‘How can you rape a whore?’

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Tanks roll onto the streets at the start of the Colonels’ Coup in Athens on 21 April 1967

Those were the words of Jack Maury, the head of the CIA station in Athens, upon being asked whether the military coup in Greece that began with tanks on the street 50 years ago represented “the rape of democracy”.

The colonels’ coup was the response of the nexus of the deep state in Greece and its allies abroad to two years of enormous instability. That upsurge had been triggered by the popular insurgent events of July 1965.

They were meant to have been impossible in the authoritarian state constructed after the civil war in the 1940s. It had resulted in the outlawing of the Communist party, the exile of many militants and the banning of trade unions.

But still, the working class and young people especially rose in revolt in 1965. The trigger was a government crisis – the dismissal of the centrist prime minister Giorgos Papandreou. The response to this “Royal Coup” by memorandum quickly spread beyond the confines of parliamentary politics and into enormous street mobilisations.

It rocked the Greek political system and ruling class on its heels for over a year. But the movement stalled – the forces of moderation dominating. It was only then that the colonels were able to seize the opportunity to strike on 21 April 1967.

A wave of repression, state murders and torture ensued. That is what an actual coup d’etat looks like.

The junta lasted until 1974, its downfall prefigured by the student occupation of the law school and then the polytechnic uprising in Athens, in November 1973.

I first visited Greece in 1983 almost exactly 10 years to the day following the law school occupation.

It was on a school trip. We visited both the law school and the polytechnic. It was at the height of the short-lived reforming experiment of the Andreas Papandreou government. He was to capitulate to forces of capital, foreign and domestic, within the next year.

We stayed in a cheap hotel at the back of the polytechnic. It had been a secret police station and torture centre under the junta.

Just before Easter we visited two friends of our classics teacher. They lived just off Alexandras Avenue, on Ioustinianou, if I remember correctly.

They were both Communists. He was still in the KKE; she had joined one of the big Maoist formations during the metapolitefsi in the 1970s.

We listened rapt as they told us about a history of Greece very different from the classical period we were learning about in school.

They had been active underground during the dictatorship. And we learned something new about Gerald, our teacher, beyond the astonishing feat that it appeared he could recite from memory just about all of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Sappho, Euripides…

He was the best kind of English liberal. Nothing to do with the creeps of the Liberal Democrats, but in the mould of Bertrand Russell. He also had a passion for walking, and later produced two authoritative volumes of hill walks on the Greek islands and mainland.

That night he told us how this cover of a respectable English classics master enabled him to travel throughout Greece in the dictatorship years – sometimes with groups of schoolboys from Yorkshire he was taking on a trip over the Easter holidays. He was thus able to pass on messages and information between people he knew who were in the resistance, most of them of the radical left.

He was not politically sympathetic to communism. But he did think it the right thing to do to assist the anti-junta underground, which used civil and military tactics.

The generation of that struggle still forms a major part of the Greek society – so do the right wing authoritarian forces which were then interpolated between the security apparatus, the American embassy and the royal palace.

A woman who confronted a Golden Dawn gang trying to terrorise immigrants in her town’s street market recently gave evidence in the trial of Golden Dawn. It turns out she had been a student in Athens in the early 1970s and had taken part in both the law school and polytechnic occupations.

We stayed up nearly till morning that night back in 1983, getting quite (well, very) drunk, talking with our teacher and his remarkable friends, and listening to songs of the Greek left.

“Under the junta, we used to have to hide the records and play them at a whisper,” our hosts told us. “But not now. We can play them as loud as we like.”

One of the songs was “To Gelasto Paidi”. It’s a translation set to music by Theodorakis of a poem Brendan Behan wrote at the age of 12 for Michael Collins – “The Laughing Boy”.

In this version the words are slightly changed. It begins now not with “It was on an August morning…” but, “It was 17 November….” the early morning in 1973 when the tanks burst into the polytechnic to crush the uprising.

It’s unusual in that many songs of the Greek left – like, for example, the Italian Bella Ciao – are of a partisan style and speak of repelling the foreign invader.

Here, those responsible for killing “the laughing boy” are the so called “army of the people” – the national army, the embodiment of national unity in which all participate equally under national service and which is supposedly above politics, equally disposed to all the parties. An act of civil war, in other words – as was so with the killing of Michael Collins in 1922.

It is a reminder that although all the forces of international reaction, concentrated in Europe in the Cold War mechanisms of Nato, supported the Greek coup, it was the Greek state itself, acting on behalf of the ruling class, which executed and initiated it.

It had found the room to do so, not least in part, because the biggest moderating brake on the movement that preceded it was the idea of the popular revolt stopping short of seriously confronting and dismantling that state.

It was the idea of holding back from forcing through a division of the nation, with the poor against and expropriating the wealthy elites, as the only way to then unite a people on a true basis.

Instead, there was to be only change limited to what the liberal forces around Papandreou (the father of Andreas) would agree to.

The result was not a liberal transformation of Greece. It was the military seizing power.

The clip below is a reminder of something else too. The immense capacity of people to struggle, even when mistakes have been made leading to terribly adverse circumstances.

It is of the big concert in October 1974 after the fall of the junta. Theodorakis conducting. The great contralto Maria Farantouri singing.

The stars, however, are to a large extent the thousands in the stadium.

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