“Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.” - Plato
November 17th is a sombre anniversary for Greeks, but one which is also filled with positive emotions and one that makes every Greek remember that Greece was the cradle of democracy and political freedom. The day marks the Athens Polytechnic uprising
of 1973, which was a massive public demonstration of rejection of the Greek military junta of 1967-1974 by the people of Athens. The uprising began on November 14, 1973, escalated to an open anti-junta, anti-US and anti-imperialist revolt and ended in bloodshed in the early morning of November 17 after a series of events starting with a tank crashing through the gates of the Athens Polytechnic. This was an unthinkable and barbaric act performed by an oppressive military junta struggling to maintain power.
Since April 21st, 1967 Greece was under the dictatorial rule of the military, a regime which abolished civil rights, dissolved political parties and exiled, imprisoned and tortured politicians and citizens based on their political beliefs. At the time my family and I were living in Athens and even though I was a child I remember the events of April 21st, 1967 clearly as they were branded in my mind. They were events after all events that forced my family to leave our homeland and relatives and to seek political refuge in Australia. But that’s another long story and not of relevance to this.
In 1973 George Papadopoulos, the junta leader, in his magnanimity had allowed a “liberalisation” process of his hateful regime, which included the release of political prisoners and the partial lifting of censorship, as well as promises of a new constitution and new elections for a return to civilian rule. This allowed some previously outlawed groups and opposition elements. including Socialists, the opportunity to undertake political action against the junta.
In its attempt to control every aspect of politics, the junta had interfered with student syndication since 1967, by banning student elections in universities, forcibly drafting students and imposing non-elected student union leaders in the national students’ union. These actions eventually created strong anti-junta sentiments among students. This is exemplified by many protests, such as that of Geology student Kostas Georgakis who committed suicide in 1970 in Genoa, Italy as an ultimate act of protest against the junta.
The first massive public action against the junta came from students on February 21st, 1973, when law students went on strike and barricaded themselves inside the buildings of the Faculty of Law in the university of Athens in the centre of Athens, demanding the repealling of the law that imposed forceful drafting of “subversive youths”, a fate that had been suffered by 88 of their peers who had been forcefully drafted. The police were ordered to intervene and many students were subjected to police brutality. The events at the Law School are often cited as the prelude to the Polytechnic uprising. The student uprising of November 17th was also inspired by the youth movements of the sixties, notably the events of May 1968 in France.
On November 14, 1973 students at the Athens Polytechnic (Πολυτεχνείον) went on strike and started protesting against the junta or “Regime of the Colonels” as it was also known. As the authorities stood by, the students, calling themselves the “Free Besieged” (Ελεύθεροι Πολιορκημένοι, an overt reference to the poem by Greek national poet Dionysios Solomos inspired by the Ottoman siege of Missolonghi), barricaded themselves in the Polytechnic. They set up a radio station using laboratory equipment that repeatedly broadcast messages of revolt and freedom across Athens: “Here is Polytechneion! People of Greece, the Polytechneion is the flag bearer of our struggle and your struggle, our common struggle against the dictatorship and for democracy!”
Maria Damanaki (later an elected member of the democratic parliament), was one of the major broadcasters. Within hours, thousands of ordinary people, workers and youths joined the students, protesting inside and outside of the Polytechnic. In the early hours of November 17, 1973, the transitional government led by Spyros Markezinis who was collaborating with Papadopoulos panicked, ordering a tank to crash through the gates of the Athens Polytechnic in order to quell what had been until then a peaceful demonstration. Soon after that, Spyros Markezinis himself had the humiliating task to request Papadopoulos to re-impose martial law.
Prior to the attack, the city electricity had been interrupted, and the Polytechnic area was only lit by the campus lights, powered by the university generators. An AMX 30 Tank crashed the rail gate of the Athens Polytechnic at around 03:00am. In unclear footage clandestinely filmed by a Dutch journalist, the tank is shown bringing down the main steel entrance to the campus to which people were clinging. Documentary evidence also survives, in recordings of the Polytechnic radio transmissions from the occupied premises.
In these recording a young man’s desperate voice is heard asking the soldiers, whom he calls “brothers in arms”, to disobey the military orders and not to fight their unarmed “brothers” whose only crime was to protest against the junta. The voice carries on to an emotional outbreak, where the Greek National Anthem is recited, until the tank enters the Polytechnic, at which time transmission ceases. These are hair-raising documentaries that break one’s heart as they are watched and listened to.
The records of the trials held following the collapse of the Junta document the circumstances of the deaths of scores of civilians during the uprising, and although the number of dead has not been contested by historical research, it remains a subject of political controversy. In addition, hundreds of civilians were left injured or maimed during the events. On November 25, 1973, Brigadier General Dimitrios Ioannides used the events as a pretext to stage a countercoup that overthrew Papadopoulos, and put a dramatic end to Papadopoulos and Markezinis’ attempt for a transition to democratic rule. Ioannidis arrested Markezinis, cancelled the elections, and fully reinstated martial law. His regime in turn crumbled in July 1974, after the coup against Makarios III, instigated by Cypriot Nikos Sampson in contact with the Greek junta of Ioannidis, led to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.
Ioannides' involvement in inciting unit commanders of the security forces to commit criminal acts during the Athens Polytechnic uprising was noted in the indictment presented to the court by the prosecutor during the Greek junta trials and in his subsequent conviction in the Polytechneion trial where he was found to have been morally responsible for the events.
The events of July 1974 in Cyprus caused the military regime to crumble and ushered in the era of “Metapolitefsi”. Constantine Karamanlis was invited back to Greece from France where he was self-exiled, was appointed Prime Minister of Greece alongside President Phaedon Gizikis. Parliamentary democracy was thus restored, and the Greek legislative elections of 1974 were the first free elections held in a decade.
November 17 is currently observed as a holiday in Greece for all educational establishments; commemorative services are held and students attend school only for these, while some schools and all universities stay closed during the day. The central location for the commemoration is the campus of the Polytechnic. The campus is closed on the 15th (the day the students first occupied the campus on 1973). Students and politicians lay wreaths on a monument within the Polytechnic.
The student uprising is hailed by many as a brave act of resistance against the military dictatorship, and therefore as a symbol of popular resistance to tyranny. It show that Greeks respond valiantly to extreme events in times of crisis and can sacrifice themselves in order to defend the ideas of freedom and democracy, to demand basic human rights and to reclaim dignity and a better life for themselves. In these times of crisis that Greece is experiencing now, the Polytechnic Uprising anniversary has a special significance as an idea and an ideal.
|ˈho͝ontə, ˈjəntə| noun
1 A military or political group that rules a country after taking power by force: The country's ruling military junta.
A deliberative or administrative council in Spain or Portugal.
early 17th cent. ( sense 2): from Spanish and Portuguese, from Latin juncta
, feminine past participle of jungere