Fascism and extreme demagoguery has no place in our society. Yet in recent years, we have seen the rise (and fall) of Golden Dawn, Trumpism, Bolsanaro, Erdogan and more. 17 November and the heartbreaking Junta era was the last time Greece experienced a far-right fascist regime and the consequences were severe: liberty deprived, democracy vanquished, voices suppressed and the Cyprus situation which resulted in the Turkish invasion and illegal occupation. I hope Greece and other democracies never again experience anything like this.
You can hear the screams. If you walk by the Polytehneio 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. Socialist-leaning parties looked set to win the elections and the victory looked certain for one political leader especially, George Papandreou.
On 21 April, 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” against foreign aggression, who should have been tough enough to stand up to foreign adversaries, instead they chose to flex their cowardly muscle on their own people. They arrested 10,000 people. After years of intermittent war with foreign aggressors and the disastrous 1940’s Civil War, followed by years of food shortages, 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. The American Vice-President who was of Greek heritage, Spiro Agnew, supported the fascist Junta as “the best thing to happen to Greece since Pericles ruled in ancient Athens.” Agnew who was always a critic of protests, actually resigned as Vice-President in disgrace for corruption just before the uprising.
Another chilling moment came when the King Constantine II of Greece swore in the dictators. The monarchy which helped stage the Asia Minor catastrophe where hundreds of thousands lost their lives in the 1920s (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 Polytehneio rose up against the Junta for various grievances, including the desire to restore democracy. This followed the ongoing protest of the Law students at Athens University.
The students commenced a broadcast of a pirate radio transmission from Polytehneio, calling on the people of Athens to rise up. I have heard some excerpts of that broadcast. I am proud of what I have heard it, my own eyes well up. These young people had everything to lose and everything to gain.
On 17 November, the Junta, the poster boys of the term “cowardly behaviour”, sent troops and a tank to teach them a lesson, after days of protests at the university and across Athens.
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; 24 (possibly more) people needlessly died at the front of and around the university area,. Over 1,100 were injured across Athens and 2,100 people were arrested. 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. A few days later, leaders of junta were replaced by other enemies of democracy from within the regime.
The Greek people began to look at ways to honour the dead and restore democracy to its birthplace, Athens.
A few months later, the opportunity came albeit in another act of heartbreak.
On 15 July, 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 Polytehneio 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 obligations as the guardian of democracy. November 17 is a day of remembrance in the Greek world.
As I walk in Athens near the University, I 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 the dictatorship can still be heard around Athens, their spirit reverberates. Almost five decades later, that voice tells me that Greece will never again be subject to a dictatorship, the price of democracy is just too dear.
Billy Cotsis is the author of 1453: Constantinople & the Immortal Rulers”, out now