Webster Athens Virtual Lecture Series Marks Greece’s Independence Bicentennial

Changing of the Guard in GreeceSince March 2021, Webster Athens has been hosting a series of virtual lectures in honor of Greece’s Independence Bicentennial (1821-2021), highlighting various significant historic events in Greece’s modern history.

The final two lectures took place in October and November 2021, with Webster Athens Philosophy and English Prof. Stanley Sfekas delivering the talks on the events of WWII and Greece’s brave fight and the military junta of the late '60s to early '70s.

October Lecture: Greece in WWII

In October, the audience learned about the famous “OCHI” or “NO” given by the Prime Minister of Greece, Ioannis Metaxas, in 1940; it was then when Metaxas proclaimed “OCHI” to the Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, who demanded Italian troops be permitted to cross the border into Greece. Metaxas responded to the Italian ultimatum in French, the diplomatic language at the time, “Alors, c’est la gueree!” or “Then it is War!”.

In the days following, the word of Metaxas’ denial had spread around the capital and the Greek population took to the streets shouting “OCHI!”. His decision made on October 28th, 1940 is commemorated each year as a day that represents bravery, solidarity and heroism for millions of Greeks all around the world.

Although Greece had tried to remain neutral in the early days of WWII, it was at this time it became allied with Great Britain. The Greek army turned out to be a formidable force, holding back the Axis forces from entering Greece for almost six months. This was the first time a country stood up to the Axis powers with any amount of success. Greece gave the rest of the world hope that the Axis could be defeated.

Greece’s bravery moved the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to say, “When the entire world had lost all hope, the Greek people dared to question the invincibility of the German monster raising against it the proud spirit of freedom.” And Winston Churchill said, “If there had not been the virtue and courage of the Greeks, we do not know which the outcome of World War II would have been.”

November Lecture: Junta of 1967-74

Then, in November the audience learned about the events leading to the military junta (1967-1974), where a group of Army colonels overthrew the government on April 21, 1967 and established a seven-year long dictatorship. That morning Greeks woke up to a nightmare and many people including politicians, prominent figures in entertainment, academia and ordinary citizens (mainly people believed to belong to the left) were arrested and jailed, some were even tortured. A list of 10,000 names had already been compiled by the junta on this day. The dictatorship was characterized by right-wing policies, restrictions of civil liberties, imprisonment, torture and exile of political opponents. They also suspended 11 articles of the Greek Constitution including freedom of speech, with strict censorship over the radio, newspapers and tv. In attempts to gain popularity with the people, they ordered for a series of public works using army troops to build schools, hospitals, stadiums, roads, and factories. However, this was not enough to make up for what was happening throughout the country.

Resistance grew from inside of Greece and abroad and in November 1973 a few hundred students occupied the Polytechnic University of Athens calling for the junta to leave. They demanded “ψωμι, παιδεια, ελεφθερια” or “bread, education, freedom”.

On November 17, military tanks were ordered to knock down the walls of the Polytechnic University, leaving several dead. This was the beginning of the end of the junta. To divert the attention from these events, the dictatorship defeated the leader of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, thus leading to the immediate invasion of the island by Turkey, and since then the north of Cyprus has been occupied by the Turks.

Finally, on July 24, 1974 Konstantinos Karamanlis, the former Prime Minister of Greece in the early sixties, returned from a self-exile in Paris to successfully restore democracy and form a constitutional government. The junta leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Following both lectures, a vibrant discussion took place with the students asking various question about the fragility of democracy. Students who were unfamiliar with world history found these lectures to be educationally valuable. Participants from the Webster global community and beyond participated throughout the lecture series.

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