ATHENA: A Greek-American Woman’s Resistance to the Nazis and the Greek Junta

Athena at a demonstration at the University of Minnesota, March 2, 1982


A Greek-American Woman’s Resistance to the Nazis and the Greek Junta
by Athena Mihos Psyhogios Henderson with James C. Henderson

(A memoir serialize in chapters)

“Sometimes, to remain silent is to lie.”–Miguel de Ounamuno


In the early morning hours of August 31, 1971, I was arrested attempting to free Alekos Panagoulis from Boyati Military Prison in Athens, Greece. I was taken to the headquarters of the Elleniki Stratiotiki Astunomia Eithikon Anakritikon Tmema, the Special Investigative Section of the Greek Military Police, or (EAT/ESA), the secret police of the military dictatorship then in control of Greece, where I was held in solitary confinement for a month while I was interrogated and tortured physically and psychologically. I was then tried before a military court. At the end of the trial, I was pronounced guilty and sentenced to 14 months in Korydallos, a prison on the outskirts of Athens, a sentence of which I served 13 months.

My trial was covered around the world by the international press because Alekos Panagoulis was then the most famous political prisoner of the Greek military dictatorship imprisoned for his failed attempt to assassinate the leader of the dictatorship, Colonel Yiorgios Papadopoulos, and because one of my co-conspirators in the plot to free Alekos was Lady Amalia Fleming, the widow of Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin and winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Lady Fleming was a Greek doctor, but also a citizen of Great Britain, and the British government was threatening to break diplomatic ties with the Greek government over her arrest.

My arrest and imprisonment at the hands of the Greek dictatorship was a horrible time in my life: it separated me from my three children, and I did not know through much of the ordeal what was going to happen to me, if I would come out of it alive or dead. At the time, and still today, people ask me, “Why did you do it?” They wonder why I risked my life to free Alekos, a man I had never met, especially in light that the plot failed. Why did put myself through the ordeal that resulted from its failure when I didn’t have to?

People also ask why I tried to free from prison a man who had attempted to kill the head of state of a foreign government? I did not and do not judge Alekos, judge his morality, or the wisdom or what he did. I do not rebuke or condemn him for what he did. I risked everything I had, including my life, to free Alekos Panagoulis from prison because I wanted to free him from the hell of torture he was suffering at the hands of the Greek dictatorship.

The Greek dictatorship was illegal and immoral, and it needed to be resisted. More than that, it needed to be opposed, as all repressive and evil regimes around the world need to be. Alekos acted in the same spirit of resistance as I did. And I like to think I acted in the same spirit as he. I tried to free Alekos from prison because I wanted to strick a blow against the brutal and corrupt fascist regime of the Greek dictatorship and strike a blow for freedom, justice, and democracy. And although I failed—Alekos would not be freed until 1973 in a general amnesty for all political prisoners for the dictatorship, a year before it fell—my trial for my failure focused the world’s attention for a brief moment on the Greek military dictatorship and exposed it for the evil regime that it was.

To have done less than what I did would have not been the right thing for me to do. What I did was the only thing I could have done, the only action I could have taken. It was what my conscience told me to do and what my entire life experience had prepared me to do. I could not have sat back and waited for another person to do what I knew I could do. There is a Greek adage that says, “Everybody wants someone else to get the snake out of the hole.”

Maybe my decision to try to free Alekos Panagoulis from prison was not the most rational or logical one for me to make for my family and me, because of the trauma and sacrifice it caused us, but it was the right thing to do for Greece and for the principles and values I have tried to live by: freedom, equality, justice, and democracy. I fought the fascist Junta because I had to. I fought the fascist Junta because I have always fought fascism, beginning when I was a young girl as a member of the Greek resistance fighting the Nazis during the German occupation of Greece during the Second World War. Rebellion and resistance is in my blood. Often I have suffered the consequences for my rebellion and resistance, but as I look back on it now, as I look back on my decision to attempt to free Alekos and all the consequences that followed—although there are some things I would do differently—it is a decision I feel comfortable with, and one I do not regret.


On April 21, 1967, in the middle of the night, the Greek military dictatorship, lead by a small group of about forty ultra right-wing Greek army officers, mostly colonels, seized power of the government of Greece through a coup d’état. Because the cabal that made the coup was comprised mostly of army colonels, it was sometimes referred to as the Regime of the Colonels, or more commonly as the Junta. The Junta’s first actions were to institute martial law, suspend the Constitution, declare all political parties illegal, and arrest their political opposition—any liberal or leftist who might effectively oppose them. Jails filled with people held without trial. So many people were arrested they were held in soccer stadiums. Torture became routine. The Junta controlled the press. Six thousand people were sent without adequate food and water to the barren island of Yiaros. Others were shipped to a hastily constructed concentration camp on the island of Leros.

The Colonels used as justification for their takeover of Greece and the overthrown of its democratically elected civilian government the need to secure the country from an external communist threat. To this end, the Colonels implemented on the night of their coup a NATO contingency plan designed to quell an attack from an internal communist insurgency code-named “Prometheus.” It allowed them to achieve a swift and complete immobilization of the country. Democracy was no more in the country that had invented the concept.

Condemnation of the Junta from the world community followed the coup, but such criticism did not depose it. Member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of which Greece was a signatory, did not respond militarily to the coup. The United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet based in Greece remained peacefully at anchor.

The communist threat the Junta used as its reason to grab power in Greece soon proved to be a ruse—no organized threat to the government was ever discovered, from within or from without the country, except the Junta’s own. The timing of the coup was then called into question, coming as it did just five weeks before national elections were to be held on May 28, 1967, which polls predicted would have been won by the liberal Center Union Party of Andreas Papandreou. Critics of the Junta suggested that since Andreas Papandreou had campaigned on a platform calling for a purge of corrupt and right-wing officers from the Greek armed services, the Junta had executed its coup not to save Greece from communism but to further its members’ own self-interests. In response to such allegations, the Junta argued that its coup was a noble, selfless act to restore Greece to its former glory as in the times of ancient Athens and Christian Byzantium. Far more than a pragmatic defense against communist aggression, their coup was a religious, social, economic, and political revolution. The Junta named its takeover the “The Revolution of April 21, 1967.”

Not only rabid anti-communists, the members of the Junta were zealous Christians—self-proclaimed defenders of the Christian faith. One of their primary slogans became, “Greece for Christian Greeks.” Their revolution heralded a return to traditional family values. They saw women primarily as wives and mothers and men as having authority over them, not only in public but also in private life. The Junta saw the home as the center of their patriarchal society. Modern influences deemed by the Junta as moral corruptions of Greek society were purged in a series of social reforms. Immodest dress, such as mini-skirts worn by women and long hair on men, was forbidden. Katharevusa, the “purist” language based on ancient Greek was made the official language of Greece replacing the demotic Greek, the language that had evolved over the centuries through everyday usage. It made little difference to the Junta that hardly anyone spoke the old katharevusa Greek; they returned to old-school textbooks written in the purist language to teach children that their vision of Greece’s future lay in its past. In schoolbooks already in use, all mentions of democracy and freedom were lined out of the text with a black marker.

Over a thousand books were banned by the Junta—books by classical Greek writers such as Aeschylus, Aristotle, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles, along with more recent authors: Camus, Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, Gorky, Tolstoy, Jean-Paul Sartre, Yiannis Ritsos, among others. Hundreds of films could not longer be shown, including Zorba the Greek and all films of Melina Mecouri and Irene Pappas. Poetry by Odysseas Elitis and Yiorgios Seferis, Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature in 1963, whom Papadopoulos called an “old and senile man,” were banned. All music by Greece’s foremost popular composer, Mikis Theodorakis, was forbidden to be played or sung.

Most members of the Junta came from humble beginnings, born in villages, and had received minimal educations. They embraced this fact and used it to portray themselves as champions of the peasant and the worker. In fact, they did little to reform the economic system that kept the peasant and worker on the bottom. After years of living on frustratingly meager army wages with little hope of promotion, many in the Junta lined their pockets through government kickbacks and lived exorbitant lifestyles of luxury with money pilfered from the public till.

The Junta was essentially allowed to get away with this rhetoric and behavior because, together with the failure of the world community to respond to the Junta with more than talk, truth was, its anti-communist, pro-Christian, pro-family views resonated with a certain segment of the Greek population. The vast majority, those who abhorred the Junta’s brutal and undemocratic tactics, were forced to acquiesce to its rule, if only with a wait-and-see attitude, when, after the coup, no one person or group from inside or outside of Greece moved to depose it. The coup came at the end of two years of political chaos that had seen five governments formed and dissolved, and for the ruling Greek oligarchy, the Greek monarchy, and the Greek military, the stability promised by the Junta was comforting. Individuals and international corporations who did business in Greece welcomed the Junta, whose devotion to free market capitalist matched its religious zeal. They enshrined the Junta as a savior that had pulled Greece back from the brink of a socialist cliff. The Junta’s opposition joked that yes, Greece was standing at the edge of a cliff in April 1967; under the Junta, it took one step forward.

The United States, which initially objected to the Junta following the coup, became its prime supporter after the furor over its usurpation of the democratic process faded from the headlines. In reaction to the coup, the United States stated publicly that it opposed dictatorships as a matter of principle and suspended arms shipments to Greece, then quietly resumed arms shipments one month later. The suspicion that the United States was behind the coup was shared by many people inside and outside Greece. Several of the major players in the Junta had intimate links to the United States military and to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The leader of the Junta was Colonel Yiorgios Papadopoulos. An egocentric man with a high-pitched voice, he had just graduated from the Greek Military Academy when Mussolini’s Italian army occupied Greece at the beginning of the Second War World. He collaborated with the Italians and then with the Nazis, when they marched into Greece. A devotee of Hitler’s “New Order,” Papadopoulos worked as a captain in a Nazi Security Battalion operating in the Peloponnese during the war as an interrogator of “suspects.” After the Second World War, he was the assistant to the director of the Kentrike Yperesia Pleroforion or Greek Central Intelligence Service (KYP), organized and trained by the CIA and funded and directed by it from then on into 1967. Papadopoulos was trained in the United States at the NATO Psychological Warfare School and was liaison between KYP and the CIA.

Another key member of the Junta, Nikolaos Makarezos, was chief of KYP’s information section the night of the coup.

Lieutenant Colonel Michael Roufogalis, in whose house the members of the Junta, met on the night of April 20 to signal the coup, was personnel director of KYP.

Brigadier General Alexandros Hadjipetros, while having no direct ties to KYP, was as commandant of the NATO’s missile-testing base on Crete, subject to the highest security clearance.

Brigadier General Stylianos Pattakos wasn’t a member of KYP. He was brought into the Junta at the last hours because he commanded the tank units needed for the securing of Athens.

Evidence suggests that the American government, concerned that the outcome of the Greek national elections in May would bring a Centrist, left-leaning, pro-democracy government to power in Greece—one less likely to follow in lock step American foreign policy for the region—did back a coup, but not the Colonels, not a first. It first backed a coup organized by Greek generals with the complicity of the Greek King Constantine II, Greece’s twenty-seven-year-old playboy king. The coup of this “Big Junta,” as it was called, was preempted by the coup of the Colonels, or the “Little Junta,” which had formed in the shadows as a response not only to the leftist turn in Greek politics but to the plans of the General’s Junta, word of which had become gossip in Athens. Deciding that the Generals were too careless, too much politicians who could not be relied upon, and distrustful of the King as naïve, indecisive, and incompetent, the American government threw its support to the Colonels. The Colonels were used to taking orders from the CIA, were hungrier for power, and were more closely aligned with U.S. interests.

Incensed that his “Royal Coup” had been betrayed by the United States, King Constantine rushed to the American embassy in Athens and pleaded with the United States ambassador, Phillips Talbot, to intervene on his behalf and restore him to power. Talbot refused. King Constantine, in turn, refused to swear in the Junta as the legal government of Greece as was necessary to confirm its legitimacy under a provision in the Constitution. Under pressure from the CIA, the King capitulated. He reluctantly swore in the Junta as the legitimate government, saying that he saw himself alone standing against it.

Eight months later, realizing just how inferior his position in the government was compared to what it had been before the coup, King Constantine attempted a counter-coup. On December 13, 1967, he flew with his wife, Queen Anne-Marie, his two young children, Princess Alexia and Crown Prince Pavlos, his sister, Princess Irene, and his mother, Queen Frederika, to the city of Kavala in the north of Greece to rally troops to his cause. Segments of the Hellenic Navy and Air Force had remained loyal to the monarchy following the coup and supported him, but his plans were overly bureaucratic and hindered by poor communications and timid execution. Further compromised by the fact that the King had earlier officially recognized the Junta, his counter-coup failed quickly. King Constantine and his family fled to Rome. He remained in exile for the duration of the Junta. On June 1, 1973, the Junta abolished the Greek monarchy.

How the United States thought they could control or even work with the Junta of the Colonels is beyond me. It’s leaders were all unstable personalities, to say the least. Papadopoulos was obsessed with sickness and death and communicated it through medical analogy in speeches that he delivered with the fury and bluster of Adolf Hitler, speeches filled with references to Greece as the victim of illness and decay.

Papadopoulos blamed the sickness he saw in Greek society on the weakness of the Greek people and the democratic politicians who, through their liberal polices, had allowed the affliction of communism and moral decadence to invade the body politic and putrefy in Greece’s institutions. He divided the people of the world into two opposing factions: “diseased cells” and “healthy cells.” The diseased cells were not human beings and could not be treated as such. He cast himself as the merciful savior-surgeon who was charged by a higher order to save Greece as it lay dying by cutting out the diseased people.

Brigadier General Stylianos Pattakos was Papadopoulos’ right-hand man. He was as equally vehement anti-communist and committed religious zealot as Papadopoulos. Pattakos, in his own spin on Papadopoulos worldview, divided humanity into the “wrong people” and the “right people.” The wrong people were “atheists” and “communists.” The right people were “Christians” and “nationalists”: the “Real Greeks.”

Colonel Nikolaos Makarezos, the other top member of the Junta, who rounded out its ruling triumvirate, believed a nation of “Christian Greeks” must be based on fear. On April 1969, he said: “Christians behave themselves because they are afraid of going to hell . . . Likewise, under our regime, Greeks behave themselves because they are afraid. Only evil people are going to be punished.”

 Whatever its direct involvement beyond conjecture in the coup of April 21, 1967, the United States, in the throes of a Cold War with the Soviet Union and on the verge of a large scale military conflict in Vietnam against communist expansion, was not inclined to challenge the Junta’s control of Greece, for as Henry Tasca, then American ambassador to Greece, said of the Junta, it is “the most anti-communist group you’ll find anywhere.”

In a world polarized between East and West, the Junta pledged its allegiance to the West and to the American cause. Greece has always held an important geopolitical position in the world located at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea on the southern flank of Europe. After the Israeli War of 1967, and with the intrusion of the Soviet Navy into the Mediterranean, Greece’s geopolitical position was even more important, and the steadfastness of the Junta’s commitment to U.S. interests in a vital region, seemed firm, even if its ethics were not.