Fall of an Empire

The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat

by Ryszard Kapuscinski, translated by William R. Brand and 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…

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