Obituary: General Phaedon Gizikis

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The Independent Culture
ALMOST EXACTLY 25 years ago, on 23 July 1974, as the unelected military president of Greece, Phaedon Gizikis played a critical role in the downfall of the Colonels' regime, which had misruled the country for the previous seven years, and in paving the way for a bloodless return to civilian rule.

Born near Volos in 1917, Gizikis graduated from the Military Academy and fought on the Albanian front in 1940 and for the government forces during the 1946-49 civil war. He subsequently spent a period at the Greek Defence College and shared to the full the paranoia of the Greek military about a Communist threat to the country's stability. Although he was not one of the troika of conspirators who had seized power on 21 April 1967, he was clearly well regarded by the putschists and in 1973 was appointed commander of the First Army Corps.

In November of the same year he was plucked from relative obscurity and appointed President of Greece by Brigadier Dimitrios Ioannidis, the commander of the much-feared military police. Ioannidis had toppled Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos, the main protagonist of the 1967 coup, from the presidency, alarmed at his moves towards a token "guided" democracy. These tentative measures of liberalisation had been met with student protests which culminated in the occupation of the Athens Polytechnic. This protest was bloodily suppressed on the night of 16-17 November 1973.

It was clear from the outset that real power in the new regime lay not with Gizikis but with Ioannidis, the hardest of hardliners. After a winter of sabre-rattling directed at Turkey, in July 1974 Ioannidis, seemingly bent on bringing about the union of Cyprus with Greece, launched his disastrous bid to topple the Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios.

This in turn provoked the Turkish invasion and occupation of some 37 per cent of the island. Ioannidis ordered a general mobilisation and Greece and Turkey came close to war. The Greek mobilisation, however, rapidly turned into a humiliating shambles.

The shame that this brought to the military and the catastrophe on Cyprus prompted the country's military leaders to plot Ioannidis's downfall. They secured Gizikis's agreement that the only way out of an impasse that had left Greece isolated externally and in chaos internally was a return to civilian government. Gizikis, whose exercise of the presidential function had hitherto been nominal, hastily summoned an ad hoc council of prominent politicians, which included four former prime ministers, in the afternoon of 23 July 1973.

Initially Gizikis proposed that in any new government the military should retain control over the key ministries of Defence, Public Order and the Interior, a laughable demand in the circumstances and one that was instantly rejected.

Discussion then turned to which of the politicians should be entrusted with the extremely delicate task of restoring the country to democratic rule and clearing up the military, political and economic mess left by the military.

Various names were mooted. Although Gizikis initially resisted the idea of calling on the conservative Konstantinos Karamanlis to return from his exile in Paris on the grounds that he had been out of the country for 10 years, he was eventually persuaded to send for him. Karamanlis duly returned from Paris in the early hours of 24 July in a jet placed at his disposal by the French President, Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Karamanlis was duly sworn in as prime minister at 4am by Archbishop Serapheim of Athens in the presence of Gizikis, a grim-looking figure in his trademark dark glasses. Significantly, in the official Greek government record of this event, Gizikis is not visible. Gizikis's actions contributed significantly to the bloodless downfall of the Ioannidis regime and he himself remained in office as president until 18 December 1974, when he stood down in the wake of the referendum which recorded a 69 per cent vote against the return of the exiled King Constantine. Thereafter he retired from the army.

In recognition of his decisive role in the July 1974 crisis not only was Gizikis not tried along with the other military conspirators but, oddly, he was made honorary commander of the First Army Corps. Unlike some of the other protagonists in this turbulent period of Greek history, he was never tempted to write his memoirs.

Phaedon Gizikis, army officer: born Volos, Greece 16 June 1917; President of Greece 1973-74; married (one son); died Athens 27 July 1999.