Obituary: George Papadopoulos
Monday 28 June 1999
In the face of escalating tensions in the Aegean, the Greek junta had made a reckless bid for enosis, or union with Cyprus, in July 1974, when they launched a coup that deposed the Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios. It was an ill-conceived intervention that precipitated a Turkish invasion and culminated in the island's brutal partitioning.
Although George Papadopoulos had been ousted from the leadership of the junta in November 1973 in a counter-coup mounted by a hard-line faction within the military and engineered by Brigadier Dimitrios Ioannidis, the head of the military police, it was Papadopoulos who had emerged as the strong man of the "Revolution". Greeks woke up on the morning of Friday 21 April 1967 with military marches and national folk music broadcast on the radio, and with the dictatorship a fait accompli.
The junta sought legitimacy initially by evoking the spectre of an imminent Communist takeover and by making sabre-rattling ultimatums for enosis with Cyprus. At an international press conference held a week after the coup, Papadopoulos justified the actions of the military by employing an opprobrious, and oft-repeated, medical metaphor. Greece, he averred, should be likened to an ailing patient who had to be forcibly strapped to the operating table so that the surgeon could resuscitate him.
The real motivation for the coup, however, was the victory anticipated for the Centre Union party in the elections scheduled for May, under the leadership of George Papandreou. Although the "Colonels" declared their regime to be a necessary interim, or "parenthesis", pending the restoration of true democracy, the dictatorship lasted for seven years, marking the longest period of unbroken authoritarian rule in the country's recent history.
Born in 1919, Papadopoulos, who came from the province of Achaia in the Peloponnese, was a career officer of relatively humble origins, a fact that he was later to exploit in a bid to extend his popular support, and which enabled him to enlist the backing of other, relatively junior officers in the provinces, who felt alienated from the elite which dominated Greece's political life.
After graduating with high marks from the Officers' Academy in 1940, Papadopoulos served in the Security Battalions during the war and in the early 1950s taught at the School of Artillery. Between 1959 and 1964 he served as a staff officer in the Greek Central Intelligence Agency (KYP), following a period in which it is claimed that he was trained by the CIA in the United States. Papadopoulos was elevated to the rank of colonel in 1960.
In the army he was a member of a group of right-wing officers who belonged to a clandestine fraternity - the Sacred League of Greece, or IDEA - founded in Egypt during the war and officially disbanded. The organisation became a focus for officers' grievances and acted as a counter-force against reputed left-wing conspiracies and the alleged corruption of the civilian politicians. In June 1965 while serving in Thrace, on Greece's sensitive borders with Turkey and Bulgaria, Papadopoulos announced that he had uncovered a Communist conspiracy, an allegation that was certainly specious, but which foreshadowed the purported left-wing threat against which the Colonels justified their seizure of power two years later.
In the aftermath of the 1967 coup, Constantine Kollias, a supreme court judge, was appointed prime minister, although it soon became evident that power lay in the hands of Papadopoulos, along with his colleagues Colonel Nicholas Makarezos and Brigadier Stylianos Pattakos. Papadopoulos became minister to the prime minister, but, following an abortive counter-coup instigated by King Constantine in December 1967, he assumed the premiership with General Zoitakis acting as regent. In September 1968, a plebiscite held under martial law ratified a new, oppressive constitution. There followed a rapid concentration of power by Papadopoulos, who took charge of multiple portfolios simultaneously, including foreign affairs, defence, education and government policy.
The 1967 coup had been well planned and met with minimal resistance. Such as there was was effectively crushed with the application of a law curtailing civil and political liberties which had been passed in 1947, during the Civil War.
From the beginning the brutality of the security forces and police characterised the Colonels' regime. An indicting report on the widespread use of torture by the security forces was published by Amnesty International in 1968, leading to complaints by the European Commission on Human Rights and to Greece's eventual withdrawal from the Council of Europe. Internal opposition leaders, such as Ilias Iliou, the leader of the Union of the Democratic Left (EDA), were silenced. George Papandreou was held in a military hospital and his son Andreas detained in the Averoff prison before going into exile in Canada. Panayiotis Kanellopoulos, the legitimate prime minister, was placed under house arrest. The Colonels ordered the compulsory retirement of officers whose loyalty to the regime was suspect, while pro-junta officers were promoted indiscriminately. A thorough purge was conducted within the civil service and the Church.
The Colonels' regime was in many ways anachronistic, harking back to the paternalistic doctrines of General Metaxas's pre-war dictatorship (1936-41). The aims of the "Revolution of 21 April" were to restore the nation's values and stem the tide of "decadence" emanating from the West. With this object in mind an edict was promulgated forbidding mini-skirts for women and long hair for men. Intellectuals, such as the composer Mikis Theodorakis, went into exile. The prison camps on the islands, which had been used during the Civil War of 1946-49, were re-opened. Censorship was imposed on the press and on broadcasting. A list of banned books was drawn up, authors including, among many others, Shakespeare, Aristophanes, Chekhov and Lampedusa.
Academics were removed from their posts and retired officers appointed as commissars in institutes of higher education. Committees were set up to supervise the student unions, syllabuses centrally imposed and textbooks rewritten. The junta's harsh politicisation of education was to have dire consequences for Papadopoulos, since his eventual downfall in 1973 was due, in part, to student demonstrations.
Although they were largely uncoordinated, resistance movements did emerge in the course of the dictatorship. An attempt to assassinate Papadopoulos by blowing up his car in August 1968 was foiled, but underground groups initiated a vigorous campaign aimed at sabotaging the regime. Abroad writers and journalists, like Helen Vlachou, the proprietor of the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, strove to inform the international community about the plight of their compatriots. Although many writers stopped publishing their work during the dictatorship, a protest anthology, Eighteen Texts, appeared in 1970 - containing a story by the writer Thanasis Valtinos satirising the Colonels' remedial "surgery". A patient discovers that the doctor who is treating him is, in fact, the very man who has injured him in the first place. In August 1971 the poet and Nobel laureate George Seferis died and his funeral became the occasion for a massive demonstration of public opposition to the regime, with the crowd chanting poems set to Theodorakis's music.
The ostensible aim of the "Revolution" was to restore the superiority of the "Helleno-Christian civilisation". Slogans were displayed declaring "Greece is Risen" and "Greece of the Christian Greeks". The Colonels' practical initiatives were combined with grandiose schemes such as a plan to rebuild the Colossus of Rhodes. Their confused ideology is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the seven volumes of Papadopoulos's collected speeches, written in a farcical, pompous language, and published under the title To Pistevo Mas ("Our Credo").
In February 1973 students occupied the Law Faculty of the University of Athens. In May, following the failure of a naval coup against the regime, Papadopoulos, who had already declared himself regent in 1972, pronounced the king deposed and in a rigged plebiscite, in which he was the only candidate, was voted president of a new "presidential parliamentary republic" for eight years. Evidently confident of his power, he initiated a move towards a "guided" democracy within the framework of the 1968 constitution.
Events, however, were overtaking him. In November 1973 students took over the buildings of the Athens Polytechnic. On the night of 16 November, troops and police, accompanied by tanks, stormed the buildings. Some 30 students died; many others were injured. It was not, however, the student demonstrations alone which brought about Papadopoulos's downfall. A group of hard-liners within the junta had become uneasy at his drift towards liberalisation, his assumption of supreme authority, and the lack of fervour with which he espoused the cause of enosis with Cyprus. Ironically, Ioannidis's counter-coup against Papadopoulos and Greece's intervention in Cyprus were to topple the dictatorship.
On the restoration of democracy under Constantine Karamanlis, Papadopoulos, with Makarezos, Pattakos and others, was arrested and detained on the island of Kea, pending trial. He and his colleagues were eventually sentenced to death for high treason in August 1975, but their sentences were immediately commuted to life imprisonment. Many Greeks believed that the death penalty should have been carried out. They were shocked by the lack of contrition shown by Papadopoulos in court, and in subsequent statements made from prison.
Unlike Makarezos and Pattakos, who were let out of prison early on grounds of ill-health, Papadopoulos never asked for clemency. At his trial he refused to plead or give evidence. As Seferis observed in March 1969, speaking out against the Colonels, in a statement broadcast by the BBC: "In dictatorial regimes the beginning may seem easy, yet tragedy waits at the end inescapably."
Georgios Papadopoulos, soldier and politician: born Eleochorion, Greece 5 May 1919; Minister to Prime Minister's Office 1967, Prime Minister of Greece and Minister of Defence 1967-73, Minister of Education 1969-70, Minister of Foreign Affairs 1970-73, Regent 1972-73, President 1973; married 1941 Nekee Vassiliadis (two children; marriage dissolved), 1970 Despina Gaspari (one daughter); died Athens 27 June 1999.
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