TWENTY-SIX years after students of the Athens Polytechnic raised their fists in
an act of heroic defiance in the face of the ruling military dictatorship,
annual commemorations of the historic event have not abated in fervour, though
their culmination will be severely limited in scope as today's traditional
march on the American embassy goes ahead only 48 hours before US President Bill
Clinton arrives in the Greek capital amid unprecedented security.
Photographs of the violent suppression of the November 17, 1973, uprising by
the junta's tanks - their obscene armoured treads, stained by the blood of
youthful victims, looming incongruously in the forecourt of an academic
institution - have long since become revered icons of the anti-dictatorial
struggle, familiar to a generation of students unborn when it all happened.
The Polytechnic Uprising, as it has come to be known, dealt a blow to the
self-confidence of the junta leaders and led directly to the toppling of the
dictator and chief putschist of the April 21, 1967, coup d'etat that brought
the junta to power, Colonel George Papadopoulos.
The man who ousted Papadopoulos in a palace coup on November 25, 1973 - the
notorious Brigadier Dimitrios Ioannidis now serving a life sentence for his
part in the 1967 seizure of power - immediately scrapped a programme of
liberalisation introduced earlier by his predecessor under which the
dictatorship had sought to distance itself from the image of
rule-from-the-barracks by bringing into the governing administration a
prominent economist and former minister, Spyros Markezinis.
The man Ioannidis appointed as his prime minister, Adamantios Androutsopoulos,
was under no illusions that his role was to be that of a shepherd guiding
Greece towards a semblance of parliamentary legitimacy. His was but to do the
bidding of a junta strongman who had never made a secret of his belief that
Greeks were not ready for democracy.
Lending a special urgency to this year's November 17 anniversary is the fact
that the United States was perceived to have approved the military takeover in
1967 in the first place and to have provided tacit support for the junta
throughout the seven-year dictatorship.
That the US president's visit to Greece should coincide with the commemoration
of the historic uprising was undoubtedly an ingredient in the explosion of
left-wing wrath which led to the government's decision to postpone the visit by
Press speculation has been rife that the US side will be using the occasion to
elicit promises from Athens to be tougher on terrorism, something hardly
calculated to pour oil on troubled waters given that the country's most feared
and most notorious terror group named itself after the very event being
celebrated in Greece this week - November 17.
On the night the tanks smashed through the Polytechnic's gates, the scent of
revolt had already been acrid in the air of the capital ever since students of
Athens University had started sit-ins the week before to protest against the
By Wednesday, November 14, 1,500 students had barricaded themselves inside the
Polytechnic. Tension grew palpably by the hour, and throughout Thursday
sympathisers old and young, workers and students, converged on the school
beside the archaeological museum.
Witnesses to the stirring events of November 16, 1973, recall scenes testifying
to a city in revolt as Athenians crowded Alexandras Avenue and Patission
Street, gathering in knots to listen to the defiant refrain on the beleaguered
students' illegal radio station, repeating over and over "This is the
Polytechnic! People of Greece, the Polytechnic bears the standard of our
struggle and your struggle, our common struggle against dictatorship and for
By late Friday, November 16, thousands of citizenry had gravitated to an area
stretching from Panepistimiou Street all the way to the Alexandras Avenue
intersection amid an atmosphere pregnant with expectation. Late on the previous
evening the last public transport vehicle to traverse the area had been cheered
by the students behind their barricades, responding to the trolley drivers'
There was an eerie silence about the area as sunset descended on Friday, all
motor traffic having yielded to the presence of a solid press of pedestrian
spectators and protesters moving along towards the Polytechnic.
But seconds later the scene exploded into pandemonium. Witness accounts
disagree as to which end of Patission Street the teargas canisters came from,
but the asphyxiating fumes had already started to terrify the crowd into
headlong flight even before the first tanks appeared on Patission Street from
the direction of Alexandras Avenue, panicking the throngs as the unwieldy
vehicles manoeuvred across pavements, their treads screaming in protest.
Accounts differ as to how many died in the ensuing tank invasion into the
Polytechnic area, but if a score were killed in the immediate area of the
school a further score are estimated to have been killed in Patission Street by
sniper fire from nervous military guards atop buildings and in what sounded
like indiscriminate shooting that went on until the early hours of Saturday,
Wreaths laid at the gates of the school yesterday and today bear witness to the
pain still keenly felt by the bereaved and the undimmed memories of dead
friends 26 years on.