Thursday, 11 November 2021

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



In this the second part of the serialisation of Christopher Hitchens’ Cyprus: Hostage to History, I’m posting the Preface to the original edition of the book, which appeared in 1984. Even now, almost 40 years after publication of this work and 50 years after the events it describes, Hitchens’ take on Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus still has the ability to take the breath away for its lucidity, truth and anger at the injustice that befell and continues to befall the island.

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

Ten years ago, the Republic of Cyprus was attacked by one member of NATO and invaded and partitioned by another. Since 1948, and the period of armed truce which that year inaugurated in Europe, no member of either opposing alliance had actually sought to change the boundaries of an existing state. The Soviet Union had sent its troops into Hungary and Czechoslovakia and retained political control over Poland and the other Warsaw Pact nations by its understood readiness to use force. But those nations retain their integrity as countries, whatever political indignities they may endure. The Western powers, also, have agreed to respect existing European borders even when, as in the case of Ireland, one party regards the demarcation as historically unjust. 


Only in one case has a member of either post-war bloc succeeded in redrawing the map. Turkey, by its invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and its subsequent occupation of the northern third of the island, has finally (if not legally or morally) created a new political entity. It has done so in the face of much Western criticism, but also with considerable Western assist­ance. It is commonplace to say that the resulting situation is a threat to peace in the eastern Mediterranean. It is equally commonplace to hear that it has brought peace, of a kind, to Cyprus. Both of these opinions, or impressions, miss the point. The first statement would make the island a mere intersection on the graph of differences between Greece and Turkey. The second is an unoriginal echo of Tacitus’s ‘Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem apellant' – ‘They make a desert, and they call it peace.’ Tacitus, through the reported speech of Calgacus, was at least attempting to be ironic. 

These two pseudo-realist interpretations have to compete in popularity with a third, which might be called the liberal or bien-pensant view. It is most pithily summarized by Ms Nancy Crawshaw, at the conclusion of her voluminous but not exhaustive book The Cyprus Revolt. Ms Crawshaw, who reported Cyprus for the Guardian in the 1950s and 1960s, ends her narrative like this: ‘In Cyprus itself the Turkish invasion marked the climax of the struggle for union with Greece which had begun more than one hundred years earlier. The Greek Cypriots had paid dearly in the cause of enosis: in terms of human suffering the cost to both communities was beyond calculation.’ 

Here, pseudo-realism is replaced by pseudo-humanitarianism. We are all (it goes without saying) sorry for the victim. But it is, we very much regret to say, the victim’s fault. 

All these consoling explanations make it easier for those responsible to excuse themselves and for the rest of the world to forget about Cyprus. But such a loss of memory would be unpardonable. It would mean forgetting about the bad and dangerous precedent that has been set by invasion; by a larger power suiting itself by altering geography and demography. It would mean overlooking the aspiration of a European people to make a passage from colonial rule to sovereignty in one generation. And it would mean ignoring an important example, afforded by Cyprus, of the way in which small countries and peoples are discounted or disregarded by the superpowers (and, on occasion, by liberal commentators).

The argument of this book is that the Turkish invasion was not ‘the climax of the struggle for union with Greece’, but the outcome of a careless and arrogant series of policies over which Cypriots had little or no control. The conventional picture, of a dogged and narrow battle of Greek against Turk, has become, with further and better knowledge, simplistic and deceptive. 

Only four years after they had painfully achieved independ­ence, the Cypriots became the victims of a superpower design for partition. This partition reflected only the strategic require­ments of outside powers, and did not conform to any local needs. The economy of Cyprus, with its distribution of water resources and agriculture, makes partition an absurdity. So does, or did, the distribution of population. And there is certainly no room for two machineries of state, unless at least one of them is imposed by another country. The imposition of partition necessitated the setting of Greek against Turk, and Greek against Greek. As I will show, strenuous efforts were made in that direction. They maximized all the possible disadvantages, and led to dire results for Greece and Turkey as well as for Cyprus. 

If one were to attempt a series of conjectures on Cyprus, they might read something like this: 

1. Cyprus is, by population and by heritage, overwhelmingly Greek. But it has never been part of Greece. 

2. Cyprus has a Turkish minority, but was ruled by Turkey for three centuries. 

3. The proportion of Greeks to Turks in Cyprus is four to one, approximately the inverse of the proportion of mainland Greeks to mainland Turks. The distance between Cyprus and Greece is more than ten times the distance between Cyprus and Turkey. 

4. Cyprus is the involuntary host to three NATO armies, none of which has been sufficient to protect it from aggression. 

5. The Cypriots are the only Europeans to have undergone colonial rule, guerrilla war, civil war and modern technological war, on their own soil, since 1945. 

6. Cyprus is the last real test of British post-imperial policy; a test that has so far resulted in a succession of failures. 

7. Cyprus was the site, and the occasion, of perhaps the greatest failure of American foreign policy in post-war Europe. 

8. Cyprus was critical in the alternation of military and democratic rule in both Greece and Turkey. 

What follows is not designed to make the Cyprus drama appear any simpler. But it is designed to challenge the obfuscations which, by purporting to make it simple, have, often deliberately, made it impossible to understand. 

The axis of the-book is the summer of 1974; the months of July and August, during which Cyprus was dismembered as an independent republic. I describe how the policies of four countries – Britain, Greece, Turkey and the United States – contributed to the 1974 catastrophe. I then describe how that catastrophe affected, in their turn, those four states. It will be for the reader to judge whether, in the light of what follows, it is fair to blame the current plight of Cyprus on the shortcomings of its inhabitants. 

Washington, D.C. January 1984 

Read all parts of the serialisation here: