This book is reviewed by Jan Raudszus, a German journalist. He graduated from King’s College London with a degree in security politics and specializes in terrorism and political violence.
On 10 April, as two news outlets were warned, a massive explosion erupted outside Greece’s central bank. Fortunately, no one was injured. The bombing occurred shortly before a visit of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel who has been widely criticised in Greece for her favoured financial policies in the management of the eurocrisis. A group calling itself Revolutionary Struggle claimed the attack, and said it picked the target to protest harsh austerity policies. Revolutionary Struggle had been inactive since 2010, but was responsible for several other attacks prior that date. Greece has experienced decades of left-wing political violence. While groups in the rest of Europe were destroyed and militancy has since mostly been limited to streets riots, Greece has been very different in this regard. A string of left-wing groups that subscribe to a socialist revolutionary agenda has continued to pursue political violence since the 1970s.
George Kassimeris is probably the expert on left-wing political violence in Greece. He has published several books and journal articles on the topic, including his latest book: “Inside Greek Terrorism”. In his newest work, Kassimeris sets out to solve the riddle of why the longest standing Greek organisation called 17N was able to go on for 27 years. But he also discusses groups and their most recent incarnations.
The transformative years between 1974 and 1978, during which Greece went from an authoritarian state to a democratic system, was the period in which many left-wing groups emerged, including the Revolutionary Popular Struggle (ELA) and 17N. 17N refers to the night of 16/17 November 1973 when anti-riot police with tanks was sent to put an end to the occupation of the Athens Polytechnic University and killed at least 34 students. Both ELA and 17N saw the transformative period as a façade “by which a political class […] sought to legitimize its authority”. Both groups were directed against parliamentary democracy, the US, NATO and the European Community. Between 1975 and 2000 (its members were arrested in 2002 and jailed), 17N claimed assassinations, knee-cappings, armed raids, bombings and rocket attacks. At the same time, ELA carried out low-level, non-lethal bombings. Sadly, in Kassimeris’ book the section on this period is sometimes confusing and difficult to understand for a reader with little previous knowledge on Greek history. The author could have taken more time to structure the events, explain and analyse them (especially since the book is not the thickest).
We learn more about the inner-dynamics of 17N when Kassimeris narrates the lives of 17N leader Dimitris Koufodinas and other members. According to Kassimeris, Koufodinas was living in a closed, self-referential world in which terrorism had become a way of life. He believed that reform of the political system was not possible because negative effects were inherent to it. A socialist revolution was the only way out. However, 17N never had a real strategy to pursue that objective. The act of resistance was what remained important.
Kassimeris uses the examples of two 17N activists, Patrokolos Tselentis and Sotiris Kondylis, to analyse disengagement from the organisation. He believes that understanding disengagement will help to devise legislative measures and counter-terrorism policies. Tselentis left when he became distant from the group intellectually and distraught by what he perceived to be senseless violence. Kondylis was able to reflect on his experience in the group and decided that the circumstances in society had changed, so he left. In a chapter on Chrisos Tsigaridas, a member of the ELA, we learn more about the group and its ideological underpinnings. It comes as a bit of a surprise however (it is not mentioned in the introduction) and it remains ambiguous how the chapter fits into the overall plan of the book. The last two chapters are devoted to more contemporary groups: Revolutionary Struggle (RS) and the Conspiracy of Cells of Fire (CCF). RS made its debut with a bombing on an Athens courthouse in 2003 coinciding with the trial of 17N. A second bomb was timed to kill responding forces. Fortunately, only one officer was wounded. Subsequent bombings apparently also had the goal to kill responders. In its pamphlets, RS attacked the same groups and institutions as 17N had. Finally, CCF is an anarchist group responsible for several fire bombings. The group also targeted embassies and foreign politicians with parcel-bombs.
At the core of the book’s analysis of 17N are three questions: Who were its members? What is their background and what kept them inside the organisation for so long? Kassimeris details the life stories of several group members and argues that this is sufficient since the group was rather small and well defined. This way he is able to analyse its inner dynamics and decision-making as well as the individual involvement in and disengagement from terrorism. Kassimeris says his research confirms that there is no single way in and out of terrorism but emphasises kinship as an important factor for the longevity of the group.
The author begins the conclusion with a rather frustrating result: “Regrettably, the only conclusion one can safely reach is that Greece has one of the most sustained problems of political terrorism […] in Europe.” At least for RS and CCF he comes to a more resilient result: he notes: “post-17N terrorism derived directly from the presence of ideologies that justify violence”. He says that the evolution of RS and CCF indicated how these groups broke away from wider non-violent movements with which they shared theoretical positions and practice. After rejecting democracy they escalated their rhetoric and employed clandestine methods. The motivation for employing violence was not merely to cause damage but was “also the symbolic basis of the community of activists”. Their attacks were supposed to humiliate the political establishment, stir popular protest and create revolutionary momentum. Both RS and CCF see/saw their activities as an extension of 17N’s decade-long campaign. While RS situated itself on Greece’s left wing spectrum, CCF viewed itself as anarcho-revolutionary and wanted to disturb the ordinary flow of the system. It actually opposed society’s values and did not want to help those humiliated by the capitalist system.
“Inside Greek Terrorism” is a very good resource on left-wing terrorism in Greece and its ideological underpinnings. It is very detailed and we learn a lot about what has been going on the country for the past decades. The examination of biographies helps to understand the engagement in militancy. It reconstructs the respective social environments and their perceptions of the world. It also allows us to understand recruitment, group dynamics and commitment as well as possible reasons for the longevity of ELA and 17N: genuine political commitment.
According to Kassimeris many of the underlying political reasons for political violence in Greece are legitimate (e.g. abuse of authority, political corruption, police brutality). He describes terrorism as a result of a political choice that has its basis in fundamental beliefs held in the Greek society. Societies have patterns of symbols and images that remain stable over a long period of time. In Greece the radicalism of the 1970s is still alive. Violent action against the status quo remains the tool of resistance of “groups frustrated by what they perceive as an unresponsive political system”.
The author relies on a broad range of interviews with former 17N members, their lawyers, acquaintances and officials. A big plus of the book is that Kassimeris describes his research process, something researchers do far too rarely. It is always laudable when someone comments on it and gives pointers and indirect advice. He names severe problems with interviewing imprisoned members of 17N such as Koufodinas. Kassimeris says he declined to be instrumentalised by the extremists in prison, which made it difficult to acquire their consent. Nevertheless, he was able to conduct some telephone interviews.
An important downside of the book however is that a lot of useful information is hidden in endnotes. Since the core text is only 127 pages long, the material should have been put there. The chosen format hides all the sources quoted in the end of the book making not immediately identifiable what is a literature reference and which footnote hides additional information. What is puzzling is the absence of substantial linkages to research and theoretical work of other authors, Donatella della Porta in particular, who has worked on left-wing groups in Italy and Germany. Groups from those countries are referenced by Kassimeris on more than one occasion. Yet he engages with Della Porta’s work only superficially. Putting his research into a more comprehensive theoretical context would have benefited his work.
Additionally, the book is not an easy read. It lacks coherence, the chapters do not logically connect and it is sometimes hard to follow the author’s thoughts, which occasionally appear to be contradictory. Some of these problems might arise from the fact that Kassimeris combines several pre-existing journal articles into this book. Finally, this sentence: “This environment reflects an expanding terrain upon which violent extremist ideas continue to travel at great speed within Greek society, producing sociocultural enclaves whose commitment to democratic values and practices of representative politics can be characterized as problematic at best”. I am not sure what the author wants to say with it. What does it mean that ideas travel at great speed? How are sociocultural enclaves produced by it? Similarly paragraphs that leave the reader lost can be found all-over the book.