Ryszard Kapuscinski - The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat

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King Selassie's Court Tells the Tale

Jul 18, 2005
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:gets into some of the whys the fall occurred

Cons:too much hearsay, not enough of Kapuscinski's own analysis

The Bottom Line: Interesting views on the fall of an emperor


My knowledge of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie has always been limited. Most of my familiarity with the name is due to an interest in reggae music. Rastafarians view King Selassie as the incarnation of God. That always seemed strange to me as my limited knowledge did extend to the fact that Selassie allowed millions of his people die of starvation.

The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski is an account of Selassie's reign as told by members of his court. I have already reviewed Kapuscinski's book Shah of Shahs which covered the fall of Shah Pahlavi. I found that book pretty interesting so I decided to pick up a copy of The Emperor. I was hoping for a little insight into this God of Gods and supreme ruler of a country.

I did find what I was looking for although the book is flawed. I don't really think Kapuscinski executes this book nearly as well as Shah of Shahs. In The Emperor, he does allow former members of Selassie's court reflect on their services for Selassie. This has both good and bad points. It is very good to hear what those close to Selassie had to say but there is not enough objective overlay on the part of Kapuscinski. I would more analysis of what I am being told by the former court members.

The Emperor is divided into three sections. The first section is called the throne. Here we are given a little background history into the Ethiopian throne and how Selassie came to reign. There is also a bit of background on the powers held by the emperor and how he delegated responsibilities to his court. Selassie according to those close to him had a photogenic memory and didn't write things down. Many of the delegates and ministers in his court could be dubbed spies for lack of a better word. They often dimed out their fellow ministers in hopes of gaining favor with Selassie.

Kapuscinski begins the section with an italicized briefing on Selassie's court. The italicized portions of the book represent Kapuscinski's own writing. Then he allows different servants and delegates tell the tale in their own way. They use initials rather than real names. The book was written in 1983 so there was likely still potential risk for them to openly reveal their identities.

This again has both good and bad points. I found it intriguing how many of the servants continued to refer to Selassie as his Most Exalted Majesty or King of Kings. They were either harboring some trepidation for his return or felt some deep level of affection for Selassie. They do get into the way Selassie maneuvered people. He would hold sessions in the Audience Hall where he would delegate assignments to his ministers. The spying of ministers also allowed Selassie to keep a stranglehold on his court.

The opening section also includes a lot of the protocol in the Ethiopian empire. Ministers would be required to kiss Selassie's hand before asking a favor or making a request for assignment. The servants reveal how Selassie intentionally picked a lot of bad ministers. This was done to make himself look better. When things went wrong, it was easier to pin the blame on the minister and then he could appear to be the hero rectifying the situation.

There were some interesting tidbits in the first section. Selassie was a short man and so when he sat on thrones his feet often would not reach the floor. There was one servant whose job was simply to make sure the right footstool was there so there would never be the appearance of Selassie's feet off the ground. There are numerous little details that lend a human touch to the tale.

The second section of the book is called It's Coming! It's Coming!. This section delves into the issues that led to the fall. There was a lot of poverty and many in Ethiopia were starving. Selassie became convinced that Ethiopia needed development. This was based on his ventures out of the country. He felt that Ethiopia would eventually have to become more modern and placed a premium on development and progress. This development was to be given precedence even over the well being of the people.

Many of the servants discuss how one of the things that really hurt the Emperor's throne was sending so many students abroad for education. These students brought back many crazy ideas learned from these foreign lands. Ethiopia was a country where thought was not encouraged. Reading was also rare. Many students began to stir the pot when they returned to Ethiopia. One of the early rebels was Germame Neway. Selassie sent Neway to America for college but Neway worked behind the scenes privately working to overthrow the monarch. The students began to think and call for change.

Many of the servants and ministers in the palace remained loyal to Selassie right up to the end. They discuss how Selassie attempted to keep many of the countries problems under wraps. It was a British reporter who made the expose on the starving people in Ethiopia. Attention was drawn to wondrous palaces in each region and major city of the country while millions starved. The famine tore the country apart.

The final section of the book is called The Fall. This is a brief section and delves into the final year of Selassie's reign. Many of the servants seem to feel that either Selassie resigned himself to the idea of overthrow or that he remained oblivious to the threats that lay before him. The students began to openly protest and many in the army became disloyal.

The revolutionary forces were known as the Dergue. One of their leaders was Mengistu Haile Miriam. Mengistu would lead the coup and also later serve as Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Servants recall how the Dergue began as a very secretive subversive group and continually became more brazen as they gained more allies in the military. The final coup would come in August of 1974. The revolutionaries overthrew Selassie.

The book was interesting although I didn't find it to be comprehensive. I know a little more about Selassie and Ethiopia than I knew before. I felt that Kapuscinski relied too much on simply allowing the servants to tell their tale in their own words. There should have been more of his own overview in the book. One critic notes that Kapuscinski writes with the "narrative power of a Conrad or Kipling or Orwell." That may be one of the problems. It makes for a more gripping read but those writers are known more for fiction than journalism. Really uncovering the facts sometimes requires drier writing.

My own views on the subject have not altered much. I have always had a negative view toward the notion of monarchy. I have read enough to know that many cultures do have great affection for the monarchies that rule them and often rue the fall of the throne. This book did do a fine job of humanizing Selassie. Those who hated him may not want to accept him as a human being. Those who revered him may also be unhappy with bringing the Emperor down a notch.

Putting aside my own views on royalty itself, I have to regard Selassie as a charismatic and strong leader. He did abuse his power to gain great riches and he was often indifferent to the needs of his people. He did ultimately pay the price for that indifference. He spent his final year imprisoned in one of Menelik's old palaces still believing that he was the emperor of Ethiopia. A rather pitiful finale for a once mighty ruler. I want preach but it was a rather ironic finish for Selassie.

I think The Emperor is a good introductory volume for someone interested in Selassie and Ethiopia. It is a mere 164 pages and the narrative does make for a quick read. It is not comprehensive so a serious student will likely have to supplement this book with other titles to get a fuller picture. Overall, I would recommend this for history fans and those who wish for journalism that isn't too dry.

also by Kapuscinski:

Shah of Shahs




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