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An Uprising of Historical Importance

The cyclical course of history comes into sharp focus when one looks at Greek political uprisings. The widely publicized youth dissent in recent years is nothing new, but actually has earlier roots in 1973 — with different players, but with the same activist vigor. This 1970s group — later to be known as the Polytechnic Generation — comes into clear focus in newly published Children of the Dictatorship: Student Resistance, Cultural Politics and the “Long 1960s” in Greece, by Kostis Kornetis. Following is the opening to the volume’s introduction. 



In 2010 the well-known British Pakistani writer and political activist Tariq Ali commented that “were there a Michelin Great Protest guide, France would still be top with three stars, with Greece a close second with two stars.” Ali did not only refer to the 2005 riots in France and the 2008 civil disturbances in Greece, but to a longue durée structure of civil disobedience in the two countries that dates back to the 1960s and 1970s.


If the most emblematic moment in France’s recent protest culture remains May 1968, the absolute vertex for later developments in Greece’s political activism was the student occupation of the Athens Polytechnic in November 1973. The culmination and the most spectacular of all resistance activities, it took place in the country during the seven years of the Colonels’ dictatorship (1967-74). The uprising lasted three days and came to a bloody conclusion as it was crushed by the regime’s tanks; at least twenty-four people were certified dead and another fifteen went “missing.”


The “Polytechnic,” as it became known, has inhabited a central symbolic space in Greek society ever since the democratic consolidation took place the following year. With its memorialization it became the major legitimizing incident of the democratic transition, as evidenced by the fact that the first post-Junta elections were scheduled for November 17, 1974; this specific date was thus appropriated and transformed into a national symbol. Before long, November 17 was established as a day of national celebration.


The responses to the uprising and its commemoration were not uniformly positive. On one side of the spectrum, a pro-regime faction insisted on promoting its own revisionist version of events. As early as the summer of 1975, during the trials of the Polytechnic massacre, some of the accused and their apologists claimed that the 1973 events had either been staged or caused no losses at all (or both) and were, therefore, void of apparent significance. According to the so-called “epic fraud” theory, still exceptionally popular among the rising extreme right in Greece, no one was harmed on November 16 and 17, 1973 since the police were extremely careful and protective of the rebelling students. Others argued that the existence of but a single, poor-quality footage of the tank crushing the Polytechnic gate testifies to the fact that this was all studio work. For further evidence that the events never took place, extreme right-wingers have often invoked ex-Premier Spyros Markezinis’ stubborn denial of the fact that the occupation had turned into a bloodbath during his last days in office. It should be noted here that during the course of the current research various individuals of different social and political standings repeated to me this outrageous conspiracy theory, in particular the skepticism about the existence of casualties.


On the other side of the spectrum, according to left-wing culture, the Polytechnic occupation came to haunt future generations, as it was looked upon as the ultimate archetype of resistance, militant action and self-sacrifice. Many different political actors – predominantly the entire spectrum of the Greek Left – struggled to interpret its “true” meaning, while a standard topos of the post-authoritarian era was that the Polytechnic’s “message” and aims have been unfulfilled, if not betrayed. Every Greek student mobilization since then (from the mass student movements of the late 1970s and 1980s to the December 2008 riots) has implicitly or explicitly evoked the Polytechnic as a model. Therefore, the history of the Polytechnic is typically seen as a set of events that provides keys to understanding contemporary youth rebellions. For that reason, Mimis Androulakis, a former student leader during the dictatorship period and currently a politician, argued that the Polytechnic Generation acted like a group of “vampires.” Through its deification, he explained, his generation absorbed younger age-groups in its own past rather than allowing them to develop their own genuine rebellions.


More interestingly still, it remains imprinted in Greek collective memory that it was the students of the Polytechnic who brought down the Junta. In the summer of 2011, during a surge of protest against the austerity measures taken by the government to deal with its trouble-ridden economy, a slogan launched by the Greek indignados went “Bread, Education, Freedom: The Junta did not end in 1973” – both appropriating the Polytechnic uprising’s most famous catchphrase (see chapter five) but also perpetuating the common belief that it was the student movement that brought down the regime in 1973 (instead of 1974). Despite the symbolic and actual work that the Polytechnic did to discredit the regime’s putative democratic evolution – as will be demonstrated in this book — this interpretation is strikingly inaccurate. It testifies, however, to the fact that the so-called Polytechnic Generation still possesses a certain mythical aura in Greek society.






This permanent attraction to and constant criticism of the Polytechnic Generation were triggers for the present book, inspiring my desire to both analyze in depth and demystify its history. The hegemonic role that this emblematic movement played and continues to play in Greece, at least in the sphere of the imaginary, renders its close study of paramount importance in order to understand both the events themselves and their afterlives on the collective and individual level. Naturally, by the time of this research, a great semantic distance has separated past and present, involving a period of dramatic sociopolitical transformation that has inevitably altered the way former activists think of themselves. The transition from authoritarianism to democracy, from minority to mass politics, from socialism to yuppieism, and from armed struggle to institutionalized positions in the power structure of the state all resulted in fragmented identities. To be sure, the abrupt post-1989 passage from a bipolar to a multipolar world, the loss of a solid point of reference such as the Soviet Union, and the marginalization of Communism and the metanarrative of the class struggle were all hits too direct not to have personal ramifications. The return to normalcy and the various failings of Utopia caused a whole class of malaises: depression, alienation, radicalization, marginalization.




Kostis Kornetis is Assistant Professor at the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at New York University. He received his PhD in History and Civilization from the European University Institute, Florence. From 2007 to 2012 he taught in the History Department at Brown University. His research focuses on the history and memory of the 1960s, the methodology of oral history, and the use of film as a source for social and cultural history.