By Esra Aygin
The way countries look at their past say a lot about how they envision their future.
Coming from a country where to view the past means selective and dishonest remembering, half-truths and lack of self-criticism are the norm, seeing the way France and Germany handle theirs is both amazing and enviable.
I was in Paris for the Peace Forum on Armistice Day last month. The events organised for the anniversary of the World War I armistice, not only marked 100 years since the end of the war, but brought forward powerful acts of reconciliation between France and Germany.
The two countries, which fought each other mercilessly in not only one, but two world wars, have been able to leave behind their bloody past and build a joint future.
On this year’s Armistice Day, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel jointly visited the site where Germany signed the armistice in 1918, and then Hitler, in an act of revenge, forced France to accept defeat in 1940. It was the first time since 1940 that leaders from France and Germany had met at this historic site. As the French and German national anthems played, the two leaders laid a wreath and unveiled a plaque celebrating the reconciliation between their countries.
Millions of deaths, years of bloodshed, indescribable suffering … yet Macron and Merkel were now hand in hand, commemorating both the French and German victims, condemning nationalism and praising unity.
Their every act, every sentence, every message were lessons in reconciliation, forgiveness and vision.
“I’ve seen where, jumbled together in mass graves, lie the bones of German and French soldiers who, one freezing winter, killed one another for a few metres of ground,” said Macron during his speech. “The lesson of the Great War cannot be that of resentment by one people against others… It’s a rootedness that forces us to think about the future and what is essential.”
On the same day, at the opening of the Paris Peace Forum, Merkel said the two world wars were “examples of the disastrous consequences a lack of compromise in politics and diplomacy can have”.
“It’s anything but self-evident” that Germany and France should have such friendship now, “especially after the suffering that Germans caused to their neighbour, to Europe and the world in two world wars,” she added.
There were no triumphant statements, no valour, no display of military might during the Armistice Day events. No fighter jets circling the skies, no glorification of war and killing, no nationalist slogans. There was no distinction between the victorious and defeated, but a lot of looking at the past, reflecting, reconciling, and moving on with a strong commitment to peace. And a deep respect – regardless of their nationality – for the people, who lost their lives in past wars.
Watching them, I couldn’t help but think: When will we, in Cyprus, ever be able to commemorate all the Turkish Cypriot, Greek Cypriot, Armenian, Maronite, Latin victims of our war? When will we ever be able to feel the same pain for each and every one who lost their lives, got wounded, displaced and suffered, regardless of their ethnic background? When will we finally see the human behind the ethnicity that has blinded us? When will we ever be able to look at the past and see our own mistakes too? When will we ever be able to remember all – not half of our history – and articulate what the past should mean for the future? When will we finally reconcile with our past and start looking forward? Say ‘never again’, instead of ‘I won’t forget.’ And when will we ever be able to condemn nationalism?
“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism,” Macron said in his speech on Armistice Day. “In saying ‘our interests first, and who cares about the rest’ you wipe out what’s most valuable about a nation: its moral values.”
Macron was talking about the same nationalism that we, in this country, take pride in, glorify and celebrate! The same nationalism that made brothers turn against each other and tore this country apart? The same nationalism that created Eoka B and TMT; that invited the coup d’etat and the invasion. The same nationalism that we systematically poison our school children with. The same nationalism that makes us hate people we don’t even know.
He was talking about the same nationalism that wants to close the crossing points and attacks Turkish Cypriot cars. The same nationalism that legitimises usurping other people’s properties and draw huge flags on mountains. The same nationalism that makes us believe to our cores that it is okay to close off entire towns and deny people their streets, memories, cemeteries. The same nationalism that has taken away our sense of shame.
The same nationalism that makes us believe that only our suffering, pain and fear is legitimate. The same nationalism that has convinced us that the “other” is insignificant.
Macron was talking about the same nationalism that makes us want to fight rather than compromise, prefer the dangerous unknown to reconciliation, go for permanent partition rather than a united Cyprus.
He was talking about the same nationalism that we have praised or at least tolerated to the point of legitimising and mainstreaming the far-right, fascist ideologies in this country. The far-right and fascist ideologies that have brought nothing but hell to the places they nestled.
When will we ever learn?