Memories are the message

Memories are the message

Fifty years after the student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic, the anniversary’s meaning has been whittled down to what it will remain in history – an act of self-sacrifice, a spontaneous collision of youth with tyranny. Those who remember 1973 know that things were more complicated. However, with the passing of time, the meaning of “the Polytechnic” (as the uprising is known), takes on its own, unquestionable dynamic. It symbolizes what our society would like to highlight. We shape our memories to fill our needs. Our memories express our desires, assuage our fears, determine society’s “character” and its course. The years wash away the details of complicated reality – how the uprising began, who disagreed with it at the time, what was its immediate outcome. The message is simplified so as to be comprehensible, “useful” as a symbol. 

The November 17 anniversary honors the young women and men who fell into the fire for democracy

As the various shades of the event are stripped away, though, an important part of its message is lost: In life, things are not always so obviously a conflict between Good and Bad, where one can know immediately what must be done and what its consequences will be. In 1973, there were a number of good reasons for one to argue that the time was not ripe for an uprising – just as there were such arguments at the start of the Greek Revolution in 1821. However, one of the messages of the Polytechnic (and of 1821) is that the daring of the few (albeit at the wrong moment) moves the cogs of history. The result determines how the event will be judged. And so, the fall of the junta a few months after the bloody suppression of the Polytechnic revolt is seen as a result of the rebellion, ignoring the fact that the dictatorship collapsed only after an even more violent group of tyrants took charge and caused the Cyprus tragedy.

Despite consecutive crises and disappointments, despite the exploitation of the symbol by terrorists and other frauds, the November 17 anniversary honors the young women and men who fell into the fire for democracy. The beauty of sacrifice for the common good illuminates the past 50 years, joining the bright chain of moments when the desire for freedom and justice overcame fear, habit and inertia. 

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