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Thursday 2 December 2021

The Greek Military Dictatorship: Revisiting a Troubled Past, 1967-1974

On 17 November, SEESOX hosted a seminar on The Greek Military Dictatorship: Revisiting a Troubled Past, 1967-1974. Speakers were Othon Anastasakis (SEESOX), Foteini Dimirouli (Keble College, Oxford), and Kostis Kornetis (Universidad Autonoma de Madrid). Katerina Lagos (California State University, Sacramento) chaired.

Lagos recalled the history of the 1967 coup and its aftermath, noting that the seminar was taking place on the anniversary of the Polytechnic uprising on 17 November 1973 which contributed to the discrediting and the eventual downfall of the military junta. The seminar marked the publication of a volume of the same name (edited by herself and Anastasakis), a book which contained contributions on the history, internal and external policies of the Greek military regime.

Anastasakis focused on the junta’s policy towards education. At first, he drew a distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in how they treat education and youth; while totalitarians seek to dominate education totally and mobilise youth around their totalitarian ideology (i.e. Nazi and fascist regimes), authoritarian regimes focus on restricting and controlling liberties – a more limited aim – and show reaction and scepticism towards education and youth. In the case of Greece, a textbook military dictatorship, they sought to deal with the education system in a reactionary way, reversing earlier democratic and liberal reforms. This was based on no particular beliefs other than ultranationalism, with the Army as the embodiment of national consciousness, and a fixation on the purified Greek language (Katharevousa) as the official language, with Demotic Greek described as “semi-barbarian”. Alongside this, there was censorship of a long list of publications, they sought to suppress the youth movement, infiltrate the universities and impose their own clientilistic and loyalist networks.However, the economic modernisation of the country required reform and change towards more adaptable education. As the economy continued to grow in the period up to the 1973 oil crisis, the need for improved technical education became apparent, leading to the establishment by 1973 of 5 new technical institutions and some limited form of pseudo-liberalisation. But this attempt at some degree of controlled pluralism led to the events at the Athens Law School in early 1973 and then the Polytechnic uprising later that year, with the subsequent downfall of the Papadopoulos government and its replacement by even harder liners. Even under the hardliners, it was clear that youth posed a problem for the junta and efforts were made by the government to find solutions in the first half of 1974. But with the July 1974 collapse of the military regime came catharsis and then reform, consolidated when PASOK came to power in 1981. But some legacies of the regime remain in education today. And the anniversary of the Polytechnic uprising remains a trigger for vivid memory and protests.

Dimirouli stressed the importance, for any authoritarian regime, of telling its own story in a convincing way and thus making it the dominant one in public discourse. For the colonels, this story presented the dictatorship as a revolution necessary to keep communism at bay, set Greece back on the right path, and eventually facilitate a return to democracy. Other stories had to be crushed, hence the wholesale blacklisting of books and the persecution of artists and intellectuals. Alongside this came a retelling of familiar stories in new ways – for example events such as “Festivals of the Military of the Greeks” drew on, and manipulated, the classical past.

Modern works were also conscripted to the cause of the regime, including, curiously, the early 20th century poet Constantine Cavafy, despite his homosexuality. This happened through the manipulation of his poetry in the educational syllabus, and the quoting of his poems “Walls” and “The Windows” as allegories for the dogmatic views of the “dangerous communist” in the main treatise of the dictatorship “The Ideology of the Revolution”. Cavafy was dead: he could not contradict political interpretations of his poetry, and in any event his political affiliations while he was still alive remain largely unknown. The dictatorship was also favourable toward Cavafy because, unlike other poets, he partly wrote in katharevousa, and promoted a wider idea of Hellenism that included the Hellenistic period. The regime ignored nuance in his work in favour of highlighting its dichotomies, and enlisting those to its own vision. However, Cavafy also became part of the counter story of resistance, especially in “Eighteen Texts”, a volume published in 1970 to counter the regime, where Cavafy’s verse was enlisted to mobilise dissent.

Kornetis began by recalling that the 1967 coup in Greece was not exceptional in the global context of the Cold War; there were parallels in Thailand, Chile and Vietnam. But its legacies were more complex. The 17 November 1973 Polytechnic uprising was less contested as the moment of the beginning of liberation in Greece – and the first elections in 1974 were held on the anniversary. 24 July 1974 was, on the other hand, a moment of simultaneous national tragedy – the Cyprus fiasco – and national liberation, with the modern Hellenic Republic built on the ashes of the Cyprus imbroglio. While the transition in 1974 was a top-down affair, initiated by the Army, which had caused the whole thing in the first place, 17 November is still defended by some as the day in which the “transition from below” started (or could have started). This makes for two, potentially competitive dates. While the 17 November celebration is infinitely better known than the 24 July, there was and still is certain awkwardness regarding the latter precisely because it coincided with the Cypriot tragedy; hence the conundrum about celebrating a day that also marked a tragedy of an entire people.

He saw the fall of the junta as the concluding moment of Greece’s own Thirty Years’ War, which began with the civil war of the 1940s, with subsequent watershed moments such as the legalisation of the communist party and the rejection of the monarchy. Societal liberalisation ran in parallel with, or even faster than, institutional changes, with the role of women o the Polytechnic generation as vehicles for change. Greek society was not polluted forever by the regime, and there were few effective legacies, beyond uncontrolled hotel building.

In the Q & A, there were a number of linked themes:

· After the junta, the Army was put back in its barracks, with the rejection of the monarchy as a symbolic decapitation of its head. While there were some parallels with the Franco regime, the Greek junta was much shorter lived and, while both tried to liberalise from within, the experiment failed due to pressure from below. Greece’s transition represented a middle way between the consensual process, involving all parties, in Spain, and the left-wing revolution of Portugal, with associated transitional uncertainty. While Karamanlis preserved stability, the leftist PASOK government in 1980 was a consolidation of transition. Greece was the only one of the three to put its main leaders on trial after transition (though not the lower-level figures).

· The junta’s policy was a mix of continuity – as in economic policy – and rupture. Educational policy in Greece had always been contested and the 1964 reforms, which the junta reversed, were an important moment, changing the status quo. Universities are by definition a centre of opposition, (as in Turkey and Hungary today). Under the junta, youth was mobilised in the parallel economic expansion; while the military felt comfortable in expanding technical education, helping against unemployment at the same time, their attempted pseudo liberal image backfired on them. Those in the educational system who had collaborated with the military were swiftly removed after the fall of the junta, due to strong student involvement in the universities; the work of “dejuntification” was gentler in the army.

· The Polytechnic uprising survives in the Greek national memory as leading to the fall of the junta, but its place is symbolic, with continuously evolving representations, as new tensions arise. Its legacy remains ambivalent – while an undeniably heroic moment, it has a leftist attachment. As a result it is exploited by leftist parties against right wing ones and the anniversary always raises expectations of riots in Athens, with a symbolic march to the US Embassy. It has been appropriated as symbolic baggage for terrorism, much to the unhappiness of those who were there. For the following student generations, they have to weigh themselves against those of the Polytechnic generation.

Jonathan Scheele  (SEESOX Associate and  SEESOX Blog Editor)

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