Friday, 5 November 2021

1. Cyprus: Hostage to History, by Christopher Hitchens: why it remains relevant



One of the most distressing aspects of Turkey’s invasion and occupation of Cyprus is the prevalence of the narrative that suggests that the depredations that were inflicted on the Greek population of the island in 1974 were somehow deserved. 

The Greek Cypriots, the story goes, driven by a fanatical Greek nationalism and an in-built diachronic enmity towards the hapless Turkish minority, who they oppressed and mistreated, got their final comeuppance in 1974 after engineering a coup to fulfil their dream of union with Greece, a union that would have resulted in the elimination of the Turkish Cypriots and which, naturally, prompted Turkey to invade to protect its ethnic kin. 

This is not only a caricature of what happened in Cyprus – it doesn’t take much (colonialist and racist) thinking to blame the island’s problems on primitive ethnic tensions and, even worse, on its victims – it also happens to coincide with the tale the three countries most responsible for Cyprus’ partition, Britain, America and, especially, Turkey, want to tell to conceal their nefarious roles in the island’s fate. 

(A version of this narrative can be seen in Jonathan Dimbleby’s This Week report for Thames TV on the second phase of Turkey’s invasion, which began on 14 August 1974. A better This Week documentary was made in 1976 [see here], which describes the ethnic cleansing and colonisation of Turkish-occupied Cyprus – with scenes from the village of Yialousa – before allowing Turkish Cypriots to make their wild claims of mistreatment between 1963 and 1974). 

Having visited Cyprus for years before the Athens’ junta’s coup and the Turkish invasion and producing numerous articles, particularly for the New Statesman and the New Left Review, Christopher Hitchens was already dismissing the ‘intractable ethnic conflict’ narrative deployed to justify partition and denouncing the real source of instability and conflict on the island, i.e. the machinations of external powers in Cyprus, whose aim was the destruction of the Republic of Cyprus, removing, one way or another, its democratically elected president, Archbishop Makarios, and imposing partition. 

Challenging the ‘Cypriots-had-it-coming’ and the ‘Turkish Cypriots needed protecting’ alibis that accompanied Turkey’s invasion of the island and have excused the occupation ever since, is why, according to Hitchens, he wrote Cyprus: Hostage to History. The first edition came out in 1984 and the second edition in 1989. 

Although Perry Anderson in his superb essay, The Divisions of Cyprus, has produced a compelling account of Cyprus’ downfall, which lays the primary blame on British colonial and post-colonial policy, Hitchens’ account of the role of America and in particular the malevolent secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who Hitchens regards, for numerous global misdemeanours, as a war criminal, remains the most convincing explanation of the calamities that befell Cyprus. 

Cyprus: Hostage to History has been out of print for a long time and used copies are rare and expensive. Thus, as a public service, I will be reprinting the book, chapter by chapter, in the following weeks. 

The first part is from the Preface to the Second Edition


1. Cyprus: Hostage to History, by Christopher Hitchens. Preface to the Second Edition.

In January 1986, the National Gallery of Art in Washington held a special showing of Titian’s extraordinary painting The Flaying of Marsyas. Those who know the picture, which is seven feet in height and full of detail, will know that its centerpiece is a patient creature, suspended upside down and pinioned while a cruel knife does its worst. Accompanying the exhibit was a short monograph by Sydney J. Freedberg, Chief Curator of the National Gallery, who put forward a new and persuasive theory of the painting’s provenance. 

According to Freedberg, the theme of the painting (a flay­ing), the date of the painting (shortly before Titian’s death in 1576), certain details in the action (a Phrygian cap, symbolizing Turkey in antiquity) and the place where the painting was executed (Venice) make it clear that Titian’s subject was Cy­prus. In 1571 the Venetian empire suffered one of its greatest humiliations with the fall of the Cypriot city of Famagusta to the Turks. The Venetian commander of the besieged garrison, Marcantonio Bragadin, had surrendered to the Turkish gen­eral Lala Mustafa under a safe-conduct. But no sooner had he done so than he was put to death with revolting sadism, which culminated in his being flayed alive and his skin stuffed with straw as a trophy of conquest. This episode, which has been described by writers as various as Lawrence Durrell and John Julius Norwich, was a terrible shock in its time. It was also, from the Venetian point of view, very poignant. If Bragadin had held out a little longer, he might have been rescued after the shattering of the Turkish fleet at Lepanto. 

As Freedberg puts it: ‘If our assumptions are correct the idea of the Marsyas was born out of the tragedy of Famagusta and the torture of Bragadin, but it was developed in the aftermath of exaltation over Lepanto… Since it was unthinkable in Titian’s aes­thetic that it could be depicted as a historical occurrence, it had to be represented by analogue, and the flaying of Mar­syas was ready to hand.’ 

The allegory, it occurred to me as I stood in front of the picture, could be extended. If one took the figure of Marsyas as Cyprus, it was only too easy to sustain the image of a defenseless island being hacked about by callous invaders and conquerors. And, if one bore in mind Titian’s ambivalence about the relationship of timing to deliverance, the awful history of the island’s wrong turns and missed opportunities came all too easily into focus. 

I wrote this book in a fit of bad temper in order to com­memorate the tenth anniversary of the 1974 invasion of Cyprus. The elapse of another five years has done nothing to sweeten the memory. There seems every chance that Cyprus will join that roster of post-colonial partitions – Ireland, Palestine, the Indian sub-continent – which set so dispiriting a precedent. My concern in 1984 was to make it clear that Cyprus, like Marsyas, was the victim of imperial caprice and cynicism rather than of its own undoubted internal deficiencies as a state and as a society. Since the appearance of the book, I have been the recipient of a large number of thoughtful and useful letters. I have also been invited to test my argument in a number of public and private exchanges. Finally, the grudging flow of official disclosure has borne the odd document and revelation downstream. What follows is my update upon the original text, which here appears as I first wrote it. My emendations follow the order of the chapter and subject headings. 

First, I owe something of an apology to Lawrence Durrell. I described his celebrated book Bitter Lemons as ‘colonial’ in style, and I don’t resign my position. But in an interview with the Aegean Review in the fall of 1987, Mr Durrell said the following to a small audience that I would like to enlarge. Speaking of British policy, he said: ‘But I’ve been progressively disgusted with our double- facedness in politics over situations like the Greek situation. Remember I’ve worked as an official in Cyprus on that dis­gusting situation which was entirely engineered by us, do you see?’ 

That Mr Durrell was speaking truly in this respect is confirmed by a series of recent disclosures. Two of these appear in pre­pared and recorded interviews, broadcast by Granada Tele­vision in Britain in June 1984 under the title Cyprus: Britain’s Grim Legacy. The first interview was with Orhan Eralp of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, who recalled that very early in the Cypriot revolt against colonial rule: ‘Michael Stewart, who was then I think charge d’affaires of the British Embassy at the time, called on me at the Foreign Ministry and he pointed out the fact that this question of Cyprus was getting out of hand, the big movement for enosis, the union with Greece, what was Turkey going to do about it?… I think the British government hoped that the Turks would take an interest in this to form a sort of balance.’ 

Stewart was not acting in a merely improvised fashion. Tur­key might very well have given up all claims to Cyprus under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, and might even have considered repatriating Cypriot Turks by emigration, but the Colonial Office knew the value of divide and rule even then. In a minute dated 21 May 1929, A. J. Dawe, principal clerk of the Cyprus department of the Colonial Office, observed that ‘the presence of the Turkish community is an asset from a political stand­ point.’ Updated to the realities of the 1950s, this meant that Britain would treat Cyprus as an ‘internal matter’ if the issue was raised by Greece, the United Nations or the United States. But it would always view with favor – and even solicit – a Turk­ish intrusion, because this would counterbalance the demands of the anti-colonial majority. 

Elsewhere in the same transmitted series of interviews came an astonishing confirmation of something long suspected. On 7 June 1958 a bomb exploded at the Information Office of the Turkish Consulate in Nicosia. Turkish Cypriots promptly burned out a neighboring district of Greek shops and homes, in what was to be the first Greek-Turkish physical confrontation on the island. British soldiers seized the chance to in­tervene, in the name of law and order, to keep the two sides apart. A curfew was imposed, and Greek guerrillas blamed for the bomb as they were for everything else. But here is the testimony of Rauf Denktash, given with a smile in 1984: ‘Later on, a friend of mine, whose name will still be kept a secret, was to confess to me that he had put this little bomb in that doorway in order to create an atmosphere of ten­sion so that people would know that Turkish Cypriots mattered.’ 

This casual confession, on the part of the self-proclaimed Pres­ident of the Turkish State of North Cyprus, created anguish among Turkish Cypriots. One of them, Kutlu Adali, said in the newspaper Ortam that for years official propaganda had laid this ignition of intercommunal violence at the door of the Greeks, and yet ‘after this bomb incident many innocent Turks and Greek Cypriots died, many persons were wounded and crippled and thus for the first time the separation of Turks and Greeks by barbed wire was secured and the non-solution ex­tending to our own days was created.’ 

Bear in mind that the Turkish claim is that peaceful coex­istence is impossible because of intercommunal hatred. See also the analogue of this provocation in the case of Istanbul as cited on pages 45-6. 

The counterpart and consequence of ‘divide and rule’ during the colonial period was, naturally enough, partition when that period came to an end. In early 1964, the British government decided, as so often, to invite the United States to shoulder responsibility. In a State Department document headed Secret – Limited Distribution and dated 25 January 1964, I found the minutes of a fateful discussion on Cyprus, attended by Secre­tary of Defense Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Tay­lor, among others. Let me quote the crucial paragraphs: 

‘Acting Secretary [George] Ball opened the meeting with a summation of his discussion this morning with Ambassador David Ormsby-Gore. He noted that the Ambassador had referred to the failure of the London talks on Cyprus to get off the ground, the lack of a responsible attitude on the part of Greek and Turkish forces on Cyprus, etc. The Ambassador had then stated that for predominantly political rea­sons the British could no longer assume responsibility for the maintenance of law and order on Cyprus without outside assistance if fighting broke out. 

‘Acting Secretary Ball continued his summation by stating that the UK had proposed the introduction into Cyprus of an allied force composed of contingents from several NATO nations including the US. The force would move into Cyprus at the invitation of [Cypriot President] Makarios and with the prior agreement of the Governments of Greece and Turkey. However, we now have a report that Makarios has rejected the proposal which probably was raised with him by the Greeks. If an allied force were introduced into Cyprus without Makarios’ agreement, he would refer the matter to the UN. Accordingly, the problem is one of how to force Makarios to agree to the introduction of peace-keeping forces.’ [italics mine]

We next encounter George Ball in the reminiscences of Lieu­tenant Commander Martin Packard, a Greek-speaking Fleet Intelligence Officer who was sent by the British to Cyprus in 1963. His mission was to be a village-level liaison between Greek and Turkish civilians, a mission in which he had con­siderable success and earned himself numerous commendations. Packard’s assumption was that British policy favored the maintenance of a unitary state in conformity with British treaty obligations and with the wishes of the large majority. He was shocked, when flying George Ball around the island in February 1964, to be told: ‘You’ve got it wrong son. There’s only one solutionjto this island and that’s partition.’ Thus the views of an American proconsul, formed from a helicopter on his first visit. Packard has since written (in The Manchester Guardian of 2 April 1988): 

‘At the time of my own involvement the maintenance of the Sovereign Base Areas and other military facilities was deemed of paramount importance by the British and Amer­ican governments, and their advisors certainly thought that this aim would more easily be achieved in a divided Cyprus than in a cohesive unitary state.’ 

In fact, not content with thwarting Packard’s attempts at grass-roots conciliation, the Ball faction directed aid to those forces in Cyprus who, for chauvinist reasons, had an interest in fomenting intercommunal violence. An unchallenged Wash­ington Post report of 4 August 1977 confirms what I have established from confidential sources – that the Central Intelligence Agency was channeling funds to the Greek Cypriot extremist and Turk-hater Polycarpos Georgadjis, so that he might conduct what was euphemistically called ‘anti- Communist warfare’. These new findings amplify my discussion of Mr Ball’s role on pages 58-9. 

Advancing through the years of the Greek junta to the coup and the invasion of 1974, there is little to add. An exhaustive inquiry by the Greek Parliament and numerous independent investigations have made it clear beyond doubt that an attack on Cyprus was long meditated and well planned by the junta’s high command, and that only those who absolutely refused to see this could maintain even the semblance of ignorance. An accidentally interesting example of the required denial, or cog­nitive dissonance, is given by Field Marshal Lord Carver, for­mer Chief of Defence Staff, in his 1986 contribution to the collection Cyprus in Transition: ‘In spite of the implication in Christopher Hitchens’s book Cyprus that the British govern­ment knew in advance that a coup against Makarios, instigated by the Greek government of Colonels, was imminent, no such evidence was available to the British Ministry of Defence or to Air Marshal Aiken, the commander of the British forces in the base areas. I very much doubt if it was available either to the Foreign Office.’ As the reader of pages 91-2 of the ensuing will discover, I made no such ‘implication’. Rather, I stated directly that the British government knew of the Greek junta’s expansionist design on the island and had decided in advance that, whenever this design might be activated, Britain would not oppose it. Describing the chaos that resulted from the actual coup in July 1974, the good Field Marshal innocently records a couple of pages later on that he and Aiken, having found Makarios still alive, had decided to get him off the island. 

‘If the British government disapproved of this, the aircraft could always return. I was unable to get any ruling from the Foreign Office, as ministers were busy discussing all the implications and were not over-keen on receiving Makarios in London.’ [italics mine]

Now, why on earth was that? The Field Marshal, in a rather unsoldierly way, seems determined to create a mystery where none exists. So was Foreign Secretary Callaghan, as described on pages 136-8. 

Turkish ambitions on Cyprus, conventionally expressed in terms of the need to protect the minority on the island, have since 1984 been laid out with slightly less hypocrisy. There was no talk of the Turkish minority in 1941, when Turkey offered to abandon its pro-Axis neutrality in favor of Britain in return for the Dodecanese islands, including Rhodes, and Cyprus. (Similar ambitions were also made plain to the Axis powers.) And there was no talk of the Turkish minority when I met Professor Mumtaz Soysal, constitutional advisor to Rauf Denktash, in Istanbul in March of 1988. In the presence of witnesses, he told me that the Turkish military presence in Cyprus was a matter of the protection of southern Turkey – a strategic ques­tion, not a humanitarian one. Innumerable other examples, some of them given in the ensuing chapters, show that Turkey has always viewed Cyprus as a target of opportunity, and has not always troubled to pretend otherwise. The pretense is barely necessary in any case, since the Anglo-American alliance has only intermittently put its preference for partition in phrases that suggest a concern for minority rights. Auden’s acid lines on the partition of India are truer to the case: 

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission. 
Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition. 
Between two peoples fanatically at odds, 
With their different diets and incompatible gods

The poem ends with the administrator’s return to the colonial metropole, ‘where he quickly forged the case, as a good lawyer must.’ I hope that this little book is a partial antidote to some at least of the many forgeries that are current about this latest partition, which necessitated the incitement of fanaticism rather than the conciliation of it. Poor Marsyas may have lost a wager with Apollo, but at least he never had to hear that the flaying was all his fault, or all for his own good. 

Washington, D.C. 
November 1988

Read all parts of the serialisation here:

2. Cyprus: Hostage to History, by Christopher Hitchens. Preface to the First Edition.

3. Cyprus: Hostage to History, by Christopher Hitchens. Introduction.