Deconstructing Empire: a Review of ‘The Emperor’

“Tired, looking as if they hadn’t slept, they acted under feverish stress, pursuing their victims in the stale air of hatred and fear that surrounded them all. They had no shield but the Emperor, and the Emperor could undo them with one wave of his hand.”

‘The Emperor,’ by Ryszard Kapuscinski[1]


Ryszard Kupiscinski, author of ‘The Emperor.’ Source: Wikipedia.

If you want a single slim volume that succinctly, accurately and even poetically depicts the collapse of a monarchy, look no further than The Emperor, by the late Polish journalist Ryszard (Richard) Kapuscinski. The book tells the story of the final years of Ethiopian monarch Haile Selassie, venerated by some in the Rastafarian faith as a divine saviour. It’s a gripping portrait of the depths to which a privileged elite can sink when steeped in the blinding stupor of solipsistic narcissism. With the release of Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury, an explosive view of the Trump White House, it’s not hard to see a parallel of imperial breakdown, an inner circle disintegrating.[2]

During the early ’70s, while hundreds of thousands of his people were starving to death in the Ethiopian provinces, Haile Selassie and his sycophantic courtiers remained holed up in Addis Ababa, oblivious to the skeletal nightmare stalking them. Shipments of international food aid were hijacked by high-ranking members of the royal court, leaving the Ethiopian poor to starve. Meanwhile Selassie was flying in caviar and other delicacies for lavish political banquets.


Haile Selassie, 1960s. Courtesy imdb.

Not that it was always a picnic for Selassie’s courtiers, though their agonies were more psychological than physical. As the quote heading this article attests, autocratic power breeds mistrust, suspicion and lethal intrigue, with those on the lower rungs of power constantly jockeying for higher position. Palace cliques daily sought ways to discredit others and thereby rise in ranks themselves. “O God, save me from those who, crawling on their knees, hide a knife that they would like to sink into my back,” says one official. “Ears appeared everywhere,” says another palace insider. “Sticking up out of the ground, glued to the walls, flying through the air, hanging on doorknobs, hiding in offices, lurking in crowds…” It’s a page straight out of Eric Hoffer’s classic work on mass movements (as he politely calls cults), The True Believer:[3] which “deliberately fosters in its adherents a frustrated state of mind” as a means of control.

Kapuscinski allows interviewees to speak unhindered and under cover of anonymity. The resulting prose is both effortless and at times poetic, laced with the peculiarities of vernacular speech, the unique, often bizarre twists of individual minds. Kapuscinski never interrupts his subjects; he lets them give themselves away. The author’s viewpoint is only heard in occasional introductions to different sections of the narrative. It’s a simple but brilliant strategy, loosening normally wary tongues and clearing the haze of narcissism that enveloped everyone in Selassie’s administration.


Jonathan Dimbleby. Courtesy BBC. 

Often, reading their testimonies, you’re simply gobsmacked that anyone could think like they do, that they could be so utterly blind. Even as the palace is under attack from rebelling factions of the Ethiopian military, Selassie’s ministers continue to point the blame at students, foreign journalists and other ‘rabble rousers.’ An uprising in Gojam province in 1968—along with several others in the provinces—is brutally put down by the Ethiopian military, with many protestors killed. Ethiopian students that had studied abroad had been staging regular demonstrations since 1968 protesting the gross inequities of wealth that resulted in famine. But it took foreign journalists like Kapuscinski and Jonathan Dimbleby to bring the crisis to a head. Dimbleby’s 1973 documentary Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine finally brought the disaster to the attention of the world.

“Soon afterward we suffered a real invasion of foreign correspondents,” complains one palace official. This is how he rationalizes the famine that was killing thousands of Ethiopians: “First of all, death from hunger had existed in our Empire for hundreds of years, an everyday, natural thing, and it never occurred to anyone to make any noise about it. Drought would come and the earth would dry up, the cattle would drop dead, the peasants would starve. Ordinary, in accordance with the laws of nature and the eternal order of things. Since this was eternal and normal, none of the dignitaries would dare to bother His Most Exalted Highness with the news that in such and such a province a given person had died of hunger.”[4] Really. Mass starvation the eternal order of things. The more these people talk, the more they betray themselves. That’s the genius of Kapuscinski’s prose.

Kapuscinski’s high-level informants were as steeped in Selassie’s cult as the uneducated public. One official whose son became a student and joined the demonstrations complains that the problem began when the young man started thinking for himself: “…in those days thinking was a painful inconvenience and a troubling deformity. His Unexcelled Majesty, in his incessant care for the good and comfort of his subjects, never spared any efforts to protect them from this inconvenience and deformity.”[5] It’s the classic approach of the cult leader—keep the cultists ignorant and isolated so they never learn to question you. In The True Believer, Hoffer writes that with the rise of secular power in the 20th century, nationalism would become “the most copious and durable source of mass enthusiasm.”[6] Selassie meanwhile was clinging to a quasi-theocratic state and an imperial order that was already a thing of past centuries. Hoffer’s great insight was that whether it’s a religious or secular cult, its operative principles are the same. Kapuscinski’s incisive book underscores the point: Selassie’s royal delusion was a microcosm of the principles in any cultic system of power and how they inevitably unravel. “There is a certain uniformity in all types of dedication, of faith, of pursuit of power, of unity and self-sacrifice,”[7] Hoffer wrote.


Ethiopian famine. Image courtesy ‘Ten Most Deadly Famines in Africa.’

But with the dawning of the ’60s, it was only a matter of time before the man behind the curtain was exposed. The final phase of the revolution that unseated Selassie’s monarchy occurred in 1974, but apparently he remained so hermetically sealed in his internal world that until his death a year later he still believed himself to be the ruler of Ethiopia. It’s the kind of self-delusion that’s become routine for President Trump, who—just as Selassie did—insists he’s improving the country even as he hands over its tattered remains to the One Percent. The great irony of Selassie’s tale is that he believed himself to be a kind, progressive ruler, and did indeed outlaw such barbaric practices as cutting off the hands of thieves. He loved the conveniences of the modern world and sought to introduce them to his country, though little of it escaped the confines of his palace. He’s one of those tragic figures in history who end up being pulled apart by his own internal contradictions—Haile Selassie the reformer and modernizer on one hand, and on the other the August Majesty who clung to his elite lifestyle at any cost.

Kapuscinski may not yet be a household name in journalism alongside Woodward and Bernstein and other great journalists, but he deserves to be. He was one of that rare breed—war journalists, the courageous souls who run toward—not away—from danger. Born in 1932, Kapuscinski worked for four decades reporting on Asia, Latin America and Africa, becoming personally acquainted with Che Guevara, Salvador Allende, and Patrice Lumumba. He witnessed 27 coups and revolutions and was sentenced to death four times. He died in 2007 and his books have been translated from Polish into 19 languages.

SEE ALSO: For an update on the situation in Ethiopia, check out ‘Feeding on Ethiopia’s Famine,’ by Jonathan Dimbleby, The Independent, December 8, 1998. 

Also: ‘10 Most Deadly Famines in Africa,’ by Emeka Chigozie,


[1] Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor, translated from the Polish by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand, Vintage International, New York, 1989 (originally published 1978), pp. 10, 11.

[2] ‘Fire and Fury confirms our worst fears about the Republicans,’ Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian, January 5, 2018.

[3] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, First Perennial Library edition 1966, 1989, 2002 (originally published 1951), Preface, p. xiii.

[4] Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor, ibid., p. 111.

[5] Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor, ibid., p. 98.

[6] Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor, ibid., p. 4.

[7] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, Preface, ibid., p. xii.

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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