1973-2023. Half a century after the Athens Polytechnic Uprising, the political culture that this pivotal event created remains a matter of intense controversy, both politically and in the public discourse and understanding of history. How do we move from myth to a political valuation? How can this past become history? And can we separate the generation that lived through these events from the imprint it left in time?
First of all, can we imagine the course of Greece without this crucial moment? What would be the course of the country if the Polytechnic Uprising had not taken place? Would dictator Georgios Papadopoulos have been able to remain in power and proceed to elections without being overthrown by the hardliners? And what kind of democracy, with what legalization and how many asterisks would emerge? Would everything have turned out well in relation to Cyprus, as analysts have been suggesting of late – i.e. would the island state have remained undivided, avoiding the Turkish invasion and occupation?
For all the above anti-historical questions, the answer will never be known. It is good, of course, to take into account the indications demonstrating that the Polytechnic Uprising was not “responsible” for the overthrow of Papadopoulos by Dimitrios Ioannidis, but that it was a decision already taken that was simply presented as urgent due to the uprising. The recent book by Kathimerini’s Executive Editor Alexis Papachelas, “A Dark Room 1967-1974,” makes it clear how extremely doubtful it would be to avoid the path toward the tragedy in Cyprus – as many claim today with excessive confidence – without taking into account either the international factor or the explosive situation that prevailed in Cyprus itself, with a civil conflict and intercommunal clashes in full swing.
It would be interesting, however, to do this mental exercise the other way round. That is, to realize how problematic the Greek transition to democracy would have been without this legitimization from the “base,” which of course preceded the fall of the junta, but in essence canceled the dictatorship’s liberalization experiment. In this respect, the Polytechnic Uprising represents a unique moment of upheaval in the authoritarian South of the 1970s, given that neither Franco’s Spain nor Caetano’s Portugal experienced anything similar.
This dual nature of the period after the fall of the dictatorship that makes it so interesting has precisely to do with the fact that beyond the transition from the top, there was this “eruption” of the base, with the Polytechnic Uprising somehow exonerating an entire society that, to a large extent, tolerated the junta.
It is no coincidence that the entire period after the restoration of democracy was focused on the Polytechnic as a place of national memory, with the first general elections taking place on its very first anniversary, November 17, 1974. So initially the Polytechnic was idealized. One look at the documentaries of the time about the first anniversary or the big concerts in the stadiums shows the catalytic effect it had on the political culture of the time. The Polytechnic became the “superego” of Postcolonialism, to borrow the tentative term of Greek historian Antonis Liakos.
But how did we get from this apotheosis to the absolute demystification of the Polytechnic? At first, there were the individual cases of people who participated in the events of the day and later entered politics. We focused on what kind of people they were, their evolution, the fact that they traded their bell-bottoms for ties, and turned out to be wholly inefficient. But is the Polytechnic the sum of individual units and their subsequent success stories? Such a view removes from the event its collective nature. We also tend to judge based on the few known politicians and their subsequent careers, which does not necessarily give us the tools to interpret the event itself. As it became evident in recent research in relation to 1968 in France, very few of the students of the time actually went on to have careers that could be interpreted as having “cashed in” on their activism, which is certainly also true in the case of the Polytechnic.
From there, we gradually moved on to a complete takedown of the Polytechnic generation that supposedly “destroyed Greece.” The big issue and debate of recent years concerns the so-called culture of violence and lawlessness – a topic that emerged strongly in the public discourse after the 2008 Greek riots that followed the murder of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by a special officer in central Athens – but also the idea of the so-called university asylum (which forbids police from entering campuses) and its real or supposed distortions.
Here, the critics are aligned with the denunciation of the entire period after the restoration of democracy and its famous culture. In short, we went from the halo of idealization to absolute demonization. In this retrospective criticism of the Polytechnic Uprising as the catalyst of all subsequent evils, the leveling criticism and retrospective culpability of those who actually resisted the junta, partly overcompensates for the absence of a mass resistance movement.
At the same time, the struggles over the supposed “real meaning” of the Polytechnic, the instrumentalization of the latter by all sorts of political powers and organizations, the anniversary clashes between police and protesters in a performative type of history repeating itself every November 17, have also contributed to the discrediting of the event and its significance.
The special weight of the Polytechnic Uprising for the legitimization of the Third Hellenic Republic is too important to be trivialized through analyses that simplistically blame all subsequent bad events on it. Equally simplistic, of course, is comparing November 17 with July 24 (when a unity government was formed) in an idiosyncratic confrontation between the “popular” and the “elite” transition to democracy, instead of tracing the synergies between them.
The challenge, therefore, on the occasion of 50 years since the student uprising, is to rediscover the positive imprint of one of the most important moments of 20th century Greek history, which deserves to be remembered as such.