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angle-left null Fighting a dictatorship in the “homeland of democracy”
12 September 2019

Fighting a dictatorship in the “homeland of democracy”

The Greek crisis – 1967-1969


Our Organisation experienced its first serious crisis resulting from the military coup d’état in Greece in the spring of 1967. This crisis revealed the importance of the Parliamentary Assembly, which played a crucial role in evaluating the situation and the practical consequences to be drawn. In parallel with the interstate cases brought before the European Commission of Human Rights by Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden, the Assembly’s action led to withdrawal of Greece at a historic session of the Committee of Ministers in December1969. This greatly contributed to the isolation and subsequent collapse of the colonels’ regime, followed by the return to democracy and the reintegration of Greece into the Council of Europe at the end of November 1974. Peter Leuprecht, Deputy Secretary General from 1993 to 1997, tells us the story.

There is a cool breeze, the sky and the sea are a bright blue and the islands are covered in snow. This is a striking spectacle but we are not, as you might think, on the Baltic – or somewhere similar – but on the Aegean, in December 1967. I am accompanying the Dutch Senator, Willem E. Siegmann, the Assembly’s Rapporteur on Greece, and we are not here as tourists; we are travelling to the islands to visit opponents of the new regime imprisoned after the coup d’état of 21 April 1967.

The colonels’ coup

The colonels’ coup was a shock for Greece. The constitution was abolished, martial law and censorship were established and numerous “opponents” were arrested. It was also a shock for Europe and the still new Council of Europe, a head-on assault on its founding values of pluralist democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The Council was designed to be a bulwark against dictatorship and yet, for the first time in its history, a dictatorship had just been set up in one of its member states – one which was often called the “homeland of democracy”.

The “Greek question” was to become a test of how solid the Council was and how committed it was to its fundamental principles. And I, a young civil servant in the Office of the Clerk of the Assembly, was about to be propelled into the very heart of this affair. It was to be one of my most fascinating experiences.

The Parliamentary Assembly was the driving force behind the Council’s campaign against the military regime in Greece. When Mr Siegmann left the Assembly, he was replaced as rapporteur by the Dutch MP, Max van der Stoel, an indefatigable fighter against dictatorship who became a very close friend. Following on from Mr Siegmann, Max van der Stoel visited the country many times over. It was my honour to accompany both of these men on their travels and help them to prepare their reports.

The junta

We saw the main protagonists up close and this, of course, included members of the junta. From the outside they looked a little like cartoon dictators but underneath this exterior, they were extremely hard on their “enemies”. The colonels appeared to be laughable but they were in fact terrifying. They were also somewhat uneducated. Theirs was a simple world in which on the one side there were good, patriotic Christian Greeks and on the other, “enemies” or “communists”.

The leader of the junta, Georgios Papadopoulos, used to launch into long, disjointed, meaningless and confusing speeches. He adored medical metaphors, portraying himself as Greece’s doctor, who had put it in a plaster cast and would decide at what point it could be removed. Among his distinctive outward signs were his enormous cufflinks, stamped with the insignia “21 April”.

Deputy Prime Minister Stylianos Pattakos was more like a country bumpkin, and a bit of a buffoon. He spat on his fingers before turning a page and as every good soldier should, he aimed very well. He did not trouble himself with any diplomatic turns of phrase; his language was coarse. In his opinion, the former Prime Ministers, Panagiotis Kanellopoulos and Georgios Papandreou, were “fools”. He accused the Swedish Prime Minister, Tage Erlander, of supporting civil war in Greece and said: “if he comes to Greece we will intern him on an island”.

Yannis Ladas, the Chief of the Military Police and later on the Minister of the Interior, was a sinister character. One of his aides would whisper in our ears: “You see, he does not eat people”, probably in an attempt to reassure us. However, he was one of the main people responsible for torture, which the European Commission of Human Rights found to be a routine administrative practice of the regime.

The members of the junta presented their putsch as a “revolution” but the truth is that it was no such thing. A coup d’état is not a revolution, nor is a dictatorship. In official speeches, there was much talk of the “objectives of the revolution” but these were somewhat vague. One of them was “the re-education of the Greek people” and Yannis Ladas talked of the need to “re-educate the press”.

The regime was fond of religious references. In 1968, we were in Athens during the Orthodox Easter holidays and enormous posters had been put up to celebrate “the resurrection of the Greek people”. Aeroplanes flying at low altitude peppered the towns with a shower of multicoloured Easter eggs carrying the inscription: “A Greece of Christian Greeks”, which was one of the regime’s propaganda slogans.

If you wish to continue your reading, you may buy the book "Europe: a human enterprise".

Peter was awarded a PhD in law by the University of Innsbruck (Austria). He joined the Secretariat of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in 1961. In 1976 he was appointed Secretary of the Committee of Ministers, before becoming Director of Human Rights in 1980. In 1993 he was elected Deputy Secretary General. He resigned from the Council in 1997 and became Visiting Professor at McGill University and at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), adviser to the Canadian Department of Justice, and then Dean of the Faculty of Law of McGill University. From 2004 to 2008 he was Director of the Montreal Institute of International Studies and Professor of Public International Law at the Département des sciences juridiques de l’UQAM. He is the author of numerous publications in the field of international law and human rights, in particular Reason, Justice and Dignity: A Journey to Some Unexplored Sources of Human Rights. From 2000 to 2005 he acted as Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for human rights in Cambodia.