The Colonels ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. They tried to turn back the clock without knowing how a clock works (source). In Greece, nation-building revolutionized social relations. It created a much larger web of reciprocal relationships among people who were not close kin and who often never met each other. This new environment was vulnerable to abuse, typically by individuals operating within family networks. The public treasury was especially targeted, with the country being forced into bankruptcy twice during the 19th century. The problem was not just that Greeks had to learn new rules for social interaction. They also had to feel motivated to obey them.
Nation-building had another down side. Since Greece was composed of lands that had once belonged to other countries, the Ottoman Empire in particular, the nationalist project became wedded to the idea of further territorial expansion. This all too often led to reckless military adventurism. The worst case was the catastrophe of 1921-22 when an expeditionary force pushed deep into Turkey in the hope of recreating the old Byzantine Empire. The Turks not only defeated the force but also ethnically cleansed Anatolia of its historic Greek community.
Yet the overall balance sheet was positive. Writing in 1977 about the Balkans as a whole, Charles and Barbara Jelavich concluded that the initial phase of nation-building had succeeded:
Conditions in the new nations at the end of the century were certainly greatly superior to those in the area at the beginning of that epoch. At that time the Ottoman government was unable to assure the basic conditions of civil peace in its lands. Not only were the local governors unrestrained, but bandits, groups of soldiers, and local warlords with armed retainers made life impossible for the peasant population, Christian and Muslim alike, in many areas. The national governments not only assured the establishment of an orderly system of administration, but they initiated measures directed toward the improvement of general conditions in the country. (Jelavich & Jelavich, 1977, pp. 326-327)
By the early 20th century, Greeks were living in greater personal safety than ever. But they still confined their relationships of trust to immediate kin and relied heavily on family connections to get ahead. The challenge now was to create a high-trust environment where people would treat each other as they would their own family. Only then would Greece take off economically as the West had earlier. The nationalist project thus sought to alter how Greeks viewed themselves and each other, particularly through the schools and, later, through the national youth movement of Ioannis Metaxas (1935-1941). Under Metaxas, this effort assumed totalitarian proportions with the use of propaganda, popular art, and mass public gatherings.
This social engineering continued after World War II, when a Western-style democracy was grafted on to the existing political culture. Schoolteachers, civil servants, army officers, and journalists were largely “graduates” of Metaxan nationalism. The regime was thus fundamentally nationalist and only superficially a liberal democracy.
The 1960s: a turning point
By the 1960s, however, nationalism began to give way to individualism and consumerism. This shift coincided with the victory of the Centre Union Party in 1964 and … the Swinging Sixties. A new counterculture was spreading among young Greeks. Many adopted its outward manifestations—mop hair, bellbottoms, miniskirts, and rock music—while still adhering to the norms of traditional family life. Others wanted to go further by experimenting with drugs, new forms of mysticism, and alternate sexual lifestyles.
It was against this background that the armed forces launched a coup d’état in 1967. The Colonels, as they came to be known, said they wished to prevent “communism”—a catchall term for anything that threatened the ethnos, the church, and the family. Their rhetoric echoed the ideology of the Metaxas period, when they had been cadets, and they hoped to turn back the clock to that time.
The Colonels stayed in power until 1974, a little longer than Metaxas. Yet their impact on Greece’s subsequent cultural development would be much weaker. In short, they failed to alter the course of history.
This failure had several causes:
In the mid-1930s, the country was paralyzed by the Great Depression and a deadlocked parliament. Greeks were willing to go along with Metaxas if only for lack of a viable alternative. In contrast, the late 1960s were a time of unprecedented prosperity. Life had never been so good. People were apprehensive about the changing family and sexual values, but most were unsure how far the change would go. Many thought the pendulum would eventually swing the other way. In any case, the demographic implications were hardly critical. Fertility was still well above the replacement level, and the divorce rate remained stable at 6 divorces per 100 marriages.
In short, the Colonels seemed to be reacting hysterically to an exaggerated threat. Their sermonizing was not taken seriously, at least not by most of the population, and they were thus never able to build a popular movement to consolidate their hold on power. While many people collaborated with the regime, they did so largely out of fear or opportunism.
Coming of TV
TV came later to Greece than to other European countries, and it came during the time of the Colonels. As elsewhere, it centralized the production of news, culture, and entertainment. Such central control would have especially sweeping effects in Greece because of the relative weakness of civil society:
[…] this situation has been associated with a weak atrophied civil society where the state has to take on additional politico-ideological functions. This fits the case of broadcasting. The overextended character of the state has coincided with the underdevelopment of capitalism in Greece. (Papathanassopoulos, 1990)
For the Colonels, central control was a feature, not a bug. They saw it as a way to overwhelm the cultural influence of the political Left, which had now retreated to the local level. They didn’t realize that this same central control would eventually pass into the hands of a post-national elite.
Once the Colonels were removed from power, television would make it that much easier to erase their legacy. The new medium proved to be a two-edged sword.
Beginnings of globalization
The Colonels’ years in power coincided with a general worldwide shift from protectionism to globalization. In this new global economy, Greece found itself drifting toward an uncompetitive dead zone. Wages were lower than elsewhere in Europe but still higher than in nearby African and Asian countries. Conversely, the economic environment was better than in Africa and Asia but still less secure and less conducive to trust than in Western Europe and North America.
The Colonels did little about these trends, largely because they trusted the business community and saw it as a natural ally in the fight to defend the nation from communism. The business community, for its part, had its own ideas about globalization. In 1972, the Association of Greek Industrialists called for the importation of foreign workers to fill unskilled and often seasonal jobs in agriculture, tourism, and shipping (Pteroudis, 1996, p. 163). The AGI was actually making explicit a policy that its members had already adopted:
In late 1972, there were according to the Greek government around 15,000 to 20,000 foreign workers in Greece who came mainly from Egypt and other African countries (cited by Nikolinakos, 1974:81; other authors put forward a figure of 60,000 workers, Rombolis, 1980:231). The proposals of the Greek industrialists highlighted the paradox of the situation. At a time when over 300,000 Greeks were working in European countries mainly in low-skill industrial jobs, Greece had to import African labor to meet its needs in the same sectors? For Marxist analysis, which was dominant at that time, the aim of the AGI and the government was to stabilize and even reduce the wages of Greek workers (Pteroudis, 1996, p. 163)
Some light is shed on this foreign labor program by a letter that the African student union published in a Greek newspaper in 1978 (albeit after the time of the Colonels):
We denounce the existence of a traffic in black workers from Africa by Greek industrialists and ship-owners, who promise the black workers high wages. Once in Greece, the Blacks, victims of blackmail in all its forms, accept the worst jobs for very low wages without managing to get a contract of employment. When their services are no longer wanted or when they organize and become demanding, they are fired and cannot even benefit from an airplane ticket to go home. (Abog-Loko, 1981)
The same newspaper had earlier published an article stating that a community of 15,000 African workers had become established in downtown Athens (Abog-Loko, 1981).
This time period thus saw the start of de-Europeanization and population replacement. The Colonels failed to see the long-term consequences, in large part because they conceived the threats to Greece’s social fabric in geopolitical or even conspiratorial terms. In reality, the most serious threats would come from banal sources, including supposed friends and allies.
Cold War as the first priority
The Colonels blamed the decline in traditional values on the Communists who, in turn, were said to be taking orders from Moscow. The Culture War thus became subordinated to the Cold War. There was a pervasive belief that the end of communism would bring an end to the assault on the family, the church, and the ethnos. At the very least, the Culture War would be half-won.
By committing Greece more than ever to the Cold War, the Colonels also committed Greece more than ever to NATO. This “NATO-ization” of Greece paved the way for the country’s entry into other supranational bodies, specifically the Common Market and, later, the European Union. As a result, Greek bureaucrats became accustomed to the idea of being accountable to decision-making bodies that lay outside the country.
The Cold War furthermore shifted the Colonels’ attention from their own country to more distant ones, about which they were prone to misinformation and self-deception. They were especially won over to the idea of Africa’s key role in the fight against communism, and to this end they sought to assist the continent’s anticommunist regimes by bringing its soldiers to officer training schools in Greece. Yet terms like “communist” and “anti-communist” often had no clear meaning in Africa. Many regimes sided with the West for opportunistic reasons, and more than a few tried to curry favors from both sides. In hindsight, Africa proved to be a sideshow with little influence on the outcome of the Cold War.
The Colonels would eventually be undone by military adventurism and Cold War thinking. In 1974, they backed a coup to depose the president of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, and unite that country with Greece. Makarios seemed to be an easy target. He had sought closer relations with the Soviet Union (as a counterweight to Turkey’s claims on his island), and the Colonels presumed that NATO would view the coup favorably.
Turkey, however, was not amused and responded by invading Cyprus. As in 1921-1922, Greece was now up against a much stronger opponent. And, again, the West remained neutral. The Colonels could do nothing but watch Turkey ethnically cleanse the northern half of the island. They then gave up power, having lost all credibility.
History has not been kind to the Colonels. At best, they wanted to turn back the clock without knowing how a clock works. At worst, they unthinkingly aided and abetted the very processes that were eating away at Greece’s social fabric. In all fairness, however, social conservatives elsewhere were making many of the same mistakes.
If the Colonels had played their cards right, they might have hung on to power for a while longer. But they would still have had trouble stopping or even slowing down the processes of social atomization, dissolution of the family, and denationalization. These processes had a momentum of their own that could not be easily reversed.
First, the main motor of change lay beyond the country’s borders, in Western Europe and North America. Greeks could reject foreign culture and ideology, but they had neither the resources nor the population size to create an alternate world-system.
Second, the nationalist project was at least partly responsible for the Culture War. Nationalists wanted to move Greeks away from the little world of the family and toward the big world of the nation-state. In this larger world, however, behavioral norms would be determined by elites in the arts and entertainment who were often hostile to traditional values. In this and other ways, nationalism heralded what globalism would later bring.
Abog-Loko, J. (1981). La communauté noire en Grèce, Peuples Noirs Peuples Africains, 22, 55-84
Jelavich, C. & B. Jelavich. (1977). The Establishment of the Balkan National States, 1804-1920, A History of East Central Europe, vol. VIII, Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Papathanassopoulos, S. (1990). Broadcasting politics and the state in Socialist Greece, Media, Culture and Society, 12, 387-397.
Pteroudis, E. (1996). Emigrations et immigrations en Grèce, évolutions récentes et questions politiques, Revue européenne de migrations internationals, 12, 159-189 (Espagne, Portugal, Grèce, pays d’immigration).
Wikipedia – Greek military junta of 1967 to 1974