Aris Velouchiotis

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Athanasios Klaras
Αθανάσιος Κλάρας
Velouchiotis-Kessel-2.jpg
In Athens after the Liberation
Born (1905-08-27)August 27, 1905
Lamia, Greece
Died June 16, 1945(1945-06-16) (aged 39)
Mesounta, Arta, Greece
Other names Aris Velouchiotis
Organization National Liberation Front
Greek People's Liberation Army
Political party
Communist Party of Greece
Religion Atheist[1]

Ares or Aris Velouchiotis (Greek: Άρης Βελουχιώτης), the nom de guerre of Athanasios (Thanasis) Klaras (Latinised Claras) (Greek: Αθανάσιος Κλάρας, August 27, 1905 – June 16, 1945), was the most prominent leader and chief instigator of the Greek People's Liberation Army (ELAS), the military branch of the National Liberation Front (EAM), which was the major resistance organization in occupied Greece from 1942 to 1945. Aris Velouchiotis was appointed military leader of ELAS at the beginning of the Resistance Movement, by the EAM leadership, being at the same time a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Greece.

Early years[edit]

Athanasios Klaras was born in Lamia, Greece in 1905, in a family of the upper urban class. His father was a well-known lawyer in the area. As a youth, he studied for a while as a journalist and later attented and graduated with enough effort (due to a vagrant youth) from the Geoponic School of Larissa. He participated in the leftist and antimilitary movement and later became a member of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). During the 20s and 30s he was jailed several times for several offenses. During the Ioannis Metaxas dictatorship (1936–1941), he was arrested also for his communist ideas and jailed in Aegina prison. He was tortured and there are rumors that since then he had problems with his sexual ability. During his trial he escaped (one of his many escapes), but he was arrested again in 1939 and was sent to Corfu prison. He remained there until he signed a "statement of renouncement" of the Communist Party, a very humiliating act for a communist at the time.

World War II[edit]

During World War II, he was drafted as reserve officer of the Hellenic Army but due to indisciplined behavior he was degraded and sent to serve as a corporal to a disciplinary squad of Artillery at the Albanian front (1940–1941) against the Italian army, until the German invasion in April 1941 and Greece's subsequent surrender and occupation.

After Germany's offensive campaign in the Soviet Union, the Greek Communist Party championed the creation of the National Liberation Front (EAM), and Klaras was sent to Central Greece (Greek Roumeli) to assess the potential for the development of a guerrilla movement against the occupation forces. His proposals were adopted by the party, and in January 1942, Klaras moved to the mountains to start setting up guerrilla groups.

The first appearance of the partisans organised by Klaras occurred on June 7, 1942 in the village of Domnista in Evrytania in Central Greece. There he presented himself as Major of Artillery (for gaining extra prestige among the villagers) with the nom de guerre of Aris Velouchiotis (from Ares, the Greek god of war, and Velouchi, a local mountain) and proclaimed the existence of the Greek People's Liberation Army (ELAS). Initially, he collected also the traditional local mountain living bandits in order to create a small group of experts in guerilla fighting. Velouchiotis as a leader applied steely discipline and managed to have under his commands a considerable number of guerillas. Starting with only 15 men, ELAS' power finally comprised up to 50,000 guerillas.

One of the most important early operations of the Greek resistance movement (in which Velouchiotis and his fighters, after long negotiations with the British, finally agreed to participate alongside Napoleon Zervas's republican EDES resistance forces and twelve British saboteurs under the leadership of Major E. C. W. "Eddie" Myers), was the blowing-up of the Gorgopotamos railway viaduct, south of Lamia, on November 25, 1942 (Operation Harling). The destruction of the viaduct cut the single Thessaloniki-Athens rail line, thus the line connecting the Balkans with southern Greece, but did not disrupt any supply lines - as would have been the case had it happened, as the British intended, two months earlier - for Erwin Rommel's German forces in Northern Africa because it took place one month after the commencement of the El Alamein battle on October 23, 1942, in which Rommel was badly defeated by the British.

The destruction of the Gorgopotamos viaduct was to be the last operation where the communist-influenced ELAS organisation fought alongside with Greek Republican resistance forces, such as the EKKA's 5/42 Evzones Regiment (military arm of EKKA) and EOEA (National Groups of Greek Guerillas, Εthnikes Omades Ellinon Antarton, military arm of EDES). But despite the signing of an agreement in July 1943 between the three main Resistance groups (EAM/ELAS, EDES and EKKA) to cooperate and to subject themselves to the Allied Middle East High Command under General Wilson (the "National Bands Agreement"), in the political field, the mutual mistrust between EAM and the other groups escalated. EAM-ELAS was by now the dominant political and military force in Greece, and EDES and EKKA, along with the British and the Greek government-in-exile, feared that after the inevitable German withdrawal, it would try to dominate the country and establish a soviet regime The rift ultimately led to a mini-civil war in late 1943 and early 1944, in which ELAS attacked EDES, EOEA and destroyed EKKA's 5/42 Evzones Regiment, savagely executing its leader Col. Dimitrios Psarros.

Liberation and expulsion from the Communist Party[edit]

Velouchiotis talks in Lamia after the withdrawal of the Axis powers.

In October 1944, the Nazis evacuated Greece and a new government was formed under Georgios Papandreou, the leader of the Greek National Unity Government which was established following the Treaties of Lebanon and Caserta. When the Varkiza agreement was signed to end the Dekemvriana fighting between EAM forces and governmental/British forces in Athens (in which Velouchiotis did not participate), he vehemently refused to comply regarding the agreement as a betrayal of the guerillas. The Communist Party leadership (Nikos Zachariadis) consequently accused him of treachery, of being a "suspicious and adventurous element" and spurned him as a member of KKE .[2][3] The Communist Party was always suspicious of Klaras' actions since he was a simple member, and even when he founded ELAS, partly cause of his nationalistic speech and his fickle character.

Death[edit]

Velouchiotis moved again to the mountains of Central Greece in order to start an insurgency (see Greek Civil War) against the new government and the British allies who supported them (considering them worse than Germans). He was reported to have denounced the sell-out to the British in the "Varkiza Agreement" to lay down the National Resistance arms; particularly moving was the sight of his elite massed Mavroskoufides (Black Berets) openly mourning. He was outmanoeuvred by the KKE leadership and resolved to leave Greece; he repeatedly requested permission from the party to be allowed to depart, but was refused.

His intention was to create a new ELAS and a National Independence Front (MEA). Though most of his associates abandoned him, he was reported to have continued to conduct guerrilla activities until June 1945. He was denounced by the KKE Central Committee and increasingly isolated, until he was ambushed with his unit in the mountain of Agrafa (some[who?] say that he was set up or even betrayed by KKE contacts) by para-military groups controlled by the Athens government. Although many members of the Security Battalions and the organisation X (leader of the X team was the Colonel, at the time, Georgios Grivas), who had collaborated with the German occupying forces, were rounded up and detained in prison, the majority of their officers were allowed to join the new Greek police force, organised by the British.

Aris and his second in command, Leon Javellas, were isolated by the main unit and finally he committed suicide with his comrade, either by a hand grenade or by a bullet. Rumors want him to "commit suicide with his commander Javellas when his thoughts were that there is no better future for his revolution".[4]

The heads of Velouchiotis (right) and Javellas, exposed in the central square of the town of Trikala.

The corpses of Velouchiotis and Javellas were subsequently decapitated, and the heads displayed, hanging from a lamp post in the central square of the town of Trikala. When British Labour government members of Parliament objected[citation needed] to the barbarity of the operation, they received the reply that the display was in accordance to an "ancient Greek war custom".[citation needed]

Following the rehabilitation in Greece of the EAM/ELAS and subsequently of the Communist party itself (after the end of the Greek military junta), busts and statues of Aris Velouchiotis have been erected in his native town; recently the KKE moved discreetly for Velouchiotis' rehabilitation, following in turn the expulsion of the KKE's wartime leader (who had denounced him), Nikos Zachariadis.

Relationship with Zervas[edit]

Coincidently, the two leaders of the Greek Resistance were distant cousins. Zervas was descendant from the famous Souliote clan of Zervades, who after the destruction of Souli by the Ottomans fled to Aitoloakarnania, while Klaras' mother was of Souliote descent, from a family related to Zervades. However, Zervas had never before seen Velouchiotis before their first meeting during the Resistance era.

Legacy[edit]

A monument in Kaloskopi.

Velouchiotis is one of the most controversial and tragic figures of modern Greek history. His personality and action was mythologised during his life and after his death. Supporters consider him a symbol of Greek resistance against the occupying powers, the founder and creator of the biggest guerilla army in the Greek history (ELAS) and a hero of the communist cause. Critics see him as a perpetrator of atrocities and murders against rural people who were perceived as opponents of communism;[citation needed] a basic instigator of the Red Terror. Velouchiotis is responsible also for the massacre of some one thousand captives, collaborators from the Security Battalions, in Meligalas (a village in south-western Peloponnese) in October 1944, right after the German retreat from that part of Greece.[citation needed] His involvement in attacks against non-communist Greek resistance forces and insurgency against the post-liberation government also draw criticism: C.M. Woodhouse, the Second-in-Command of the Harling Force, remarked that Velouchiotis "fought Greeks more often than he did Germans".[5] In his memories he appreciates his military abilities, he describes him also as ruthless and "occasionally homosexual".

However, he was a man of strong communist and patriotic beliefs. He was especially cruel to the Greeks who sought collaboration with the occupying forces, with his companions who broke the organized discipline, and people who sought the British help and involvement in Greek politics because he considered the British a threat of the communist and patriotic cause of the Resistance.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Glenny, Misha. The Balkans, 1804-1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers. p. 484. ISBN 9781862070738. "Notwithstanding his militant atheism, Velouchiotis bent to kiss the hand of the priest and swore allegiance to the elders." 
  2. ^ ΚΚΕ, επίσημα κείμενα, τ8
  3. ^ Δοκίμιο Ιστορίας του ΚΚΕ
  4. ^ For a complete presentation of the circumstances of Velouchiotis' death see: Χαριτόπουλος, Διονύσης (Charitopoulos, Dionysis) (2003). Άρης, ο Αρχηγός των Ατάκτων (Aris, the Leader of the Rebels). Athens: Ελληνικά Γράμματα (Ellinika Grammata), 565-571. Charitopoulos takes for granted that Velouchiotis committed a "heroic" suicide.
  5. ^ C.M. Woodhouse, "The Struggle for Greece, 1941-1949", ISBN 1-85065-487-5, p.4-5.

Further reading[edit]

  • Χαριτόπουλος, Διονύσης (Charitopoulos, Dionysis) (2009). Άρης, ο Αρχηγός των Ατάκτων (Aris, the Leader of the Irregulars) (3rd ed.). Athens: Τόπος (Topos). ISBN 960-406-538-6.  Extensive biography in Greek, published also in English in 2012 by the same publisher as "Aris, Lord of the Mountains"