On April 21, 1967, Greece woke up to 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 erase from their history. For the people who were jailed and tortured, it is a date that brings back unpleasant memories and nightmares even half a century later.
This is even more so for families of people whose lives were lost during the Greek junta regime; these are families who can neither forget nor 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 before 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 into Athens on that fateful day.
April 21, 1967
On the morning of April 21, 1967, Greeks awoke to a nightmare. The ominous rumble of tanks, occasional rifle shots, and military songs playing on the radio signified one thing: from that point on, life would not be the same.
Then came the sinister announcement on the radio: “The Hellenic Armed Forces [have] undertake[n] the governance of the country.”
Greek soldiers took over the most important strategic areas of Athens and then arrested all key politicians and Lieutenant General Grigorios Spandidakis, the Commander-in-Chief of the Greek Army.
After the politicians and Spandidakis were arrested, many individuals, comprising both prominent figures and ordinary citizens who belonged to Greece’s left wing, were likewise methodically arrested. A list of 10,000 names had previously been compiled by the military.
Those rounded up included prominent personalities, such as composer Mikis Theodorakis and other less well-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 communists. The black-listed 10,000 individuals were sent to prison or to the Yaros Island concentration camp.
The least fortunate of the political prisoners suffered brutal torturing, leaving them scarred for life.
The Greek junta suspended 11 articles of the Constitution to establish their regime. Freedom of speech ceased to exist, and along came strict censorship rules instituted for radio, newspapers and, later on, television.
At the same time, many Greeks became informants to the police, spying on their neighbors. Anyone could be arrested if police were informed that the “culprit” had spoken harshly of 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 increase their popularity among the population.
A huge amount of public projects were begun, using army troops to build new schools, hospitals, factories, stadiums, and roads. This had the effect of increasing their popularity with some Greeks, but it was not enough to make up for the events 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, humane, and appealing.
They held huge public celebrations on the April 21st anniversary and other national holidays such as March 25th and October 28th. These great commemorations were widely attended by the public, as well as highly 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 raised their voices in unison in telling the world about the human rights violations by the colonels and how they were holding Greeks captive, so to speak, through their ruthless regime’s policies.
The left wing and democratic elements of Greek society were naturally opposed to the junta right 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 occurred during Papadopoulos’ commute to Athens from his Lagonis summer residence, during which he was escorted by personal security.
Panagoulis set off a bomb at a strategic point on the coastal road at which Papadopoulos’ vehicle would be forced to slow down. However, the bomb failed to injure Papadopoulos.
Panagoulis was captured a few hours later in a nearby sea cave after his escape boat 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 shown mercy 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.
Various people hoped that these elections would be democratic unlike the rigged 1968 referendum which had taken place to change the Constitution. No one will ever know what could have happened if it hadn’t been for the Polytechnic 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 step down from power.
The events of November 17th, when the premises of the university were brutally cleared out by the military with the use of a tank, left several dead.
The turmoil provided an opportunity for hardliner Colonel Dimitrios Ioannidis to topple Papadopoulos on November 25th with yet another coup.
His ambitious plan to overthrow the President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, so that Greece and Cyprus could unite, essentially 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 establish a democratic government.
All Greek junta members were arrested and brought to trial; it was a mass trial. Papadopoulos, Pattakos, Makarezos, and Ioannidis were sentenced to death for high treason, but their sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment.
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