The Emperor

A few years ago I was teaching about the origins of World War Two and I came across a remarkable book by Ryszard Kapuscinski called The Emperor.  It is a book about Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia).  After Selassie was deposed Kapuscinski travelled around Addis Ababa secretly interviewing the former court officials of the Imperial Palace.  It is incredible reading and reminds me of the famous quote by Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Each of the court officials interviewed is identified only by an initial.

F.: It was a small dog, a Japanese breed.  His name was Lulu.  He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor’s great bed.  During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor’s lap and pee on the dignitaries’ shoes.  The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet.  I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth.  This was my job for ten years.

Hard to say if this job was better or worse than this one:

G. S.-D.: I was His Most Virtuous Highness’s pillow bearer for twenty-six years.  I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth – I say it with pride – His Majesty could not go anywhere without me.  I had mastered the special protocol of this specialty, and even possessed an extremely useful, expert knowledge: the height of various thrones.  This allowed me to quickly choose a pillow of just the right size, so that a shocking ill fit, allowing a gap to appear between pillow and the Emperor’s shoes, would not occur.  In my storeroom I had fifty-two pillows of various sizes, thicknesses, materials, and colours.

Twenty-six years!  It really must have been tough for this guy trying to get a job after the Emperor was deposed.  I can’t imagine his CV would have read well to prospective employers.


At the coronation of Haile Sellasie in 1930 the Europeans in attendance gave Sellasie honours while the Americans gave the new Emperor a curious selection of gifts that included:

  • One electric refrigerator
  • One red typewriter emblazoned with the Ethiopian Royal Arms
  • One radio set with phonograph attachment
  • One hundred records of “distinctly American music”
  • Five hundred rose bushes, including several dozen of President Hoovers
  • Three moving picture films: Ben Hur, The King of Kings, With Byrd at the South Pole

Time Magazine, 3 November, 1930

Extraordinarily, for such a colossally pompous ass, Haile Sellaise was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1936. 

In 1935 Italy invaded and occupied Abyssinia on the most spurious of grounds and the diminuitive Emperor (after fleeing) had been pleading his country’s case ever since in whatever forum would have him.  It was a situation that engendered a lot of sympathy and his petition was well received, although none of the great powers did anything of significance to help him.  When you read the article celebrating his Man of the Year achievement perhaps the most remarkable thing is the number of racial backhanders the writer pays Sellasie.  Here are a few examples:

  • Haile Selassie has created a general, warm and blind sympathy for uncivilized Ethiopia throughout civilized Christendom
  • …the Machine Age seemed about to intrude upon Africa’s last free, unscathed and simple people
  • In the last week of 1935, Haile Selassie reached Broadway as a character in the new George White’s Scandals. Cries he: “Boys, our country am menaced! What is we gwine do?” From then until the curtain falls amid applause which almost stops the show, His Majesty and guardsmen execute a hilarious tap dance.

A hilarious tap dance?  What is we gwine do, indeed.

In the same article all the faults that Kapuscinski would lay bare 40 years later are revealed by the Emperor’s doctor:

Every conversation the physician has had with his Imperial patient, writes Dr. Sassard, “gave me further reason to admire and respect this Sovereign, who is so different from those who surround him and from his own people, and who is so superior to them. … In his motionless face only his eyes seem alive—brilliant, elongated, extremely expressive eyes. They bespeak boredom as well as polite indifference, cold irony, or even anger. The courtiers know these different expressions well and retire suddenly when the monarch’s glance becomes indifferent, then hard. “

Time Magazine, 1936

Mind you, not all Western commentators were sympathetic to the Emperor’s cause in 1936.  Evelyn Waugh wrote a book called Waugh in Abyssinia that closes with an ode to the conquering Italians:

Along the roads [of Abyssinia] will pass the eagles of ancient Rome, as they came to our savage ancestors in France, Britain and Germany, bringing some rubbish and some mischief; a good deal of  vulgar talk and some sharp misfortunes for individual opponents; but above and beyond and entirely predominating, the inestimable gifts of fine workmanship and clear judgement.

Evelyn Waugh, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936)

By mischief I presume Waugh is referring to the mustard gas the Italians used on the Abyssinians, or was that an example of fine workmanship and clear judgement?

Waugh is essentially in the same camp as the person who wrote Haile Sellasie’s Man of the Year article; the simple people of Abysinnia live in an uncivilised country.  The American believes that these darkies can probably be best helped/colonised by selling them stuff, while the Europeans think you need to physically take over.  The later half of the twentieth century would prove the American view correct. 

The Reader and Oedipus Rex

This is the funniest and the dumbest review I have read of The Reader

Maybe I’m lacking in moral complexity (or maybe this is a uniquely German story that translates poorly to an American context), but The Reader‘s central problem (which seems reducible to “I shagged a Nazi”) strikes me as a bogus one. If Michael can say, truthfully, that he knew nothing about his lover’s past, doesn’t that effectively absolve him of guilt?


It’s funny because the reviewer is lacking in moral complexity, and it’s dumb because this film is so not reducible to “I shagged a Nazi”.

There’s a queasy moment during the trial of Hanna Schmitz when she is being questioned about how she selected the prisoners who would go to the death camps where she asks the judge – “what would you have done?”  Of course, criminal cases don’t deal with the hypothetical, and in a trial concerning specific crimes of passion the answer to this question can easily be avoided, but in a trial that concern the actions of an individual that were representative of a society?  Well, that’s tricky.  There’s a certain tendency when this question is turned around for everybody to look at the judge at this point, a German man of a certain age, and think – “Actually, what were you doing during the war?”

And now we are getting to what the film is about.  What is it like to be a German child of World War Two?  There must have been a moment in the life of each member of Bernhard Schlink’s generation (he was born in 1944) when they realised that their parents were adults during the period when the Nazis were in power, and there must also have been moments when they realised that even if their parents weren’t in the Gestapo they probably also weren’t plotting the overthrow of Hitler and smuggling Jews across the border.  But then, of course, they are your parents, the people who love you most in the world, and whom you love in return.

This is the problem of the movie. It is not a movie about the Jews in World War Two; it is a movie about the Germans after World War Two.  What do you do when you can never absolve the ones you are compelled to love, of crimes of the most abhorrent kind?  From the moment of horrified revelation in the courtroom Michael’s life is torn apart.


At the moment at school I am doing a one man performance of Oedipus Rex for my Year 12 Classics class.  We take a section each day and I “perform” it to them.  They are hooked.  It is such a fantastic play, so taut and filled with rising dread, so awful to watch Oedipus come to his moment of realisation and tear himself apart.

Studying Oedipus Rex with my Year 12 students has made me realise how alien aspects of Greek culture are to us.  Oedipus Rex can read like a very modern play, but if you see a production done in the original style then it is pretty clearly a different order of work much more to do with ritual, and song, and action of the Gods.  The simple fact of the actors and chorus wearing large masks makes the performance far more like witnessing a series of tableaux.

The world of the ancient Greeks is such a pitiless place.  What do we make of Oedipus’ fate nowadays?  There is really not a lot to indicate that he deserved what he got.  He was a little short tempered, perhaps a little prone to disparage the oracles, but he seems to have been a good ruler.  In fact it all seems to have happened because, well, the Gods said it would.  The cheering conclusion of the chorus is this:

All the generations of mortal man add up to nothing!

Show me the man whose happiness was anything more than illusion

Followed by disillusion.

These lines reminded me of The Reader.  Was the last time that Michael was truly happy the moment before he recognised Hanna Schmitz in the courtroom on trial for Nazi war crimes?  After that moment was anything ever really the same for him?  After that I suppose Michael was looking for something to make everything better, to take away the awkward sickness of the memory of his love.  But the world is still an ancient Greek one, and without pity.  After nearly two decades Hanna Schmitz, days from her release from prison, meets Michael again, and realising that he does not love her but in fact expects her to show remorse or say that she has learnt something while she has been in prison, snaps,

It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what I feel. The dead are still dead.

Later a Jewish survivor of Hanna’s actions says to Michael:

What are you asking for?  Forgiveness for her? Or do you just want to feel better yourself? My advice, go to the theatre, if you want catharsis. Please. Go to literature. Don’t go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps.  Nothing.


Was there a moment when the chief Te Puni or the chief Wharepouri was standing on the beach at Pito-one watching the European ships sitting on the flat waters of Port Nicholson, with the row boats bringing in more and more settlers to fill up more and more land, to demand more, to take more, was there a moment when they realised that they had made a mistake?  Was there a moment when they realised that they had agreed to a tidal wave that would sweep centuries of their beliefs and values into the sea?

Do we, so modern, believe in fate or free will when it comes to the movements of history?  Was there really any choice for the likes of Te Puni, or had fate thrown an irresistible force against the Maori?  Is there any choice for us now, or have we already created the fate that will overwhelm us?  The individual may have free will for all I know, but it seems to me that the individual also lives in a world of vast, impersonal forces and we may as well call them fate for all the chance we have of standing against them.