You can hear the screams. If you walk by the Polytexneio University in Athens as I have done many, many times in my life you can feel it. ‘Brother, lay down your weapons, we are students, we are merely protesting…’ Your heart can melt here. In 1973, the world was shocked and horrified by the events that unfolded at the University.
In 1967 a group of military personnel staged a coup in Greece to subvert the course of soon to be held democratic elections. The elections appeared destined for victory by socialist leaning parties and for one political leader especially, George Papandreou.
April 21 is the day that when these military officers thought they would ignore the will of the people and seize power. Led by Brigadier General Stylianos Pattakos and Colonel George Papadopoulos, the military were meant to theoretically be ‘protectors’ of foreign aggressors, who should have been tough enough to stand up to foreign adversaries, instead they chose to flex their cowardly muscle on their own people. 10,000 people were arrested. After years of intermittent war with foreign aggressors and the 1940’s Civil War, followed by almost a decade of famine, Greece now had a military dictatorship in the same vein as Mussolini.
Phillips Talbot, the American Ambassador in Athens called it ‘a rape of democracy.’ Though suspicions that the CIA was complicit lingers in the memory of those I have spoken to over the years who remember these chilling years, or who were actually detained by the military Junta.
Another chilling moment came when the King of Greece swore in the dictators. The Monarchy who helped stage the Asia Minor catastrophe where hundreds of thousands lost their lives in the 1920’s (including Greek, Armenian, Assyrian, Turkish), were at it again. The King eventually tried to organise a counter coup with US support in Kavala when he fell out of favour with the Junta leaders. It failed and he went in to exile in France. In 1974 the Greek people would overwhelmingly remember this last act of betrayal by the Monarchy and voted to officially abolish the title and post of King.
The Junta adopted a Constituent Act, which they called a revolution that effectively cancelled the Greek Constitution.
On 14 November, 1973 thousands of brave students at Polytexneio rose up against the Junta. This followed the ongoing protest of the Law students at Athens University.
The students commenced a broadcast of a pirate radio transmission from Polytexneio, calling on the people of Athens to rise up. I have heard some excerpts of the broadcast. I am proud of what I have heard, my own eyes well up. These young people had everything to lose and everything to gain.
On November 17 the Junta, the poster boys of the term ‘cowardly behaviour,’ sent troops and a tank to teach them a lesson.
I can still hear the voice of the young man pleading with the troops to disobey orders and refrain from smashing the main gate. He desperately recited the Greek National Anthem and made a call for his compatriots in the military to support the students…then there is silence. A tank smashed the main gate and 23 people died, needlessly. The act of cowards and madmen. Syntagma was also occupied by troops to prevent the people from rising up in support.
The public outcry and global condemnation was deafening. The people began to scheme of ways to honour the dead and to restore democracy to its birthplace, Athens. A few months later, the opportunity came albeit in another act of heartbreak.
July 15, 1974 a coup in Cyprus sponsored by the Greek Junta overthrew the democratically elected President, Archbishop Makarios. Turkey replied with an invasion of the island and the loss of thousands of lives on both sides.
The disaster in Cyprus along with the recent memory of the Polytexneio massacre led to the collapse of the Junta. November 17 became celebrated as the day of freedom and democracy, a moment when modern Greece truly understood its obligation to being the guardians of democracy. November 17 is a day of remembrance in the Greek world.
As I walk in Athens near the University, I can still imagine that helpless voice as the tank rolled on to the grounds, though it is no longer helpless. It is louder than I ever thought possible. The students who stood up to fascism and dictatorship can still be heard around Athens, their spirit reverberates. Four decades later, that voice tells me that Greece will never again be subject to a dictatorship, the price of democracy is just too dear.