21 April 1967: Greek colonels seize power in military coup

Today in 1967, Athens woke to the rumbling of tanks, as Greece came under military rule when a junta of colonels seized power.

Greece, these days is a modern democracy. But things were very different in the spring of 1967, when a constitutional crisis ended in a group of right-wing colonels seizing power and ushering 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 and 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 civil 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.

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