This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
ATHENS, Greece - The last of Greece’s former dictators was laid to rest on Tuesday on his native island of Crete. Brigadier-general Stylianos Pattakos, one of a group of military officers who overthrew Greek democracy in 1967, died on Saturday at the age of 104. He had served the regime as interior minister and first deputy prime minister.
“He was liked, especially in Crete, because he was a people’s man,” says Athens University history professor Thanos Veremis. “He would drink his wine and say his piece and people would say, ‘he’s one of us.’ He did the regime’s public relations. He was always cutting ribbons and inaugurating things.”
“People would tell lots of jokes about him,” remembers dance critic Mirka Dimitriadis. “But people also said, ‘go tell your troubles to Pattakos. He’ll find a way to take care of the matter.’ He was the softest touch among the coup plotters.”
On April 21st 1967, Pattakos and a group of colonels ordered their armoured brigades out of barracks. They seized parliament and national television, and arrested the centre-left government of the day as well as leading opposition politicians. The reason for suspending democracy, they said, was to prevent Greece from sliding into communism.
Greece had only 18 years previously fought a civil war in which the communist party had tried to seize power. Even though it was still outlawed in 1967, communists and their sympathisers, it was feared, would infiltrate the state through the centre-left. This led to the darkest aspect of the dictatorship – the arrest and torture of communists, or their exile onto islands until they agreed to sign a renunciation of the communist party.
Pattakos’ efforts to put a human face on these practices often descended into farce. Film producer Petros Raptis, who served five years of exile on the island of Leros, remembers the day when Pattakos helicoptered in to address its communist inmates.
“As soon as he landed everyone cleared out of the yard and went indoors,” says Raptis, who went unnoticed as he changed a light bulb. “He was left to lecture the police guard, who were on his side to begin with. The only communist left listening to him was an inmate half-crazed through torture, who stood in the yard looking daggers at him. His look was so murderous and intense that Pattakos was thrown off balance and stopped his speech. ‘You there! What are you looking at?’ he demanded. ‘Go to hell you masturbator!’ replied the inmate. Whereupon Pattakos gave up and left.”
The colonels “kept the economy in a relatively good shape until the oil crisis of 1973,” says Veremis. “After that inflation skyrocketed.” Another event that year was key to undermining their authority. Beginning in February, students at Athens University and the Athens Polytechnic had staged sit-ins to demand free elections of student representatives to university bodies. The Polytechnic built a radio transmitter and broadcast anti-regime messages, attracting thousands of people to the first anti-dictatorship rallies in central Athens. A navy mutiny was quashed in May, but not before the destroyer Velos defected to Italy during a NATO exercise. The colonels eventually panicked. On November 17, they sent tanks through the gates of the Polytechnic and raided the campus. The deaths of at least two-dozen students and sympathisers destroyed their credibility as benign dictators.
Prime Minister George Papadopoulos, in particular, was fatally weakened, because he had always promised that the dictatorship was temporary. As early as 1968, Papadopoulos had promised that, “Greece, the country in which democracy was born, will shortly acquire a regime of true working democracy through the review of basic articles of the constitution, to be ratified by popular referendum.”
A week after the repression of the student revolt a hardliner Brigadier-general, Dimitris Ioannidis, overthrew Papadopoulos and Pattakos in an internal coup. He would last less than a year, and his fall would be disastrous for Greece. In July 1974, Ioannidis attempted to replace Archbishop Makarios as leader of Cyprus by coup. Makarios escaped, but Greece’s intervention gave Turkey a legal pretext for invasion of the island, which remains divided to this day. Greece failed to mobilise a defence for Cyprus and Ioannidis resigned.
Pattakos and his fellow conspirators were sentenced to death, but were allowed to serve life terms instead. In an interview with the nationalist newspaper Stohos at the age of 95, Pattakos remained unrepentant. “Is there a dictator in the world who walks on the street or takes public transport without a security detail? This is what I do, and my only security is God. No one ever came up to me to tell me I brought him to harm and to knock me down.”