Democracy at Gunpoint
June 14, 2012 | by Natalie Bakopoulos
Its economy in turmoil, all eyes are on Greece these days, as the world wonders what the country will do next. It is a role Greece has played before, in the 1960s, when a brutal military coup brought one of its government leaders and future prime ministers, Andreas Papandreou, to campus. Author Natalie Bakopoulos explains how the political climate at U-M was the perfect place for the Greek leader to find his footing, and to exact change abroad.
If you peruse old issues of the Michigan Daily or the University Record from the winter term of 1973, you’ll find the stories that dominate are about the conflict in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. You’ll read about a nationwide energy crisis and see stories about proposed tuition hikes. And within these pages you’ll also find articles about student protests around the world, including those in Greece, which was nearing the end––though that wasn’t clear at the time––of a seven-year military dictatorship. One small piece notes a protest at the Athens law school, another about students being arrested at a demonstration at the Athens Polytechnic University—the precursor to a much larger, hugely significant uprising that would take place later that year, in November 1973.
Yet what you might struggle to find, surprisingly, is that former Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou was a guest lecturer for both LSA’s Department of Economics and what is now the Ford School, where his lectures were a part of the Institute of Public Policy Studies (IPPS).
If you follow Greek politics, you will of course recognize the Papandreou name. Most recently, Andreas’ son George Papandreou was elected prime minister in October 2009 and stepped down at the end of 2011. Andreas had been prime minister twice (1981-1989, 1993-1996). And Andreas’ father, Georgios Papandreou, was prime minister three times (1944-1945, 1963, and 1964-1965).
But let’s turn our focus to before Andreas Papandreou’s time as prime minister and before his time at the University of Michigan. In Athens, Greece, in April 1967, elections were just a month away. Andreas was running to re-secure his parliamentary seat, and the beloved Georgios, head of the Centre Union party, was running again for prime minister and slated to win. But the political situation in Greece was not exactly stable.
Breaking Glass, and Just One Bag
In the early morning hours of April 21, 1967, just weeks before the national elections, a right-winged group of colonels in the Greek army seized power of Greece. Tanks barreled through the streets of Athens, lines of communication were cut, and major streets into and out of the city were blocked. Thousands were arrested in the middle of the night, including the elderly Georgios Papandreou, in his late seventies and ill. Andreas, asleep in his house in Psychiko, was woken by his American, Chicago-born wife, Margaret, who heard gunshots and people trying to break into the house. Soldiers.
Andreas grabbed his gun and went to the study on the house’s third floor. From the terrace his son George helped boost him to the roof. “At fifteen,” Andreas writes in his book Democracy at Gunpoint, “with his athletic build and his manly calm, George had no difficulty. I climbed up on the roof of my study, lay down, and loaded my gun. I was ready.”
He continues his description of the moment: “There was a sound of breaking glass,” he writes. “And then there was the sound of heavy, rhythmic footsteps, boots on marble and then on wood.”
From the roof Andreas could hear angry voices, and soon he could see the soldiers in their black berets and bayonets. When they asked teenage George, with a pistol to his head, where his father was, Andreas jumped the 12 feet down to the terrace. And then he was arrested.
So how did Andreas Papandreou find himself, several years later, giving seminars to students at the University of Michigan? First, Andreas spent eight months in Averoff prison, where his wife would stand outside and smoke cigarettes, so he would see them lit and know she was there. He was released on Christmas Eve as part of a general amnesty, and shortly afterward, one night in January, Andreas woke up his children and told them to pack a bag of clothes: not their comic books or other personal things. Just one bag. They left for Paris and then moved on to Sweden before finally ending up in Canada, where Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau granted them political asylum. Andreas was offered a position at York University in Toronto, Ontario, as a professor of economics.
While at York, Andreas often traveled to the States to speak to both Greek Americans, students, and activists against the colonels’ junta and the situation in Greece. He often found himself in Detroit and Ann Arbor talking about the coup. Much of the resistance movement against the dictatorship was coming from abroad, and Andreas was at the forefront of this activity. On August 14, 1971, the colonels deprived Andreas of his Greek nationality for his anti-regime activities abroad. Even from afar, he was still a major threat.
And he was certainly influential. For instance, on April 21, 1972, the five-year anniversary of the military coup, Andreas appeared along with actress/activist Melina Mercouri at the Manhattan Center in New York, at a rally organized by the United Hellenic Front, an organization that provided assistance to Greeks exiled because of the dictatorship. He said at this rally: “Our struggle for freedom will inevitably proceed to a confrontation with the junta, no matter what the cost.” Nineteen months later, when students at the Athens Polytechnic University staged an insurrection that was brutally, violently repressed (and in hindsight, seemed to mark the beginning of the end of the dictatorship), Andreas’ words proved correct. At the time, though, he didn’t know when he would go back to Greece. His exile seemed indefinite.
The Michigan Influence
The University of Michigan student body was a major voice of protest against the war in Vietnam and an advocate for social change. Students for a Democratic Society held their first meeting on U-M’s campus in 1960. The Port Huron Statement, its political manifesto originally drafted by Tom Hayden, was adapted in 1962. Andreas and Hayden shared a mutual admiration, and though the two didn’t meet until much later, after both had long left Michigan behind, Andreas was certainly influenced by the Students for a Democratic Society’s rhetoric and ideals. And even as recently as 2009, Hayden, in a speech delivered in Athens and later published in The Huffington Post, mentions Andreas Papandreou. Hayden notes that the resistance to the dictatorship that was happening abroad, particularly in the United States, introduced a generation to a new face of Greece. It was no longer only the face of Vice President Spiro Agnew, but of poets and actresses, activists and composers, filmmakers and politicians: “of Ritsos, Mercouri, Theodorakis, Lambrakis, Costa-Gavras, Pappas, and Andreas Papandreou.”
While at the University of Michigan, Andreas was casual and forthcoming with the students, making note of the 10-minute “Michigan time” and occasionally stopping the class to ask a student for a cigarette. He didn’t just lecture and leave; he opened up each session to include a question and answer period and encouraged the students to interrupt him if they wanted to ask something or add or disagree with a point. Per his request, the atmosphere was to be informal and engaging. For IPPS, he delivered four talks that were centered around the dictatorship: the events leading to it and the situation in Greece during the rule of the colonels. For the students, whose political imaginations and engagements were most likely directed toward Vietnam, these seminars were surely eye-opening.
During one of these talks, Andreas discussed his feelings after his arrest: “. . . I was somewhat damaged and not really paying too much attention. I really don’t think there is such a thing as clear-cut fear in such circumstances; fear comes later. It’s like when you’re in a car accident: you’re not so much afraid as you are dazed. It’s neither courage nor lack of it.”
This feeling, being not so much afraid as dazed, seemed to affect the entire nation. The surprising silence with which the junta was met might seem shocking, but it was perhaps the very alarm of it that allowed such silence. The fear did arrive as well, and among the Greek populace it was huge and palpable. During the dictatorship, not only in the days after but as it persisted for weeks, months, and years, it seems that most of Greece lived with this shock. They knew the dictators were there but the situation was almost impossible to understand. As Andreas notes in the first of his IPPS lectures (on Valentine’s Day, 1973): “We expected the coup to be the King’s coup…. The atmosphere was very tense, so that a coup, when it came . . ., did not surprise us as such. Still, such things are always a shock, even if somewhat expected. That is, you can expect it, but you don’t necessarily have to believe it.”
And not believing it might have been a way to cope. While some resistance movements have been organized and executed right in the face of the oppressor, most of the resistance to the Greek junta came from abroad. In fact, it’s interesting to note that the University of Michigan’s Hatcher Graduate Library, within the Labadie Collection of Social Protest Literature, contains “The Pyrros Papers: A Collection on the Anti-Junta Struggle,” possibly the largest collection of English-language materials about the Greek junta. The materials were compiled and donated by Detroit native James Pyrros, a Greek American activist in the Greek anti-junta effort in the United States and keenly involved with the U.S. Committee for Democracy in Greece (1967-1974). This collection contains correspondence, including personal letters between Andreas’ wife, Margaret, and James Pyrros between 1965 and 1968. It contains all sorts of other resources, such as legislative materials, magazine and newspaper clippings, transcripts, reports, press releases, pamphlets, and reports.
It’s interesting to wonder what might have happened had Andreas accepted a full-time position at U-M. In fact, he was offered a position for the fall of 1974, but when the junta finally fell in July of that year, he returned to Greece and founded the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), which was one of Greece’s major parties until the most recent elections in May 2012. Andreas became prime minister in 1981. The rest, of course, is history.
“The fight for freedom is really a global fight,” Andreas said, on April 21, 1972, in his address in Manhattan. What’s happening in Greece now isn’t so very different: It’s a global crisis, after all, not simply a Greek one, and where Greece goes next will decide far more than its own national history.
Natalie Bakopoulos received her M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Michigan in 2005, and she is currently a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature. Her debut novel, The Green Shore (Simon & Schuster, 2012), centers around the Greek coup of 1967. She has received an O. Henry Award, a Hopwood Award, and a Platsis Prize for Work in the Greek Legacy. She is a contributing editor for the online journal Fiction Writers Review.
“Greek exile sees clash with Athens.” The New York Times, April 24, 1972. Hayden, Tom. “Greece and the Global Sixties.” The Huffington Post, December 20, 2009. Papandreou, Andreas. Democracy at Gunpoint: The Greek Front (Doubleday, 1970). Papandreou, Andreas. “Under the Colonels.” The New York Times, April 21, 1972. Papandreou, Andreas. Michigan IPPS Lectures. February 14, 1973. Transcript. Archives of the Andreas Papandreou Foundation, Athens, Greece.
(Top of page) Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
(Home page) Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images