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«December 2018»

Fellow Seminar

25 January 2018

Dr. Spyros Tsoutsoumpis will present his research proposal on the topic: "Heroes, Killers, Victims: the National Army Soldiers During the Greek Civil War (1946-1949)" on 18 January 2018 (Thursday) at 16:30h at CAS Conference Hall.


In July 1961 the patrons of the numerous cafes located in the sleepy ‘Plateia Laou' in the small Greek town of Lamia witnessed a spectacle that had become all too common to them during the past two decades. A group of police officers had just accosted ‘Kapetan' Kostas Vourlakis and was leading him to the local police station. Vourlakis was no stranger to trouble. Indeed, he was a fearsome man whose violent temper and sadistic proclivities were the staff of legends in the lowlands of central Greece. Vourlakis started his career as a rustler in mid-1941. However, his criminal activities were cut short after the leftist ELAS (Ellinikos Laikos Apeleftherotikos Stratos-Greek National Liberation Army) attacked and dispersed his band a year later. After this incident he enlisted briefly in the gendarmerie and later in the nationalist resistance organization of EDES [Ethnikos Dimokratikos Ellinikos Sindesmos-Greek National Republican League]. The liberation found Vourlakis jobless and destitute. Yet, as the tide started to turn against his old foes in ELAS he made his way back to his native region of Fthiotida and formed an anti-communist gang that soon became notorious for its violence and venality. Vourlakis and his cronies used their anti-communist credentials as a pretext for a series of illegal activities; rape, rustling, contract killings, banditry and racketeering.

These activities led to an outcry even among nationalist peasants. Nonetheless, his ties with local politicians and "impeccable" anti-communist credentials allowed him to operate unchecked for the duration and aftermath of the civil war. However, this time things were even more serious as Vourlakis had just murdered his wife in broad daylight. This led many of his victims to believe that they would be finally vindicated. Nonetheless, their hopes were quickly quashed since Vourlakis received a mere slap on the wrist. A year later he was back in his hometown where he founded the local chapter of the ‘Oplarhigoi', a notoriously violent paramilitary organization whose members acted as auxiliaries for the gendarmerie and provided muscle for the ruling conservative party. These ties rendered Vourlakis a figure of tremendous influence in the area. He became the first port of call for peasants who sought jobs in the civil sector, a confidant of the local MP's and a respected arbiter for the local criminal class who came to see him as their patron.
Vourlakis had his counterparts in the Kamilakis family, a clan of violent rustlers and bandits who operated in western Crete, the Beis and Bisdas bandit gangs in eastern Thessaly who came to dominate the local drug trade in the post-civil war period and urban thugs like the Katelanos crew, a notorious criminal clan who combined their anti-communist activities with racketeering, pimping and contract killings. Such men played a pivotal role in the Greek Civil War while many of them continued their activities long after the end of the war. However, their role and activities have been largely forgotten by scholars of this period.

The Greek Civil War has been presented as a binary struggle between two clearly demarcated ideological camps. Yet, the presence of men like Vourlakis or the Katelanos clan disrupts this narrative and raises a series of pertinent questions. Why would a criminal clan ally itself with the state? Why was the prerogative to violence delegated to these groups instead of using the existing security apparatus? What was the impact of paramilitarism on the social and political fabric of local communities? While the historiography of the civil war has made strides during the past decade, these questions and more broadly the origins, role and activities of paramilitaries remain under-researched. The dearth of research on this phenomenon is observed not only in Greek historiography. Despite the increasing pre-eminence of non-state armed actors in recent conflicts ‘Researchers have tended to disregard the proliferation of armed actors that emerge during an armed conflict to fight on behalf of the state and/or against the rebels...although militias emerge in most conflicts, rarely are they part of comparative studies of civil wars, be they empirical or theoretical'.

Such reticence is certainly understandable. Paramilitaries operate in a twilight zone located between the civilian and the military realm under a host of monikers such as ‘militias', ‘death squads' and ‘self-defense groups'. Distinguishing them from their rivals, let alone other non-state actors, such as, criminal clans, vigilantes and mob gangs, is an elusive task since ‘the term "paramilitary" has been used colloquially as a sort of "catch-all" rather than with any sort of precision or analytic conceptualization'. The same factors make a systematic analysis of their motives and activities particularly elusive. Paramilitary groups are particularly careful not to leave a paper trail while veterans are more often than not unwilling to write or speak about their experiences.

These problems are quite pronounced in the study of paramilitarism during the Greek civil war. Historians and memoirists alike have attributed the formation of such groups to a state-wide conspiracy. According to this narrative the state sponsored the formation of ultra-right gangs who were directed to unleash a wave of ‘white terror'. The purpose of this violence was to disenfranchise the left whose growing popularity had alarmed the political establishment. While these studies are correct to stress the ties between the paramilitaries and the state, they overlook the complex social dynamics that led to the rise of these bands and present an overtly politicized and often simplistic narrative of the background, motivation and tactics of the paramilitaries. Moreover, they fail to differentiate between different sets of paramilitary groups and neglect to discuss important issues such as the motivation of the rank and file members, the relations between the bands and local societies and the impact of paramilitarism in the post-war period.

As previously mentioned, these problems are not idiosyncratic to Greek historiography. Historians and political scientists who research civil wars have often ‘underlined the fragmented nature of rebel groups' but ‘they remain agnostic about similar fragmentation processes on the side of the state. Indeed, the state is still widely perceived as a unitary actor.' Yet, as Paul Staniland noted, subservience to the state ‘is only one possible...strategy' for the paramilitaries, ‘militias may also be violently targeted by regimes, absorbed into the state apparatus, or contained as a low level but endemic challenge. They are not intrinsically subservient junior partners of governments.' Equally little attention has been paid to the socio-political networks used to mobilize support and the diverse conditions under which militias emerge. Civil war historians have described paramilitaries as the subservient long arm of the state. However, as a series of recent case-studies have demonstrated, paramilitaries can have surprisingly diverse origins and agendas that often differ significantly from those of the state. For instance the various paramilitary groups that fought against the leftist insurgents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were initially formed as the private armies of drug dealers, ranchers and the rural elite. Accordingly, their relations with the state were often tenuous as their foremost concern was to further the interests of their backers. The same phenomenon is evident in Afghanistan where official pro-state militias pay only lip service to the state and essentially act as the private armies of the various warlords who raised them.

This paper will draw from a wide range of sources; memoirs, oral testimonies, police and army archives and the private correspondence of politicians, army officers and paramilitary leaders to address three questions. What prompted the emergence of paramilitaries? What were their relations to the state? What was the impact of paramilitarism to the socio-political landscape? The paper will demonstrate that paramilitaries initially emerged as autonomous actors whose horizons were local and motivation was primarily financial. The alliance with the state was a marriage of convenience struck at the local level between regional elites and paramilitary leaders. Inevitably their predatory activities and dearth of ideology complicated both their relations to the state and the military authorities who saw them as a liability. There were repeated attempts to disperse them, yet, their ties to the political world prevented this and eventually transformed the paramilitaries into independent political player. This situation had important repercussions regarding this phenomenon as their continuous resonance and ties to a section of the political and security establishments derailed the political and social life of the country for the years to come.


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