21 April 1967: Greek colonels seize power in military coup

1967 Greek military coup © Getty Images
Tanks were positioned around Athens overnight

If you keep even half an eye on the news these days, you can’t avoid mentions of Greece. And it was the same on this day 48 years ago, as a group of right-wing colonels seized power and ushered in a military dictatorship that would last for seven years.

When Prime Minister George Papandreou, who had been elected in 1963, proposed becoming defence minister as well, King Constantine wasn’t impressed. The Ministry of Defence at the time was conducting an investigation into Papandreou’s son, Andreas. His father becoming minister would bring about all sorts of conflicts of interest. And so Papandreou was ‘eased out of office’, and a succession of weak governments followed.

The 1960s was a time of great paranoia. The spectre of communism pervaded political life in the West. And Greece was no different. Elections were due to take place in May, and the thought of a left-wing government made a lot of people nervous.

And so the army, led by Colonel George Papadopoulos, Brigadier Stylianos and Colonel Nikolaos Makarezos, decided to act. ‘Operation Prometheus’ swung into action: overnight, tanks were positioned around around Athens. Leading politicians and known lefties were rounded up and imprisoned. By dawn, Greece was under military rule.

The King wasn’t happy. He told the US ambassador that a bunch of “incredibly stupid ultra-rightwing bastards, having gained control of tanks, have brought disaster to Greece”. Having initially gone along with the coup to maintain some sort of unity in the country, he attempted to stage a counter-coup some eight months later. His bid failed and he fled to Rome.

In the years that followed, the junta stuck rigidly to the time-honoured rules of brutal military dictatorship: murder, torture, and the curtailment of all sorts of liberties. It lasted until 1974, when Greek Cypriots staged their own coup. Turkey’s subsequent invasion of the island, and the junta’s bungled response, prompted the fall of the Athens regime.

See all of our days in history here

  • Doug Macleod

    The history of how the Greek people’s assets were stripped by the Nazis and then the fascists tends to be forgotten when countries are labelled PIGS and accused of being “lazy”. The Greek generals, Salazar in Portugal, Franco in Spain and the Mafia in Italy all operated as kleptocracies, stealing the assets of the state while preventing development. No wonder these economies need help to recover.

    • LLOYD TUCKER

      When I worked in Athens at the end of the last century I was surprised much needed social assistance carried out not by government but by PASOK as the other major party of Democracy concerned itself with posh folks who walked their English style dogs on leads down from Kolonaki hill to socialise with our ex-pats around our Embassy while back at the top of the same hill in luxury homes around poor King Constantine’s last palace lived the last two of the old coup colonels who threw out PASOK with his help 30 years before. Quo vadis as they would have thought in Athens at the time of Herod Atticus though here I cannot transcribe the other alphabet(a).

    • peter williams

      I disagree as the right-wing autocrats you mention were very much better than their left-wing counterparts ie Ceausescu the Romanian leader ’65 to ’89,Zhivkov in Bulgaria ’71 to ’80 and Gomulka in Poland ’56 to ’70. Although far from perfect they had much more respect for the law, greater human rights and freedom of movement than the left-wing autocrats. More importantly they put in place the infrastructure for economic progress which the communists autocrats did not.
      Blaming the current Greek economic problems on the Nazis is a poor excuse. All occupied countries had their assets stripped by the Nazis but after the war those with a free market economy recovered best and fastest eg Austria, Holland, Belgium and Denmark.

  • Jeremy Keen

    I wonder if part of the Greek economic problem may not be a ‘brain drain’? Like a lot of smaller / poorer economies I suspect talent often goes abroad from there. Certainly in my many visits to Greece I have seen very little sign of advanced entrepreneurial activity and I have always wondered why they can’t get it together to produce their own enterprise revolution.

  • Bos Ton

    So much is missing in this article.