Passionate Purposes

Keith Kyle

  • Cyprus by Christopher Hitchens
    Quartet, 192 pp, £8.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 7043 2436 9
  • The Cyprus Dispute and the Birth of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus by Necati Ertekun
    K. Rustem, Nicosia, PO Box 239, Lefkosa, via Mersin 10, Turkey, 507 pp, £12.50

There used to be a type of book known as the ‘Secret History’ of some international problem. With some passion, extensive citation of material, and a somewhat self-regarding manner, such books made it apparent that there was a great deal in the way of conspiracy and intrigue that ought to be told. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt was a great practitioner of the art in the last century and in this short, sparkling and committed essay Christopher Hitchens writes in somewhat the same tradition. He is a radical British journalist living in the United States who is married to a Greek Cypriot and has an understanding of and love for this unfortunately-placed island. For him, enjoyment of the great beauty of Cyprus, Aphrodite’s putative birthplace, is spoiled by recollection of the ugly things done there during the last thirty years, and he writes in hot refutation of the message he sees in Nancy Crawshaw’s major study The Cyprus Revolt – that it was primarily the victim’s fault. What he calls the axis of his book is the summer of 1974 when a Turkish invasion transformed the demography of the island – a third of the 80 per cent Greek population of Cyprus abandoning their homes in the north and about half of the 18 per cent Turkish population heading from the south to the north. For this, Hitchens maintains, four countries – Britain, Greece, Turkey and the United States – are principally to blame.

The argument, though attractive, is somewhat artificial. The passionate purpose of the majority on Cyprus to become Greek citizens rather than independent Cypriots meant that Greece could scarcely be regarded as, in any true sense, an intruder. It was this demand that had held back political advance during British colonial rule; and Cyprus’s independence as a binational state with an immutable constitution was the price that had to be paid for the island’s geostrategic location: just off two major Turkish harbours and five hundred miles from mainland Greece. Any reasonable calculation by the Greek Cypriots of their own self-interest at the time of independence might have suggested the need to show in anything affecting the Turks an extra degree of circumspection. This they manifestly failed to do. Most of them regarded the affirmative action and quotas that were written into the constitution in favour of the Turkish community as preposterous and they chose a very early moment to propose their abolition. It is a tribute to Hitchens’s wish to be fair, while writing a polemic, that he substantially refutes his preface in the last few pages of his conclusion. ‘The Turks who were a minority but whose leaders talked as a majority were economic inferiors,’ he says: but Greek Cypriots in power begrudged resources to this under-privileged community. And they failed to take sufficient note of the fact that although the Turks are a minority in Cyprus, ‘they are a Turkish minority,’ which makes them ‘the heirs of a very strong and distinct national identity’. The Makarios Government, Hitchens points out, failed to govern Cyprus in ways that reflected these realities. He thinks the presence of a Greek ethnarch as head of state made it that much more difficult for the Turkish Cypriots to identify with the new order, and recalls that Archbishop Makarios had told him that his greatest error was in permitting Greek military forces to establish themselves permanently on the island.

It is true that Cyprus’s history has been heavily influenced by external circumstances. As the colonial power, Britain could if she had so wished have handed Cyprus over to Greece without effective Turkish opposition at the end of either of the world wars. In 1921 Count Sforza, the Italian Foreign Minister, offered to give up Rhodes if Britain would simultaneously yield Cyprus; and in 1945 the Foreign Office strongly recommended the transfer of Cyprus to strengthen the position of the Athens Government. The move was blocked by the Colonial Office and the Chiefs of Staff, leading Sir Oliver Harvey, Deputy Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, to comment two years later: ‘When the Greeks in desperation turn to the methods of the Irish, the Jews, the Hindus, and the Egyptians, then, I suspect, the British people will rise and compel the Government to evacuate.’

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