13 July 2020

A lone protest 50 years ago
that would lead to the fall
of the colonels in Greece

The monument to Kostas Georgakis in the centre of Corfu … his death 50 years ago inspired protests throughout Greece against the colonels (Photograph: Patrick Comerford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Later this summer, the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Kostas Georgakis (1948-1970) should not be forgotten. This Greek student set himself ablaze early on 19 September 1970 in a square in Genoa as a protest against the colonels’ junta in Greece, and he eventually inspired protests across Greece that led to the fall of the regime.

Kostas Georgakis (Κώστας Γεωργάκης) was born on 23 August 1948 and grew up in Corfu in a family of five. His father was a self-employed tailor and both his father and grandfather had fought for Greece in World War I and II.

He was a bright schoolboy at the Second Lyceum in Corfu, and in August 1967, a few months after the colonels’ coup on 21 April, he went to Italy to study engineering and geology in Genoa. He year later, he joined the Center Union Party of Georgios Papandreou.

In an anonymous interview with a magazine in Genoa on 26 July 1970, Georgakis revealed how the junta’s intelligence had infiltrated the Greek student movement in Italy. He traced how the junta intelligence had set up the National League of Greek students in Italy, infiltrating Greek student groups in major universities.

But the Greek secret service got a recording of the interview and were able to identify Georgakis. Soon after, he was attacked by members of the junta student movement.

He was still a third year student when the junta revoked his student exemption from conscription and bullied his family into stopping his monthly allowance. It was retaliation by the junta for his growing profile in resistance to the colonels and in the Italian branch of PAK, the Panhellenic Liberation Movement set up in exile by Andreas Papandreou in 1968.

Fearing for his family in Greece, Georgakis decided to make an act to raise awareness in the West about the political crisis in Greece. He filled a canister with petrol, wrote a letter to his father and said farewell to his fiancée Rosanna.

Around 1 a.m., early in the morning of 19 September 1970, Georgakis drove his Fiat 500 to Matteotti Square. According to street cleaners working that night near the Palazzo Ducale, there was a sudden bright flash of light in the area at around 3 a.m. At first, they did not realise that this was a burning man. As they got closer saw Georgakis burning and hear him shouting: ‘Long Live Greece,’ ‘Down with the tyrants,’ ‘Down with the fascist colonels,’ ‘I did it for my Greece.’

The street cleaners said Georgakis refused their help and ran away when they tried to put out the flames. They could smell his burning flesh and said it was something they would never forget, but that Georgakis was one in a million.

Georgakis died nine hours later, at around noon. His last words were: ‘Long Live Free Greece.’

In his final letter to his father, he wrote:

‘Forgive me for this act, without crying. Your son is not a hero. He is a human, like all the others, maybe a little more fearful. Kiss our land for me. After three years of violence I cannot suffer any longer. I don’t want you to put yourselves in any danger because of my own actions. But I cannot do otherwise but think and act as a free individual. I write to you in Italian so that I can raise the interest of everyone for our problem. Long Live Democracy. Down with the tyrants. Our land which gave birth to Freedom will annihilate tyranny! If you are able to, forgive me.’

In a letter to a friend, he wrote: ‘I am sure that sooner or later the people of Europe will understand that a fascist regime like the one based on Greek tanks is not only an insult to their dignity as free men but also a constant threat to Europe ... I do not want my action to be considered heroic as it is nothing more than a situation of no choice. On the other hand, maybe some people will awaken to see what times we live in.’

His father arrived to find his body was completely carbonised from the waist down, up to a depth of at least 3 cm in his flesh.

His death caused a sensation in Greece as the first clear expression of the depth of resistance to the junta. The junta and its Foreign Ministry feared his death would be compared to the death of Jan Palach in Prague the previous year, and they were worried about the impact on Greek tourism.

At Georgakis’s funeral on 22 September 1970, Melina Merkouri held a bouquet of flowers as she led an estimated 1,500 or more people with flags and banners accompanying his body from the hospital to the grave.

Stathis Panagoulis – a brother of the poet Alexandros Panagoulis who attempted to assassinate the dictator Georgios Papadopoulos – did not turn up to give an expected funeral address.

The speakers at a press conference after his funeral included Ioannis Leloudas, living in exile in Paris, and Professor Christos Stremmenos, a future Greek ambassador to Rome, who read a message from Andreas Papandreou.

The junta delayed the return of his body to Corfu for four months, citing security reasons, fearing demonstrations and inventing bureaucratic obstacles. Eventually, the junta secretly sent a ship to Italy to take his body back to Corfu. On 13 January 1971, his body was transferred to the Astypalaia, owned by the Greek shipping magnate Nikolaos Vernikos-Eugenides. The ship left for Piraeus on 17 January.

His body was buried secretly in the Municipal Cemetery in Corfu the following day. A single police cruiser accompanied the Georgakis family, who were taken by taxi to the cemetery.

In 1972, Greece tried to block the worldwide distribution rights of Gianni Serra’s planned Italian film about his life, worried it would be show by the BBC and on German, Scandinavian and US television. The junta feared the film would inspire anti-junta protests, like those inspired by the 1969 film Z by Costa-Gavras.

A plaque in Matteotti Square, where he died in Genoa, bears an inscription in Italian: La Grecia Libera lo ricorderà per sempre, ‘Free Greece will remember him forever.’ It quotes his words: ‘I cannot but think and act as a free individual.’

The City of Corfu has dedicated a memorial in his honour near his home. The monument was created gratis by the sculptor Dimitris Korres.

The inscription in Greek on the plaque reads: ‘Kostas Georgakis, Student, Kerkyra 1948-1970 Genova. He self-immolated in Genoa, Italy on 19 September 1970 for Freedom and Democracy in Greece.’

The lower part bears his words: ‘I cannot but think and act as a free individual.’

The story of Georgakis remains unique in Greece, and his death is seen by many as an act of self-sacrifice in a spirit of dynamic protest. He is the only opponent of the junta to have decided to die by suicide in protest against the regime, and is one of the most important acts of resistance acts of the time.

He inspired many student protests that followed, including the Athens Polytechnic uprising in November 1973 that eventually paved the way for toppling the regime.

‘I cannot but think and act as a free individual’ … the inscription on the monument to Kostas Georgakis in the centre of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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