Britain’s smashing of Greek democracy

Saving Greece from barbarism
Saving Greece from barbarism

“Britain and the Greek Colonels: Accommodating the Junta in the Cold War” by Alexandros Nafpliotis (I.B.Tauris)

Reviewed by Piers Mostyn

Britain’s ability to pull a veil over its misdeeds overseas is well established. A growing body of literature on Ireland, Iraq, Kenya and elsewhere testifies to this. But British complicity with the 1967-74 colonel’s coup in Greece remains particularly obscure, an under-investigated gap that this book aims to explore.

From World War Two till the 1970s, Greece was a focal point of cold war politics. In 1944, the communist-led resistance movement was poised for victory. The Greek ruling elite was tainted by passivity and collaboration with the Nazi occupation. Backed first by Britain and then the USA, it launched a prolonged civil war culminating with the crushing of the left in the northern mountains. The international Communist movement bore a heavy responsibility for blindly following Stalin’s regional carve up with Churchill – Greece being on the “wrong” side of the line.

Savage political repression followed, with thousands deported to island concentration camps; tortured and detained without charge or under ill-defined political offences, in many cases for a decade or more.

Greece was seen as a testing ground for US anti-communist policy that would find its ultimate end in Vietnam. Napalm was first used against the Greek left. In 1959, a CIA report listed Greece alongside Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan, as places where it can safely be said, that without US military assistance “the government … would almost certainly have gone down to defeat and given way to a communist or pro-communist regime”.

But, like the dictatorships in Spain and Portugal, Greece was uncomfortably close to the heartlands of Western bourgeois democracy. And the 1950s saw a steady growth of left-wing parliamentary fronts, as they exploited the few opportunities for legal activity.

By the early 1960s, despite political repression and ballot rigging, the liberal-left Centre Union briefly won an electoral majority. Concern about a “communist take over”, encouraged long-established rightist conspiracies in the military and security services, to the point where in 1966 there was open discussion about a military coup – including at a governmental level in Washington and London.

The view of Western intelligence agencies was that the Greek monarchy would provide the imprimatur of constitutional legitimacy for a coup that would be led Greek military top brass. That the 21 April 1967 coup in fact by-passed the king and was organised by colonels, is often relied upon to rebut any suggestion of prior NATO involvement. It certainly makes it difficult to prove. But western-backed interventions across the globe in the post-war period demonstrated a variety of deniable methods for triggering military take overs.

What is not in doubt is that many of the coup’s leaders were in key positions of KYP, the Greek CIA, established in 1953 under US guidance and colloborating closely with its American counterpart over the following decade. Central to this group was Papadopoulos, the KYP-CIA liaison officer.

Disappointingly Nafpliotis has little to say about this historic background or possible British intelligence connections, preferring to confine himself to diplomatic, cabinet and parliamentary records to focus on British official relations with the junta once it had seized power.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson was certainly very quick off the mark. Official recognition followed only six days after the coup, despite the rounding up and detention of thousands of political oppositionists. This was the fastest act of British official recognition of a post-coup junta in the late 60s and early 70s period, according to Foreign Office records. The Latin American military dictatorships generally waited at least twice as long.

There followed a particularly disgraceful three year history of Labour government double diplomacy. A public distance from the smashing of democracy was coupled with an active political, military and economic engagement with the regime behind the scenes. The motives were to bolster Greece as a key anti-Communist NATO ally; secure British bases in Cyprus and influence in the region; and keep in with Washington. The back-cloth was developing domestic economic crisis and a desire to stem a post-imperial decline in global influence.

But it wasn’t all one way. London was also a centre for organised solidarity – with a large ex-patriate Greek community and mushrooming Vietnam war-era anti-militarism. This was epitomised by the October 1967 Labour Party conference calling for the expulsion of Greece from NATO; the ending of its association with the EEC and the Council of Europe; and support for “all actions taken by the Greek working class to bring down the regime”. The vote was very close, with Foreign Secretary George Brown directly intervening and the right wing union leaderships mobilising the block vote against the resolution.

The Tory accession to government in 1970 was marked by an almost seamless continuity in British policy. But a period of Labour opposition led to a turn to the left in the official party line on Greece. Increased repression in 1973 also led to a broadening of solidarity to include prominent conservatives like Airey Neave MP, albeit on an explicitly pro-NATO basis.

The November 1973 military suppression of the Athens Polytechnic uprising led Britain’s ambassador to observe that the army’s methods were ‘hardly in accordance’ with British methods of controlling civil disturbance – conveniently forgetting British torture, internment and full-on street warfare in Belfast and Derry at the time.

A fresh coup, in December 1973, led to a marginally slower British recognition after nine days – the second fastest in the junta-recognition league table of the era.

This time Labour openly opposed the stance. And the return of Labour to power the following February led to the cancellation of naval visits to Athens and the blocking of export licences for armoured security vehicles to the Greek police. The tap was being turned off and the junta’s days were numbered.

British complicity with the colonels was consistent with a long-established pattern – extending back to the foundation of the modern Greek state, which gave the “Great Powers” a constitutional veto. In the late 19th century the British state used Greece’s financial crisis to impose political conditions. Intervention in 1916-17, was aimed at subverting Greece’s wartime neutrality, via secret service shenanigans (amusingly described in recently re-published memoirs of spy-cum-novelist Compton McKenzie).

This history of involvement in shaping the Greek economy, its ruling class and state needs to be told. It puts the contemporary propaganda line – that Greek workers own “greed and laziness” are the cause of economic collapse, thus justifying the imposition of a vicious austerity programme – into some perspective.

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