The Polytechnic uprising

Tomorrow sees the 40th anniversary of the Athens Polytechnic student uprising, against the military dictatorship imposed in Greece from 1967- Neos Kosmos looks back at an era of struggle and expectations

On April 21, 1967, a military dictatorship led by Colonel George Papadopoulos seized power in a coup d’etat in order to prevent a democratic election, that by anyone’s count was going to return to government the Centre Unity Party of ex-Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou.
The military junta abolished civil rights, political parties were dissolved, citizens and politicians, especially left wingers, were imprisoned and tortured while some fortunate ones fled in exile.
In 1973, Papadopoulos, the junta leader, initiated a ‘liberalisation’ process of his internationally isolated regime, which included the release of political prisoners, the partial lifting of censorship, as well as the promise of a new constitution and elections for a return to civilian rule.
Opponents of the dictatorship, including tertiary students, saw the relaxing of power as an opportunity to undertake political action against the junta.
In its efforts to control every aspect of political and societal response in Greece, the controlling military had interfered with student and other organisations since 1967 – banning university student elections, forcibly drafting students into the Greek army and imposing non-elected student union leaders in the national student’s union, EFEE. These intrusions eventually accelerated the anti-junta sentiments (already held) among students. So much so that in 1970 Kostas Georgakis, a student, committed suicide by setting himself on fire in Genoa, Italy, as an act of protest against the military dictatorship.
However, until 1973, the only mass public displays of disapproval of the military regime were silent ones. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks expressed their silent disapproval of the junta by participating in the funerals of former centre Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou in November 1968 and of Nobel Prize winner in literature diplomat and poet Giorgos Seferis, in September 1971.
The first open public protest against the junta came from Law students at the University of Athens. On February 21, 1973, the students went on strike and barricaded themselves inside the buildings of the Law School in Solonos Street, in central Athens. The protesters demanded repeal of the law that imposed the forcible drafting of ‘subversive youths’, a fate many of their peers had suffered.
The police were ordered to intervene and many students were subjected to police brutality, as the uprising was put down, but the event at the Law School is usually considered to be the precursor to the Polytechnic uprising on November 14 , 1973.
Students at the Athens Polytechnic (Polytechneion) this time went on lock-in strike, protesting against the military regime. As the military authorities initially stood by, the students, calling themselves the ‘Free Besieged’ (a reference to a poem by Greek national poet Dionysios Solomos inspired by the Ottoman siege of Mesolonghi), barricaded in and constructed a radio station that repeatedly broadcast the following message across Athens: “Here is the 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 becoming an MP with the Greek Communist Party (KKE), former leader of the left wing Synaspismos Party, MP of PASOK and current Commissioner of Greece to the European Union, was one of the two principal student broadcasters. The other voice of the Polytechnion was journalist and author Dimitris Papachristos.
As a result of the radio broadcasts and the relaxation of the junta control earlier on in the year, thousands of Athenians, especially young people, joined in the Polytechnic uprising, protesting in and outside the neoclassical building complex in Patesion Street, in the heart of Athens.
After almost three days, in the early hours of November 17, at approximately 3.00 am, the military sent an armoured tank crashing through the gates of the Athens Polytechnic School and strict martial law was re-imposed throughout Greece again. A few days later George Papadopoulos was ousted from office by a hardliner career soldier, brigadier Dimitris Ioannidis, who appointed a ‘puppet president’, General Faidon Gizikis.
The news footage filmed in secret by a Dutch journalist from a building opposite the main entrance of the Polytechnic, showing the tank bringing down the main steel entrance of the campus which people were clinging to, has now become part of modern Greek history. Documentary evidence of the student struggle survives through recorded student radio transmissions from the occupied ‘Athens Polytechnic’.
An official investigation undertaken after the fall of the junta found that no students were killed during the incident on campus, although 23 civilians, mostly young, were killed in the nearby streets of the Athens Polytechnic.
The records of trials held following the collapse of the dictatorship document in detail the deaths of many civilians during the uprising and hundreds of others left injured during the tragic event.
Brigadier Ioannidis’ personal request to security force unit commanders to commit criminal acts during the Athens Polytechnic uprising was exposed in evidence at the law court trials of all the leading members of the Greek junta and in the Polytechneion trial, where Ioannidis was found to have been morally responsible for the events.
Following the abortive attempted coup on July 15, 1974 against Archbishop Makarios, the president of Cyprus, resulting in the invasion and occupation by Turkey of more than a third of the island (still effective today) and the Polytechnic uprising earlier on, the Ioannidis-led junta fell and the dictatorship in Greece ended on July 23, 1974.
Constantine Karamanlis, a former conservative prime minister in the second half of the 1950s and in the early 1960s, was invited from self-exile in France and was appointed as the new prime minister. He in turn formed a government of national unity in order to deal with the invasion of Cyprus by Turkey and the eminent threat of a Greco-Turkish war.
On November 17, 1974, the first free parliamentary elections in over a decade were held in Greece, resulting in a landslide victory to Constintine Karamanlis and his newly formed New Democracy Party.
Historically, the student uprising is universally recognised as an act of resistance against the military dictatorship and therefore symbolic of the resistance to tyranny – November 17 is observed in Greece as a school and university holiday, with commemorative events held throughout the country.
The 40th anniversary of the Polytechnic uprising will be commemorated in Sydney today at 5.30 pm, at 96 Illawarra Rd, Marrickville, organised by the Atlas League. The Greek Orthodox Community of NSW and the Committee for the Commemoration of the Polytechnic Uprising will pay their own tribute tomorrow at the premises of the Community at 206-210 Lakemba Street, Lakemba, from 4.00 pm. The Melbourne commemoration, by the Democritus League, the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, the Association of the Greek Resistance Fighters and Friends of the Greek Communist Party will take place tomorrow at 583 High Street, Northcote from 3.00 pm.