By Dr. Robert Zaller, Distinguished University Professor of History at Drexel University, Special to the Hellenic News of America
Everyone remembers their first visit to Greece, and what I remember best of mine is the feeling I experienced on a southern shore in Crete, a wild openness as I looked at the sea and thought that, at the end of it, lay another continent. But that moment was only the crystallization of the many I’d already had on my trip, without being able to give a name to them. Its essence, as I only then realized although I still only vaguely understood it, was freedom.
Freedom is something you feel, of course, and it has to come from within. But it can lie in your surroundings, too, as in the proper setting of a people in its landscape. I had seen something of the world by then. I had seen, certainly, beautiful places. But I had never seen such a congruence between a people, its history, and its land, mysterious but perfect. And I knew that if I were ever to have a homeland, even as a guest, it would be Greece.
I did not know then more of Greece than what I’d picked up from books, and little of its political situation. I knew, vaguely, about the assassination of a man named Grigoris Lambrakis, and that there was tension in Greek politics. But humanity had just survived an existential crisis, the atomic standoff over Cuba that threatened civilization and perhaps humanity itself. Local politics in a land I was just beginning to know was of secondary importance. I was looking for a deeper root in its culture, and the astonishing beauty it presented to me.
That was a mistake, perhaps a forgivable one. Like many first visitors, I needed a Greece of my own invention. There was no other way to grasp it, I thought, except as a whole. But the politics of any given moment, as I had yet to learn, were inseparable from the totality of a people’s history, and what was happening around me was as connected with the days of Pericles as the rocks of the shore were to those he had beheld himself.
By the time of that very dark day, April 21, 1967, when tyranny descended on Greece, I knew a little more about the country and its politics. I had also met my future wife, Lili Bita, from whose first embrace I had learned more about the country I had grown to love than I would ever know from anything else.
At first, I watched Greece from afar. The junior officers—chiefly colonels, and all hitherto obscure—who had seized control of the country overnight and without significant resistance—could not, it was clear, have acted without the tacit support if not open complicity of the one power that had governed its destiny for the preceding two decades, the United States.
America had inherited the secret political agreement negotiated between Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin near the end of World War II that ceded most of Eastern Europe as a Russian sphere of influence in return for Greece and Turkey as a Western redoubt. The U.S. enforced this agreement under the aegis of the Truman Doctrine, backing the restored Royalist government in Greece against the Communist insurgents who had borne the brunt of the resistance to the wartime German occupation. In France and Italy, Communism was defeated at the polls with heavy investment from Washington, but the breakdown of political talks in Greece precipitated a four-year civil war that, conveniently forgotten in Western annals, remains the bloodiest conflict in post-World War II Europe to date. When added to the costs of the Italian and German wars of 1940-41 and the German occupation of 1941-44, Greece would suffer more loss of life in its combined wars of the 1940s than any but the most major combatants of Europe excluding Poland.
Stalin lived up to his commitment to leave Greece in the Western orbit. American funding, intelligence, and logistical support enabled the Royalist government to prevail in the civil war. A cloak of official silence settled over the war, with its defeated survivors not restored to full citizenship until the 1980s. I remember vividly an incident from that latter time when Lili and I, on a tour bus in the countryside of Lesbos, passed a large monument on a hill. Lili asked the driver what it was, and received an evasive answer. When the bus stopped, the driver approached her and said, “That’s for the war we had. But we don’t speak about it among foreigners.”
A lot of history in Greece still isn’t much talked about.
The American interest in Greece in the 1960s was strictly a geopolitical one. The eastern Mediterranean, with its proximity to the Soviet Union and the Middle East, was a high priority. It was the American Sixth Fleet, stationed in Crete’s Souda Bay, that patrolled the region. Both Greek and Turkish politics were notoriously volatile, as well as Greco-Turkish relations themselves. The American interest in both countries was in “stability,” that meaning a client state policed by a fiercely anti-communist military. The Greek Communist Party had been outlawed, and many former leaders and sympathizers remained in prison or in exile, including the man popularly considered Greece’s greatest poet, Yannis Ritsos. The last stanchion of the Greek political tripod was the monarchy, still descended from the princelings set up by Western powers after the War of Independence and restored by Britain and the U.S. after World War II. Its role was constitutionally limited, but its powers were uncertain.
After some experimentation, America found a serviceable leader in Konstantinos Karamanlis, whose right-of-center party dominated Greek politics for the better part of a decade. But the Karamanlis government fell in 1963, and the accession of the veteran Venizelist politician Georgios Papandreou raised the specter of a leftist resurgence. This was complicated by political meddling from the palace, where the young Konstantinos II had just ascended the throne. The precision with which the 1967 coup was executed by subordinate officers, with thousands arrested overnight and command centers swiftly seized, suggested a far more sophisticated operation than could likely have been devised by the principal conspirators, led by Georgios Papadopoulos. President Lyndon Johnson could not openly welcome a coup that overthrew democracy in a NATO ally, but his forbearance toward it made America’s position clear. King Konstantinos helpfully papered over the new dictatorship with a figurehead civilian prime minister. When he realized that the colonels intended to make no place for him he belatedly organized a counter-coup, but this was calamitously bungled, and he fled the country in December. The Junta was in charge.
Lili and I arrived in Greece for an extended stay in the summer of 1969. By that time, the tyrants were fully in control. Parliament remained dissolved, with opposition figures in jail or in exile. There were horror stories of torture and worse. Giant posters with the ubiquitous symbol of the Junta—a phoenix, intended to symbolize the rebirth of a true Hellenism, untainted by freedom and democracy—were everywhere, assaulting one even as one approached small harbors and distant islands. The streets were silent, and people in cafés spoke in low tones. And there were places you definitely avoided. The “house on Bouboulinas Street,” not far from the Archaeological Museum in Athens, was a yellow building notorious for torturing dissidents, real or suspected. There were stories of detainees being dangled from helicopters—or dropped. This would be a feature of Argentina’s military regime some years later.
Lili and I looked for a place away from the fear and suffocation that stifled Athens. We chose the island of Kythera, legendary (among other sites) as the birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite. It was a long trip then, and the island itself, though technically a part of the Seven Ionian islands, an isolated spot south of the Peloponessus. Literally, the island had no visitors but ourselves, and two other strangers, neither present voluntarily. We rented a small house on the outskirts of the Chora, climbing to it every evening to eat at the island’s only taverna. There would we see our two fellow strangers. One was a member of the former Parliament, a Centrist politician sent to Kythera as a political exile. He came every evening dressed in a suit and tie, bringing with him a short-wave radio on which he listened to banned foreign broadcasts. At a smaller table nearby sat the hapless operative whose job it was to watch him, and who in effect shared his exile. The politician spoke only to order his dinner, since anyone who conversed with him might be suspect. He was always welcomed, though, with evident civility. The minder too ate alone, and no one ever said a word to him. It was a nightly ritual. The few diners were technically complicit in listening to the foreign radio, but few if any would have understood it. The minder could no doubt have switched the radio off, but he didn’t dare. The atmosphere was thick with hatred and contempt for him, a small but penetrating act of resistance. It was to be nearly five years before Greece was free. But the death of the Junta was already in the air of that small café.
There was never any doubt of the hatred of the Junta in Athens. Everyone knew the price of expressing it, though, and informers might be anywhere. It was hard to gauge any conversation that verged, even briefly, on the political, and this in a city where every newsstand had featured a score of daily papers, and every cab driver had a personal editorial for you at the drop of a hat. I wrote a poem about one such experience back then:
High above the city,
dining well, I am told
by my friend that all
is well, is better than before.
Only one word is missing
from the dictionary
and no one ever
used it anyway.
I drink my beer; he pays the bill.
What can I say?
How does he tell me?
We part in silence.
What was the word? How was it missing? Of course, it was any word at all, because if one is missing because of censorship all are gone.
I had a more dramatic experience when we visited Ioannina to meet a branch of Lili’s family, now my own as well. We were treated to a lavish feast, and a cousin of Lili’s took us on a tour of the city. I thought he might find it safe to trust me with a more candid opinion about how things were. But this vocal and confident new relative of mine, the very definition of levendia, lowered his head to say only that Greece was “quieter” now, with the unspoken implication that this was for the better too. I said nothing more. The last stop on our tour was the caves outside Ioannina, the deepest in the region. We descended a good distance into one, surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites. It was only then that my cousin whirled on me to shout violently: “I hate them! I hate them! I’d kill them all! They’re destroying my country!”
And that was how public opinion was spoken in Greece in those days.
The colonels did court some favor, of course, and were especially welcoming to the American tourists who made up a considerable portion of the summer trade. Syntagma Square might indeed have been taken for part of an American city most days but for the view of the Parthenon behind it, and the padlocked gates of the Greek Parliament. Wealthy West Germans also had an interest. The Junta had opened up formerly protected coastal sites on Greek islands, and there was a boom in villas and condominiums for German customers, eager to occupy Greece again with the softer power of money. The protections were reimposed when the Junta fell, and the villas, many unfinished, were left to rot. It was not the last German attempt at conquest, as the Merkel era of the present century was to show us.
When I returned to Greece three years later the Junta’s grip still seemed tight, but its unraveling was not far off. It remained political shunned abroad, and despised at home. The major political personalities of the country remained abroad in voluntary exile. Leading cultural figures such as Melina Mercouri and Mikis Theodorakis kept protest alive throughout the Western world. By the summer of 1973, the colonels attempted to legitimate the regime by offering a constitutional charter including a quasi-civilian presidency, to be occupied for an initial seven-year term by Papadopoulos. The charter was put up for a popular referendum. When Papadopoulos was asked by a reporter what would happen should it be rejected, he replied that in such case the Greek people would have shown themselves too immature to govern themselves, and the Junta would continue to rule by decree.
I observed the referendum from a village on the island of Levkas, not far from Lili’s own Zakynthos. It was a pleasant summer day. The local official sat behind a table. In front him of him were placed two boxes, one marked Yes and the other No. The voter picked up his ballots, proceeded to a smaller table behind the larger one, and cast his vote.
I used to ask my students whether this conformed to the protocol for a secret ballot. Most said it did; the official could not see the vote as it was cast.
“But was it?” I asked them. “The official is a fellow villager; he knows everyone in town. If you take both ballots, you signal to him that you may be thinking of voting No—that you are a real or potential enemy of the regime. If you want to assure him that you’re a faithful supporter, you simply pick up the Yes ballot, and leave the other alone.”
Of course, that is what I saw people do.
The story, I thought, might help explain how dictatorships worked. I could not, before the present era of open carry guns in polling stations and voter suppression laws, understand how close to home my experience would later be.
The only question about the referendum was how large a margin the Junta would claim for its victory. There were bets on it. Too large a majority, say the 99% claimed by Hitler and Stalin on their own “constitutions,” would not appear credible. Too small a one would indicate serious opposition.
The Junta decided to split the difference: the Yes vote was announced as 78%, the No at 22%.
Afterwards, I interviewed Panayiotis Kanellopoulos, who had been the last elected prime minister of Greece. He said, laughing, that he had no doubt the tally was correct. “Only,” he added, “it was the other way around. That was the margin by which the charter was rejected.”
What had happened was no mystery. In some places there was a quota: when a certain number of No votes were reached, the rest were counted as Yes. Elsewhere, No votes were simply dumped. The prepared tally came up. And the dictator got to call himself president.
This would not be for long. In November, a student revolt erupted at the Polytechneion in Athens. The students locked themselves inside its gates, and declared their school free. Thousands joined them outside in solidarity and protest. After three days, the gates were smashed, and soldiers stormed in. An estimated twenty-four students were killed. In the aftermath, Papadopoulos himself was pushed out by a brutal henchman, but the days of the Junta were clearly numbered. By July, following a botched coup attempt in Cyprus, it was gone. What had been swept away in a day was restored in a day. Freedom returned Greece.
A conservative government was installed, led once again by Karamanlis, who flew home from exile in Paris with Western blessings. Karamanlis had a fine line to walk. He had to deal at once with the Cypriot crisis, where a Turkish invasion threatened general war. At the same time, he was putting together a new political party, New Democracy, while the old parties reassembled and a popular referendum ended the monarchy. Karamanlis showed considerable adeptness in his return to power, restoring Greece’s democratic institutions, lifting press restraints, and permitting parties of all stripes to form in the political arena. Even after New Democracy fell from power, he remained a presence in the ceremonial post of president. As for Washington, the Junta had outlived its usefulness, and with its venture in Cyprus had created exactly the situation it was designed to forestall: a military clash in the eastern Mediterranean, and a Cyprus whose division remains intractable to the present day.
There was one remaining point to deal with, namely the fate of the deposed Junta leaders. Since the post-World War II Nuremberg trials, various dictators have been overthrown, only to be allowed to live out their lives unmolested and with their legacies unpurged: Franco in Spain; Salazar in Portugal; Pinochet in Chile. In each case, the impunity of these figures has left a cloud over the restored democracies of their respective countries. In the U.S. itself, Richard Nixon had fallen even as the Cyprus crisis was unfolding in 1974—not, to be sure, as a dictator, but a man who had egregiously violated Constitutional norms and broken the laws of the land. Nixon was liable to prosecution after his resignation, but his successor, Gerald Ford, preemptively pardoned him, leaving him too without a reckoning from the institutions he had subverted. That, too, has had consequences. Forty-some years after Nixon’s fall, another would-be presidential autocrat, Donald Trump, was able to escape removal from office in part, perhaps, because of this precedent.
The Greeks alone, among modern nations, dealt with their tyrants. Having arrested the Junta’s leaders and factotums, the Karamanlis government conducted four trials in the summer and autumn of 1975, which I was able to see on closed-circuit television. The first trial dealt with the leaders, Papadopoulos among them, and the second with those directly involved in the massacre at the Polytechneion. The last two trials involved those accused of torture. As Amnesty International has noted, these latter were among the very few trials in modern history that brought torturers themselves to account for their assaults on human dignity. Altogether, the trials were a signal example of a free society asserting justice against the most terrible of all civil crimes, the denial of freedom to an entire nation.
The trials handed down death sentences for Papadopoulos and two of his chief confederates, Stylianos Pattakos and Nikolaos Makarezos. These sentences were symbolic; Karamanlis commuted them to life imprisonment. There would be no pardons, however, although Pattakos and Makarezos were eventually released from prison for health reasons. In 1990, then-Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis considered pardons for the Junta’s ringleaders, but a public outcry quickly quelled the idea. Those who had stolen the freedom of Greece had their just punishment: they would never again know a day of freedom for themselves. Papadopoulos would die in prison in 1999, and Dimitrios Ioannides, who had crushed the Polytechneion uprising, would follow him in 2015.
The full story of the Junta has yet to be told. At the 1975 trials, Andreas Papandreou, whose potential accession to power in 1967 had been a proximate cause of the coup and who would, of course, later serve as Prime Minister, accused the U.S. of having fomented it, and in 1997 President Bill Clinton offered an apology for America’s role in the Junta years, without offering details. That is certainly far from enough. The U.S. participated in overthrowing democratically elected leaders in Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, Congo, and Iran during the Cold War period. But its role in Greece is in some ways uniquely culpable. Greece, the birthplace of freedom, took heart from the example of America in seeking to restore it in 1821. It suffers still not only from the memory of its loss in 1967, but from the division of Cyprus that is its ongoing consequence. America owes Greece much more than a simple apology. To begin with, it owes it the full truth.