As Greece is going through a period of economic devastation and political schism, it is worthwhile to remember what took place in the streets of Athens in December, 1944.
Albeit the circumstances are vastly different but the division of left and right, radical versus conservative are edging the country towards repeated confrontations that could easily escalate to violence.
On that morning in December, thousands of demonstrators were marching to the center of Athens to demand justice and relief from economic chaos. The left had organized the demonstration, but it was cleverly exploiting the frustrations of most Athenians towards the failure of the government to stabilize the country.
Police cordons blocked off all streets leading to the center of Athens, but one group of approximately 100 demonstrators broke through from Syngrou Street and advanced toward the police station located on the edge of Constitution Square near the Grande Bretagne Hotel.
As the columns of demonstrators snaked around the streets converging on the center of the city, they were egged on by the men with the megaphones and every so often the crowd stopped and chanted, “Down with Papandreou!” Down with intervention!”, “Try the collaborators!” Down with George Glucksberg!”, or “Death to Traitors!” The police had set up barricades to block off the streets leading to the square, but these were overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers.
By approximately 10:45 AM, one column of demonstrators was spilling into Constitution Square. They quickly formed into ranks of eight to ten abreast, while every fourth person either carried a British, Greek, American or Soviet flag. Others waved banners on which slogans were engraved in red print.
Between the demonstrators and the police station were approximately 20 terrified policemen, who had taken position between the Palace and the corner of the Grande Bretagne Hotel that faced the square. Armed with little more than Italian carbines that were loaded with blank ammunition, the police had no illusions as to their fate if the crowd got out of control.
The policemen had every reason to fear for their lives, since having served under the jurisdiction of the occupation authorities they had, rightly or wrongly, been labeled collaborators by the majority of Athenians.
Although many Greek police officials had covertly assisted the resistance and the Allies, not enough time had passed since liberation to permit a clear distinction between absolute traitor and sunshine patriot. Indeed, some had had to wear the mask of the former in order to assist the latter.
When the crowd advanced to less than 100 yards of the police cordon, suddenly a man in military uniform ran out of the station and shouted, “Shoot the bastards!”
He then dropped to one knee and began firing his gun. A few seconds later the panic-stricken policemen followed suit. They did not fire in unison like a disciplined unit but discharged their weapons sporadically.
Some of the officers had hesitated for a few seconds; some had remained transfixed by the spectacle before them, but one after another, each began to fire. The first ranks of the crowd cascaded onto the ground; the fortunate ones found protection behind trees or nearby walls, but most simply lay flat on the ground.
The shooting continued for approximately half an hour and when it was over 22 of the demonstrators remained still, 12 of them dead. A couple of brave souls gingerly darted out onto the square to drag back the bodies of their comrades, while others attempted to cover the wounded with their bodies.
Once the firing ceased, fear of the police and anguish over the casualties were instantly replaced by rage. The metamorphosis from a disciplined crowd into a frenzied mob took place suddenly, triggered by the sudden release of paralyzing fear and accelerated by anger.
By noon, a second crowd of demonstrators broke through the police cordons and was soon joined by thousands more, until the square was jammed with almost 60,000 people. The police retreated within the walls of their station and locked themselves in.
Over the next 30 minutes, the remaining police barricades disintegrated, most of the officers discreetly left the scene and sought refuge in nearby private homes or managed to reach the safety of the police headquarters. A few police stragglers near the Square, however, were not as fortunate.
They were seized by dozens of hands, punched, kicked and spat upon. Their protestations of innocence were drowned out by a torrent of verbal abuse. The lucky ones were dragged off to the nearest lamppost and lynched, some, however, could not be pried away from the clutches of the mob, which intoxicated by raw animal savagery, tore the men literally from limb to limb.
The crowd in the Square continued to shout slogans and to wave banners as well as Greek, American, British and Russian flags. Regardless of the chaos and commotion, every effort was made to display EAM’s affection for the United States and its President. The masses repeatedly shouted “Roosevelt,” “Roosevelt” and carried numerous large flags of the Stars and Stripes.
In the midst of this angry mass of humanity, an old woman dressed in widow’s black stood outside the police station and like the furies from the ancient past hurled threats and curses at the men inside the building.
For some time she stubbornly stood leaning on her stick, her presence the incarnation of hatred, fear, and helplessness that had become a metaphor for Greece. After several hours, the crowd quietly dispersed and a squadron of British paratroopers advancing single file easily pushed the remaining demonstrators across the square.
(André Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver)