The 17th of November commemorates the people who lost their lives in the Polytechnic Uprising that occurred in Athens in 1973. It also marks the beginning of the end of the Greek Junta, also known as “the Regime of the Colonels” that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. The 17th of November is not a national holiday in Greece but rather a profession-specific holiday and a day of rememberance.
The day is dedicated to freedom and Democracy and it is a reminder to never take these two for granted. It is also a call to stand against police brutality, militarism, and authoritarianism. The 17th of November is often described as a result of the prolonged political crisis that was rooted back to the Greek Civil War. From this perspective, the holiday is a reminder of the great dangers of extreme political and ideological division within a society.
The Greek Junta/ Regime of the Colonels:
On April 21 1967, colonels George Papadopoulos and Nikolaos Makarezos seized power in a coup d’état. There were several other military officers that had conspired to this plan, including general officer Stylianos Pattakos. The coup leaders started arresting politicians and authority figures, as well as citizens who they suspected were sympathizers of the left. It is estimated that over 10.000 people were arrested in one day.
Once Greece was at the hands of the colonels, articles of the Greek Constitution were suspended, civil liberties were restricted, politicians were exiled, and citizens were tortured and imprisoned. During the seven years of the Junta, four different dictatorships governed the country.
The first years were characterized by strong propaganda to gain the trust of the citizens who maintained a neutral position. The ideology was spread through schools and churches. Public works that were promised in the past were completed. Farmers’ debts were written off and forgotten. At the same time, economic scandals rose and the public dept almost doubled by 1973.
The Regime of the Colonels ended with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in July 1974, leading to the establishment of the Third Hellenic Republic and the complete democratic transformation of the country. The regime was blamed for mismanaging the situation in Cyprus, while a great percentage of the public was outraged with the actions the colonels took to stop the polytechnic uprising.
It is worth mentioning that the Greek Junta was closely associated with the “Truman Doctrine”, an American foreign policy that aimed at halting the Soviet geopolitical expansion during the Cold War. Greece had experienced a civil war some years beforehand between those who supported left and those who supported right ideologies. Various external organizations have been blamed over the years for supporting the Greek Junta, including “Ordine Nuovo”, a far right paramilitary organization in Italy.
The Polytechnic Uprising:
University and high-school students in Athens were some of the first to reject the military regime. In 1973, massive student demonstrations were organized in the Greek capital, which stands as a global symbol of Democracy to this day.
Law students barricaded themselves in the Law School of the University of Athens in February 1973, an act that was followed by police brutality, inspiring more students to take an active stance against the Junta. On November 14 of that year, students at the Athens Polytechnic went on strike and occupied the University demanding “Bread-Education-Liberty”. Some of the students aimed at abolishing capitalism, while the great majority reportedly demanded the restoration of Democracy and Greece’s exit from the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO).
Non-students who wanted to protest against the regime started gathering at the Polytechnic University and a radio transmitter was set up to inspire the people to join them. In November 16, protesters showed their presence on the streets of Athens and the police responded with bullets. At least 24 people were reportedly shot dead during the protests. Other reports mention that the deaths were at least 40.
In the early hours of November 17, the anti-junta movement escalated when a military tank crashed the Polytechnic’s gates. People were reportedly clinging on the gates shouting slogans against the regime. It is also reported that the city of Athens was in complete darkness, since all the streetlights had been shut down. The area was lit only by the generators of the University. What happened after the crash remains a mystery and a highly controversial subject in Greece.
The official investigation that followed the fall of the Junta declared that there were no deaths during the Polytechnic incident. However, 24 deaths have been officially recorded in the protests that occurred outside the University. Moreover, it is estimated that the injured civilians between November 15 and November 17 were thousands. Several conspiracy theories have emerged throughout the years from both sides.
The 17th of November Today:
The 17th of November is a rememberance day in Greece, schools are closed, and commemorative services are held in the campus of the Polytechnic University. The commemoration day ends with a demonstration from the campus to the embassy of the United States. The demonstrations often get violent.