April 21 is a day most Greeks remember with fear. It was 47 years ago, just weeks before scheduled elections, that a coup of far right-wing military officers seized power and plunged the country into seven years of dictatorial repression and international condemnation.
The officers, led by Brigadier General Stylianos Pattakos and Colonels George Papadopoulos and Nikolaos Makarezos, conducted a junta that led to scores of thousands of their fellow countrymen becoming targets, with many jailed, tortured or killed.
It was done with the implicit support of the United States which saw The Colonels, as they were called, being bulwark against Communism but the move backfired on the Americans and it wasn’t until President Bill Clinton apologized in Athens in 1999 that the mistake was admitted.
The coup leaders placed tanks in strategic positions in Athens, effectively gaining complete control of the city and many Greeks who remember it say they’ll never forget the sound of the tanks in the streets, what became the symbol of the takeover.
Units were quickly dispatched to arrest leading politicians, authority figures, and ordinary citizens suspected of left-wing sympathies, according to lists prepared in advance.
It became so bad that even schoolchildren who wore a pin on the left side of their blouses were questioned to make sure that they or their families were loyal to the Colonels.
One of the first to be arrested was Lieutenant General Grigorios Spandidakis, Commander-in-Chief of the Greek Army but he joined the coup and the swift takeover included taking command of the Defence Ministry while Pattakos took over the communications, the Parliament and Royal Police and had 10,000 people arrested.
The lighting plan put Greece in the hands of the coup leaders within a day with leading politicians finding themselves under arrest and Papadopoulos – who decades later would die in prison without uttering a regret – suspending 11 articles of the Constitution, leaving Greeks with almost no rights.
Anyone could be arrested without cause or a warrant and brought before a military court to be tried in what was a foregone conclusion for the fate.
Yannis Ladas, then the director of ESA, recounted in a later interview that, “Within twenty minutes every politician, every man, every anarchist who was listed could be rounded up… it was a simple, diabolical plan”.
Former prime minister Georgios Papandreou was arrested after a nighttime raid at his villa with his son Andreas also taken into custody after seven soldiers armed with fixed bayonets and a machine gun forcibly entered his home.
Andreas Papandreou, later to become premier, escaped to the roof of his house, but surrendered after one of the soldiers held a gun to the head of his then 14-year-old George Papandreou, who was an American citizen as well and would also become prime minister.
Gust Avrakotos, a high-ranking CIA officer in Greece who was close with the Colonels and featured in the film Charlie Wilson’s War, wanted Andreas killed and was said to have advised to “shoot the motherf–ker because he’s going to come back to haunt you”.
It took seven years for the Colonels to fall, and in the end, if was their regime of terror that came back to haunt the United States and the people who supported the coup, although today the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party reveres the junta leaders as heroes.
Phillips Talbot, the U.S. Ambassador in Athens, disapproved of the coup, complaining that it represented “a rape of democracy,” but the die was cast and the fateful day was sealed in Greek history, if too little remembered.