The Greek Junta is the name given to the April 21, 1967, military coup that after seven years ended Greek parliamentary democracy. The suggested reason for this military action was the prevention of an impending communist takeover. However, there remains little or no evidence to confirm that this threat was real.
The immediate background to the event was a series of social, economic, and political developments in the period from 1963 to 1967 that affected Greek stability. Particularly unsettling was the election of George Papandreou’s Center Union government in February 1964.
Papandreou attempted a number of social and economic reforms and promoted his more radical son, Andreas Papandreou, to the economics ministry, which caused splits in his own party. A leftist conspiracy of military personnel known as ASPIDA, which implicated Andreas and threatened the monarchy and the existing military structure, was also uncovered during this time.
Papandreou resigned in July 1965. Greece then entered a period of continual uncertainty with a series of unsatisfactory governments that failed to establish a solid governing base. The king eventually proposed new elections for May 1967.
The Right, especially within the military, had become suspicious of these political maneuvers and the accompanying instability. Many of the officers came from the lower social classes and felt that their rise and prestige had been undermined by the country’s corrupt political elite.
In addition to social tension, Cyprus, under Archbishop Makarios’s leadership, was demanding concessions from the island’s Turkish minority, who threatened to bring about outright war with Turkey.
A Turkish invasion was prevented in 1964 by the United States and peace was maintained to a degree by United Nations peacekeeping forces. Additionally, Greece’s King Constantine II was coping with youth and inexperience, having been king only since March 1964.
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The threat of George Papandreou’s return to power motivated the king to plan his own revolt, which was also scheduled for April 21, 1967. However, this coup was circumvented by a group of young officers. Their action changed the course of postwar Greek history and took the entire political establishment by surprise.
Led by Colonels Georgios Papadopoulos and Nicholas Makarezos and Brigadier Stylianos Pattakos and backed by a vague revolutionary council, the army struck on the morning of April 21. Their plan, codenamed Prometheus, proved effective.
Communications were seized, as were other key civic and military installations, and martial law was declared, which appeared to be endorsed by the king and his advisers. Constantine attempted a countercoup in December 1967; it was ill-conceived and failed even before it started. Following this fiasco, Constantine’s final recourse was to flee into exile with his family.
The junta’s political philosophy was ill-defined but generally paternalistic and authoritarian, with populist overtones designed to appeal to the peasantry and workers. They promoted Greek nationalism and proclaimed themselves to be defenders of Greek values, civilization, and Christianity.
In essence, the junta wanted to discipline Greek society and, in 1968, produced a new authoritarian constitution to allow them to do so. They made frequent use of propaganda and the secret police (Asphaleia) and military police (ESA) to silence critics and opponents. Human rights abuses were numerous. Such violations gave the colonels a bad international reputation within Europe and left them with few friends.
Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos soon rose to command the regime, a position he held until November 1973. The regime managed to maintain its membership in NATO while suffering only minor criticisms, although U.S. military aid was curtailed from 1967 to 1973. Greece’s strategic position in the Mediterranean in the face of cold war realities meant that the United States needed Greek ports to be open to the Sixth Fleet.
The junta eventually failed because of its inability to govern effectively or respond to external crises. By relying on crude suppression, the colonels destroyed any chance for popular support. Campaigns against the regime, such as Andreas Papandreou’s Panhellenic Liberation Movement, were maintained from abroad.
But the most important cause was the rise of an active university student opposition. A weakened leadership threatened the regime’s ability to rule. This, in turn, led Dimitrios Ioannidis—a previous secret police head—to seize junta leadership from Papadopoulos.
Ioannidis then searched for a populist/nationalist cause to restore the government. A confrontation with Turkey over oil deposits in the Aegean seemed the ideal circumstance. The junta attempted in July 1974 to overthrow Makarios in Cyprus.
Turkey responded by invading the Turkish side of the island. Ioannidis thought he had the military challenge he needed, but dissent and dissatisfaction in the heart of the military establishment left him isolated.
The only resolution to the junta’s failure was a return to legitimacy, which was now backed by the military itself. Former prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis returned from exile in Paris and restored democratic government. He reintroduced political parties, created a new constitution modeled on that of France, and purged junta supporters from the military and civil service.
He also sought a referendum on the future of the monarchy, which produced a 70 percent majority against the restoration of the king. The new constitution of 1975 increased the powers of the executive in the form of a president. The junta leaders were tried and given death sentences, which were later commuted.
The junta’s civilian supporters avoided major criminal trials. Some military and police officers were convicted of more serious crimes. The demise of the junta came without much bloodshed and with a general spirit of leniency.