April 21, 1967: A Date Most Greeks Want to Forget



                                       (Makarezos, Pattakos, Papadopoulos)

For the army colonels who overthrew the government and established a seven-year cruel dictatorship, April 21, 1967 was the day of the Revolution and the rebirth of the Greek Nation. For most Greeks though, it is a date they want to forget.

For the people who were jailed and tortured, it is a date that brings back dark memories and nightmares, even after half a century. The same applies for the families of those who were killed by the junta.

Many politicians and the young King of Greece Constantine at the time feared that the army would probably intervene to get Greece out of the political turmoil of the mid 1960s. It was expected that it would be the generals, however, it was three lower-ranking officers that took everyone by surprise when within one day, they took over power.

It was Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos, Brigadier General Stylianos Pattakos and Colonel Nikolaos Makarezos who ordered the tanks to roll in Athens. Greek soldiers took over the most crucial spots in the capital, then arrested all key politicians and Lieutenant General Grigorios Spandidakis – Commander-in-Chief of the Greek Army.

(The tanks at Syntagma Square)

The morning of April 21st, 1967 Greeks woke up to the ramble of tanks, occasional rifle shots and military hymns playing on the radio. Then it was the ominous, sinister announcement on the radio: “The Hellenic Armed Forces undertake the governance of the country”.

After the politicians, many citizens, prominent or not, who belonged to Greece’s Left, were arrested methodically. The 10,000 names were already listed and included personalities like 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 in the hands of the communists. The “black-listed” 10,000 or so were sent to prison or in the Yaros island concentration camp. The least lucky ones suffered tortures, leaving them marked for life.

The junta suspended 11 articles of the Constitution to establish the regime. Freedom of speech became non-existent, with strict censorship rules for radio, newspapers and, later, television.

At the same time, many Greeks became informants of 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.

(Papadopoulos leads the folk dance) 

As a smokescreen to hide all their shameful acts – what then U.S. Ambassador Phillips Talbot had called “a rape of democracy” – the dictators started a campaign of public works, such as building new schools, hospitals, factories, stadiums and roads. That made them likeable to some Greeks, but it was not enough for what was happening in the country.

Isolated from the rest of Europe, condemned by most Greeks and especially those who were in self-exile, the junta made efforts to be more democratic, more human, more likeable. They held big celebration events on the April 21st anniversary and other feasts attended by thousands of Greece.

The resistance inside Greece and abroad continued throughout the seven long years. Politicians, intellectuals, artists and academics who lived abroad joined their voices to tell the world that the colonels were violating human rights and held Greece captive in a ruthless regime.

When the junta finally succumbed to the anger of repressed Greeks and the outcry from around the globe, they decided to call elections. First Papadopoulos appointed Spyridon Markezinis Prime Minister of Greece and appointed himself President of the Republic. Some people believed that they would be democratic elections, unlike the 1968 rigged referendum to change the Constitution. No will ever  know what could have happened if it wasn’t for the uprising of the Polytechneio.

In November 1973, a few hundred students and other repressed Greeks occupied the building of the National Technical University of Athens and called for the colonels to leave. The events of November 17, when the premises of the university were evacuated by brutal forces, left several dead.

The turmoil gave the chance to hardliner Colonel Dimitrios Ioannidis to topple Papadopoulos on November 25 with another coup. His ambitious plan to overthrow President of Cyprus Archbishop Makarios so that Greece and Cyprus could unite, brought the Turkish invasion on the island on July 20, 1974. Only three days later, Ioannidis resigned and opened the way for Constantine Karamanlis to return to Greece and form a democratic government.

The seven-year dictatorship ended with the plight of Cyprus, as the northern part of the island is still occupied by Turkey.