As events in Greece open up a new epoch that could change the face of Europe and the world, it is important to trace the historical roots of the Greek crisis. Before the current crisis, the last period of major social upheavals in Greece was the 1970s – notably the time from the overthrow of the colonels’ dictatorship in 1974 to the election of the first PASOK government in 1981. During that period, the author made several visits there and made a special study of modern Greek history. The following article was first serialised in the British newspaper MILITANT in 1977. Viewpoint is sharing this document with WIN (Workers’ International Network).
On 21st April, tanks rolled into Athens. 8,000 people were arrested. For the workers, a seven-year nightmare began. The liberal speechifiers had betrayed them yet again.
Andreas Papandreou recounts how following the coup he wondered: “What had gone wrong? What had happened to the Democratic Leagues? To our youth organisation? To the labour unions? Somewhere, we had failed. We had been taken by surprise.”
And yet ample warning had been given: by the king; by the US embassy; by the workers themselves, who had seen the whole chain of events take place more than once before. George Papandreou had replied privately to warnings of a coup with the retort: “This is not the Congo!” Andreas, leader of the centre left, too, had stated: “In Europe in the year 1967, a military dictatorship was inconceivable.”
So the workers were left defenceless. Andreas Papandreou admitted later: “Had we given serious attention to the establishment of a clandestine, resistance-oriented organisation; had we formed the nuclei through the country; had we given clear instructions for action in response to a coup; had we distributed radio transmitters and mimeograph machines; and had we rented apartments under cover to protect the leadership of the organisation; then possibly we could have frustrated the coup within the first few hours.... No one had emotionally accepted the possibility of a coup, although all the signs of an impending coup were there.”
The liberals’ touching faith in the decency of the officer caste was linked to their unwillingness to start a chain reaction that could only end in the socialist revolution. They were not prepared even to pose the abolition of the monarchy, a break with NATO and United States domination, let alone socialist demands.
The serious strategists of the ruling class were alarmed at the colonels’ indecent haste. They realised that, since the junta had no social base, but ruled solely through brute terror, it could not hold the masses down for long. It would be practically impossible for any capitalist politician to keep Greece safe for capitalism following the inevitable disintegration of the junta. That is why figures like Karamanlis, Kanellopoulos, Eleni Vlachou, none of whom had been notably squeamish about the use of violence to suppress the masses, all loudly opposed the regime. Even the King went through the motions of a half-hearted counter-coup to try to restore his flagging credibility.
The fears of these most farsighted representatives of the Greek ruling class have been dramatically justified by the events of the last three years.
The colonels who took power on April 21st 1967 imposed a regime of ferocious reaction: of overcrowded concentration camps and bestial tortures. Among their first acts were the banning of long hair and mini-skirts, the censorship of “immoral” literature (including several classic Greek tragedies), and the imposition of archaic Greek for use in schools.
The attitude of these demented reactionaries towards more complex social issues was no less insensitive. They thought that it was enough to stamp their feet like sergeant-majors at a parade ground and scream at the class struggle to “stand to attention!” They treated the capitalist economy, too, like a regiment, issuing constant “decrees”.
Mostly former NCOs of rich peasant stock, and a background in the bloody school of the civil war, they had grown impatient at the atmosphere of guile and hypocrisy surrounding the palace, its fawning courtiers cocooning it off from reality. They had formed the secret society EENA, which the CIA, with its 300 agents in Greece, had cultivated and perfected into a sophisticated intelligence tool.
The king’s junta, IDEA, composed of the generals, had been beaten to the finishing post. Their mechanism for a coup had been prematurely put into operation by the colonels. But this alone was not sufficient to explain their misgivings about the coup. They were appalled at the likely social consequences of handing over power to these uncouth upstarts. As strategists and not merely field commanders, they had had a lifetime of experience at taming the revolution. They understood that sometimes a cut of the whip will only enrage the beast all the more.
The whole fragile system of cautious preparation for a coup, the devious schemes to compromise the liberals and confuse the workers, their tortuous pretexts to postpone elections – pathetically inadequate though they were – all were trampled underfoot by the colonels’ jackboots. The vow to “stamp out communism” was a dangerous appeal to the brutal instincts of the civil war, just at the moment when the workers’ morale was beginning to be lifted. By taking over without first preparing a broad social base for their regime, these boneheaded Colonel Blimps were putting a question mark over the very survival of capitalism.
This was the fear underlying all the mealy-mouthed protests of the most experienced guardians of capitalism’s interests. At times they blurted out the truth. Kanellopoulos warned that “unless freedom is reinstated soon, destructive forces will be unleashed that could undermine the foundations of the social regime”. Karamanlis said: “The situation is dangerous. If it is prolonged excessively, without any wise and bold measures to restore legality, it is liable to lead to communism.”
The seven unstable years during which the junta clung precariously to power amply confirmed their fears. For all its brutality, it was tossed helplessly from crisis to crisis, lurching in drunken zig-zags from one contradictory decree to the next. Within the seven years of enforced “stability”, Greece was in turn a monarchy, a regency and a republic!
The king’s token counter-coup – a charade acted out mainly for the record – could have been a scene from a pantomime. The king – together with his family, jewellery, clothing, butler, servants, doctor, nurses, dog and prime minister – took to the hills, made a broadcast hardly audible in Athens, appealed for support, and slipped out within hours to a comfortable refuge in the fleshpots of Rome, where the king lived happily ever after as a playboy on a pension of £126,000 a year.
The junta looked nervously over its shoulder, not at the king but at the workers, desperately seeking to placate them by a feverish resort to the printing press, churning out banknotes to buy off their acceptance of the dictatorship. Hyper-inflation reached 33% by 1973, the highest in Europe. The regime was perched on top of a volcano liable to erupt at any moment. In its last two years, 1972-4, the economy reached an impasse. Inflation had eaten huge bites into living standards. Where previously up to 90,000 Greeks a year had emigrated to Germany and elsewhere, the ban on foreign guest workers, together with the slump in the tourist market, hit Greece hard. 40% of the budget was meanwhile drained off into defence expenditure.
From early 1973, the regime was visibly crumbling. In February the first student occupations began in the law school. In June, a royalist, Admiral Pappas, led another half-hearted naval mutiny to restore the king to his throne. After briefly showing the flag, the admiral sailed away to freedom, mumbling: “My action could have been more dynamic, but I had taken no decision to provoke civil war...”
This led to another abrupt lurch in the regime’s policy. Like a cornered rat, Papadopoulos played his last trump card, cashing in on popular hatred of the king by denouncing him as “a leader of adventurers, bankrupts, fellow-travellers, saboteurs and even murderers”, proclaiming a republic, appointing himself as president, and hastily adding: “And I promise before God and men that by the end of 1974 the Greek people shall elect its representatives for parliament in general elections.” As it turned out, his promise was probably more accurate than he himself realised!
The panic of the junta, and the precious glimpse that had been gained into the split between its rival factions, led directly to the uprising of November 1973. Beginning as a student occupation within the Athens Polytechnic, young workers joined in, swelling the sit-in to 1,500 people. A huge crowd of 100,000 massed outside the building to support them. An underground radio station broadcast revolutionary slogans. Bus drivers shouted slogans to their passengers. The police cordon was broken repeatedly by workers and housewives offering food and medical supplies to the students and workers. Other public buildings were occupied.
After three days, troops were called in. Barricades were set up to block their paths. Marines, commandos, military police and tanks were thrown against the unarmed masses. Soldiers refusing to open fire on defenceless civilians were shot in the back by their officers. The revolt was crushed only after about a hundred people were killed and 1,000 wounded.
But it was clear that the days of the dictatorship were numbered. In sheer rat panic, the hated chief of the military police Ioannides elbowed Papadopoulos aside and imposed a new regime of terror. He knew all too well that, however rigged the promised elections, once the masses felt the grip loosening, his gang of torturers could well end up decorating the lamp posts of Athens. His coup was a desperate gamble, which did nothing to impress the ruling class. After the Portuguese revolution of 25th April 1974, one bourgeois newspaper commented: “48 years of authoritarian rule – and Portugal ends up with communists in the government!” The warning did not go unheeded. The dictators were thrown even deeper into despair.
In a vain search for glory, they launched their lunatic adventure in Cyprus, overthrowing Makarios – partially at the prompting of the USA which was seeking a pretext to achieve the partition of this vital strategic base. Instead of basking in the glory of “Enosis” (the union of Cyprus with Greece), the dictators found themselves embroiled in a hopeless war with the Turks. The regime fell to pieces in utter panic. The mobilisation of reservists, putting guns in the hands of Greek workers, frightened them even more.
The puppet ministers fled the country, without even bothering to submit their resignations. One of them admitted: “We are a ridiculous government, a laughing stock. Even my own friends have stopped greeting me.”
President Gizikis, left holding the baby, convened an urgent meeting of capitalist politicians, announcing: “Greece is without a government.” Unanimously and with relief, the meeting agreed to recall Karamanlis.
(to be continued)