Greek’s Radical Left: The Dangers of the Disaffected and the Unemployed

In last week’s Geopolitical Weekly, George Friedman discussed how the global financial crisis has caused a global unemployment crisis and how Europe has become the epicenter of that crisis. He also noted that rampant unemployment will give way to a political crisis as austerity measures galvanize radical political parties opposed to the status quo.

Because unemployment is so pervasive, jobless, disenchanted people are joining radical parties espousing a wide variety of ideologies. Examples include populist euroskeptic parties, such as Italy’s Five Star movement; far-right parties, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn party; and anti-austerity leftist groups, such as Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza. With unemployment in Greece at 27 percent, it is not surprising to see both radical right-wing and radical left-wing groups gaining support from those who have become deeply disaffected by the crises.

In fact, Greece has a long history of left-wing radicalism inclined toward violence. The 1970s saw the rise of radical group 17 November, and more recent years marked the rise of such groups as the Revolutionary Struggle and the Conspiracy of Fire Cells.

Given this history and the manner in which the current crises are producing disaffected, radicalized and unemployed people, we thought it would be worth examining radical far-left groups in Greece and the types of violence they can be expected to conduct. It is also important to remember that Greece is not the only country in which the population, particularly the left, is radicalizing. Italy, too, has seen increased leftist radicalism. What is happening in these two countries could herald things to come elsewhere in Europe.

A History of Radicalism

The revolutionary left in Greece dates back to the anarchists of the 1800s and the emergence of communism in Europe. Influenced by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, communist partisans were some of the most effective anti-Nazi forces during the Axis powers’ brutal occupation of Greece (Italy and Bulgaria joined Germany in the occupation). After the Allied invasion of Greece and its liberation from Axis control, a civil war erupted that pitted communist partisans against anti-communist forces, which were backed by the British and the Americans. Because many former Nazi collaborators aided the anti-communists in the Greek Civil War, many anti-communist elements remained in Greece’s security forces. The war also left the remnants of an embittered communist movement upset by the fact that Nazi collaborators such as Georgios Papadopoulos, who would become the future leader of a military junta that seized power in 1967, were never brought to justice.

Like much of Europe, Greece then became a Cold War battleground. The strength of the communist forces in Greece and in its neighbor, Turkey, was the driving force behind the 1947 Truman Doctrine in which U.S. President Harry S. Truman pledged military and economic support to Greece and Turkey to prevent them from falling into the Soviet sphere of influence. This resulted in strong anti-U.S. and anti-NATO sentiment among the Greek left, which would later act on that sentiment through terrorist activity.

But the United States and its allies were not the only ones attempting to influence Greece. The Soviet Union saw the Greek communists, like communist groups elsewhere in the West, as a useful tool. The Soviets actively supported communist activists in the Greek labor and student movements. Anti-regime radicalism in the Greek student movement came to a head in 1973, when student protests against the military junta were put down by force. In a particularly iconic incident, an army tank crashed through the gates of Athens Polytechnic on Nov. 17, 1973, as soldiers seized control of the university from student protesters.

The gravity of the Athens Polytechnic uprising was clearly felt when a then-unknown group, Revolutionary Organization 17 November, assassinated Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens, in December 1975. From then until 2000, 17 November conducted several assassinations and attacked NATO, Greek government and Greek industrialist targets. Although the group came to be known for close-quarter assassinations using .45-caliber pistols, they also conducted a number of successful bombing attacks, such as the June 1988 assassination of U.S. Defense Attache Capt. William Nordeen. In 1989, the group stole anti-tank rockets from a military base in Larissa. The rockets were later used in attacks against buildings and armored limousines.

The 17 November operatives practiced good terrorist tradecraft and excellent operational security. This allowed them to operate far longer than their contemporary radical leftist groups in Germany and Italy. While the founders of the German Red Army Faction and the Italian Red Brigades were arrested in the 1970s, the founders of 17 November were not taken into custody until 2002, when a botched bombing on a ferry company resulted in the arrest of the bomber. Authorities used the evidence the culprit provided to arrest most of the remaining members of 17 November, whose long reign of terror finally came to an end.

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