On the 17th of November, Greece celebrates the anniversary of the uprising of the students of the Polytechnic Faculty in Athens, which occurred in 1973. It was a massive student demonstration against the Greek military junta that ruled the country from the 21st of April 1967 to the 23rd of July 1974. This event was one of the most significant popular insurrections that marked the end of Greek dictatorship and a clear shout for freedom and democracy.
But let’s try to take one step back in history.
After the second world war, Greece was economically destroyed and signed by political instability. Many governments followed one another until 1965 when king Constantine II, who reigned as the last king of Greece from march 1964 until the abolition of the Greek monarchy in 1973, decided to leave confidence in the Papandréu government from the centre union. This event has the name Apostasia or Royal Coup and is used to describe the beginning of a long period of political disorder that led to the creation of the military regime in 1967.
On the 21st of April 1967, during the early morning hours, Greece woke up with the sound of army tanks, rifle shots, military hymns playing on the radio and an announcement: “The Hellenic Armed Forces undertake the governance of the country”. Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos, Brigadier General Stylianos Pattakos, and Nikolas Makarezos ordered this coup in Athens that day.
From this moment, everything changed for the Greek population. People from all political backgrounds, especially from the Greek left wing, were arrested and imprisoned or sent into exile because of the fear that Greece risked falling into the hands of communists.
The junta soon proceeded to abolish civil rights such as freedom of speech and established severe censorship rules for radio, newspaper and television. The dictators started a campaign of public work, building schools, hospitals, factories, stadiums and roads. To some Greeks, they could be pleasant for this reason, but it was not sufficient to agree with what they were doing in the country.
The Colonel’s junta, trying to control all political aspects, also banned student elections in the University, choosing labour leaders not elected from the national student union. They also imposed military service on students they considered hostile to the regime.
These actions increased anti-junta feelings among students.
Greek students started the first demonstrations against authorities in February and March 1973. On the 14th of November, 1973, students protested at the School of Law and entered the Polytechnic School (Polytechneio) in Athens. They realised a jury-rigged radio using materials found in University to transmit messages to the city. “Polytechneio here! Polytechneio here! This is the radio station of the free, fighting students, of the free, fighting Greeks!”. This was the phrase that echoed, an echo of peace and freedom.
From the 16th of November, the University was crowded with people that wanted to join the protest.
Abruptly, the police came to stop people entering the building and asked them to leave the area, threatening them with violence.
But tensions didn’t stop, and protesters entered the campus of the Polytechneio. For this reason, authorities decided to call in the Army and from 1:30 am on the 17th of November, a tank stopped in front of the gate. Police repeated to come out of the building and go away, but demonstrators faced the authorities. So, the junta tanks broke the gate of the Polytechneio campus around 3:00 am and entered inside, many citizens were killed or wounded.
The attempt to beg the army to stop was in vain: from inside the building, the radio presenter started to implore authorities, calling them “brothers” in an emotional voice and singing the national anthem with the other protesters.
This tragic epilogue helped the feel of the colonels’ regime, which happened some months later, after a failed coup attempt in Cyprus which brought about the Turkish invasion of the island on the 20th of July, 1974.
Each year, manifestations and activities are carried out in honour of the students and all the protesters who, with their courage and determination, fought against a regime that left the darkest and saddest memory in Greek history.