“Kathy and I are getting kinda low on cash so we’re thinking of going to Israel to work on a Kibbutz…we get free room and board if we work on one of their farms…it’s kinda like a commune or something”
It’s Saturday, November 10, 1973 and I am in Athens with my two friends and travelling companions – Keith and Kathy – who have just decided to go to Israel to extend their overseas trip by exchanging labor for food and a bed. Our round-the-world trip together has lasted barely 2 months and we haven’t even left Europe. “That’s kinda crazy”, I said, “Israel just had a huge war with all of her Arab neighbors barely two weeks ago. It’s pretty dangerous there right now Keith, thousands were killed and you guys don’t know what you’re getting into.”
I’m not sure if K&K’s motivation was genuinely to save money, or if their foray into a war zone was driven by Kathy’s desire to calve her malleable boyfriend Keith away from his high school chum – myself – so she could have more one-on-one quality time with her guy. If so, it seemed like a fairly extreme money-saving solution, or relationship building exercise. (I guess I could call them and ask, 46 years later, although they are no longer a couple, we are still friends) In any event, I chose not to join them, preferring instead “to go to Istanbul” , according to my journal, and carry on with my global adventure. They left without fanfare or delay and were gone the following day, Sunday the 11th, flying off into Armageddon as I remained in Athens, eighteen and alone…according to a journal entry from that day though, their departure left me somewhat nonplussed, ““Said goodbyes to Keith and Kathy, sorry to see them go but I think I’ll get more accomplished now. Lazed around playing chess and cards” …evidently my ideas of accomplishment lacked a certain get-ahead quality – even then!
I was staying at the “New Youth Hostel #4”, at 3 Hamilton Street (now Chamilton), 97B Patision (now 28th Octovriou (October) Street) in Downtown Athens,
just a few short blocks away from the Polytechnion (the National Technical University) where a student uprising would explode within the next few days, resulting in much death, destruction, and ultimately, the overthrow of dictator George Papadopolous.
I’m not sure if I should say that my days leading up to the revolution were blissfully unaware, or admit that they were pathetically uninformed. I was completely oblivious to the political upheaval which was brewing in my neighbourhood. My fellow travellers seemed unconcerned, the Athenians with whom we engaged were not discussing it, and I was preoccupied with my travel plans, petty concerns and pleasures.
On Monday November 12, just three days before the students went on strike and occupied the Polytechnic, I was busy assembling the illegal documents I would need – primarily fake student I.D. – to get discounts on my flight to Istanbul. From my journal: “went to a “Crazy spot called Antonios” for fake student id “
(my Journal entries were often vague, as I have no recollection of why Antonio’s was “crazy” – I guess my younger self thought that it would be sufficient descriptive for my older self to remember and interpret – no)
I was much more concerned about cold showers: ”the energy shortage is giving us cold showers…what a drag”, …eating: “Went for food with Pearl and Dave “, …drinking: “Met some insane Australians” (which probably meant that they drank more than me), and… playing “cards & chess” . Eat Drink Play…the book. And, perhaps the greatest example of my complete detachment from the political turmoil unfolding around me, my entry from Wednesday November 14 – the day of the student occupation: “Nov 14 – Wednesday “When I don’t write every day I find I really forget what’s happened anyway. It’s kind of a drag, reading, sleeping, eating”. My self-indulgent ennui was about to change.
Student protest is not a new thing. Wikipedia lists 49 such demonstrations going all the way back to the University of Paris Strike of 1229. My favourite being The Great Butter Rebellion at Harvard in 1766…just for the name alone, “Mr. President we must do something about this Butter Rebellion…it’s starting to spread!
The late 60’s and early 70’s were a time of much student unrest…1968 was particularly tumultuous ( Protests of 1968 ) with a worldwide escalation of demonstrations, sit-ins, riots and revolutions taking place in well over 20 countries. These uprisings were mostly directed against military and bureaucratic elites, who countered with greater repression. This is exactly where Greek students of the Polytechnion found themselves in the fall of 1973.
Greeks had been chafing under the repressive regime of the military junta since 1967. Known as The Regime of the Colonels or just “The Dictatorship”, leader Georgios Papadopolous abolished civil rights, dissolved political parties, and exiled, imprisoned, and tortured politicians and citizens based on their political beliefs. An assassination attempt in 1968 and a student self-immolation (Kostas Georgakis) in 1970 failed to change history. Despite further clampdown on their rights and freedoms, and American support for the Dictatorship, by late 1973 students in Athens were angry enough to make their move. On November 14, 1973, while I was evidently dealing with the hardship of endless reading, eating, and sleeping, the students of the Polytechnion – blocks from my bed at Hostel #4 – decided to take their lives in their hands and occupy the University.
On Thursday, November 15, the second day of the occupation, thousands of citizens from Athens and the surrounding area, headed towards the Polytechnion to support the students. A radio transmitter had been set up on campus demanding the restoration of democracy, acting as a magnet for the disaffected. Still unaware of the magnitude of events that were unfolding around me, I arose, ate breakfast and decided to wander up 28th Octovriou Street towards the American Express office where I was expecting some mail (in those days, Amex was one of the only ways to receive snail mail while overseas). Within a few blocks of the Hostel it became apparent that “something was going on”…the streets became more and more crowded the closer I got to the University, traffic was down to a trickle or stopped altogether, and there was a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air. My first journal reference goes thus, …“Watched a demonstration, very interesting, not enough leaders, publicity or organization…” my one experience attending an anti-nuclear (Amchitka) demonstration in Victoria some years prior had evidently made me an expert, or at least a critic, qualified to provide such astute political commentary.
I do recall, on this day, being able to get fairly close to the barricaded gates of the Polytechnion. There were placards and protest signs stuck everywhere, while people milled around and the crowd swelled. I recall watching from the sidelines during the day, as different groups allied with the students started to arrive – third parties such as construction workers and farmers joined the demonstration and at one point a large throng of “suits” showed up which were reputed to be bankers and businessmen. By this point I had gleaned – through conversations with some English speaking protesters – what the demonstration was about and what was at stake.
As a young, long-haired, left-of-centre traveller my sympathies were definitely with the students, but as a non-resident just learning in real-time what was happening in front of me, I felt emotionally detached from the passions I was witnessing. I was a concerned spectator, a witness. It was fascinating and exciting but I got hungry and I left, carrying on with my evening routine of exploration and the quest for food friends and fun.
I may have gone to the Plaka (entertainment district), perhaps I climbed up to the Acropolis or Filopappou Hill to watch the sunset, these details escape me and are not really germane to the story – I do know that my journey back to Hostel #4 at days end took me once again past the Polytechnion and what I am now referring to in my journal as “the riot”.
“…went back to the riot.. got talking to a bunch of students, took a couple of dangerous pictures” Night time brings an edgy quality to the angry passions of young males. There was now a sense of lawlessness on the street as the government had not – as yet – decided to respond. Lots of clenched fists and mass chants of “Bread Education Freedom”, or one which has stuck in my mind since that evening “Apópse tha pethánei o Fasismós!” (Tonight Fascism will die!). Maybe the uprising was going to work, maybe the demands for justice, freedom, civil rights and democracy would prevail – or maybe American V.P. Spiro Agnew would parachute naked into Syntagma Square spewing more pro-junta drivel like “the best thing to happen to Greece since Pericles ruled in ancient Athens”…I know, I know – the junta was installed at the height of the cold war during America’s fight against Communism, and Greece had fought a divisive Civil War pitting left vs right in what is considered the first conflict of the Cold War – it’s all so complex… but could all be resolved so easily and amicably with the “Bathgate Solution”…better “leaders, publicity (and) organization”…
I edged my way into the crowds of protesters and decided I would take a picture with my shitty little 1970’s Kodak Pocket Instamatic Camera and its weird little flash attachment.
I stood out like a sore thumb with my long strawberry-blond hair, patched jeans, foreign culture coat, and large caulk boots with their spikes removed – a remnant of my brief career as a tree-spacer with Macmillan Bloedel. When the protesters saw that I was a foreigner with a camera they encouraged their compatriots to sit on the street so I could get a better shot of their protest (this was only a fraction of what was going on) and tell the world what was happening in their country.
At the same time, I was told that what I was doing was dangerous and that there were secret police keeping an eye on the protesters and would not think kindly of someone recording it, and even worse, being mistaken for an American …”got asked if I was American – never say yes (even if you are)”. Given American support for this unpopular regime, and considering where I was standing this was definitely not an auspicious time & place to admit to being American. I flashed the Canadian flag sewn onto my day satchel and apologized – to prove I was Canadian – and escaped the wrath of the mob.
Friday November 16 – Morning arrived, the uprising had not yet coalesced into revolution, and Papadopolous was still in power. For we hostelers there was really nothing to do but go about our day. None of us knew what the final outcome would be, although it seemed likely that there could only be one of two possible outcomes – the students would prevail and democracy would be restored, or they would be crushed and the regime would cling to power. The final outcome would prove to be much more Machiavellian in the complex calculus of Dictatorships and great power politics.
Despite being less than a kilometer from the uprising, Hostel #4 was still a place of relative calm. This could not be said of the rest of Athens. Sometime during the day, a proclamation was announced that the students intended to bring down the junta, demonstrations and attacks against neighbouring ministries took place, central roads closed, fires erupted and Molotov cocktails were thrown in Athens for the first time. The Junta decided to reply firmly, and repress the rebellion. Battle lines were drawn.
As evening descended I met two friends – Betty & Anne – from a nearby hostel who wanted to walk to the Plaka for dinner. A little Moussaka, Retsina and music sounded good. It was Friday night after all and, thus far, we had not witnessed or experienced anything that gave us pause in our normal activities. The most direct route would take us – once again – past the Polytechnion, ground zero of the revolution.
There was little or no automobile traffic so we were able to walk on the streets on our way to Omonia Square. Crowds of Athenians, students and otherwise, milled about. There was garbage in the streets as one might find after a parade or festival. As foreigners, we were certainly being watched but no one seemed hostile and there was – at this point – no government presence. No police or military in sight. This was soon to change.
We got to Omonia without incident and veered left onto Stadiou on our way to Syntagma Square which is a few short blocks from the Plaka. Suddenly, halfway up Satadiou Street, the crowd started running towards us. Behind them was a phalanx of policemen with clubs, charging down the street beating pedestrians indiscriminately. We could see their clubs rising and falling of the backs and heads of those that were fleeing towards us. It took a moment to grasp what was going. Moments before the mayhem reached us I grabbed Betty & Anne and pulled them into a store hoping to avoid being clubbed or run over by fleeing pedestrians. One of the young policemen, rushed into the store after us wielding a club over his head as if to strike as we cowered on the floor, screamed something unintelligible, then abruptly, turned and left and ran to re-join his comrades. We gathered ourselves and exited the store to find broken windows and people clutching their bruised and bloodied heads, while some tended to the injured.
We were all shaken by this new, violent display. Not wanting to follow in the same direction the police had taken, we carried on with our original plan to head to the Plaka, find a taverna, have a drink, and gain insight into what was going on. No more leisurely Friday night stroll. People ran furtively to their altered destinations or gathered on street corners deep in conversation while casting fearful glances. It was around this time that we began to hear the first gunshots echoing in the distance.
“Tonight is the night of the Revolution” said Dmitri, owner of the little Taverna that we liked to frequent. “I suggest you return to your Hostel… it is going to get too dangerous on the streets for you. The police are out now beating people and taking some away” “We think Papadopolous will send in the military…already there is shooting but we don’t know who is shooting who”. “How should we get back?“ I asked, “The Polytechnion is directly between us and the Hostel?”. “Don’t go back the way you came” he said, “you will have to make a big detour”.
We headed out, unsure of our route but knowing that we had to give the University a wide birth. It seemed wise to avoid major routes so we chose a series of narrow streets which hugged the slopes of Lycabettus Hill. We headed roughly northeast to avoid the turmoil, asking people for directions and guidance as we went. It’s about 11pm now and gunfire, including automatic fire was being heard more frequently. Apparently the regime had sent snipers into the city near the Polytechnion to assassinate students. We were running into other people who were fleeing the conflict – some of which were suffering from tear gas exposure. “Here is some vaseline for your eyes” said one Athenian we encountered, “it will protect you from the tear gas”. We applied it as directed and carried on.
Betty & Anne were staying at a different Hostel than myself, several blocks farther away from the University, so I decided to get them home safely before I returned to #4. After what seemed like an extremely long, arduous and nerve-wracking detour through the side streets and back alleys of Athens we arrived – safely – at their Hostel, hugged and said our goodbyes. From here it seemed worth the risk to take the main road – Patision (28th Octovriou) – back to Hostel #4.
It is now Saturday the 17th around 1am. Patision was unrecognizeable. City transit buses had been hijacked and overturned all along the main drag, acting – I imagine – as barriers to the anticipated military assault and as protection against police attacks which were now ongoing. Students would run from behind overturned buses to hurl rocks and Molotov cocktails, and then retreat to the relative safety of the barricade. Often it was not enough, as small groups of police would corner a student (or a citizen) and beat them mercilessly and then drag them off to awaiting police vans.
My route back to Hostel #4 was not far but it was an obstacle course of broken glass, small fires and avoiding the wrath of the police. By the time I got back to the Hostel most of the other inhabitants had returned and were either sitting together in the common areas with worried, fearful looks, or had ascended to the roof for a better view of the mayhem on the streets below. I decided to join the rooftop crowd.
There were around ten or fifteen of us on the slippery red-tile roof, clinging to our positions so we could witness the fight between the protesters and the police – and avoid plunging to the street below. One fellow had a professional-looking Nikon camera and was taking night photos which required no flash, whereas I, with my cheap Kodak Pocket Instamatic decided to try my hand at a night shot using my flash at perhaps two or three hundred feet (as you can see from rooftop shot below…this really doesn’t work)
I don’t know if my flash alerted the sniper to our presence, but within minutes a hail of bullets passed within inches of our heads – I could have reached up and caught one. Everybody let out a collective “FUCK!” and rolled, slithered and crawled – as fast as was humanely possible – off the roof and back into the relative safety of the Hostel. Some of the women were in tears, and everybody was agitated, fearful, and excited. No one knew if the sniper missed intentionally or if we had just “dodged a bullet” but the adrenaline was pumping – it was 2 in the morning and sleep was not an option. And then the military moved in.
I remember the distant rumble, you could hear the tanks and military vehicles coming down Patision Street from many blocks away. I and several others made our way to the second floor balcony on Chamilton Street where we had a good view of Patision to see what was in store for the protesters. Within minutes a giant rumbling AMX-30 tank came into view heading towards the Polytechnion.
Whichever buses and cars the tank could not push aside with its massive weight and bulk it drove over and crushed. On top of each tank was a soldier with a pivoting machine gun firing indiscriminately. Big chunks of plaster flung off the buildings across from us as the bullets whizzed. From my journal: “Saturday November 17– “Late at night most people are awake (early Saturday) the sound of guns is so loud and close it’s deafening. The tank carried on down 28th Octovriou, making it’s way inexorably to the gates of the Polytechnion – bringing down the main steel entrance to the campus, to which people were clinging.
At this point, Spyros Markezinis (Prime Minister…briefly) had to request that Papadopoulos reimpose martial law. A radio station had been constructed on campus (using laboratory equipment) which repeatedly implored Athenians to join their struggle. As the military entered the campus “a young man’s voice could be heard desperately asking the soldiers (whom he calls ‘brothers in arms’) surrounding the building complex to disobey the military orders and not to fight ‘brothers protesting’. The voice carries on to an emotional pitch, reciting the lyrics of the Greek National Anthem, until the tank enters the yard, at which time transmission ceases.” (wikipedia)
The uprising has been crushed. There are some disputes over the size of the military operation and the number of people killed. Wikipedia notes: “An “official investigation” …recorded casualties amount(ing) to 24 civilians killed outside Athens Polytechnic campus….the records of the trials held following the collapse of the Junta document the circumstances of the deaths of many civilians during the uprising”. The Athenians I spoke with said that up to 200 had been killed.
“Daytime. The tanks and armoured cars arrived today, it’s a real freak-out. The papers say 4 dead the people say 200…who knows? Not us, I wouldn’t walk out in the streets to look. Started work today, 50 drach and a bed, the manager is a real ass, he pinches pennies and is never satisfied…50 Drachmas and a bed for janitorial work at the Hostel. I left this tidbit in as a nod to how rapidly life returns to the commonplace. Soldiers are still shooting at people blocks from where I am, yet toilets still need to be cleaned, beds made and floors washed, and I’m angry with my cheap manager. Atrocities are being committed, tragedy is unfolding, yet interpersonal exchanges still provide fodder for comedy – would you like some more pita with your tzatziki? ….Today they started curfew after 4 o’clock, no food til Monday so we shop now. Prices raised, streets deserted, some windows smashed. Came back to tear gas after breakfast, one guy has two kinds of bombs(tear gas canisters that he picked up) both American makes…Tonight the streets are dead. No action, scattered shots with occasional machine gun bursts. Some people got stuck across town after curfew – tough luck.”
In the days following the military clampdown it looked like the Junta had won. The rebels had been killed, injured, captured or had fled. The rest of the city was on edge and we were all subject to a 7pm curfew. I was still trying to arrange passage to Istanbul in this new restrictive environment. . “It’s scary downtown, at 6 the people are all hurrying home…Just made it but I can’t get comfortable here…And then, on November 25th, the day before I was scheduled to fly to Istanbul, in what seemed -at that time – to be sweet poetic justice, Colonel Georgios Papadopolous, the Dictator, was overthrown in a coup d’etat. On the surface, to an outsider like myself, it appeared to be cause for celebration – the students sacrifices had not been in vain, their efforts had indeed led to the fall of this repressive regime. The truth, as it turned out, was much more complex and would take many twists and turns over the next 7 months. I couldn’t stay to find out – I flew to Istanbul the next morning.
One critical piece of this story – which was not revealed to me for many years – was that Papadopolous had actually been attempting to liberalize the regime in the late 60’s and early 70’s prior to the student uprising. Many restrictions had been lifted and the army’s role significantly reduced. His attempts at “gradual democratization” had failed, however, and hardliners within the military were looking for a pretext to return the country to a more “orthodox” military dictatorship. The student uprising gave Brigadier Dimitrios Ioannidis a casus belli to oust Papadopolous and replace him as the new strongman of the regime. Thus, the student revolt had an opposite effect – it led to even more repression and further suspension of rights and freedoms.
But all was not lost! In the Machiavellian labyrinth of Greek Politics, Ioannidis made a fatal miscalculation by staging an abortive coup against Archbishop Makarios – the President of Cyprus – in July 1974. This resulted in an invasion of Cyprus by Turkey which subsequently caused the military regime to implode. These events ushered in the era of metapoltefsi (Greek for “polity/regime change). Parliamentary democracy was restored, and the elections of 1974 were the first free elections held in a decade. Although it took 7 months after their attempted revolution had been crushed, the students sacrifices had not been in vain – the law of unintended consequences was on their side.
And Keith and Kathy in their Israeli kibbutz in a war zone? They stayed several months and passed their time in peace and harmony….L’Chaim!