On April 21st, 1967, Greece woke up with a military junta taking over power; the colonels at the head of this brutal regime ended up putting the country in shackles for seven years.
For Greeks, it is a date they would like to be able to forget. For the people who were jailed and tortured, it is a date which brings back dark memories and nightmares, even half a century later.
And this is even more true for the families of the people who lost their lives during the Greek junta regime who can never forget, or forgive, the perpetrators.
For the Army colonels who overthrew the government and established a seven-year long dictatorship, April 21, 1967 was the day of the Revolution and the rebirth of the Greek nation.
“The Revolution of April 21st” was the slogan of the Greek junta dictators, using as a symbol the phoenix rising from the flames and a soldier standing in front of it.
The political turmoil that led to the coup
Many politicians, as well as King Constantine II of Greece, feared that the Army would most likely intervene to get the country out of the political turmoil of the mid 1960s.
The political crisis led Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou to resign on July 15, 1965. However, young King Constantine appointed successive Prime Ministers from Papandreou’s own party, which only led to more unrest.
There were signs that there was upheaval within the Army at the time. It was expected that generals would likely intervene to curb the violent demonstrations of that month.
However, it was almost two years later that three lower-ranking officers took everyone by surprise when, in the space of one day, they took over power in Greece.
It was Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos, Brigadier General Stylianos Pattakos and Colonel Nikolaos Makarezos who ordered the tanks to roll in Athens on that fateful day.
April 21st, 1967
On the morning of April 21st, 1967, Greeks woke up to a nightmare. The ominous rumble of tanks, occasional rifle shots and military songs playing on the radio signified one thing: From then on, life would not be the same.
Then came the sinister announcement on the radio: “The Hellenic Armed Forces undertake the governance of the country.”
Greek soldiers took over the most important strategic areas of Athens, then arrested all key politicians and Lieutenant General Grigorios Spandidakis, the Commander-in-Chief of the Greek Army.
After the politicians, many individuals — both prominent figures and ordinary citizens who belonged to Greece’s Left — were arrested in a methodical manner. A list of 10,000 names had already been compiled by the military.
Those rounded up included prominent personalities such as composer Mikis Theodorakis and other lesser-known artists and academics.
The excuse of “the colonels” — as the junta was described by many – was that Greece was in grave danger of falling into the hands of the communists. The “black-listed” 10,000 individuals were sent to prison or to the Yaros Island concentration camp.
The least fortunate of the thousands of political prisoners suffered brutal tortures, leaving them marked for life.
The Greek junta suspended 11 articles of the Constitution to establish their regime. Freedom of speech ceased to exist, with strict censorship rules instituted for radio, newspapers and, later, television.
At the same time, many Greeks became informants to the police, spying on their neighbors. Anyone could get arrested if someone told the police that the “culprit” had spoken badly about the colonels and the regime.
The Greek junta in power
As a smokescreen to hide all their shameful acts against their own people – what then-U.S. Ambassador Phillips Talbot had called “a rape of democracy” – the dictators started a campaign to appear likeable.
A long series of public works started, using Army troops to build new schools, hospitals, factories, stadiums and roads. That made them likeable to some Greeks, but it was not enough to make up for what was happening throughout the country.
Realizing that they were isolated from the rest of Europe, and condemned by most Greeks — especially those who were in self-imposed exile — the Greek junta made further efforts to be more democratic, more human, more likeable.
They held huge public celebrations on the April 21st anniversary and other national holidays such as March 25th and October 28th. The great commemorations were attended by thousands of Greeks and were widely publicized.
Resistance in Greece and abroad
The resistance against the colonels inside Greece and abroad continued throughout the seven long years of their rule, however.
Politicians, intellectuals, artists and academics who lived abroad joined their voices to tell the world that the colonels were violating human rights and were holding Greece captive in their ruthless regime.
The left wing and democratic elements of Greek society were naturally opposed to the junta from the start. Militant groups formed in 1968, both in exile and in Greece, to promote democratic rule.
These included the Panhellenic Liberation Movement, Democratic Defense, and the Socialist Democratic Union. The first armed action against the junta was Alexandros Panagoulis’ failed attempt to assassinate Georgios Papadopoulos, on August 13, 1968.
The assassination attempt took place when Papadopoulos left his summer residence in Lagonisi and to go to Athens, escorted by his personal security motorcycles and cars.
Panagoulis set off a bomb at a point of the coastal road where the limousine carrying Papadopoulos had to slow down, but the bomb failed to harm Papadopoulos.
Panagoulis was captured a few hours later in a nearby sea cave, as the boat that would have let him escape the scene of the attack had not shown up.
The perpetrator was transported to the Greek Military Police (EAT-ESA) headquarters where he was questioned, beaten, and tortured. He was sentenced to death three months later but served for five years and was saved because the junta fell before his execution.
The junta fades
When the junta finally succumbed to the anger of the repressed Greek people and the outcry from around the globe, they decided to call elections in 1973.
First, Colonel Papadopoulos appointed Spyridon Markezinis as Prime Minister of Greece, and then appointed himself President of the Republic.
Some people believed that they would be democratic elections, unlike the rigged 1968 referendum to change the Constitution. No one will ever know what could have happened if it hadn’t been for the Polytechneio Uprising.
In November of 1973, a few hundred students and other Greek citizens, fed up with the repression of the regime, occupied the building of the National Technical University of Athens and called for the colonels to leave power.
The events of November 17, when the premises of the university were brutally cleared out by the military with the use of a tank, left several dead.
The turmoil gave an opportunity to hardliner Colonel Dimitrios Ioannidis to topple Papadopoulos on November 25 with yet another coup.
His ambitious plan to overthrow the President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, so that Greece and Cyprus could unite, made possible the Turkish invasion of the island on July 20, 1974.
Only three days later, Ioannidis resigned, finally opening the way for Constantine Karamanlis to return to Greece and form a democratic government.
All the Greek junta members were arrested and were put to a mass trial. Papadopoulos, Pattakos, Makarezos and Ioannidis were sentenced to death for high treason, but the sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment.