Less than 40 years ago, Greece was not a free country. It was stifling in the grip of a brutal dictatorship which saw several of its citizens sent to jail for doing nothing more than voicing their opinion. The ruling military junta burned and banned books and even songs, and censored the media and the arts. A fierce secret police had its ears and eyes everywhere and the mere whisper of a proscribed name was enough to land a man in jail, where torture claimed many lives. Without a certificate of good conduct by the police, it was impossible to attend any college or university, or find a job other than janitor. And yet it was the boys and girls with papers that certified their own and their family’s impeccable conduct and ideological conformity, students in one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in Greece, who chose to rebel one autumn, so many years ago.
The students of the Polytechnic school in Athens, chose to occupy their faculty buildings and campus and set up a small amateur radio to call their fellow Greeks to join them in an uprising that would overthrow the hated regime. For three days the students held against threats by the police and others, while the rest of the country hoped against all odds. Those who dared to join the students in demonstrations outside were ruthlessly dealt with by the police. Some were shot.
In the end, on the night of November 17th, 1973, a military tank drove through the gate of the campus, putting an end to the brief uprising. The students were allowed to leave the campus but were pursued by the police who beat, arrested and shot several. The total number of victims remains unknown to this day.
The military regime fell the following year, for reasons unrelated to the brief uprising of the Polytechnic students, which nevertheless, was not forgotten. However, remembrance does not always mean respect. Various parties have tried to appropriate or exploit the events of November 1973, most notoriously a home-made terrorist organization, named November 17th (whose members are now enjoying the hospitality of the state).
Every year the anniversary is marked by a series of commemorative events, culminating in a procession-cum-demonstration.
If you find yourself in Athens on Saturday, avoid the centre that afternoon. Typically, the usual handful of youths tags at the end of the procession, ready to begin throwing stones or petrol-bombs at the police, as soon as the rest of the demonstrators are gone. The clashes could be exceptionally spectacular this year, due to the crisis and its fallout. Head for Plaka instead or the southern quarters, near the sea.
As for the Greeks? For all of us this is a day of sobering reflection about our country and its political system. But more about that in some other post perhaps.