Professor Norbert Frei, a German contemporary historian, in his recent visit to Australia talked about guilt and responsibility, about how nations deal with a painful past, how the past weigh on a nation’s collective memory and the impact of personal narratives.
The salient point was that the absence of a direct link to the past means having to move from experiencing the past, through the personal narratives of contemporaries, to learning about the past from history. Professor Frei was talking about Germany but his analysis can apply to any nation.
Thirty five years after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, Frei’s words about differentiating between guilt and responsibility are a timely reminder of why knowledge of the facts, a critical approach to the past and self-understanding are essential in strengthening a sense of identity especially in younger generations.
If the views expressed in a recent article in NKEE examining the relevance of the 74 invasion for young Cypriot-Australians are representative of the majority of youth, Professor Frei’s words should sound the alarm bell among community leaders.
Attitudes must be re-examined especially by those in positions of authority who pay lip service to their responsibility to the younger generation; by those who 35 years after an ultimate act of violence against a nation’s sovereignty still turn a blind eye to the bigger picture; and by those who, while locked in acrimonious politics, often driven by personal agendas, lament the youth’s lack of interest.
Community leaders should face up to the fact that the past cannot be micromanaged.
There is minimal discussion within the Cypriot community about their recent history and although it is understandable that painful memories still linger on, the healing process will take even longer if responsibility is avoided and guilt is allowed to multiply by the lack of dialogue and continuing mutual blame.
It is this attitude that has alienated a good proportion of young people- not their lack of interest in matters of justice.
More importantly, it is this attitude that breeds ignorance and apathy.
What good can come out of a nation that ignores its history? What purpose does it serve? Community leaders should ponder on these questions and take responsibility.
Tony Kyriakou, Vice-President of the Cypriot Community, in his speech during the recent commemorations stressed: “Our parents should tell us what happened.”
His plea needs to be responded to in a meaningful way.
There is still a direct link to the past. People who lived through certain periods in our history are invaluable sources of learning, examining and understanding the past.
Their personal narratives form a powerful link to a critical approach of past events.
They can offer insights into issues of identity and purpose.
They can illuminate the meaning of principles such as dignity and national pride.
These links need to be utilised before they disappear for ever.
Last year the Cypriot community hosted the visit of Rogiros Siipilis, ex-EOKA fighter, on the anniversary of the anti-colonial struggle 1955-59. Mr Siipilis was an eyewitness to the Turkish invasion.
A father of two preschool children, holidaying with his family at a beach outside Kyreneia, he was captured, imprisoned in Adana and returned to Cyprus with the exchange of prisoners.
How many young people -and indeed how many in the community – took the opportunity to hear Mr Siipilis’ story?
How many were given the opportunity to ask him questions? Unfortunately, that opportunity was lost.
His experiences would have contributed to learning about past events in context and in relation to what took place before and after the historical period in question. He is one of those people who are the living link between the present and the past.
Maybe it’s time to revisit professor Frei’s words: “Only if you acknowledge responsibility and only if you are prepared to learn about the past you are able to free yourself from the burden of this past. In that sense you can differentiate between the history of your country, where you are from, the history of your people and your personal history.”
Dina Gerolymou is a freelance writer and broadcaster. Podcasts of Rogiros Siipilis and Professor Norbert Frei are available on the SBS Radio’s website.