The seven year rule of the Greek Junta, from 1967 to 1974, has attracted much attention but little satisfactory analysis. It has been used as the basis for case studies of imperialism, cia conspiracy or third world development. But the specificity of the Greek social formation and its relevance for understanding the roots and nature of the dictatorship remain relatively unexplored. The aim of this article is to examine some of the structural causes for the rise and fall of the Greek military régime. It does not attempt an account of the complicated events surrounding the actual seizure of power, but will concentrate on the long-term effects of economic and class developments. For these, although they do not directly determine, set limits to what is possible on the level of the political superstructure at a given historical moment.

First, it is important to emphasize something which will be argued more fully later. By the nineteen sixties, the major axis of strain within Greece was between the form of bourgeois rule which emerged out of the civil war and the changes which Greek capitalism needed to undergo, in order to remain competitive. After 1949, the ruling class was no longer threatened. Neither the bourgeois state as such, nor the capitalist mode of production itself were at risk; their enemies had been effectively destroyed for a generation. It is necessary to grasp this political fact—however unpalatable—before considering the development of the Greek economy. For the path forward for Hellenic capitalism was never seriously disputed by any section of the ruling class. The latter’s crisis, on the contrary, was a political one: how to control the masses, who would have to suffer the ‘inevitable’ consequences of that path. The choice was straightforward enough: either to ‘incorporate’ the masses by means of parliamentary democracy or to subordinate them to direct domination by the army.

Either way the post-war state, which combined a militarily repressive parliament and a monarchy of manoeuvre, would have to go. Thus the masses themselves were only a passive, if giant, pressure upon the flimsy stage of Athenian politics. The dramas of the accession and demise of the Junta both occurred without the active involvement of the Greek working class. They were conflicts within the bourgeoisie, fought out between its political representatives, over the type of régime needed to enforce a general strategy for capitalism—a strategy upon which the bourgeoisie as a whole was agreed.

Despite the fact that the Left constituted the major resistance force during the German occupation and was in actual control of most Greek territory when the occupying forces started withdrawing, for a variety of reasons which cannot be developed here it subsequently suffered a complete military defeat, in the course of which tens of thousands of people died. After its victory, the Right imposed a quasi-parliamentary régime on the country: a régime with ‘open’ franchise, but systematic class exclusions. The Communist Party was outlawed and an intricate set of legal and illegal mechanisms of repression institutionalized to exclude left-wing forces from political activity. The job of guaranteeing this régime fell to the agency which created it: the army. The state was nominally headed by the monarchy and political power was supposedly vested in parliament. In reality, however, the army, and more specifically a powerful group of anti-communist officers within it, played the key role in maintaining the whole structurally repressive apparatus. We must start, therefore, with a few words about the political conflicts which divided the Greek army during its 1941–4 exile in the Middle East: in particular, about idea (Sacred Bond of Greek Officers), which was to play a key role in post-war politics.

When Nazi Germany invaded Greece in April 1941, the bulk of the Greek army disembarked to Egypt along with the monarchy and a government-in-exile. Immediately a political cleavage developed, with the Right on the defensive. Within the army, now under the British Middle East Command, as among the population in the peninsula, it was the Left which took the initiative. The first secret organization to appear, aso (Anti-Fascist Military Organization), was anti-royalist as well as anti-fascist; it made three separate attempts to take control of the army and the government-in-exile.footnote1 ena (Union of New Officers), the immediate ancestor of idea, emerged in order to counteract the ‘subversive’ activities of aso. This conflict between republican and royalist elements in the army was finally resolved by the British authorities. After a ‘mutiny’ of left-wing soldiers in 1944, the British decided to disband the Greek regiments. They imprisoned left-wing or republican officers and soldiers in various detention camps in Africa and the Middle East. From the remaining personnel, a new ideologically reliable body was established (the 3rd Mountain Brigade), which took part in the Italian campaign and later, in December 1944, fought with the British against the Greek communist and liberation forces in mainland Greece.

A group of these rightist Greek officers organized themselves into idea.footnote2 They played a decisive role on the side of the British during the battle of Athens in December 1944; then, after the end of the hostilities and the establishment of a precarious agreement between Left and Right—the Varkiza Agreement of February 1945—their major effort was to sabotage any permanent compromise settlement. More specifically, they sought to ensure that articles of the Varkiza Agreement which provided for a purge of all those who had collaborated with the Nazis from the army, police and other State agencies would remain a dead letter. In the army, at least, they were very successful. Republican officers appointed immediately after the Varkiza Agreement were dismissed from the forces. Officers who had participated in the Security Battalions (right-wing organizations collaborating openly with the Germans), on the other hand, were readmitted to the service. By 1946 the aims of idea were fully achieved: the Greek army was totally purged of ‘unhealthy’ elements and idea officers were firmly established in key positions within it. Once this anti-communist army had been constructed and blooded in the civil war, it was only a matter of time before the same spirit and organization permeated all other state agencies.

It lies outside the scope of this article to trace all the steps in the establishment of the anti-communist state.footnote3 Here, one need only emphasize that after the Communists’ final defeat in 1949, with the extermination or imprisonment of thousands of left-wing resistance fighters and their leaders, military reaction established firm control over the whole of Greek territory and consolidated a system of ‘repressive parliamentarism’ or ‘guided democracy’. This was controlled by a triarchy of throne, army and bourgeois parliament. Within this power bloc it was the army, the victor of the civil war, which played the dominant role.