Kostas Georgakis, a Greek geology student who was attending university in Italy, set himself on fire in Genoa on September 19, 1970 as a protest against the Greek military dictatorship of the time. The 22-year-old’s last words were “Long live free Greece!”
Georgakis, from Corfu, is the only known junta opponent to have committed suicide in protest against the dictatorship. He is considered to be the precursor of the later student protests against the military government, including the later Polytechnic Uprising.
Around 1:00 AM on that fateful September day, Georgakis drove his car to Matteotti Square in the center of the Italian city. According to accounts by street cleaners who witnessed the event, there was a sudden bright flash of light in the area at around 3:00 AM.
At first, of course, they did not realize that the blaze was in fact a man who had set himself on fire. Only when they approached more closely did they see Georgakis, covered in flames and running, while shouting “long live Greece” and “down with the tyrants!”
There were also echoes of “down with the fascist colonels” and “I did it for my Greece.”
According to an account by his father, who went to Italy immediately after his son’s suicide, the flesh of Georgakis’s body was completely carbonized from the waist down to a depth of at least three centimeters. The young student died nine hours after the events in the square, at around 12 noon on the same day.
The impact of Kostas Georgakis’ death on Greece
At the time, Georgakis’ grim death caused sensation in Greece and abroad since it was the first tangible manifestation of the depth of resistance against the junta. The government delayed the arrival of his remains to Corfu for four months, citing “security reasons,” fearing further demonstrations against their autocratic rule.
The Municipality of Corfu later commissioned a memorial by sculptor Dimitris Korres in honor of the student who had so painfully sacrificed himself for the freedom of his country. The inscription on the monument reads: “Kostas Georgakis, Student, Kerkyra 1945-1970, Genova. He self-immolated in Genoa Italy on 19 September 1970 for Freedom and Democracy in Greece.”
Beneath that inscription are Georgakis’ own words: “I cannot but think and act as a free individual.”
In Genoa’s Matteotti Square, where the young man died, there is a plaque with an inscription in Italian with the concluding phrase: “La Grecia Libera lo ricorderà per sempre (“Free Greece will remember him forever”). The complete inscription is translated in English as follows:
To the young Greek Konstantin Georgakis who sacrificed his 22 years for the Freedom and Democracy of his country. All Free Men shudder before his heroic gesture. Free Greece will remember him forever.
In his final letter to his father, Georgakis wrote: “My dear father. Forgive me for this act, without crying. Your son is not a hero. He is a human, like all the others, maybe a little more fearful.”
“Kiss our land for me,” he wrote. “After three years of violence, I cannot suffer any longer. I don’t want you to put yourselves in any danger because of my own actions. But I cannot do otherwise but think and act as a free individual.”
“I write to you in Italian so that I can raise the interest of everyone for our problem,” he had written. “Long Live Democracy. Down with the tyrants. Our land which gave birth to Freedom will annihilate tyranny! If you are able to, forgive me. Your Kostas.”