November 26, 2023
Fifty Years of Athens Polytechnic Uprising Commemorated

R Arun Kumar

ON November 17, thousands of people marched through the streets of Athens and various other cities across Greece, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Polytechnic uprising. The march in Athens started from a large square near the Polytechnic, passed in front of the Greek Parliament, and concluded at the US embassy. Every year since 1974, on November 17th each year, a march to the US embassy is held to commemorate the heroic Polytechnic uprising. Neither the pandemic, nor the attempts of the various ruling parties to stop the march could deter and this is the 49th straight year that the march was held.

The observance of the Polytechnic uprising starts from November 14, the day the uprising had started in 1973. People from all walks of life place flowers in front of the statue of the fallen martyrs inside the Polytechnic institute. The uprising was brutally crushed by the military dictatorship on November 17, 1973. A military tank broke through the gates of the Polytechnic and rolled over many students and people who had gathered inside the building. The broken gate lies alongside the statue of the martyr.

During the Second World War, the British army was stationed in Greece. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) was leading the people of Greece in the anti-fascist struggle by organising people and guerrilla units. After the war came to an end, the British were replaced by the US and the attacks on communists and Greek people increased. The US tested Napalm bombs on Greece resistance fighters in 1949, even before they were used to devastating effect in Vietnam. More than 150,000 people died in the US attacks, out of which 38,839 were partisans led by the communists. Around 65,000 communists and their supporters were exiled outside Greece. In spite of these intense attacks, the Greek people continued their resistance.

In 1967, a section of army colonels carried out a coup against the then government, which was thoroughly unpopular. It is interesting to note that the US was also behind this coup carried out by the colonels. The US dumped one set of representatives of the ruling class who became unpopular and replaced them with another set, in order to deceive the people. What followed after 1967 was increased attacks on democratic rights and a period of military dictatorship supported by the US.

Marshal law was imposed in the country, strikes and meetings were banned and a harsh censorship on the press followed. People were not allowed to express their opinions. Political parties, mass organisations and social organisations were banned. Army took over the authority to search, detain and arrest people. Thousands of political activists were arrested, majority of them, communists. According to official statistics, more than 40,000 communists were arrested within one month of the coup, i.e., between April and May 1967.

The KKE formed various resistance committees to lead the struggle against military dictatorship. These committees were formed in factories, residential localities, villages, universities and schools. It is during this period, in 1968, the KKE formed the Communist Youth of Greece (KNE). The KNE played an important role in the Polytechnic uprising that took place in 1973.

The patient work done by these resistance committees and by the communists bore fruit as the economic crisis deepened. People began to overcome their fears and started participating in various demonstrations that began taking place in factories and other places. Workers demanded an increase in their salaries. Peasants refused to hand over their products for trade. Students demanded the restoration of their academic and democratic rights. Slogans such as ‘Down with Fascism’, ‘Freedom to Political Prisoners’, Sovereignty to the People’ and ‘Democracy’ gained resonance.

The military dictators tried to defuse the situation by forming a ‘political government’. People refused to recognise this government as it was not elected by them and is a mere puppet in the hands of the military and the US.

It is in the background of this overall crisis and increasing political demonstrations against the dictatorship that the Polytechnic uprising started.

On November 14, the students of the Polytechnic occupied their institution. The main slogans they had given were: ‘Bread, Education, Liberty’, ‘National Independence’, ‘Down with the puppet government’, ‘US Out and NATO Out’. Similar student mobilisations took place in Thessalonica and Patra and huge demonstrations were organised in various other cities.

The Polytechnic students in Athens created a radio station using the equipment inside their institution and started broadcasting. The call, ‘Hello, hello, this is the Polytechnic’, rang throughout the streets and became very popular. Through this radio station, they broadcast their demands and campaigned against the US backed government. Large masses of the workers and common people joined the protest in support of the Polytechnic students. The entire square in front of the institution was swarmed with people. People also joined the students inside the institution and strengthened the occupation. KNE and the Anti-dictatorship Students' Union (A-EFEE) formed by them played an important role in the organisation of this struggle.

The occupation continued for three days from November 14-17. On the night of the 17th, armed forces reached the Polytechnic with their tanks. The students running the radio station appealed to the armed forces reminding them that they are children of the Greek people and have a responsibility towards the people and should not obey the orders of the government but side with the people’s uprising. A student sang the national anthem. Ignoring all these appeals, the officers pushed their forces into the institution. A tank entered the building crushing the gate and the students. On that night, 56 people were killed, according to official records. There are still many families who report that their beloved ones, who were inside the polytechnic, were lost and not found since that day.

According to records, 34,000 bullets were fired by the police, in addition to the 300,000 cartridges of all kinds used by the army to suppress the uprising. 1103 people were injured. More than 2500 people were arrested, but it was announced that only 866 arrests were made. The social composition of those arrested makes clear that it is the workers and students who predominantly participated in this protest – 475 were workers, 268 were students.

The repression on the Polytechnic Uprising angered the people all over the country. Massive protests and demonstrations against the dictatorship took place all over the country and within months the dictatorship fell, paving way for the election of democratic government. The KKE was able to function as a legal party from that period.

Annual demonstrations are held in order to commemorate this heroic resistance in the history of the fight against dictatorship in Greece. All the political parties try to claim a share of this legacy and participate in the demonstration. The social democratic party, PASOK, SYRIZA also participate in the demonstrations. But the largest mobilisation comes from the KKE and its youth organisation KNE. Along with the political parties, various elected student unions and workers’ organisations too participate with their banners.

The march is traditionally led by the students’ union from the Polytechnic, who carry the blood stained national flag and the banner that was used 50 years ago. They are followed by the students’ unions from various other universities and institutions. Since the last two years, majority of the students’ unions are won by the KNE and hence it is their cadre who rightly carry these banners.

There is an effort in Greece to dilute the message of the Polytechnic Uprising, in order to divest the anti-imperialist character of the uprising. The KKE and KNE had posters all over the Polytechnic and other educational institutions reminding the people that one of the main slogans of the uprising was, ‘US Out and NATO Out’. This slogan gains resonance in the current international situation, where the US and NATO are involved in two major military attacks – in Ukraine and over Gaza, Palestine. Reminding the people of this reality, slogans against US, NATO, Israel and in solidarity with Palestine reverberated throughout the demonstration. The demand for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza echoed through the streets of Athens.

The general secretary of the KKE, Dimitris Koutsoumbas stated that along with the anti-imperialist character of the uprising the other slogan, ‘Bread, Education and Freedom’ too remains relevant as Greece is going through high inflation. The KKE will continue to raise the demands of the workers, students and other exploited sections in the society and honour the trust reposed by the people in the recently concluded local elections, he promised.

In the local elections, the KKE saw an increase in its vote share by 3 per cent from the parliamentary elections held earlier this year. It secured 10.1 per cent votes and won more than 400 representative positions in various local bodies. The third largest city in Greece elected a leader of the KKE as the mayor.

The Polytechnic Uprising is an important chapter in the history of Greece that always reminds the people to continue with their struggle against the oppressive government and fight for their rights and real freedom. It teaches us that no force and no repression can forever suppress people.

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