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Tuesday, February 20, 2007


…To Bullets

This article concludes the examination of the lead-up to the Greek Civil War that began in the October 15 edition of with “Greece, 1946: From Ballots…

While there are currently a variety of high-tech educational aids available to them, all any college teacher focusing on civil wars needs is an old-fashioned board game. Called Bullets and Ballots, it allows students to engage in role-playing, assuming the parts of competing factions in a country teetering between elections and civil war.

Five domestic groups—the incumbent government, the military, guerrillas, the “wealthy class,” workers and peasants—as well as the United States (it’s a very realistic game) attempt to extend their influence and establish a government. The game’s instructional value lies in its rules, which entail several rounds of negotiations among all parties and several policy options such as elections, voting for a particular group, supporting or opposing a military coup, or a guerrilla uprising. The United States has the option of “invading” and appointing a government of its choice. Each side’s relative weight is determined by its specific electoral strength (peasants have more votes than the wealthy class) and military power (the military has more than the guerrillas, who, however, can augment their forces thanks to support offered by the Soviet Union and Cuba).

Bullets and Ballots was developed in 1987 by the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies, was marketed as a “learning game on Central America,” and was modeled on the situation in Guatemala in 1990, when the country faced the possibility of elections bringing about the end of a long civil war. It is unlikely that anyone will be able to produce a similar game based on the Greek Civil War of 1946-1949, or, at least, one that will have any educational value, let alone commercial viability.

The Guatemalan civil war was deeply rooted in the country’s social and ethnic inequalities, as well as in the arbitrary role of the US-backed military and its support of the landowning elite. The conflict’s origins, its unfolding, and the attempts to end it entailed the participation of a range of political actors, some of whom were dependent on each other. Thus, by recreating Guatemalan conditions, Bullets and Ballots allows students to learn how political actors have to weigh each move they make, and anticipate the impact on the other side in a situation in which the cost of failure will cause a breakdown of the democratic process.

In contrast, the Greek Civil War appears to have broken out because of a series of decisions made by the right-wing government and the communist leadership that disregarded both domestic and external factors. The war began at a time when most of the country was ready to overcome the divisions spawned by the clash between left and right, as Greece was emerging from wartime occupation in late 1944 and early 1945. Even the so-called right-wing “white terror” unleashed throughout 1945, in retaliation against earlier “red terror,” did not automatically trigger civil war. And neither Britain nor the Soviet Union, the two outside forces, was prepared to become deeply involved in a full-scale civil conflict in Greece.

While the ongoing “white terror” prompted the communist leadership to order the formation of a guerrilla army and launch a bid for power in late 1946, there does not appear to have been any serious negotiation or bargaining with the government—or, for that matter, with parties or social groups outside the orbit of communist influence—at the time. As for the government, it was not prepared to pause and reflect on whether any change of policies on its part might prevent the slide into civil war. There is no more telling sign of lack of popular enthusiasm for armed conflict than the situation months later, in mid-1947, when US observers noted the extremely low morale of government forces. The guerrillas might have been more motivated but their numbers were growing very slowly.

What happened in 1946 to provoke civil war is easy enough to establish. The problem lies in understanding its causes. The late Nikos Svorônos, the eminent historian whose penetrating interpretations of modern (and pre-modern) Greek history were based on a sophisticated Marxian analysis, and who spent decades in exile in France after the civil war, remarked on several occasions that, for him, the outbreak of the conflict had been “incomprehensible.” John Iatrides, a political scientist who has produced the most thorough and carefully constructed accounts of the war, has not gone much further than Svorônos in offering an explanation. Iatrides regards the outbreak of war in 1946 as a transition between “unplanned” and “planned” stages of communist insurrection. In doing so, he ascribes responsibility to the communist side, but not premeditation; indeed, he stresses how much the communists dragged their feet before taking the plunge.

Communist indecision was especially pronounced in the early summer of 1946, when there were several hundred former left-wing guerrillas who took to the mountains, armed, in order to defend themselves from roving right-wing paramilitary groups or security forces on the prowl. In Athens, Nikos Zachariadês, the head of the communist party, found himself in a political limbo partly of his own making. His party was still legal, but its supporters were being hounded. While it could also have claimed to represent a sizeable segment of the population, and use that as political leverage, it lacked any representation in parliament because Zachariadês had decided to boycott the elections earlier that year. And, since the situation never stands still in this type of confrontation, the government was calling up conscripts for the army that included supporters of the left, who were told not to resist the draft. On the other hand, the communist party approved of persecuted leftists going up in the mountains to form or join guerrilla bands.

Anyone trying to design a board game based on the Greek Civil War would have trouble including possible outcomes similar to the odd situation in which Zachariadês found himself in the summer of 1946. And even if one did anticipate such a result, whoever was playing the role of Greek communist party leader would have to reach it either by not paying attention or by adopting a self-defeating passivity.

In July, Zachariadês instructed Markos Vafeiadês, a senior leader of the wartime ELAS, to move to the mountain areas were the left-wing guerrillas were being based. His task was to begin coordinating their activities. It was the first of the still-cautious moves the communist leader would make over the next few months. At the same time, the head of the government, Kônstantinos Tsaldarês, was being anything but cautious. Beginning in May 1946, he had introduced the Security Commissions, government-appointed bodies that were free to order the arrest of “dangerous” individuals and to remove them to prison camps being set up on several islands. No evidence was required for the order to be issued. Meanwhile, the military trials of persons accused of being insurgents or aiding them resulted in an escalating number of death sentences.

The polarization in Greece deepened throughout August, as the Tsaldarês government prepared to hold a referendum on the monarchy in ways that would ensure the return of King George II. In the run-up to the election, the government underlined its determination to enforce a law that forbade disrespect to the person of the king or to the institution of the monarchy. The eventual outcome of what was patently a rigged affair was a landslide victory for the throne. (In its editorial of September 1, the day of the ballot, the New York Times commented that if the voters had had the freedom to choose, they would have rejected both the king and the communists.)

The conditions under which the referendum was held, and the obvious fact that the government would not cease its persecution of its opponents even after the favorable outcome, were the last straw for Zachariadês. In his study of the origins of the civil war, David Close, a historian based in Australia, provides a detailed account of what, by then, was a steady escalation by the left. (See my review of Close’s book, “Subjective Correlatives: Greece in the Postwar Period,”, February 17, 2003.) The party leadership gave the green light for the guerrilla war to be expanded under Vafeiadês’s guidance. Finally, the party decided to establish the Democratic Army of Greece in December 1946.

And yet, the outbreak of full-scale civil war was not inevitable at the end of 1946. The guerrilla army was poorly armed and equipped, and numbered only about ten thousand men. There were many communists and leftists who did not approve of the party leadership’s escalation of the struggle, and many were not prepared to join the Democratic Army. The Soviets and Yugoslavs seemed even less enthusiastic and were not prepared to promise supplies.

Any such round of serious military and political initiatives in the Bullets and Ballots board game would have to be followed by a series of negotiations. There would be about 15 minutes for all sides to initiate contacts with one of the other groups in an attempt to broker some sort of agreement that would avert civil war and, by extension, American intervention. Alas, in real life, it seems that it did not cross the minds of either Tsaldarês or Zachariadês to spend any time negotiating with the other side. Come to think of it, they would probably have shunned the opportunity even while playing a board game.

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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