In the pre-dawn hours of April 21, American-made Patton tanks rumbled through the darkened streets of Athens as a small group of conservative Greek army officers seized power in King Constantine’s name, but without his approval, and overthrew democracy in the land which coined the word.
Similar scenes took place simultaneously elsewhere in Greece from Thrace to Corfu. It is a comment on both the disillusionment with which many Greeks viewed their political leaders and the efficiency of the military planning that only two deaths resulted. Only in the Hatfield–McCoy country of Crete, its rocky mountains carpeted with the first wild flowers of spring, was there more than minor scuffling. Elections, from which antimonarchist leftist forces were expected to emerge in a dominant political position, had been scheduled for May 28. The coup ruled them out.
The King and the rebels
Although twenty-six-year-old King Constantine’s initial reaction to the coup seems to have been one of anger (he managed to notify some naval and air force units of his disapproval before the telephone lines to Tatoi Palace, sixteen miles from Athens, went dead), he quickly decided to go along with the plotters rather than risk a second civil war within twenty years.
While the young monarch’s decision may have been influenced by the knowledge that the rebels planned to go ahead with him or without him, the King felt that he must act in the hope that he could use his influence to moderate the policies of the new military regime and speed Greece’s return to representative government. (He told American Ambassador Phillips Talbot he had considered exile, abdication, and resistance but decided he could best serve his people by remaining on the throne.)
That this was not an entirely vain hope was demonstrated within hours of the coup when the King obtained the appointment as Prime Minister of Constantine Kollias, the sixtysix-year-old Crown Prosecutor of the Supreme Court. The rebels’ choice had been a military man, Lieutenant General Gregory Spandidakis, fifty-seven, who was made Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. The King was ultimately able to procure appointment of a cabinet which was two-thirds civilian, with the additional understanding that no more military men would be brought into the government. But real power is held for the moment by the three officers who began planning the coup two years ago and triggered its execution.
They are Brigadier General Stylianos Patakos (Minister of the Interior), Colonel George George Papadopoulos (Minister to the Prime Minister), and Colonel Nikolaos Makarezos (Minister of Economic Coordination) Patakos, the best known and eldest (fifty-three) of the plotters, provided the muscle for the take-over in the form of tanks from the armored training school which he commanded at Goudi in suburban Athens.
But the brain behind the regime was taken to be that of Papadopoulos, a squat forty-eight-year-old artillery officer with extensive intelligence experience. Papadopoulos, who sports a neat but graying mustache and speaks in a parade-ground voice, graduated first in his class at Military Cadet School (Greece’s West Point) in 1940 and served during World War II with rightwing General George Grivas’ resistance organization. Between 1959 and 1964, he held top posts within K.Y.P., the Greek Central Intelligence Service.
Less is known about Makarezos. He is the same age as Papadopoulos, graduated in the same class at Military Cadet School, and also is an artillery officer. His credentials for running Greece’s complex and shaky economy are, at best, vague.
Spartans in Athens
All three officers are of middleclass background, violently antiCommunist, and pragmatically monarchist in the sense that they feel that the throne can be useful in uniting Greece and achieving their objectives. While it would be wrong to define them, as do some publications, as clerico-fascists —if only because their movement appears to lack ideological content and the backing of any such civilian group — it is clear that the plotters have small respect for parliamentary government as practiced in Greece and look to the Greek Orthodox Church for support. One of their first moves was to arrange for the appointment of a new Archbishop of Athens and Primate of Greece. While reform of the somewhat backward Greek church is their goal, the purpose behind it is thought to be conservative: to place the church alongside the monarchy and the army as a central institutional force in Greek society.
The Spartan, puritanical cast of the junta’s thinking was revealed in their initial ban on miniskirts and beatnik haircuts while making attendance at Mass mandatory for schoolchildren.
It is clear that the triumvirate acted at least partially out of resentment and fear generated by civilian meddling in the military establishment, a situation which grew out of the Aspida (“Shield”) affair.
Aspida, according to a 475-page indictment published last year at the trial of twenty-eight of its members (fifteen were convicted), was an organization of leftist Greek military officers which intended to overthrow King Constantine and establish a nonaligned, Nasserite republic outside NATO. A less conspiratorial view is that Aspida was nothing more than a group of liberal army officers who, because of their political beliefs, lacked influence within the conservative Greek military establishment, and united to help one another.
Leftists or liberals?
Whatever the facts, the then Prime Minister, seventy-nine-yearold George Papandreou, and his Harvard-educated son, Andreas, forty-eight, are accused of favoring Aspida officers. The Papandreous, whose slightly left wing Center Union Party (in reality a coalition of splinter parties with a tendency to fragment under pressure) swept to power in Greece’s free elections of 1964, were no friends of the conservative military establishment, if only because they felt threatened by it. Andreas, who headed the economics department at the University of California at Berkeley and once was an American citizen (as his wife, Margaret, and their children still are), hoped to become his father’s political heir. Because of his American ties, he felt the double necessity of talking in a somewhat anti-American, anti-NATO style, in quest of both nationalist and leftist support. But it is certain that Andreas Papandreou is no Communist. He hoped, like other politicians in other lands, to use extreme leftist support to gain power, with the thought that he could jettison his more dangerous followers at some future time.
But to succeed in such tactics, the Papandreous — both of whom were arrested when the junta seized power in April — had to try to ensure against, a right-wing army coup. Hence the involvement of Andreas with Aspida, the retirement and transfer of conservative officers, and the resignation in 1965 of the elder Papandreou when King Constantine refused to allow him to assume the portfolio of Minister of Defense as well as the premiership.
What followed was a succession of center Prime Ministers, and a stalemate between the Papandreous and their allies to the left, and the King, representing the establishment, to the right. The roots of disaffection which produced April’s coup go far deeper, however, than the dismal spectacle of Prime Ministers unable to maintain power, the political bickering, the governmental inefficiency and corruption in places high and low which have marred public life beneath the Acropolis during the past two years. They go back to the civil war of 1946–1949, touch the nature of monarchy, and involve the psyche of a turbulent people who lived for 400 years under Ottoman rule and share the dual and often incompatible religious heritages of Rome and Byzantium, combined with a half-forgotten vision of the grandeur of classical Greece.
Since the “donation” of that earlier Constantine, Greek ties with the Middle East have been as strong as they have been with Western Europe. The hated Turkish yoke, which Greece threw off less than 150 years ago, reinforced the country’s educational and social backwardness while according its bearded Orthodox priests a degree of patriarchal political authority unknown in the Western world. The Attic experience with democracy since then has been both intermittent (punctuated by military dictatorships led by generals such as Plastiras and Metaxas) and less than fruitful. The Nazi occupation and military rule during the bitter civil war which followed did little to strengthen Greek democratic institutions.
Of these institutions, the monarchy has been alternately a unifying force and a source of deep division among Greeks. The dynasty dates from 1863 (with a republican interregnum from 1924 to 1935) and is Nordic in origin. The first king was a Dane, as is the present queen. Although some say an alien dynasty is essential for Greece if only because no Greek could agree to bow before another, the attitude of the Hellenes toward their monarch at best has been ambivalent. It is worth noting that exactly fifty-six years ago, George Papandreou was sentenced to eighteen months in jail for demanding the abdication of King Constantine’s grandfather.
Constantine’s monocled uncle, King George II, had been sent packing once by his subjects (and later invited back), before the invading Germans forced him into exile in 1941. King Paul, Constantine’s father, was a genuinely popular monarch without whose leadership (fortified by American aid dispatched by President Truman when Britain could no longer bear the burden) the civil war against Communist-led guerrillas might not have been won. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, antiroyalist sentiment focused (as it still does) on Constantine’s handsome mother, the German-born Queen Frederika, fifty, a granddaughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s. Constantine came to the throne in 1964 at the age of twenty-three and almost immediately became involved in squabbles with the Papandreous, in part provoked by their antimonarchist rhetoric.
The youthful King Constantine is darkly handsome and married to a beautiful woman. He is an Olympic gold medal yachtsman (Greece’s first in sixty years) and a black-belt karate expert. He is fluent in English and German and wears his clothes like an Esquire male model. But the image of Constantine as a royal playboy dependent upon his mother for political advice was shown during April’s events to be far from correct.
The young King played coolly such cards as he held by getting word to foreign newsmen that he was not behind the coup. In a Delphic statement to his new cabinet six days after the coup, Constantine gave a very small hello, indeed, to the revolutionary regime when he said it was his “fervent wish” that his troubled country revert to parliamentary government as soon as possible. When he added that it was his hope that “a state of justice, a true and healthy democracy, will be speedily organized,” he at least implied that the present regime is an aberration.
The coup’s critics
The coup has cast a pall on Greece’s relations with both the United States and Western Europe. Although Pravda and other Communist publications were quick to brand the take-over as CIA-backed, there is no evidence to indicate that this is so. After a few days of uncertain groping, during which Ambassador Talbot attempted to ascertain whether centers of resistance to the coup had sprung up or were likely to appear, the United States, which provides Greece with about $80 million annually in military aid, went on a business-as-usual basis with the revolutionary regime. Whether it was wishful thinking at that point or not, Washington’s policy is clearly to attempt to reinforce the position of the King as a possible counterweight to the military junta, and to use such leverage as it possesses to encourage an early return to democratic government.
The events of April also have complicated Greece’s relations with two international organizations, NATO and the European Common Market (Greece is an associate member of the latter). In May, Denmark, the homeland of the Greek queen and the nation most intimately associated by blood with the Greek royal house, went on record as deploring the course of events in Athens, particularly the arrest and detention of more than 5000 Greeks regarded by the new regime as dangerous leftists. Greece is particularly vulnerable to world opinion, not only psychologically but financially. Invisible earnings from Greeks working in foreign countries or at sea, remittances from persons of Greek extraction (of which there are more than one million in the United States alone), and tourist income (49 percent of which is American) rose 15 percent last year to a record $646 million. Should revulsion with the present regime significantly reduce this inflow, Greece’s mini-economy would be dealt a severe blow.
Much depends now on uncertain international factors and on how the revolutionary regime acquits itself. The Greek social and economic structures are not highly developed, and neither the liberal Center Union nor the right-wing radicals demonstrated during their years in office a capacity to modernize the country effectively.
The real danger is that the country may yet erupt into civil war, provoked as much from within the military establishment as from the stunned and disorganized leftist forces, either democratic or Communist. Patakos, Papadopoulos, and Makarezos all went over the heads of their seniors and duped their fellow officers when they staged a royalist coup on their own initiative. Whether the older generals, such as Spandidakis and Lieutenant General Efstratios Ziotakis, the Undersecretary of Defense, who before the coup commanded the vital Salonika corps, will be able to reassert control over their junior officers remains to be seen.
In such a situation, however, real power often lies with unit commanders rather than with generals, and as such, the relationship between the triumvirate and other majors and colonels is likely to be crucial. The day before the coup, the original trio formed nine other officers into a special executive committee, to which another twenty officers adhered only hours before the army marched. Approximately three hundred other officers participated directly in “Prometheus,” the NATO-formulated general staff contingency plan under which power was seized. But it is almost certain that many of these officers thought they were acting under the orders of their commanding generals and with the approval of the royal house.
By the time these secondary officers realized that on the basis of Constantine’s silence he was not privy to the plot, it was too late. But nobody likes to be duped, particularly when his neck may be at stake, and the triumvirate may have some explaining to do in military circles in months to come.
No blueprint for calm
If he could do so without risk of a war, Constantine might well be tempted to cement his dynasty’s position in the eyes of the people by leading a loyalist counterrevolution which would return democratic government to Greece. But as the young King and most Greeks realize, a nation which shares frontiers with three Communist nations providing haven for 90,000 Greek Marxists, many of whom are of military age, must think twice before risking internal fighting.
What is certain is that the individualistic, argumentative, fiercely independent Greeks ultimately will not be content to remain politically mute. The revolutionary regime, which might well decide it can get along without the King if he proves uncooperative, has an Augean task cut out for it in its determination to clean up Greek public life.
But it is likely to discover, as other officers have, sometimes to their sorrow, that it is far easier to seize power unconstitutionally than it is to return a nation to normal political life. While NATO provided the blueprint for “Prometheus,” it has no contingency plan designed to make it possible for a junta to yield power peacefully. The drama of Greece is far from over.
— Smith Hempstone
Douglas Kiker, the ATLANTIC’S Washington correspondent, is also on NBC’s capital staff. Brian Stock is a young Canadian who studied at Harvard and at Cambridge University, England, and now teaches in Toronto. Smith Hempstone is European correspondent for the Washington STAR.