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Fall of an Empire

The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat

by Ryszard Kapuscinski, translated by William R. Brand, by Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand
A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 164 pp., $12.95

A tiny, very old man sat alone in a silent palace with his valet for company. Outside, where the millennial empire had already collapsed and become—almost in the space of days—a memory as distant as Justinian’s Byzantium, rain fell and fog closed in. Sometimes the King of Kings sat in his office and contemplated his telephones, more than a dozen, which were also silent. Sometimes he went to the chapel where the valet read to him from the Book of Psalms. Finally, there came the morning in 1974 when the tanks came to the palace and three officers in uniform entered to read the act of dethronement. “The Emperor, standing, heard out the officer’s words, and then he expressed his thanks to everyone, stated that the army had never disappointed him, and added that if the revolution is good for the people then he, too, supports the revolution and would not oppose the dethronement.” They took him out and helped him, bewildered, into the back seat of a Volkswagen Beetle, then drove him off to confinement. He died almost a year later.

So ended the monarchy of Haile Selassie, the Abyssinian empire which was already the object of amazement and fantasy in the ancient world. The fearsome terrain and impossible poverty of Ethiopia preserved the empire against external aggression, with the exception of Italy’s two efforts at conquest. Internally, it survived through sheer immobilism. The peasantry lived on the edge of starvation, sometimes pushed over it by recurrent famine; this ensured pious obedience and docility. “Consider also, my dear friend,” said an excourtier to the Polish visitor Ryszard Kapuscinski,

that—between you and me—it is not bad for national order and a sense of national humility that the subjects be rendered skinnier….

How, then, is one to confront this threatening creature that man seems to be, that we all are? How to tame him and daunt him?… There is only one way, my friend: by weakening him. Yes, by depriving him of his vitality, because without it he will be incapable of wrong. And to weaken is exactly what fasting does. Such is our Amharic philosophy….

But this is not simply a history of the fall of the Ethiopian crown. It is something much rarer in our own time: the record of an imperial court, the dying years of a monarchy as they were seen by courtiers. Ryszard Kapuscinski, an adventurous and intelligent Polish journalist and writer, visited Ethiopia several times before the revolution. When Haile Selassie abdicated, Kapuscinski returned—not to praise the progressive achievements of the Mengistu regime, but to risk an undertaking which the revolutionary council would certainly have prevented if they had known about it. Through darkened back streets, avoiding the army patrols, he sought out the old courtiers of the emperor in their hiding places and from their conversations put together this astonishing book.

Courtiers are no longer with us. Their world is already utterly remote, their behavior and instincts almost unimaginable. Yet it is not so long since all European society was run by the courtier system, by kings, princes, and barons each with their retinue of scribes, chamberlains, marshals, grooms, treasurers, valets, and spy masters, each jostling for a mark of favor, a preferment for a nephew, a petty precedence in some ceremony. These servile but powerful communities evolved their own cast of characters, but the classic lickspittles, toadies, and flatterers of old comedy have now passed away with the courts themselves. Only perhaps in the Soviet Union, that vast human-nature reserve, can one still encounter them, carrying their masters’ briefcases and fawning at their feasts.

Through Kapuscinski, they describe their own world for the last time. It was a world of routines as precise as those of Versailles. In the morning, the emperor would walk in his park, while the informers whose task it was to detect conspiracies hatched in the hour of darkness tiptoed behind him and whispered their news over his shoulder. His Majesty would listen in silence, while a servant offered him veal to throw to his lions, beef for his leopards. Then came the hour of assignments, conducted in the old palace, the emperor traveling there in one of his twenty-seven limousines. His pillow bearer would be ready to slip a cushion under his feet as he sat down on the throne, so that the legs of this tiny ruler did not dangle in space. This was a skilled task; with seats of the numerous thrones in Addis Ababa and provincial palaces all at different heights, the pillow bearer had in his charge an assortment of cushions of appropriate sizes. Another servant stood with a cloth to wipe the shoes of dignitaries when the emperor’s little dog Lulu urinated on them. Assignments were distributed. Courtiers observed how an assignment changed a man, his figure becoming squarer, his gait slower, grunts replacing normal speech. There followed the hour of the cash box, the hour of the ministers, and so on.

Haile Selassie maintained his authority by keeping the court confused about his intentions and by appointing second-rate personages to supreme positions. These were medieval skills also practiced by the otherwise dissimilar Adolf Hitler. “His Supreme Majesty wanted basic order with a margin of disorder, on which his monarchical gentleness could assert itself.” And “the King of Kings preferred bad ministers…there can only be one sun.” He never wrote anything down, communicating orders in words so vague and a mutter so faint that the minister of the pen had to bend his ear almost to the imperial lips to hear him. He used the cash box with discrimination. “The needs of the bird of paradise…fill every man.” Not corruption but “the slightest shadow of disloyalty” was the unforgivable sin.

In fact, he was quite mean. The largess was often not large at all; the King of Kings would murmur an inaudible sum in the ear of his purse bearer, who then dug into a lambskin purse, filled an envelope with coins, and handed it to the suppliant noble or official kneeling before him. When the suppliant had shuffled backward out of the presence and torn open the envelope, all too often “one could hear the cries of the wretched ingrate.” Naturally, and this was entirely in Haile Selassie’s style, the blame would be put on the purse bearer. “That’s why, when he was executed, I think no one but His Merciful Highness cried for him.” Some of the envelopes, indeed, had proved to be entirely empty.

But this archaic comedy of dependence was nearing its end. Mr. Kapuscinski’s courtiers did not see this decline as any sort of historical or political process, but rather as the result of human errors and impieties. There were portents: the competition among favorites to be taken on the next provincial tour became steadily more desperate, the young returned from universities abroad with blasphemous ideas. A new provincial governor, educated in the United States, used his bribes to build schools and began to distribute uncultivated land to the peasants. “Oh, no! The whole Palace cried out: ‘Oh, no!’ ” And shortly afterward this governor, Germame Neway, and his elder brother General Mengistu Neway, launched a rebellion of the Guard while the emperor was away on a visit to Brazil.

After this, nothing was the same again. The insurgents were defeated by the army, hunted down and horribly lynched by loyal peasants in the woods. Germame killed himself and his brother was hanged. But the King of Kings ordered his lions to be shot for failing to defend the palace against the rebels. None dared look him in the eye for shame. There were purges, betrayals, suspicion, and terror. “New People” were brought into court, rude and provincial creatures who knew nothing but their master’s will. Yet the older courtiers instinctively huddled even closer to the throne. As one memorably said: ‘There was such a fear of the precipice in the Palace that everyone tried to hold on to His Majesty, still not knowing that the whole court—though slowly and with dignity—was sliding toward the edge of the cliff.”

Now Haile Selassie took a course which has proved to be a recipe for disaster on several occasions in this century. He decided to preserve the crown by setting off on a program of breakneck development without corresponding political reforms—more accurately, of development in order to make political reforms unnecessary. Ethiopia was to “catch up.” Foreign contractors flocked in to build bridges and dams, all named after the emperor. New “hours” were instituted: the development hour, the international hour, the army-police hour. And the craze for “development” was naturally accompanied by huge new expenditure on the armed forces: “in our Empire, which contained thirty million farmers and only a hundred thousands soldiers and police, agriculture received one percent of the national budget and the army and police forty percent.” The security services went into overdrive (“ears appeared everywhere”). More and more students were sent overseas for study, returning so radical that the university came to be regarded as an “anti-Palace” of disaffection.

This is the cautionary tale which the Shah of Iran evidently failed to read. But not only the Shah. Kapuscinski’s book was first published in his own country in 1978, two years before the regime of Edward Gierek was overthrown by the Baltic workers’ strikes and the emergence of Solidarity. The Emperor can thus also claim to be an extraordinary prophecy of events in Mr. Kapuscinski’s own country. One of the Addis Ababa courtiers who talked to him could be any of Gierek’s deposed ministers, looking back at their own fatal policies in the Seventies:

Development, they said, is impossible without reform. One should give the peasants land, abolish privileges, democratize society, liquidate feudalism, and free the country from dependence on foreigners…. I ask, how do you reform, how do you reform without everything falling apart? How do you move something without bringing it all tumbling down?

Substitute for the Ethiopian “they” the warning voices of Polish dissidents in the Seventies, and for “feudalism” the “nomenklatura” practice of nominating the Party faithful to all important posts, and every word applies to recent Polish history—from Gierek’s reckless development-without-democracy campaign to the great crisis of 1981, which was really about just that question of how to “move something without bringing it all tumbling down.”

So Mr. Kapuscinski is to be congratulated, not least in his selection of a courtier with insight into a Polish future. Not long after the book was written, Poland’s international debt began its vertical climb and the lines for meat and sugar began to wind round the streets of Warsaw. “To develop and feed everybody simultaneously is also difficult, because where will the money come from?” the courtier wondered. “Nobody runs around the world passing out dollars.” (I remember well, incidentally, that when the explosion of 1980 finally arrived and the government was obliged to sign the series of revolutionary social agreements with the workers, Mr. Kapuscinski coined a phrase that for a few weeks was on the lips of every offical. “In the past, we have learned only from our mistakes. Now we are learning from our experience.” I have brooded on this apothegm ever since, concluding that—especially in a country whose experience consists mostly of its own mistakes and those of other powers—it means nothing whatever.)

Kapuscinski’s own view of Haile Selassie is a rather charitable one. The emperor, he observes, had two images: internationally, he was still the sensitive and gallant ruler who had resisted Mussolini, while at home—to the plotters and their growing band of sympathizers in the “anti-Palace” and the army—he was “a great demagogue and a theatrical paternalist who used words and gestures to mask the corruption and servility of a ruling elite that he had created and coddled. And, as often happens, both these images were correct.” But that handsome first image was now, in the early Seventies, to change. “Shameful disorder crept into the Empire” as some of the basic truths about Ethiopian society were suddenly displayed to the Western world.

In 1973, in the summer,” another old courtier recounts, “a certain Jonathan Dimbleby, a journalist from London television, came to our country.” Dimbleby, who had in the past made “commendable films about His Supreme Majesty,” returned to Europe with a full television report of the current famine.

This unprincipled calumniator pulled the demagogic trick of showing thousands of people dying of hunger, and next to that His Venerable Highness feasting with dignitaries. Then he showed roads on which scores of poor, famished skeletons were lying, and immediately afterward our airplanes bringing champagne and caviar from Europe.

In vain, courtiers explained to the horde of newsmen who now invaded Addis that “death from hunger had existed in our Empire for hundreds of years, an everyday, natural thing.” When explanations did not work, the officials invented ways of keeping the press corps ignorant and restricted to the capital which recall the joys of journalism in the Abyssinian War, as Evelyn Waugh described them in Scoop more than forty years ago.

After Dimbleby, there followed an inrush of aid workers heading for the places stricken with famine. They soon discovered that the major cause of starvation was not crop failure but deliberate hoarding by landowners and speculators—many of them officials. While the court meditated on the dilemma this placed before the emperor, the minister of finance imposed high customs duties on incoming foreign aid for the starving. When the aid agencies and governments suspended shipment in protest, the imperial court was genuinely amazed.

You want to help?” the minister asked. “Please do, but you must pay.” And [the benefactors] said: “What do you mean, pay? We give help! And we’re supposed to pay?” “Yes,” says the minister, “those are the regulations. Do you want to help in such a way that our Empire gains nothing by it?”

Rioting by students in Addis Ababa, conspiracies and even mutinies in the armed forces became more common as the empire slid with gathering speed over the lip of the cliff. In the court, the faction of jailers (those who stood for a harsh restoration of authority) and the faction of talkers (“weak people and philosophizers, who think one should invite the rebels to sit down at a table and talk”) struggled for influence, while the faction of floaters bobbed anxiously to and fro. Yet one courtier recalls this as an almost invigorating period. “For the very reason that the factions appeared and began slinging mud and drawing blood, biting and fighting, grinding their jaws and showing their claws, everything in the Palace came to life for a moment, the old verve returned, and it felt like home again.”

This was in 1974. The army marched into Addis, deposed the government, arrested hundreds of officers loyal to the emperor—but did so in the name of the emperor. Then it began to investigate corruption among dignitaries, and “people disappeared from the Palace every night.” The state radio proclaimed a movement for national renewal led by the army and the police. The moon and Jupiter, “stopping in the seventh and twelfth houses instead of turning in the direction of the triangle, began ominously to form the figure of a square. Accordingly, the Indians who explained the signs at court now fled the Palace….”

On his eighty-second birthday, the King of Kings made his last speech from a rainy palace balcony to a courtyard where no crowd had been allowed to gather. “I can still hear how His Majesty’s voice breaks, and I can see how tears stream down his venerable face. And then, yes, then, for the first time, I thought to myself that everything was really coming to an end.” By September the little old man and his valet were alone in the palace. They stayed up and watched by candlelight through the night of September 11, in observance of the Ethiopian calendar’s New Year’s Eve. The tanks arrived for them at daybreak.

Mr. Kapuscinski’s journey to find the old men who had witnessed the end of their world took him into a pitiable underworld where the courtiers hid and waited for their fate. Many had already been killed, others had vanished or fled. His guide, very much a Virgil to him through this inferno, was Teferra Gebrewold, an old friend who had once worked as an official in the palace; “We were a couple of collectors out to recover pictures doomed to destruction….”

How authentic are those pictures? In Kapuscinski’s rendering, the fallen emperor’s men speak with the periods of Tacitus, the melancholy retrospection of Gibbon. This at least means that the translators from the Polish have performed a marvelous job but does not still a slight doubt whether the courtiers were really so eloquent in the original Amharic. If Kapuscinski did some “shaping” of their testimony, this does not invalidate this sensitive, powerful, and surprisingly merciful book.

Ryszard Kapuscinski has delivered to us what may be the last message from a time when societies did not change, when the life of one generation was the life of the next. Such was the world which these courtiers had lived in until the final decade of the empire. It cannot be said that the final decade taught them very much, either through “mistakes” or “experience.” Their conclusions belong rather to the mind of Tsar Nicholas I, or of Metternich. “That’s where the big mistake was: no movement should have been permitted, since we could exist only in immobility. The more immobile immobility is,” one courtier reflected, “the longer and surer its duration.”

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