You probably know the story. Inspired by the 1968 Paris Riots, a group of law students barricaded themselves in Athens University on 21 February 1973, in protest at the Junta’s promulgation of a law that allowed for the compulsory drafting into the army, of “subversive” youths. Police broke into the University and violently dispersed the protesters, inflaming anti-Junta sentiment further among Greek university students.
Some ten months later, on 14 November 1973, students of the Athens Polytechnic decided to strike in protest against the regime. There was no response, so they barricaded themselves in and built a radio station that repeatedly broadcast across Athens the following message: “Polytechneion here! People of Greece, the Polytechneion is the flag bearer of our struggle and your struggle, our common struggle against the dictatorship and for democracy.” This struck a chord with a population weary of the drab and repressive military regime and captured their imagination. For the first time in six years, people were emboldened and empowered to speak out fearlessly against the bankrupt dictatorship. Thousands of students and workers soon joined the protesters, including my uncle, a fourteen year old boy at the time, who was eventually arrested and beaten severely and savagely for bringing food and cigarettes to the barricaded students. One of my aunts, holidaying in Greece on her honeymoon at the time and not realising the gravity of events, happened to be passing by the Polytechnic and seeing tanks parked outside it, pulled out her Kodak camera and proceeded to take what she thought would be interesting and artistic holiday snaps, until a burly police officer asked her to desist, under threat of arrest.
The Junta was not at all pleased at this turn of events. A minor protest had turned into a citywide protest and a national symbol of rebellion against their stranglehold on Greece. In the early hours of 17 Novembr 1973, dictator George Papadopoulos ordered troops to crush the demonstration. An tank crashed through the main gate of the Polytechnic (atop of which students were still perched) after 03:00 am and under almost complete darkness caused by the forced shutdown of the city lights. According to a spurious official investigation undertaken after Junta’s demise, no students were killed during the incident. However a few of them were left severely injured by the tank for the rest of their lives and it is recorded that twenty four civilians were killed outside the Polytechnic campus.
The uprising was used as an excuse for the regime to impose further repressive measures upon the populace. However, it is widely regarded as a turning point in the Junta period, where its moral bankruptcy and rejection by the people was exposed once and for all and sounded the warning bells of its demise. The violent suppression of protest personified by the Polytechnic uprising also became a potent symbol in the dialectic of the post-Junta period, with political parties vowing that protest would never be violently suppressed ever again, variously using or abusing it in order to bring opposition parties into disrepute, or in the case of not a few politicians, such as Maria Damanaki, who was a major student protagonist of the uprising, to carve a political career for themselves.
However, there is a darker side to the Polytechnic Uprising’s Manichaean legacy. For quite apart from existing as an enduring symbol of the importance of respecting freedom of speech, it has variously been exploited as a pretext for resorting to violence and vandalism whenever one’s interests are considered to be thwarted. In its most extreme form, the Polytechnic’s unwitting legacy may also include terrorism, the most notable example of this being the inexplicable reign of terror waged upon the Greek population by the 17N terrorist group, which supposedly drew its inspiration and name from the 1973 uprising.
Not a month goes by in Athens when one group or another decides to rampage through its streets, hurling Molotov cocktails and smashing shop windows in response to some perceived injury. Students “celebrate” their right to free speech every year on the anniversary of the Polytechnic Uprising by barricading themselves within it and burning it and its surrounds. This is not what the students of 1973 fought for and constitutes a blight upon their memories. However, so entrenched is the right to protest in the psyche of the post-Junta Greek, regardless of the magnitude of violence employed to give it its form, that the Greek state cannot bring itself to clamp down on what in Australia would be deemed to be criminal activity: the wanton destruction of property and physical assault.
Staging mini-Polytechnic occupations in schools throughout Greece is another sorry legacy of the 1973 uprising. On the most flimsy of pretexts and often with the tacit support of their teachers or political agitators, students decide to occupy their schools and resort to acts of vandalism. This is known as “katalipsis” or “occupation” which is ironic given its original platonic connotations of a “cognitive impression.” That by tolerating the arbitrary occupation of schools by students’ fiat year after year, Greece is producing a society of cognitively deficient citizens can be evidenced by the following vignette: In 2001 I was holidaying in Samos. It came up in conversation with the nomarch’s daughter, a potent symbol of government law and order as ever could be found, that her school was under “katalipsis,” and had been so for three weeks. When asked the reason for this occupation she replied: “Our heater broke down.” When I suggested that they could wear jumpers and write letters in protest in the meantime, she gaped: “Oh no, that wouldn’t be democratic. We have a right to occupy the school. Besides, we felt we all needed a holiday.”
The recent spate of school occupations has resulted in the vandalism of public property and even more heinous crimes. In the supposed name of democracy and free speech, a group of schoolchildren engaged in a “katalipsis” has gang-raped a Bulgarian classmate while her female classmates recorded this atrocity on their mobile phones. The Greek state’s unwillingness to intervene to prevent such crimes from occurring in the name of political expediency, knowing that they will necessarily be compared to the Junta-troops that forcibly put down the Polytechnic Uprising by their political enemies sadly seems to demonstrate either that the Greek people’s conception of democracy and civilized protest is an infantile one, or that they are cynically willing to trample upon the tenets of a doctrine of government that they so laud themselves over inventing, whenever this suits them.
As the members of the village where the hapless Bulgarian girl was brutally raped close ranks and cast her and her mother out, maintaining that “she asked for it,” in contrast to the Werribee parents who recently turned their children into the police for committing a similar assault upon a classmate, we can only shake our heads in disbelief at a society which seems to display a total lack of social and public conscience. A system that encourages the politicization of society to such a extent that it permits children to hold classroom elections along party lines, requires their being beholden to their elder ‘ideologues,’ and incites them to acts of wanton violence against themselves and public property is fundamentally a flawed one. Such a society can never be cohesive and shall always be fragmented and schizophrenic in its approach to its citizens and as such, is of little value to them, or to the rest of the world.
The idealistic and patriotic students of 1973 did not put their lives at risk so that their slothful, comfortable petty-bourgeois descendants could have a holiday and indulge in their animal passions at the behest of self-interested politicians. They gave voice to an entire generation of downtrodden people, proving by example that righteous and peaceful protest is the most compelling weapon against brutal repression. Their modern day descendants share none of these values. They are neither repressed nor downtrodden. Instead, they have been encouraged, by virtue of their youth and by reference to their noble predecessors to disregard core values and social norms in order to get their own way. In short, they are, to use the vernacular, chucking a tantrum and there is no one there to discipline them, lest they be deemed to be reactionary.
Perhaps if Greek society as a whole concentrated upon inculcating in its children critical faculties, a sense of civic responsibility and respect for each other, they could go along way in instilling in them, those values of 1973, which they have deluded themselves into believing that they espouse and guide them into appropriate forms of protest. In refusing to do so and relegating their youth to illegal, albeit tolerated forms of protest, the archons of Greek society are reserving the mechanisms of power unto themselves and effectively disenfranchising the youth from making a difference. If only they had the perspicacity to realize this and if only their short-sighted political leaders could understand that which Archie Lee Moore so eloquently stated: “If we resort to lawlessness, the only thing we can hope for is civil war, untold bloodshed, and the end of our dreams.”