Sunday, 30 May 2021

Christopher Hitchens: why Cyprus matters to me

Above is a clip from a much longer interview with Christopher Hitchens from 2007 done on CSPAN in which the Anglo-American author and journalist reviews his life and work. For a couple of minutes, Hitchens also talks about Cyprus after having been asked about his seminal book on Turkey’s invasion and occupation of the island, Cyprus: Hostage to History, and responds to the interviewer’s question as to why Cyprus is important to him.

It’s worth pointing out that Hitchens’ book on Cyprus didn’t entirely emerge after the events of 1974 but that he had been regularly writing on the island’s travails for many years previously, with his articles on the international or geopolitical context appearing in the New Left Review and the New Statesman.

From early on, from before the Athens junta’s coup and Turkey’s invasion, Hitchens understood what was at stake in Cyprus and that this was that a small, democratic country, trying to chart its way out of centuries of colonial rule, was having its independence thwarted and its sovereignty and territorial integrity challenged, by a swathe of malign external actors: America paranoid about the island becoming communist, a Cuba in the Mediterranean, an Orientalist loathing for the ‘red priest’ Makarios; the UK, indulging America’s irrational fears in order to appear relevant while at the same time serving its own post-colonial interests and resentments; Turkey, which had been persuaded in the 1950s that Cyprus was a vital national matter and that it could revive its power and prestige by annexing part of the island; and Greece, or more properly the Greek junta, in power since 1967, which dressed itself in Greek nationalist uniform but in reality when it came to Cyprus, sharing the American obsession with communism and hatred for President Makarios, and wanting to come to an arrangement with Turkey over how to partition the island.

For many students of Turkey’s invasion and occupation of Cyprus, Hitchens’ understanding of what happened in 1974 almost goes without saying. However, in recent years, his narrative has been challenged.

Thus, you have Perry Anderson’s brilliant essay on Cyprus – The Divisions of Cyprus – which, while concurring with Hitchens in placing Cyprus in a geopolitical, neo-colonial context, gives more emphasis to Britain’s role in Cyprus’ demise than Hitchens, who stresses the part played by America and, in particular, the machinations and crude plotting of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

However, there has been another trend in Cyprus problem literature, which comes from authors such as James Ker-Lindsay and Andreas Constandinos, which seeks to minimise the role of external actors in bringing down the Republic of Cyprus and, instead, portrays the island’s fate as deriving from a collapse in relations between the island’s Greek majority and Turkish Cypriot minority.

In this reading of Turkey’s invasion and occupation, the Greek Cypriots, as the more powerful, majority community are blamed for not trying to make the 1960 constitution work, remaining wedded to Greek nationalism and for its overbearing attitude to the Turkish Cypriots and their concerns.

Funnily enough, the fractured community relations narrative that ends up pointing the finger of blame for Cyprus’ partition at Greek Cypriots is shared by the island's imperial nemeses, Britain, America and Turkey.

In Britain’s case, the narrative allows Britain to excuse itself from responsibility for what happened to the island, portraying itself, from the 1950s onwards, as an honest broker, caught in the middle of Greek and Turkish nationalism, the primitive and engrained hatred Greek and Turkish Cypriots have for each other. All morally superior Britain could do as the Greek and Turkish Cypriots engaged in mutual slaughter was try its best to keep it all to a minimum. For America, these old world ethnic hostilities represent everything their post-ethnic country stands against and this contempt for petty Cypriot attitudes allowed it to justify its arrogance and cynicism and brush aside the dark fate that befell Cypriots as something they had coming.

As for Turkey, the narrative of irreconcilable warring communities is particularly convenient, since Turkey has spent 50 years trying to convince international public opinion that its invasion was inspired by a humanitarian desire to protect the outnumbered Turkish Cyprus from Greek Cypriot aggression.

When we consider the Cyprus narratives favoured by Britain, Turkey and America, their attempt, one way or another, to reduce the Cyprus issue to one of failed relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, we see how vital Hitchens’ interventions on Cyprus remain – how important his insistence that the island’s division is seen in a geopolitical context and that all interpretations otherwise are naive, tainted by neo-colonial conceit and prejudice or are politically motivated.