Eleni Karanicola and Nikolaos Patspoulos give a detailed almost hour-by-hour account of the autumn 1973 revolt that opposed students occupying the Polytechnic to the army during a four-day siege. The revolt will set the junta’s downfall the following year.
At the daybreak of April 21 1967, the Greek Military Junta mobilized and took control of Greece under the pretense of imminent threat by unspecified leftist groups. This was achieved with the blessing and help of the government of the United States as well as the direct involvement of the CIA, which feared the increasing numbers of Greek Leftist organizations and the mounting Soviet influence in the Balkans Area. Its seven-year rule was marked by a harsh clamp down on all forms of political freedom by any means necessary, including (but not limited to) assassinations, torture and exile. Following the initial shock of the junta’s establishment, a relative numbness took hold of the population with the majority of distinguished members of Greek society and cultural apparatuses remaining, at best, idle in front of this dire situation.
The student uprising of 1973 was the first country-wide mass demonstration that took place against the junta and was by far the most successful in terms of media coverage and public exposure. The initiation of the revolt can be traced back a full year before it occurred. In 1972, the military government intervenes with student elections by imposing their own student councils and introduced a government official to oversee university operations. The government tries to suppress the increasing tension in universities by revoking the army deferment, conducting mass arrests and violence towards the students.
On February 14, 1973 during a student meeting that gathers more than 1,500 participants against the new measures, the police invade the National Technical University of Athens (Polytechnic), arresting and torturing many students, finally apprehending 100 and putting 11 of them on trial. As a direct reaction, on February 21, a mass student assembly gathering over 5,000 students takes place at the centrally-located law school. They proceed to occupy the Athens University Law School after protesting in the city center. The military government sends hundreds of nationalists in order to disrupt the assembly. They are met by fierce opposition from the students. The “occupation committee” concedes to the rector to end the occupation the next day and decides on a 10-day suspension of the rallies without the student assembly council’s approval. The same day, an estimated crowd of 30,000 people demonstrates in the center of Athens and clashes with police, indicating that the movement has started to mobilize people. On November 1, the Minister of Education announces that the government would secure the necessary conditions for a fair student election. At the same time, he reinstates the right of military deferment to all students who had been previously recruited because of their participation in student demonstrations.
The students, who accept these measures as a victory, insist on their earlier demands for increased spending on education, the reduction of the military term for all Greeks, as well as the abolition of the Police student division. On November 4, the funeral service of George Papandreou, a former prime minister, turns into a resistance event during which slogans against the dictatorship are heard. The police respond with full force, resulting in 70 people injured and 37 arrests mainly of young people, 17 of whom will eventually be brought to trial. More than 3,000 students march in support of the arrestees on November 8. The students attempt to hold their assembly meeting at the Law School, but when met with refusal by university authorities, they move to occupy the Polytechnic (also centrally located, approximately 800 meters away from the Law School). The success of this effort gives rise to the idea of transferring the center of student resistance there.
The Days of Revolt ///
Wednesday November 14, 1973
9am: Hundreds of students from the Polytechnic are gathered in the institute’s courtyard. Assemblies begin to deal with the junta’s new plan to subjugate the movement. A massive rally of more than 1,500 students takes place at the law school, where people decide to head to the Polytechnic.
2pm: Approximately 5,000 students and counting are now gathered at the Polytechnic. Patision Avenue (a major avenue adjacent to the campus from the west) vibrates with slogans against the military junta. Police forces are mobilized and call on those assembled to disperse. The students at the Polytechnic form an Occupation Committee. The doors are closed for the first time.
5:30pm: The general prosecutor arrives and calls for a peaceful evacuation of the premises. At 6:05pm, the Chief of Police meets at the corner of Patision Avenue and Stournari Street (a street that borders the campus from the south) with the rector of the Polytechnic, reiterating the request for a Police Entry Permit. The rector’s response is categorically negative. At the same time, students manage to operate their own radio station, which has an initial range of only 300 meters. Two student representatives meet with the rector, then with the Director of Police, who agrees to allow the evacuation of the Technical University without arrests. This agreement will never materialize.
8.30pm: The first meeting of the Occupation Committee takes place. In the crowded auditorium of the Polytechnic, assembled workers and students convene under a clear anti-capitalist agenda. The first demands are immediately dispersed in forms of rudimentary leaflets printed in an illegally set-up print shop in the institute’s basement, on Patision Avenue and the adjacent streets, all of which have been closed by mass gatherings.
9.40pm: Police forces retreat to Klafthmonos Square (about 1.3km away from the Polytechnic) as students decide to lock themselves in by placing reinforced concrete bars on the gates and leaving open only a small door next to the main gate. Working groups are set up and all gates are permanently closed at 12:30am. The occupation becomes a magnetic center for the people of Athens who had started to flock to the campus. By 9:30pm, the occupation had amassed a great number of participants as people on the streets around the Polytechnic shouted anti-U.S. and anti-Government slogans. Those who congregated stay overnight to support the student occupation.
Thursday November 15, 1973
5am: The first slogans of the day are broadcast through a loudspeaker at the central gate. Police forces move in vehicles on the streets of Stournari, Tositsa, the Museum and Kanigos Square, all located at the periphery of the Polytechnic. Among them, three fire trucks specially designed to disperse demonstrators, and two armored vehicles with tear gas canons are parked near the Polytechnic.
9am: The doors of the Polytechnic are opened after much deliberation and some clashes between students over the decision. At 9:30am, students burn two flags of the regime outside the building and destroy pictures of Junta’s leader. Thousands of handwritten proclamations were distributed. Hundreds of students and workers frantically write slogans on the walls. Since the early hours, Police forces have blocked the arrival of more people around the Polytechnic. Huge crowds gather in front of the police line and shout slogans. Police officers attack from time-to-time but the protesters do not back down. There are episodes of protesters trying to break through police chains. Every now and then, a few manage to break through and get to the occupied building. Students are informed that more students from the city of Patras and farmers from the city of Megara are arriving: this intensifies the fighting mood. The national anthem is regularly sung with particular emphasis on the verse “And they were all silent because of the bullying and being overshadowed by slavery.” The Technical University’s radio station, which normally broadcasts at 1:15am, is in operation. Slogans are becoming increasingly militant. The people, both those assembled and those on the radio, call for a “general strike” and “general revolution.”
2pm: The government responds to the Senate that it will respect the inviolability of university asylum. University students of Patras and Thessaloniki attend support events. 300 students from the University of Ioannina occupy the building of their School. They collect food and money. Crowds of people donate cigarettes, money, bread and all kinds of items to boost the occupation. Students enter the offices of the State Commissioner in the University and destroy various revealing papers and tapes. The rest of the documents are thrown on the road. The police who had besieged the building until then now risk being besieged by crowds of people. Consequently, their forces retreat and people are once again occupying the sidewalks and part of Patision Avenue. The Workers’ Mobilization Committee has been elected by the workers’ assembly with the task of stressing worker entry into the struggle and convening a new assembly from which to elect a representative committee. The Committee sets the immediate goal of the General Strike with financial and political demands, then decides to send workers’ committees to the factories in order to bring more workers to the streets.
7pm: A massive demonstration of workers approaches the Polytechnic, shouting anti-government and anti-U.S. slogans. Protesters, along with other street workers, again enter the Polytechnic and head to the Gini building where the assembly begins. The room holds about 600 workers. The Coordination Committee declares that the occupation will continue until all requests are satisfied.
Evening: Within the Technical University there is now a press and radio service that continuously produces and broadcasts bulletin boards. The students are operating the restaurant service, which takes care of the daily preparation, serving and supplying of food; students from the Medical School man the hospital service that provides medical care. There was also a dormitory service, to ensure rest for those occupying the building, as well as a housekeeping service for cleanliness. Finally, the Order Service was responsible for checking the situation inside the University, and for changing the guards at the gates and at critical points of the buildings. All services were subject to a Secretariat dealing with all issues. People placed themselves at building windows with small mirrors, reflecting light toward the security crews installed in surrounding buildings, to prevent photos from being taken. Around midnight, there are around 4,000 people in the building and on the outside, many groups remain in support.
Friday November 16, 1973
During the night, the first tear gas canisters fall on the Polytechnic and the General Assembly of the occupation is dissolved. Just before that, a large protest march had forced the police to retreat. Barricades made of vehicles are placed on Alexandra Avenue (another major avenue located at the North of the University), in front of army tanks heading to the Polytechnic later.
9am: The first barricades are being set up and two large marches are formed on Panepistimiou and Stadiou Avenues (major avenues that run through the center, South of the Polytechnic).
12pm: The Farmers committee from Megara city visits the General Assembly and stands with the demands of the students and the necessity of overthrowing the military government.
6pm: The protester numbers have surged to 300,000 around Athens and include people from all walks of life. Clashes with the police forces begin, causing numerous injuries among the students.
7pm: The unified large march headed over to the Polytechnic and the police struck in full force. Armored vehicles are being deployed and the first gunshots are fired into the crowd. In multiple locations around the Polytechnic, fierce hand-to-hand battles erupt. More than 100,000 people gathered in and around the Technical University and created barricades with trolleys, buses, billboards and everything else that can be found. The injured are being treated inside, while the radio station makes appeals for medicine, needles and scissors, also giving instructions for dealing with tear gas canisters that are thrown inside the Polytechnic. At the Athens Regulatory Center, police violence surpasses any historical precedent. Some students are killed. The police commanders decide to seek help from the army.
9pm: Demonstrators set up barricades at various points near the Polytechnic and protesters attack the Prefecture of Attica and then proceed to occupy it. Some protesters also besiege the Ministries of Education, Agriculture, Justice, Social Services and Public Works.
9.30pm: The police enforce a curfew in most of the area around the Polytechnic.
10:15pm: The police raid the area outside the Polytechnic, attacking demonstrators on Alexandra Avenue and shooting tear gas at protesters, who have, in the meantime, rebuilt their forces and are heading towards the area. At 10:30pm, a fake ambulance full of policemen crosses the barricades and proceeds to throw a massive load of tear gas at the Polytechnic and its surrounding areas, while the besieged students continuously receive injured and dead protesters. At the same time, Red Cross ambulances enter the campus to aid the most critical cases.
11pm: The student radio station and loudspeakers call for the crowd to remain in the area. The police armored vehicles have encircled the Polytechnic and tear gas is used en masse. At 11:30pm, people hear that the tanks are coming.
Saturday November 17, 1973
12am: From the army barracks at Goudi and Dionysos (3.5km and 21km respectively), the first phalanxes of tanks are launched to crush the revolt.
12.20am: The first tanks make their appearance at the Ampelokipoi junction (3km from the Polytechnic). At the same time, a 3km-radius perimeter centered on the campus, is under the control of protesters, who are fighting fiercely against strong police forces trying to control the area. The tanks are moving further to Vasilissis Sofias Avenue (a major avenue leading to the center of Athens) and Panepistimiou Avenue. The tanks running off Alexandra Avenue are trapped in the Sonia area, which is blocked by car barricades placed perpendicular to the road.
12.55am: The tanks cross Panepistimiou Street, turn into the Haftia area and enter Patision Avenue. Clashes take place on Piraeus Street and in Vathis Square (all within 2km from the Polytechnic) where demonstrators are burning cars.
1.00am: Armored vehicles, tanks, soldiers and policemen encircle the Technical University. The chief of the Athens Prosecutor’s Office along with the General Secretary and the Colonel General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs arrive at the Central Police Department.
1.05am: With the appearance of tanks, protesters retreat under the pressure of police who have been continuously shooting with live ammunition. Many find shelter in the doors of apartment buildings that had been deliberately left open.
1.17am: At the height of Alexandra Avenue and Patision, tanks with their headlights on move toward the Technical University. The loudspeakers from the Polytechnic announce that those who want to leave can go because the doors will soon be closed permanently. No one leaves. The tanks are blocked by the Patision barricades.
1.20am: The tanks from Patision Avenue maneuver through the narrow streets and find their way to the Polytechnic. The police throw tear gas and shoot relentlessly. Protesters outside the Polytechnic stay put. Snipers are occupying positions in the buildings around the campus.
1.29am: Four army tanks and two police patrols arrive at the Patision and Averoff street intersection. Teargas canisters are thrown. The Polytechnic loudspeakers refer to the soldiers. Police officers with batons stand at the corner of Patision Avenue and Averoff Street. The area is filled with tear gas. The loudspeakers plead to the soldiers: “You can’t hit your brothers.”
1.32am: From their Averoff Street stronghold, the tanks with their headlights on begin heading for the Polytechnic but then suddenly stop. In the occupied building the defense of the central gate is strengthened by a Mercedes that belongs to the Dean of the school! Conflicts continue to intensify on the surrounding streets. Tanks and armored vehicles pass in front of the Polytechnic without stopping.
1.35am: The soldiers standing on the tanks fire systematically at the protesters. The Polytechnic’s radio station continues to broadcast to the soldiers: “We are unarmed; we will welcome you only with applause.” The tanks have stopped at the two corners of the Polytechnic. At the corner of Patision Avenue and Stournari Street, 200 police officers with bats and helmets are awaiting orders to strike.
1.50am: The Polytechnic radio station is temporarily down. There is information that the occupiers have prepared strong Molotov cocktails for dealing with the tanks. Police officers are trying to get in from a side entrance but fail to do so.
1.59am: The station starts operating again. M48 and M113 tanks turn their cannons against the closed doors of the Polytechnic while their headlights illuminate the windows of the building. Three tanks leave their Averoff Street stronghold and stop in front of the main gate. The soldiers start loading their machine guns. People in the building shout: “Our soldier brothers, the army should be with the People!”
2.04am: The student radio station reports that 1,500 protesters are coming from Ithaca Street (1.5km north of the University), defying the tanks.
2.07am: The area opposite the main entrance of the campus is filled with police officers. The radio station still broadcasts slogans. From the railings the students shout at the soldiers, asking them to stand down.
2.13am: Attempts of reconciliation between the head officers on the tanks and the students in the occupied building are beginning to appear. On the railing, a banner appears with the slogan “Soldiers, you are our brothers!” At the same time, there are fierce clashes at the junction of Epirus Street (700m west of the Polytechnic) and Patision Avenue. Police reinforcements arrive to handle the situation. Strong forces of protesters clash with police in the adjacent area of Moustoxidi Street (1km northeast of the campus) and Alexandra Avenue, as well as on Patision Avenue and Ithaca Street, where demonstrators behind strong barricades appear determined to move on to the besieged campus.
2.30am: Shots are fired outside the Polytechnic. Soldiers move in front of the building with machine guns. The marines take positions outside the building. Members of the Student Coordination Committee declare that they accept having to evacuate the campus, under the guarantees of their professors, the International Red Cross and the Press. Their terms are rejected.
2.45am: The students at the Polytechnic are still chanting. At the height of the Central Telecommunication building, a huge fire is burning. Four tanks move from the height of Alexandra Avenue towards the campus. Near Marni Street (400m west of the campus), two divisions of soldiers and dozens of police officers have lined up against the barricades.
2.47am: All the army and police forces have assumed combat positions outside the campus. Negotiations with the besieged students in the building begin. A soldier who greeted those locked inside the building is shot by his commanding officer.
2.50am: Soldiers are in full assault gear. The students in the building remain calm and are still chanting. There are shots fired from the side of the Central Communications building. At the entrance of the Polytechnic, a policeman wearing a helmet talks to the students in the building. Two buses arrive with police forces. More than 250 soldiers are lined up in front of the gates. Frequent shots continue to be heard from afar.
2.57am: Two loud shots are heard. More tanks line up at the entrance gates. The student radio station had stopped broadcasting. In front of the main gate there is a policeman with a helmet and a loudspeaker, a citizen, a colonel and some soldiers. There is also a delegation of the students.
2.59am: Three tanks head directly for the main gate of the Polytechnic. As the negotiations continue, an AMX 30 tank located opposite the central gate backtracks and crashes into it. The gate is torn down and many protesters are trapped underneath. The tank continues its movement and crushes the barricade behind the gate consisting mainly of cars. After the tank’s entrance, police and Special Forces soldiers enter the campus, while those at the gate who were not hit retreat inside.
3.03am: The tank sirens can be heard. Inside the courtyard, there are clashes between police officers and the students. Shots are fired in all directions. Those attempting to exit Stournari Street from the central gate are directly fired upon. The policemen shoot without hesitation. Many are seriously injured or killed. Those fleeing march on the streets. Inside the building, conflicts are widespread. The main battle takes place between the police and the students while the Special Forces help the police officers to empty the building. The students line up with their hands up before being forced to exit the campus. At the main gate, a number of police officers are involved in beating up, arresting or even shooting at the departing protesters. From the side of the Archaeological Museum (an adjacent building at the north of the Polytechnic) continuous shots are still heard. Those who try to escape from that side quickly retreat at the risk of being killed by hidden gunmen. From the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, snipers shoot at any protester who attempts to exit. Those who escape from the arrests or remain without injury organize demonstrations and head to Victoria Square (900m north of the Polytechnic) and Patisia (residential neighborhood in close proximity). Inside the building, the dead, the injured and those arrested are increasing as conflicts continue from building to building. Many injured protesters in the temporary hospital are beaten by police officers who had arrived there.
3.35am: The raided campus is now empty. Ambulances carried the injured and dead from the buildings. The shootings and clashes continue on the streets around the Polytechnic.
The exact number of people killed in the uprising is still unknown today. According to the State Prosecutor’s inquiry in 1974, 18 of those dead were identified, while the Athenian Council of Appeals reported 23 dead and 1028 injured. According to other sources, the total number of wounded approaches 2,000, as many of them were not hospitalized, for obvious reasons, but were sent home. A government announcement on November 20 claimed that the number of those arrested was 866, while an official police statement stated that 840 people were arrested just on November 17. But after the Junta’s fall, police officers reported that the arrests exceeded 2,400. The most recent official death toll has reached 34.
The immediate effect of the revolt was the substitution of the chief figureheads of the dictatorship and the widespread feeling of the population that this was the beginning of the end for the regime. It would eventually fall a year after the Polytechnic events 24 July, 1974.
In the long run these events shaped many of the leaders of the Greek left (and leftish) political spectrum for the decades that followed and, until very recently, created a veil of sanctity around the notion of Asylum for the campuses of the Universities in Greece. However, during the recent socioeconomic crisis and the rapid neo-liberalization process that followed, this sanctity has come under attack, under the pretense of being an irrelevant historical artifact deemed unnecessary for a western democracy. In short, the new governments of the 21st century have succeeded within a few short months to achieve what the Junta with all of its soldiers and tanks could not. Police in military grade equipment have once again flooded the streets of Exarcheia, social justice is nowhere to be found and the majority of the Greek population has returned to either a state of numbness or shock. ■