HE.S.T.A.F.T.A. - Scientific Society of Mental Health Professionals


  • Pepi RigopoulouProfessor Emeritus, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

An unaltered image is repeated for 49 years now, every year, on the same day, on multiple screens. The television screen, the symbolic one and the fantasy one. A tank charges and bulldozers the main gate of the Polytechnic University, exactly as it happened at around three in the morning of November 17, 1973. The illumination from the spotlights makes materials disappear: the hands clenching the metal bars, the silent looks, the bodies, the two cars, the objects that were blocking the tank’s way. Space has become an over lit void. The left pillar collapses on impact; a human form jumps forward, two flags fall backward simultaneously. What happened? What happened to them? That is something we are still finding out.

The image does not complete the narration of the “surgical” strike but has since sealed the traumatic event. It serves to rekindle or isolate the event that is considered by some as the defeat of the three-day uprising (“What are you to do?” “Every revolution ends the same way”. “Why should you risk your neck?”) Does it, maybe, underline the sense of awe in the face of the ironclad instrument of suppression, or even an admiration of sorts? Or maybe grief for the victims, “those poor kids”, who in order to continue to touch people’s hearts need to have their numbers grow with each year, need to have been exclusively on the premises of the Polytechnic and not in the surrounding streets of the city, and most of all need to never grow up; to remain children forever.

The image of the tank charging dominates the event and remains the common ground of what happened then, more than the few other images that exist. The rigid repetition of the conclusion of the uprising, however, has become over the years a testimony against the multiple attempts of its rewriting. If it fades, if it is altered by time, who will remember one more revolution, many of the likes of which have been swallowed by History in different ways and with different labels?

The image shows a military operation with the victors on the one side and the defeated on the other. The reason, however, behind the invasion of the tank – of this phallic and murderous symbol of domination – is still unclear, even all these years late. What was the meaning of the invasion that followed the raising by Kyriakos – a student, of a makeshift white flag, crafted from a white shirt that signified surrender? Did it seal the victory of the army that had descended upon unarmed civilians, intoxicated by the dictatorship’s propaganda? Was it a need for a spectacular finale, which became the beginning of the new order of things within the dictatorship, the following week? Was it the response to a “technical problem”, in order to open the main gate that had only the most elementary of barricades behind it, consisting of the two cars that could have easily been moved for evacuation to begin? And why should the main gate be used for the evacuation, when there were gates on either side that had already been used by many people that had exited before the end? Could it have been, as some have unconvincingly claimed, the result of a “transaction” between the military and the representatives of the Coordinating Committee, that were indeed negotiating a safe evacuation?

A night-time landscape, a sleepless city, two or three hospitals with their hallways and morgues full, and others standing by for more victims. There were many consequences for many people. A “generation” that was experiencing its first liberating “war”, alongside the televised “Unknown War” of the unlawful junta.

This historical event was treated in various manners. The dictatorship denied it by distorting it; even today there are people who insist in believing the destructions that the dictatorship itself had manufactured, and the orgies that its propaganda had fabricated. Identifying with the “victor”, these people insist on denial, dismissal, mockery, and hate. For some, it became the trophy for the first election, while others –who had treated what was happening as an obstacle to developments they had already accepted– changed their attitude completely when Democracy was restored, and used it as a guide for their political carriers by incorporating it and highlighting it. They were followed by all those who did not experience it, yet talked about it as if they had; using important-sounding words that only served as to trivialise the event. Some people felt guilty for their deceased that were tortured after the fact. Many people even forgot about the injured - maybe because they were mainly outside the Polytechnic and not all of them were students – and identified with the traumatic dimension of the event that sealed the image of the tank’s invasion, while among them were some that deposited their old psychic and physical trauma on it. There were also quite a few people that viewed it as a vehicle for social and political success when it became fashionable; it was “selling” and it was time for them to collect from accounts that they never had with the uprising of the past. In the meantime, there are others who have blamed everything negative that has happened in Greece in the past 50 years on it. From sacred and immaculate, it has become sacrilegious and cursed. For some, it has been in various ways a fantasy element of identity.

For the entirety of the people who participated in it, the uprising opened paths of knowledge and self-knowledge, regardless of their ideologies and dogmatic beliefs. It is certain that for many, there was a before and an after the event, as is evident from their oral discourse, writings, and actions. In these, one can detect an absence of malice against the attackers, maybe because their own experience of the uprising was not confined solely in the ending of the invasion and everything that followed. I wonder if this is the case as well for the police, secret service and military regiments that left their barracks with a heightened ferocity, discountenance, or even objection in the face of a peculiar operation. I personally only know one soldier, A. Skevofylakas, that condemned the mission and engaged in self-criticism. The testimonies in the Trial of the Polytechnic uprising, and the other rare oral or written accounts of the rest of the participants, demonstrate a reluctance in moving away from the old motives that were constructed through ideology and mainly propaganda.

Without systematically making use of the research on historical trauma, I will refer to a series of its psychic dimensions, as they are recorded in the relevant literature concerning other events, or as they emerge in testimonies and texts concerning this specific one. It is worth mentioning that the techniques of coping with post-traumatic shock, that have been developed and implemented on a large scale mainly in connection with U.S. imperialistic wars from Vietnam onwards, were not available, and thus all those who wished to psychically comprehend and overcome the event, followed lonely – if not guilt ridden – paths.

The participation in an uprising, the sense of liberty that is released, the danger that lurks, and the fear that one is able to overcome – if only for a short while – create new psychic conditions. They may lead to a widening of consciousness, a bypass of survival mechanisms, a new perception of the self and of the world and a breaking of limits. Something similar to whatis attempted by art, psychotherapy, and faith in which one does not shut their eyes and repress trauma, but rather tries to make use of the painful experience as an element of health and maturation. However, the psychic consequences of trauma may not be benevolent. Trauma, be it physical or psychological, following an extraordinary event, may be experienced as a “destruction of the chain of signifiers”, as a deficiency in meaning-making. It may be “forgotten”, repressed, in its entirety or partially. The person that bears it may fortify themselves in its before or after. Or they may show it off and turn it into a trait of a narcissistic type of identity. The other person’s trauma may stir guilt in the survivor. Why did he manage to survive, when others didn’t, or even why wasn’t he able to help? This guilt may manifest through open or covert aggressiveness against the victims, especially if they are deceased. They may at a later time, or even unbeknownst to themselves, identify with the aggressor and the destruction when the model and the roles of the Polytechnic are transferred to a different reality. The seduction of destruction, especially, is connected in multiple ways with the special social systems and their transformations and is a complex phenomenon. And as for the perversion of judgement – meaning the interpretation of events and situations in a reversed manner – the case of the Polytechnic accumulates the most absurd opinions that span from self-fulfilling political actions to conspiracy theories.

The narration of the experience of the event, the testimony, the “I”-story, and oral history, each in its own way, lead to the re-experiencing of trauma. The fixation on a narration that does not deepen with new experiences through dialogue, and the perpetual repetition of which leaves the narrator with a void. At the same time the stereotypical interpretation/manipulation from the collector of narrations, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, or other professional, journalist or Politian, leads to a comforting reassurance regarding the things the narrator wants to be sure about. Especially through the mass intervention by the Media and propaganda, the events run the risk of becoming degraded, void of meaning, and ultimately non-events. Of being incorporated in the repeated stereotypes of other similar experiences, thus fuelling the line of thought that propagates the perpetual construction of everything. May the experience of the uprising - an experience that was erotic, sacred and revelatory of a world of freedom - constitute a way of thinking and living.,

Read the next article:

ARTICLE 9/ ISSUE 23, October 2023

The revenge of emotion

Thanasis Skamnakis, Journalist
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