such, these circles breed terrorism in order to destabilize the country and prevent social change. Again, we have no evidence of such complicated connections that would suggest that November 17’s members are puppets on a string. Naturally, this is of no concern to the communist leadership, which attributes metaphysical powers to the “dark circles” that enable the latter to prevent the investigation from uncovering the whole truth. 

Perhaps the biggest culprit in sustaining myths about November 17, however, is Greek public opinion. It took a long time for the group’s verbal attacks on capitalism and imperialism to seem outdated in the ears of the public. Thanks primarily to the trauma of Cyprus, a large segment of the population retained a sense that the Americans and even the other Western powers had victimized Greece. There was a feeling that the Greeks were isolated and marginalized, captured so well in the phrase, “eimaste ethnos anadelphon” (we are a nation on our own/without siblings), uttered in the late 1980s by the then-president of the Greek republic, Christos Sartzetakis.

This conventional wisdom in Greece enabled November 17 to play the role of defender of Greek integrity, a kind of anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist Robin Hood. This climate lasted through the mid-1990s after it received a new boost from the events connected with the collapse of Yugoslavia. Throughout that period, the terrorist group had a degree of tacit support among the population. It began losing it after the murder in June 2000 of the British military attaché to Greece, Brigadier General Stephen Saunders, who, according to November 17, had been involved in NATO’s military actions in Kosovo. By that time, however, Slobodan Milosevic’s image was not what it used to be in Greece; in addition, the courageous appearance of Saunders’s wife, Heather, on Greek television immediately after the murder put a human face on the tragedy, and her appeal for help struck a cord of sympathy with many Greeks.

In July, among many other things, we also learned that November 17 was apparently wrong about Saunders, who had not been involved in Kosovo. This was yet another reminder of the cavalier, irresponsible, and murderous attitude of this self-described anti-imperialist group. Once again, another fact – combined with a series of revelations about the terrifying banality of this terrorist organization – helped to shatter the ennobling myth that portrayed November 17 as an anti-imperialist knight in shining armor.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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