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Thursday, January 15, 2004


Days of 1973

In a newspaper article he wrote to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Athens Polytechnic (Polytechneio) uprising against the colonels’ dictatorship, Greek prime minister Kôstas Sêmitês described it as the starting-point of present-day democracy in Greece. Yet the events surrounding the commemoration of this important event last November, including the march through the streets of Athens, attracted only a small number of people. Chalk up another one for the stranglehold that political parties exercise over Greek public affairs.

Students gathered at the Polytechnic building on Patêsiôn Street on Wednesday, November 14, 1973, and began to demonstrate against the dictatorship in power at the time, and for freedom and democracy, calling upon the people of Athens to join them. They refused orders by the police to leave the building, while large crowds of people gathered in the surrounding streets. The standoff lasted through the early hours of Saturday, November 17, when an army tank broke through the Polytechneio’s main gate and police and military units — using considerable violence — broke up the student occupation. The four-day student uprising was the most significant public expression of political opposition to date toward the colonels’ dictatorship, which had seized power on April 21, 1967.

The main event in the uprising’s annual commemoration has always been a march by many thousands of people through the streets of Athens, beginning at the Polytechneio and ending at the US embassy. The first few anniversaries witnessed a massive public turnout, prompting some observers to talk about a million people participating. The remarkable order and peacefulness of the early marches were shattered within a few years, however, when members of a Maoist organization attempted to firebomb the US embassy.

The annual march never really recovered its sense of dignity. After the small, ultra-left groups that insisted on causing trouble eventually became too small to be of consequence, the role of mischief-maker was taken over by anti-establishment youth groups known in Greece as “anarchists” — although their familiarity with Peter Kropotkin’s writings is doubtful. These self-styled revolutionaries began using the march to attack police, smash shop-windows, and set fire to cars on the fringes of the march.

All this meant was that the number of participants in the march had shrunk to about 15,000 by the early 1990s, with the unruly anarchist contingents stealing the show. The twenty-fifth anniversary in 1998 attracted less than 10,000 participants. It went off smoothly because communist party members, acting as marshals, collaborated with the police, thus allowing the latter to control the 200 or so troublemakers who threatened to disrupt the procession.

It would be too easy to blame the small groups of militants for ruining what should always have been a solemn occasion. One should instead examine the original concept of the commemoration, hatched by the communist left and Andreas Papandreou’s PASOK, which were the majority political forces in the student movement at the time of the first anniversary. Those parties decided that the uprising’s remembrance should not be focused narrowly on the events of November 1973, but rather celebrate something much broader, which reflected the post-junta standoff between the left and the conservative government of Kônstantinos Karamanlês. Karamanlês himself is not without blame for this conflict, having decided to hold the first post-junta elections on November 17, 1974 — that is, on the first anniversary of the revolt’s suppression — over the protests of the opposition parties, which wanted the day to be devoted to commemoration. From the start, therefore, the memory of the Polytechneio became enmeshed in the politics of the present, which drew the sharpest distinction possible between left and right. And memorializing led to mythmaking.

The first myth, created by the opposition parties, was that the uprising belonged to the “entire Greek people” because it “embodied” their spirit of resistance. This was a patent exaggeration, but one embraced by the whole country, which was grateful for a way to cover up its seven years of political inactivity. What is true is that the three-day uprising was an act of bravery and heroism by a group of unarmed students and citizens in the face of a brutal police state: the colonels’ junta, which ruled from April 1967 through July 1974, arrested a total of about 87,000 people (of whom 2,800 were tortured), and assassinated 88 persons. Eighteen of those lost their lives during the Polytechnic uprising.

It is not true, however, that the “entire Greek people” were imbued by a spirit of resistance toward the dictatorship; quite the opposite, there was much political apathy and grudging acceptance of the regime. The colonels might not have been popular, but they were not challenged openly during their rule, aside from a few exceptions. Indeed, there had been relatively few signs of resistance against the junta until November 1973. A palace-led countercoup in December 1967 failed, and the royal family fled the country. There was also Alekos Panagoulês’s failed attempt in 1968 to assassinate Giôrgos Papadopoulos, the junta’s leader. In 1973, the Greek navy destroyer Velos sailed to Italy, where its commanding officer, Nikos Pappas, and several officers and crew members requested political asylum.

There had been just as few anti-junta protests. The funeral processions for former prime minister Geôrgios Papandreou in 1968 and Nobel laureate Geôrgios Seferês in 1971 turned into brief, impromptu, pro-democracy demonstrations. Students commandeered the Law School building in central Athens and demonstrated against the regime twice, in February and March 1973. The unrest at the nearby Polytechneio a few months later was the second wave of student opposition, triggered by the regime’s attempt to control student-union elections.

The students took the initiative, and only then did they receive support from many — but not all — of the citizens of Athens. The claims of junta sympathizers that the Polytechnic uprising was nothing more than a short-lived riot are transparent lies. But claims by some leftwing sources that the students were joined by organized groups of labor unionists, soldiers, workers, and peasants (sic) are monstrous attempts to exaggerate the scope of the uprising. Athens in November 1973 was not Petrograd in October 1917.

A second myth of the Polytechnic events concerns the actual politics of the students who decided to occupy the building and use it as a platform from which to call for the end of the dictatorship. There is no other major Greek political event in the second half of the twentieth century that entailed such a genuinely spontaneous spirit of anti-authoritarianism. With all political parties banned, mostly politically unaffiliated students and ordinary citizens took the initiative to stage the four-day gathering that assailed the dictatorship and called for the return of democracy.

One would look in vain, however, for any acknowledgement of this spirit of spontaneity on the part of the political parties and their student wings, which subsequently busied themselves with organizing the Polytechnic commemorations after the junta’s fall. To be sure, some leaders of the uprising belonged to political organizations, and others had joined them by the time the first anniversary came around. But there was no political party dictating the actions of those who participated in the uprising at the Polytechneio in 1973. The participants, however, ignored this in the post-junta era, as most of them were by then members of political organizations pitted against Karamanlês’s government. To hearken to the spontaneity of the past would have consequently undermined the political agendas of the present.

Significantly, some of those participants who subsequently left the political parties they joined in the wake of the uprising are now restoring the lost memory of that event. Mimês Androulakês, a mathematics student at the Polytechneio during the junta and a participant in the uprising who then rose to the highest echelons of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and then left the party in 1993, is a good example. Androulakês recently described the Polytechnic uprising as a spontaneous, anti-establishment youth movement, akin to what happened at Berkeley in the 1960s — an interesting comparison for an alumnus of the pro-Soviet KKE. He insisted that the small and clandestine political groups that operated during the junta were in no position to keep up with, let alone shape, the visions of a new and radically different Greece imagined by many students as the response to the junta’s deadly, tradition-bound reality.

Many echo Androulakês’s analysis. Among them is Lambros Papadêmêtrakês, one of the students responsible for the small radio transmitter that became the voice of the uprising. He has spoken of a sense of youthful enthusiasm that, along with an overriding belief in the students’ ability to bring about social change, permeated the uprising. A television program aired on November 17, 2003, marking the thirtieth anniversary, was devoted to the high-school students who participated in the uprising and whose contributions had been unacknowledged until that time.

Finally, the decision to mark the Polytechnic uprising with a march toward the US embassy also reflects the events that occurred in the time that elapsed between November 1973 and the first commemoration a year later. The uprising’s guiding principles were opposition to the junta and demands for democracy and popular sovereignty; they were only partially concerned with criticizing US policy toward Greece. And even then, the primary goal was “national independence,” as opposed to the secondary issue of the US getting out of Greece. By November 1974, however, the United States’s tacit approval of Turkey’s occupation of Cyprus had cast a long shadow over Greek political life. A march focusing on the American embassy rather than on the Greek parliament — where the shape of post-junta democracy was being determined — was an obvious political statement.

If the major parties have used the anniversary of the Polytechnic uprising to further their own particular goals, why blame the “anarchists” for doing the same? In any case, the decline of the commemoration is not due to a small group of rioters. The annual Polytechnic march is also a victim of the end-of-ideology era in Greek politics that settled in during the late 1980s. In recent years, the political parties have shown less and less interest in the event.

Thus, the nadir came in November 2003, with a march of less than 10,000 people escorted through the streets of Athens by a 7,000-strong police force. Evidently, it is too late for the political parties organizing the march to remember that the Polytechneio was originally about citizens seizing the initiative, without the patronage or guidance of political leaders. Inevitably, therefore, its thirtieth anniversary passed last November with little fanfare and even less public participation.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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