Of History And Nations: A Conversation With Stanley G. Payne

It is a great privilege to have had a conversation with Professor Stanley Payne, the foremost Hispanologist of our time, which we are delighted to bring to our readers. Professor Payne is the Jaume Vicens Vives and Hilldale Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has authored several important books, including, A History of Fascism 1914-1945, The Spanish Civil War, Franco and Hitler: Spain, Germany, and World War II, and Franco: A Personal and Political Biography.


The Postil (TP): Please tell us a little about your own personal history. Was there a single event, or even a series of events, which shaped you and your career?

Stanley G. Payne.

Stanley Payne (SP): There was nothing distinctive, cosmopolitan or noteworthy about my early life. I was born in the small town of Denton, Texas (between Dallas and the Oklahoma border) in 1934, and I was what would later be called a “Depression baby.” We certainly lived in modest circumstances and in 1944 joined the wartime migration to California, where I finished growing up. I was given a Christian education, largely Seventh-Day Adventist, but left that faith while still a teenager, partly due to its fantastic interpretations of the Bible. I returned to Christianity only after my marriage at the age of twenty-six. My general upbringing, I would place within the broader context of Anglo-American Calvinism, and there was nothing in that to prepare me for a life dealing with the Hispano-Catholic world. This sectarian, non-conformist background did perhaps prepare me to be more independent rather than merely following the most conventional patterns.

TP: What brought about your life-long interest in Spain?

SP: There was almost no Hispanic influence at all in North Texas in those days, but in 1943 the Texas Board of Education ruled that all children should receive some sort of language instruction from the fifth grade on. I developed an interest in Spanish and later minored in the language as an undergraduate. Around the age of 19-20, however, my main focus lay on Russia, though I had no opportunity to study the Russian language. In 1955, when I entered graduate studies at Claremont University, Russian history was not an option. That summer I read The Spanish Temper, by the British literary critic and avocational Hispanist, V. S. Pritchett, a work that strongly appealed to my imagination and first gave me the idea that the history of Spain—then virtually unexplored outside that country—might be both interesting and important. Moreover, I had academic advisors—the Latin Americanist Hubert Herring at Claremont and the noted Franco-Italian specialist Shepard Clough at Columbia—who encouraged me to become in effect an autodidact in this new field.

The history of Spain is absolutely extraordinary and is generally misunderstood, more than that of any other Western country, but I have never considered myself a mere “Hispanophile,” despite my dedication to getting its history straight. Modern Spain has been unusually divided and conflictive. The Spanish are regularly misconceived as “individualists,” which is a misnomer. They are better described as factionalists who exhibit great loyalty to factions, local groups and regions, and often express limited individualism. One may speculate that this is due to a lesser impact in Spain of the medieval Roman Catholic insistence on exogamy, compared with other Western countries. If that were so, it would be an ironic commentary on “Catholic Spain.”

An important and attractive aspect of Spanish culture and society is the great value placed on friendship, a relationship especially cultivated in that country. My Spanish friends have been very generous and helpful, and I owe much to them, as does all my work. It is important to me always to acknowledge their assistance.

TP: As the foremost historian of twentieth-century Spain, where would you locate yourself within the tradition of historiography? Is there a school of history that you naturally align with?

SP: My work has followed the general methodology and style of Anglo-American empiricism, within the framework of national histories and comparative European history, but follows no special school or trend. My initial mentor in Spain was the great Catalan historian Jaume Vicens Vives, who was both Catholic and Catalanist but certainly not a mere “nationalist historian.” Vicens was a critical empiricist who was revisionist in the best sense of the phrase, and also came to emphasize the kind of social and economic history that previously had been largely ignored in Spain.

TP: We live in a time which has a rather fraught relationship with the past, a time which seems to want to overcome history. How do you respond to the current vogue of presentism? Is it a passing phase? Or, does it portend something darker?

SP: At the present time infinitely more is known about history than ever before, but contemporary culture and education devalue and ignore the study of history in a manner totally unprecedented in the history of Western civilization. Many factors contribute to this, one of them the quasi-religious character of contemporary progressivism, which seeks to annul comprehension of the past in favor of a timeless future utopia of pure virtue. This is the expression of a kind of millennialist attitude, which probably has some distance to go.

TP: Your many and magisterial books on Spanish history have analyzed the period from 1917 (when the constitutional monarchy collapsed) to the government of Miguel Primo de Rivera (1923-1930), and the Second Republic (1931-1939), during which was fought the Spanish Civil War. Why are these two decades in Spanish history so important?

SP: Modernization, particularly as economic transformation first became a major problem in seventeenth-century Spain, but the early transition to liberal politics in 1810 initiated a century and a quarter of intermittent political convulsion. Both dimensions merged to produce two decades of intense political and social conflict—paralleling the great European political Kampfzeit of the interwar period in the past century—that served as the conflictive climax to this era. No other country both achieved temporary democracy and also employed it to tear the country apart so thoroughly.

TP: Your profound work on fascism and Spain is certainly paradigmatic. What led you to focus on this aspect of Spanish history?

SP: The initial choice was almost serendipitous, in that it had nothing to do with “fascism.” I simply had to find a topic to initiate graduate research, and Hubert Herring suggested the figure of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, which struck my fancy. I had no intention at that moment of focusing on “fascism,” which I would scarcely have been able to define. But one thing led to another. I rather grandiosely subtitled the eventual book “A History of Spanish Fascism,” which it really was not.

TP: The term “fascism” is much bandied-about nowadays. Is there a proper way that we should understand it?

SP: In the 1950s, when I began, any concept of fascism was simplistic. All work was monographic or national in character, but failed to solve the greater issue of “fascism” in general, and that led to the international “fascism debate” of the 1960s and 70s.I participated in the latter, perplexed about the problem of how to define and analyze a “generic fascism,” if any such thing existed. I finally managed to work this out in my Fascism: Comparison and Definition, which appeared in 1980, the first book to present a systematic and detailed definition and analysis of the problem. This stemmed from my concern to make major Spanish developments—fascism or revolutionary civil war, for example– understandable within a broader comparative historical framework.

In the twenty-first century “fascism” has become a meaningless term, an “empty signifier” that serves as all-purpose pejorative and stigmatizer without serious cognitive content. Academic specialists, including myself, employ the term as an “ideal type” construct to refer exclusively to the revolutionary nationalist movements in interwar Europe, which had specific characteristics of their own that have not subsequently been repeated to any significant degree as composite features, and probably cannot be. Fascism was destroyed militarily in 1945 and then became subsequently superseded by massive historical change, which made it impossible to develop equivalent movements in radically differing contexts.

TP: Your first book, Falange: A History of Spanish Fascism, reads like a great Greek tragedy. Could you briefly describe the Falange and its spirited and tragic leader, José Antonio Primo de Rivera?

SP: Falange was the only true “fascist-type” movement in Spain, composed of young radical nationalist activists reacting to the anti-nationalist revolutionary process in Spain, where what passed for fascism was in consequence more clearly counterrevolutionary than in any other country. The Falangists were serious about their radical national syndicalist socioeconomic program, but in a country of secondary importance such as Spain, how this worked out was going to depend in large part on geopolitics.

I have said elsewhere that José Antonio Primo de Rivera has managed to become “everybody’s favorite fascist,” the least fascistic of all the European national fascist leaders and the one most nearly attractive as an individual. As observed by some of his rivals, such as the key Socialist chief Indalecio Prieto, his personality did not fit the fascist type. In the case of José Antonio, it was a matter of hereditary politics, since he was the eldest son of Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera, the moderate dictator of the 1920s, virtually the only bloodless European dictator, who earned the grudging respect even of some of his enemies. José Antonio felt that he must vindicate authoritarian nationalist politics in Spain to complete his father’s work but did not fully understand the extent of the radicalization to which he himself was contributing. His own interests were more literary than political and he even considered resigning in favor of a leftist leader willing to adopt Spanish nationalism. So there are two schools of thought regarding the “good” and the “bad” José Antonio. The noted French intellectual Arnaud Imatz has written the best favorable account, and the Catalan historian Joan María Thomás the best critical biography.

TP: Looming behind all this, of course, is the Spanish Civil War, about which you have written extensively. Briefly, what led to this conflict? And how should we understand it?

SP: The Spanish war was the great European conflict of the years preceding World War II and often drew more comment than the rise of Nazi Germany. It became a mirror of current politics, in which different commentators found and emphasized the aspect most important to them, whether “democracy,” “revolution,” “fascism,” “antifascism,” “communism,” “anticommunism,” “defeat of clerical reaction” or “defense of Western civilization.” The Spanish conflict became a kind of “do it yourself” kit. To a certain extent, at least, each of these differing perceptions could be demonstrated to be partially—but no more than partially—correct.

The root cause of the Civil War was the revolutionary process of the Second Republic, inaugurated five years earlier in 1931. Though every political ideology of contemporary Europe was in play in Spain, the two basic alternatives under the Republic were whether the new regime was to be a constitutional democracy or give way to a violent mass revolution. After the failure of multiple armed revolutionary insurrections, adoption of the “evolutionary” fascist approach of forming a coalition and exploiting the system enabled the revolutionaries to gain dominance by 1936, initiating the revolution under the legal cover of the Republic. Though the left’s banner was “antifascism,” paradoxically they followed the pseudo-legalist tactics of Mussolini and Hitler, not the insurrectionary tactics of Lenin or the earlier Spanish extreme left. When that became clear by July 1936, moderates and conservatives felt they had no choice but to fight back.

The era 1905-49 was a time of civil war in Europe, the biggest revolutionary civil war that in Russia from 1917 to 1921, the most widely publicized that in Spain from 1936 to 1939. No one had ever tried to treat all this as a whole, so near the end of my career I wrote a brief account, Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949 (2011).

TP: We have all read of Hitler’s intervention in the Civil War, made famous by Picasso’s painting, Guernica. But the Soviet Union also intervened. Please tell us about the role of the Soviet Union in this conflict, which you also outline in your book, The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union, and Communism. How would you characterize the role played by communism in Spain from 1917 to 1939?

SP: Soviet intervention began in 1920, when Comintern representatives catalyzed organization of the Spanish Communist Party. For fifteen years this was inconsequential, Spain’s worker left being led instead by the Socialists and anarchists. In 1935, however, the Comintern switched from straight revolutionary tactics to a two-track policy, promoting the Popular Front and evolutionary politics to accompany a longer-term revolutionary strategy. This was very successful, to the extent that by the spring of 1936 Moscow was to some extent pulling back, trying to check explosive revolutionary energies from a premature outburst. Comintern policy posited a three-step long-term process: a) victory for an all-left Popular Front government, which would eliminate all centrist and rightist forces by pseudo-legal means; b) followed by formation of a Worker-Peasant government of communists and certain allies of the worker left, which would prosecute full revolution; c) followed by a final Communist regime that would consummate the process.

In the spring of 1936 Spain was the only country in Europe dominated by the illiberal, mostly revolutionary, left. Moscow saw clearly that the surest path to revolution lay in pseudo-legal evolution that avoided any complete blow-up until the left achieved total dominance of all institutions, but the extreme revolutionary left would not accept go-slow tactics. The Comintern sought to avoid civil war, which might ruin a sure thing, and its fears were justified.

When the right finally rebelled, Moscow tried to impose a politics of all-leftist “republican democracy” that averted and channeled revolution, but the anarchists and Socialists outflanked and massively outnumbered the Communists, launching the only violent mass revolution ever to occur in twentieth-century Western Europe. With Soviet assistance, Spanish Communism expanded greatly and eventually became a partially but not totally hegemonic force. Communist policy was to channel and control the revolution while concentrating on the war effort. This was by far the most rational policy adopted by any of the worker parties, but it never achieved full unity.

For the Soviet Union, the Civil War posed a great dilemma. It had been intervening in Spain politically for years, injecting considerable money into the revolutionary process, but direct military intervention was much more complicated and risky, and was harder for Moscow than for Rome and Berlin. Stalin did not decide on limited direct military intervention for two full months. He then sent much armament, but scarcely as many as 3,000 Soviet personnel ever set foot in Spain, concentrated in aviation and armor. There was never any Soviet infantry, though the Comintern organized the 35-40,000 men of the famous International Brigades (modeled on the Internatsionalisty who fought for the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war). This was facilitated by the agreement of the irresponsible Republican government to ship most of Spain’s gold reserve (then the fourth largest in the world) to Moscow. The goal was to achieve leftist victory and also to counter the initiative of Germany, hopefully encouraging Britain and France at least indirectly to assist. By 1938 Stalin realized this was not likely to happen, and even offered to withdraw if Germany would do the same. That was impossible, so he strongly encouraged Republican resistance to the end, though the other leftist groups finally turned on the Communists, correctly accusing them of dominating their allies and falsely accusing them of abandoning the Republican cause.

The Comintern’s only success lay in gaining broad Western intelligentsia acceptance of its preferred narrative—supposed “republican democracy” against fascism, the dominant myth of the Civil War, which survives to this day.

This whole topic is one on whose study I embarked rather adventitiously. In the late 1960s Jack Greene began to direct a series for W. W. Norton on ten “Revolutions in the Modern World,” and asked me to undertake a study of the Spanish case. This intrigued me, since theretofore my two main research projects had dealt with the Spanish right. I was then a young professor at UCLA and had the advantage that two of the main collections of documents on the Spanish left were found in the Bolloten Collection at the Hoover Institution and the Southworth Collection at UC-San Diego. My resulting The Spanish Revolution (1970) attracted some attention at the time, named one of fifty “books of the year” by “Book World” of the Washington Post, but was the first of my books to be criticized by the left. The latter had received very favorably my critical treatment of two major aspects of the right, but could not tolerate the same treatment accorded the left. After more than 50 years, this now dated study still remains the only general account of the entire Spanish revolution in any language. The subject remains a virtual taboo in a field dominated by political correctness.

Thirty years later, after the Soviet archives had opened, I was able to return to this area and develop a much more authoritative and documented study, The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union and Communism (2003), which won the American Association of Slavic Studies’ Marshall Shulman Book Prize awarded for “an outstanding monograph on the international behaviour of the countries of the former Soviet bloc,” an unusual prize for a Hispanist to receive.

TP: Does the Civil War still matter for Spain?

SP: By the time of Franco’s death in 1975, a new generation of Spaniards had put the Civil War behind it. Leaders of the developed and modernized society left by Franco carried out a bloodless and peaceful transition to democratic constitutional monarchy, all national parties agreeing on complete amnesty for the past. At the same time, the history of the Civil War was researched and publicized at great length, leaving few stones unturned. There was general agreement not to employ the past in present political disputes. The Democratic Transition of 1975-79 was a remarkable civic achievement, imperfect like all human enterprises but nonetheless impressive.

In the twenty-first century, however, leftist parties in Spain have returned to their vomit, reverting to radical politics, adopting post-Marxist American-style doctrines that seek to control all culture and selectively demonize the past. Thus, the Civil War has been resurrected as a political banner and new legislation is pending to impose doctrinaire censorship and teaching content for historical discourse in Spain regarding the years 1931 to 1975. As has occurred on several earlier occasions in contemporary history, the Spanish left has adopted the most radical position on such matters to be found in any Western country.

TP: The man that emerged triumphant was Francisco Franco. Your own work on the Caudillo has been vast, to say the least. What is your view of Franco?

SP: Like all major historical figures, Franco was complicated, and he had a chameleon-like career. From the 1920s, however, he maintained three basic principles: a) loyalty to traditional Spanish Catholic culture; b) Spanish nationalism; c) preference for authoritarian government (with the exception of his relative loyalty to the Republican regime from 1931 to 1936). His dictatorship was quite liberal in its final years but Franco was never a liberal. Even in his final phase he believed that democratic government in the Western world was doomed.

TP: Has Franco been largely misunderstood or mis-characterized?

SP: Many historical figures have been demonized inaccurately, and to some extent that is true of Franco. He did not approve of the democratic Republic but did not join any of the military plots until the very last minute in July 1936, when the situation was sliding into chaos, if not worse.

Franco was a cold man and sometimes harsh, though the left somewhat exaggerates the character of his repression during and immediately after the Civil War. The revolutionaries had executed more than 50,000 people, while the rightist repression during the conflict had been equally brutal. Some months after first taking over, Franco ended summary executions but his regular military tribunals were quite punitive. The Francoist repression was no more deadly than that following other all-out revolutionary European civil wars, but that is a very low standard.

The three basic charges against Franco are accurate, namely, that a) he maintained a personal dictatorship for nearly four decades; b) politically, though never officially, he aligned himself with Hitler; and c) he presided over an extensive repression during and after the Civil War. You would not want all that on your conscience.

TP: In your book, Franco and Hitler. Spain, Germany, and World War II, you examine the balancing act that Franco undertook to thwart Hitler’s demands and Allied pressure. How did Franco manage to do that successfully?

SP: The first thing to understand is that Franco and most of his government definitely favored the Germans, convinced from 1940 to 1943 that theirs was the winning side, and this was added to gratitude for German help in the Civil War. A second thing to keep in mind is that the very early Franco regime had big ideas about expanding Spain’s role in the world, without thinking the matter through very seriously.

Franco was somewhat taken aback by the suddenness of the European war in 1939 and understood that at first Spain would have to be neutral. That changed with the fall of France in 1940, prompting great concern to profit from the German hegemony. Yet Spain was so weak after the Civil War that it would have required massive German military and economic assistance. Hitler literally could not afford that, and was particularly resistant to Franco’s insistence on taking over all Morocco, since that would have alienated Vichy France, at that point a German satellite. So Franco hesitated, demanding very favorable terms that were too steep to be met.

The point of inflexion came at the end of 1942, when it became clear that Germany might well not win the war. The Spanish regime had collaborated with the Reich in many policies but at that point began to draw off. Distancing was increased by the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, prompting the first limited “defascistization” of the Spanish regime the following month, a process that would slowly continue for many years. By the summer of 1944 Franco had to concede that Germany would almost inevitably lose, and began to draw nearer the Allies, who took a tougher line on Spain from May 1944. Franco was no genius here and made several basic mistakes, but avoided the direct plunge into war and successfully played off Spain’s unique geostrategic position, though the outcome for his regime was a near-run thing.

TP: Can we speak of a “Franco legacy?”

SP: Franco had three goals: to create a new, enduring political system; to revive neotraditional Spanish Catholic culture and to create a strong, prosperous, economically developed Spain. In the first enterprise he failed completely. The second succeeded for twenty-years, then began to fall apart. His legacy is the transformation of the Spanish economy, which largely took place under his rule. This fact greatly annoys the Spanish left, who continue to insist that this was a mere mirage, and that Spanish society failed to advance until after Franco died. This effort to extend Civil War propaganda nearly four centuries is contradicted by all the evidence

TP: You have also written about Basque nationalism. Could you tell us a little about nationalism in general, and then in the context of the Basque country?

SP: Nationalism has been the most dominant “political religion” of modern times, even more than socialism, but has taken many different forms. It is variably based on different combinations of history, ethnicity, political doctrine and language. Though it purports to be “natural,” it is a modern creation of varying combinations of these things. Whereas patriotism is often defensive and may be conservative, nationalism usually involves a project and is change-oriented. It was the dominant revolutionary force of the nineteenth century, and may be so again.

The three Basque provinces have formed part of the Spanish political system for more than a millennium, but Basque nationalism is a typically modern creation that was only invented at the close of the nineteenth century. It stemmed partly from the trauma of modernization in a conservative Catholic society with a strong sense of local identity, compounded by the dissolution of traditional structures.

The Basque provinces long enjoyed a series of provincial rights or fueros, but these had been greatly diminished. Their language consisted of a multiplicity of varying dialects which were disappearing, since most people spoke Spanish. Under the trauma of rapid modernization, regional identity or pride eventually morphed into a radical modern nationalism, partly in response to the general political crises of twentieth-century Spain.

Basque Catholicism began as traditionally ultra-Catholic, yet rapid secularization after 1960 encouraged rapid transformation. This produced an increasingly secular nationalism that took the form of a radical new messianism whose nationalist “martyrs” functioned as redemptive victims. Creation of a broadly autonomous Basque state within Spain did not satisfy but only exacerbated nationalism, which generated a massive wave of terrorism, though that has finally subsided. The latest success of nationalism has been politically to take over much of neighboring Navarre.

TP: Your book, A History of Spain and Portugal, is a comprehensive work of national history. Is there a characteristic relationship between these two countries that we must bear in mind?

SP: Portugal began as part of the kingdom of Leon-Castile, with parallel institutions, and these historical parallels have persisted, though with very distinct national personalities and cultures. Yet until recently, Portugal and Spain often excelled at avoiding and ignoring each other, despite proximity and similarities. Portugal is much smaller and much less complicated, and also less conflictive. It developed a very distinctive personality, yet, mutatis mutandis, the two countries have gone through parallel crises and developments throughout their histories.

TP: Does national history still matter?

SP: Yes, national history still matters, for countries nowadays continue to function primarily as national units, despite the European Union and contemporary globalization. Spanish historiography, for example, remains largely self-absorbed and strongly national, and that is true of most countries.

TP: Are there other projects that you are researching?

SP: Sixty-five years of major projects and book-writing did it for me. I no longer have the strength or energy for significant new projects.

TP: Any words of advice for younger scholars doing history today?

SP: The outlook is grim. Any young scholar interested in a career in history must undertake a sober assessment of the costs and stresses of trying to develop a professional life in the current environment of highly politicized institutions and an increasingly coercive culture. Employment prospects for the independent-minded scholar are meager. If I were young, I doubt that I would be able to get a job in most American universities nowadays.

TP: Professor Payne, thank you so much for the generosity of your time. It has been a great pleasure speaking with you.


The featured image shows, “The Muse Clio [the Muse of History],” by Pierre Mignard; painted in 1689.

Of Iran And Its Last Shah: A Conversation With Gholam Reza Afkhami

The last King of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, is commonly given a harsh verdict. But is this assessment fair, or even accurate? Through the kind and generous courtesy of Kayhan Life Magazine, we are so very pleased to present this interview with Gholam Reza Afkhami, who rectifies many of the assumptions about the late Shah. Mr. Afkhami is an academic, author and former Deputy Minister of Iran. He is currently a senior scholar and research director at the Foundation for Iranian Studies (FIS), a research institute in Washington, DC.

Mr. Afkhami served as Iran’s deputy interior minister in the mid-1970s, and Secretary General of Iran’s National Committee for World Literacy Program (1975–1979), a committee headed by Mohammad Reza Shah. After the Revolution in 1979, Mr. Afkhami moved to the U.S. and became a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institute, from 1980 to 1983. He is the author of several books, most recently, The Life and Times of the Shah. He is here interviewed by Cyrus Kadivar, the London-based author, journalist and consultant.


Cyrus Kadivar (CK): As an insider, you had a unique opportunity to observe the Pahlavi dynasty’s daily workings. Eleven years ago, you published your epic biography of the Shah. How would you summarize the monarch’s personality compared to his father Reza Shah?

Gholam Reza Afkhami (GRA): I have learned most of what I know of the life and times of Mohammad Reza Shah by studying the history of Iran under the two Pahlavi kings and by communicating with those closely involved with their personal and political lives. The young Mohammad Reza acquired many of his father’s habits, though temperamentally he was his father’s opposite. Reza Shah was naturally aggressive. Mohammad Reza was shy and withdrawn, even when at the apogee of power. The father slept on the floor in an unadorned room. The son also lived in relative simplicity, though the difference in the circumstances of their respective birth and childhood made his surroundings more opulent. The father dressed invariably in a plain soldier’s uniform—no adornment, no medal, no pomp. The son was in full regalia when in military uniform. Normally, however, he wore civilian clothes. He was punctual, disciplined, and given to daily routines he almost religiously followed, even when on vacation. Like his father, he also walked around his office while receiving government officials and discussing state affairs.

CK: Mohammad Reza Shah married three times in his lifetime. Can you tell us about his relationships with each one of his queens?

GRA: His first wife, Fawzieh, an Egyptian princess, was chosen for him. She was beautiful, and he grew to like her, but Fawzieh remained cold and distant. With Soraya, his second wife, he truly fell in love, allowing her to dominate him in family matters. Much to the Shah’s chagrin, Soraya could not give him an heir, and refused to submit to an operation which might have enabled her to become pregnant. That refusal did not diminish the Shah’s affection, though it led to divorce, because the imperative of [producing] an heir to the throne trumped the Shah’s love.

The Shah’s third wife, Farah Diba, later Shahbanu Farah, was 21 years old when she married, almost the same age as the king’s other brides at the time of marriage. She was smarter, more energetic, more active, and considerably more interested in the affairs of the nation. More importantly, she bore the Shah a male heir in less than a year, which made her position secure, and the Shah’s relationship with her unique.

CK: What were some of the King’s personal hobbies?

GRA: The Shah was good at sports. He had learned skiing at Le Rosay [his Swiss boarding school] and, back in Tehran, never missed a chance to ski on the rare days that snow covered the rather primitive ski slopes of the Elahiyeh hills near Tehran and, in later years, of Shemshak and Gajereh on the slopes of the Alborz. He also skied in the Alps near his winter cottage in St. Moritz. He regularly played tennis, until it became difficult for him to continue because of his eyesight.

He was also an accomplished horseman, the kind who liked his horses sprightly and quick to the touch, requiring no encouragement to move. He enjoyed speed and courted danger beyond the boundaries of propriety for a king. His queens, though with him at different periods of his life, were equally afraid to be in the car when he drove, and they told him so. It was the same when he piloted a plane or a helicopter. He followed the rules, but also took risks, explaining that he was protected by the Almighty.

CK: Did the 1953 Crisis with Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh have an impact on the Shah’s psychology and his mode of governing after his dramatic restoration to the throne?

GRA: The Shah never forgot the effect of the first decade of his [reign.] Never again, he might have thought, as he flew back to Tehran from Rome. Never again would he be so poor and vulnerable as he was in Rome. Never again would he be the plaything of another man, as he had been of Mossadegh. Never again would he forget his father’s advice: any man worth asking for help in the arduous work of making a nation will seek your place if allowed. This was in 1953.

Twenty years later, by 1974, his country and the world had changed. He had solved the oil issue, his country was on the verge of having more income than it needed, the Iranian military had become one of the most powerful in the Middle East, significant economic and technological relations had been established between Iran and the rest of the world, and the Shah was satisfied that his country was making palpable progress. His problem now was of a different genre: he knew he was ill and had to prepare the country and his son for a future of which he could not be sure.

CK: The Pahlavi regime has been described by some historians and critics as having been politically repressive and socially progressive. Do you agree with that assessment?

GRA: Politically, the White Revolution, by increasing the mobility of the population, facilitated the political atomization of society, rendering a greater number of people accessible to the authority and command of central government. By focusing political attention on the Shah, it gradually eroded the authority of other central sources of power, leading toward a concentration of power in his hands. This suggested political power but not necessarily political repression. The regime, however, was socially progressive.

CK: Mohammed Reza Shah began his rule as a constitutional monarch. By the Seventies he was the King of oil and the supreme autocrat ruling over 34 million Iranians. He abolished the two-party system in favor of a single party, Rastakhiz, began to liberalize the political system, and in August 1978, after protests in the streets, he promised free elections. Did the Shah ever believe in democracy?

GRA: The Shah was deep down a democrat. Democracy, however, is first and foremost an expression of culture. He began to understand this during the first years of his reign, especially his experience with Mossadegh. His 1976 liberalization policy was likely a plan to prepare the ground for the Crown Prince to ascend the throne when he no longer would be able to continue.

CK: How would you describe Iranian society in the 1970s?

GRA: Iran under the Shah was an open society. The economic boom had made it possible for people from different walks of life to travel abroad by the hundreds of thousands each year, while foreigners came in by comparable numbers. Women were gradually achieving equality with men and increasingly participated in the kinds of work that had been traditionally reserved for men. All of this irked the traditional populations and puritans, but it was hardly an example of repression.

In the mid-1970s, Iran’s relations with the West were determined largely by Iran’s relations with the United States. By 1975, Iran had become a showcase of development among Third World countries, boasting one of the highest rates of economic growth, a superior record of social services, and a critical mass for takeoff in science and technology — making steady progress in fields ranging from women’s rights and environmental protection to intercultural and cross-cultural communication and literacy and life-long non-formal education. As a result of these and other changes, the country was a brain gainer in 1975, unprecedented for a Third World country at the time.

CK: And Jimmy Carter?

GRA: When in 1977 Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as the 39th president of the United States, the Shah was certain that he would survive him. Carter was ambivalent about the Shah, as reflected in his administration. When they first met on 15 November 1977 in Washington, the President found the Shah to be “a likable man—erect without being pompous, seemingly calm and self-assured, and surprisingly modest in demeanor.”

Carter’s Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan later observed that “of all the people we had seen during that period — [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, [German Chancellor Helmut] Schmidt, [British Prime Minister James] Callaghan, [French President Valery] Giscard [d’Estaing], and scores of others—the Shah was easily the most impressive.” The Shah conducted “a tour d’horizon of the world,” Jordan continued, “describing with great accuracy the problems facing the West, the strategic importance of Iran, and the critical nature of US-Iran relations. He spoke for almost an hour without notes. It was more than a presentation—it was a performance.”

The Shah was pleasantly surprised to hear in mid-December that the President wished to spend New Year’s Eve 1977 in Tehran, in between trips to Poland and India. The most surprising event of Carter’s visit, however, was his toast at at the dinner the Shah gave in his honor at Sahebgharanieh Palace. Carter lavishly praised the Iranian monarch’s leadership and called his country ‘an Island of stability in one of the most troubled regions of the world.’

A few months later, the Shah began to suspect that the West was planning to unhinge his rule.

CK: Why did the king hide his illness from his people and most of his inner circle? Did his cancer impact his decision making and morale during the final months of his rule?

GRA: What would have happened if the Shah had disclosed his illness is a moot point. Chances are that nothing significantly different would have occurred from within the regime, but the opposition would have become more empowered learning that the Shah was incapacitated. The Shah, however, was not incapacitated, at least not as a result of his illness. Those who knew him intimately saw nothing debilitating in his mental or physical agility. His twin sister Ashraf believed he was in complete control.

His government and those he consulted with never suspected that he was ill. His generals saw some indecisiveness at the end but attributed it mostly to the pressures of the time. The two ambassadors who met him several times a week saw in him mood alterations, but nothing that would suggest illness. His friends who were with him almost daily during his moments of rest never thought he was ill.

“He was active; he did his exercises, and his demeanor was not changed,” said Professor Yahya Adl, an old friend going back to the times when he was still crown prince. Adl was a witness night after night to the Shah’s orders to his generals not to be violent enforcing martial law. He was not surprised, nor did he attribute it to the shah’s being ill or in any way not being himself. “He was always like this, since I have known him. He shunned violence, hoping some other way would be found to calm the situation.”

CK: Liberals, followers of Mossadegh, and leftwing opponents who supported Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the leader of the revolutionary movement later complained that their movement was ‘hijacked’ by Islamic fundamentalists. Do you agree with that view?

GRA: No. Neither of these groups was in a position to oppose Khomeini or successfully depose him after he had returned to Iran once the Shah had shown that he would not fight. Theirs was not a movement. It was at best a support for Khomeini’s movement.

CK: What were the Shah’s domestic challenges in the last years in power? Could he have done anything differently to save his throne?

GRA: In 1976 he opted for a new path. He experimented with decentralization of decision making, tried to rebuild the political structure through a movement called Rastakhiz that he hoped would evolve into a multi-party, democratic system. Had he had more time for civic organizing or been prepared to fight the far left and far right opposition, Iran and his son would have been the most precious legacy he would have left his people. He did not, and died a far better man, unwilling to succeed at the cost of his people’s life. Iranians lost a promising future. Less than three years later, he died in Egypt.

CK: Do you still regard the Iranian revolution as Thanatos on a National Scale, the title of one of your books?

GRA: In Greek mythology, Thanatos represents death. In his psychoanalytic interpretation of human life process, Sigmund Freud speaks of “the death instinct,” suggesting varieties of the urge toward self-destruction. In my representation of Thanatos, diverse groups of intelligent Iranians belonging to a spectrum of left to right, knowing little about Khomeini and what he stood for, abandoned reason and fact in favor of destroying a progressive system of government.

CK: Was the 1979 Iranian revolution inevitable? Could the Shah have done anything to forestall it? To what extent was he badly advised or contributed to his own downfall?

GRA: The Iranian revolution was not inevitable. It happened because it was made possible. It was made possible because the Shah’s military could but did not stop it. The military did not stop it because the military obeyed the Shah and the Shah would not allow it. The Shah did not allow it because, as always, he would not accede to causing his people’s death. And though he had a variety of advice, at the end, he himself became the cause of his own downfall.

CK: How would Iran have looked today if the Pahlavi monarchy had not fallen?

GRA: Clearly, Iran would be very different today had the Revolution not occurred. So would the rest of the Middle East. There would have been no Iran-Iraq war; Islamism would have been contained; untold number of Iranians, Iraqis and others would not have died, become maimed, or suffered displacement and exile; untold amounts of wealth, property, or infrastructure would not have been destroyed; clashes of civilizations likely would not have been invented, or if invented, believed [in] or implemented; the United States would not have been involved in war in the Persian Gulf; and, perhaps, globalization would have taken a slightly kinder hue. These, of course, are mere speculations. What has been and what might have been, however, can alert us to our past mistakes, present options, and future possibilities.


The featured image shows the official 1973 portrait of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

Madame Elisabeth Of France: Servant Of God

Elisabeth, Philippe, Marie, Hélène, daughter of the Dauphin Louis Ferdinand and the Dauphine, Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, was born on May 3, 1764, at the Château de Versailles, the last and eighth living child of the couple. Baptized the same day in the royal chapel of the castle, and held at the baptismal font by her brother the Duke of Berry, future Louis XVI. thus a first spiritual bond was established between the two siblings.

Orphaned when she was not yet three years old, Louis XVI took charge of her, along with all his other brothers and sisters, at the death of their father, Louis XV in May 1774. The little princess was of a difficult nature, stubborn, proud, angry, brought up by the governess of the Children of France, Madame de Marsan. But she changed under the influence of her sister Clotilde, and of Madame de Mackau, the royal governess and her daughter Marie-Angelique, to the point where the little “Babet,” as round and graceful as a pudding, became as joyful as spring-time. Clotilde and Elisabeth received an excellent education, both spiritual and intellectual, with Elisabeth showing a particular gift for mathematics (as an adult, she published a table of logarithms that became authoritative as a standard). One of the permissible pleasures was to go to Saint-Cyr to attend the Mass of the Blessed Sacrament and to share the routine of the boarders. From 1770, the two princesses also went to the Carmel of Saint-Denis, which their aunt Louise had just entered.

That same year, Marie-Antoinette married the Dauphin, Louis Auguste, and showed her affection for Elisabeth, who was a charming child with spirit, character and grace. The Court noticed that as she grew up, Elisabeth showed a deep faith. When Monsieur d’Angiviller, director of the king’s buildings, reported on the progress of the representation of the great national figures, Elisabeth asked him not to forget Bossuet. On May 28, 1775, when the ambassador of the Pasha of Tripoli and Barbary (Lybia) came to Versailles, Elisabeth contemplated him with tenderness. Intrigued Clotilde asked her:

“What are you thinking about?”

“I am thinking of his soul.”

“Let us pray for him.”

“You are right, sister. It is for Christians to pray for those who are not Christians, just as it is for the rich to give to the poor.”

Elizabeth was only eleven years old!

The happiness of her confirmation and her communion was tarnished by the departure of Clotilde for Turin, on August 29, 1775 where her sister went to join her future husband. Marie-Antoinette wrote, “The poor little girl is in despair. It is terrible for her…”

Faith, prayer and meditation helped Madame Elisabeth to overcome her first great sorrow. In May 1778, a House was established for her, and the teenager observed a regulated life of prayer, study, reading, horseback riding, which she loved and in which she demonstrated her fearlessness. Taking her parents as a model, she practiced the love of what is good and solicitude in charity. In November 1779, she had herself inoculated and took charge of twelve children, seven girls and five boys, so that they would also be inoculated and receive the same care as her.

She did not consider marriage any more than the cloister, knowingly, and went regularly to Saint-Cyr as well as to the Carmel of Saint-Denis, saying that one gets used to physical mortifications, but that the religious life being abdication of the will, renunciation of everything, it is necessary to prepare for it. Fulfilling her duty, staying close to her brother Louis XVI, was her way of serving God other than in a cloister. By obligation, she participated in the life of the Court, writing, “It costs me… to be a princess, it is often a terrible burden; but it is never more unpleasant to me than when it prevents the heart from acting.”

Single, she tried to follow Christ, her life in contact with the courtiers allowed her to help people whose needs one would not have suspected. It appears that her major concern was to put in conformity her human will with the divine will. Showing prudence, wisdom, she chose her friends with sagacity, showing constancy and devotion towards them; thus, she obtained from the King the advance of a dowry of 150 000 francs for Mademoiselle de Causans, depriving herself of Christmas presents for five years to pay off her debt. She became the spiritual guide of her friends until 1792 as her letters show.

In 1781 the King offered her the estate of Montreuil, where with Doctor Lemonnier she personally treated the sick and wounded free of charge, and looked after the needs of the villagers, especially children and orphans, and distributed milk, eggs and vegetables from her farm. Her monthly budget was never sufficient, yet her reputation for kindness was noted in the almanac des Muses. At court, she supported her brother and sister-in-law, on the death of their last daughter and the first Dauphin, and established ties with her niece, Madame Royale.

1789. Popular riots broke out in Paris, the Bastille was taken, the princess left Versailles and moved to the Tuileries, where she was called the Sainte-Geneviève of the Tuileries by the women of the market. Elisabeth encouraged the departure of her relatives and friends for exile or the provinces. The sister of Louis XVI, nourished by the French School of Spirituality, devoted herself to prayer, seeking the contemplation of the Heart of Christ, and acquired a strength that allowed her to share the worries, the torments of the monarchy in danger, and to resist. In February 1790, she wrote a vow for France to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to which several of her ladies associated themselves, and she offered two golden hearts to the cathedral of Chartres.

The hatred of the revolutionaries against Catholicism deeply affected the princess. After the promulgation of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, she persisted in following the road on which Providence had led her until then. In 1789, having refused a first time to leave France, with her brother Artois, she refused a second time in 1791 to follow her aunts and Abbé Madier her confessor, who left for Turin and Rome. She entrusted herself to Providence, under the direction of the abbot Edgeworth de Firmont, to remain near her brother and his family.

Then came the departure for Varennes, where she showed her coolness, thinking only to protect the Queen, which she does again on June 20, 1792, during the invasion of the Tuileries – Madame Elisabeth, running to her brother, was mistaken for the Queen. She stopped the one who was going to reveal the truth:

“Ah! please God, don’t mislead them: spare them from a greater crime!” She said, as she pushed aside a bayonet, and gently told the man pointing it:

“Be careful, Sir, you might hurt someone. and I am sure you would be upset afterwards.”

One common woman summed it up by saying:

“There was nothing to do today. Their good Saint Genevieve was there!”

The popular uprising reached its climax on August 10, 1792, when Elisabeth fled to the Assembly, spent the night in the Foyers in prayer, kneeling on a mattress on the floor, and took care of the royal children so that Marie-Antoinette could rest a little. Then, on August 13, 1792, she crossed Paris and entered the Temple, and refused a third time to leave her brother and his family.

In the Temple, Elisabeth, who had never been a court intriguer, developed a conspiratorial spirit, organizing a system of correspondence to get the news and pass it on, as well as a language to communicate with the servants and her brother when he was isolated during his trial. She deprived herself of medicine for the benefit of Clery, who was seriously ill, and educated the royal children, nursed them, conversed and amused the King, and supported the morale of the Queen. She secured the entry in the Tower of Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont, allowing her brother to confess, to attend, before his execution, the only Mass of his captivity.

Elisabeth’s personality asserted itself and it was to her that the municipality turned for many decisions. She affirmed her faith, asking for holy books, and sank into prayer in a corner of her room where she had hidden a cross that had been discovered during the demolition of the Tower. In his diary, Cléry writes, “How often have I seen Madame Elisabeth on her knees by her bed, praying fervently!” If she did not get food during Lent, she abstained. Finally, as long as she had the possibility, that is to say until the departure of the Queen, she worried about the people who surrounded her and looked after the woman Tison, who was sick, this very guard who has denounced them several times!

Arrested on May 9, while leaving her niece, whom she had always protected, she said to her:

“Have courage and firmness. Always hope in God. Rely upon the good principles of religion that your parents have given you.”

Condemned to death with twenty-four other victims, she helped them to prepare for death by lavishing them with words of faith in the merciful God, and saved the life of the Countess of Sérilly by forcing her to declare her pregnancy, forgetting that she herself had given her life for her family.

As the tumbrel passed by, the people admired her and did not insult her. The condemned surrounded her, and when the cart stopped, she stood up first, saying to her companions, “We will all meet again in heaven.” Each in turn, the women embraced her, the men bent the knee, while the princess recited the De Profundis. The last victim, heroic, bareheaded, she climbed the steps of the scaffold, showed a final gesture of modesty by asking to be covered with her scarf, before being thrust under the guillotine.

All the accounts and the memoirs of the time agree that at the moment she received the fatal blow, a smell of roses spread over the whole Place de la Révolution. Her body was buried, naked, in a common grave, in the cemetery of Errancis, now vanished. Since her death, her reputation for holiness has continued to grow, with prayers, books, paintings. On November 15, 2017, the Archbishop of Paris opened by decree, the cause in canonization of Elizabeth of France.

Madame Elizabeth used to recite the following prayer:

“What will happen to me today, O God, I do not know. All I know is that nothing will happen to me unless you have foreseen it from all eternity. That is enough for me, O God, to be at peace. I adore your eternal purposes. I submit to them with all my heart. I want everything, I accept everything, I make a sacrifice of everything to You. I unite this sacrifice to that of your dear Son, my Savior, asking You, through his Sacred Heart and through His infinite Merits, for patience in my troubles and perfect submission which is due to You for all that You will and allow. So be it.”

[An extract from Gabriel-François Nicollet, Le parfait adorateur du Sacré-Cœur de Jésus ou exercice pour les associés à la dévotion du Sacré-Cœur de Jésus].


Dominique Sabourdin-Perrin is a French historian who has notably published Madame Élisabeth de France (1764-1794). L’offrande d’une vie, Marie-Clotilde de France. La sœur oubliée de Louis XVI, et Élisabeth de Hongrie. Princesse de charité.


The featured image shows, “Madame Élisabeth de France,” by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard; painted ca. 1787.

The Importance Of Being Monarchical, or How To Temper Democracy

In the mid-1980s, the middle-aged English philosopher, editor of The Salisbury Review, wrote a column in the London Times, in which he noticed that the Austrian throne is empty and pointed to Otto von Habsburg who could fill the void. To some readers, even if they happened to be British subjects, his idea, I suspect, must have appeared facetious. However, Roger Scruton, the author of the column, who was knighted by Prince Charles in 2016, was a serious man. What others thought could be a joke, to Sir Roger was a serious matter. He spent his life defending and giving fresh meaning to what the progressives consider outrageous only because it is old or appears obsolete.

To be sure, the defense of monarchy in an environment in which democracy is thought of as divine, sounds like a sign of madness. Yet nowadays when democracy is performing very poorly and almost every week provides more and more evidence that discredits it, perhaps it is time to rethink our uncritical attitude to it.

On October 9, this year, the Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, announced that he would resign, after prosecutors began an investigation into allegations that he used public money to pay off pollsters and journalists for favorable coverage. Eight days earlier, on October 1st, the premier of Australia’s New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, “stepped down over a probe into her secret relationship with a lawmaker who is being investigated for corruption.” And on September 30th, former French President, Nikolas Sarkozy, was sentenced to one year for illegal campaign financing. All three scandals happened within less than two weeks.

This is not all. Remember the arch-popular Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva? In July 2017, he was convicted on corruption charges to 10 years in prison. In 2016, the world learned about the so-called “Panama papers.” It was discovered that over one hundred world leaders had offshore accounts to evade paying taxes.

Among them was Oxford-educated “philosopher king,” Abdullah II, of Jordan, who purchased three Malibu properties with the help of offshore companies for $68 million, in the years after the Arab Spring, when his subjects protested against corruption. But kings are kings and have always been in the habit of ripping-off their subjects – something which partisans of the popular government promised democracy would put an end to. Apparently, one does not have to be a king; enough to be a democratic head of state to do what corrupt kings do. The Panama papers include two British Prime ministers – Tony Blair and David Cameron – the Premier of the Czech Republic, several people associated with the Clinton Foundation, and many more.

The USA – the bedrock of democracy – is not a place to look for honest politicians, either. In fact, the US is infested with dishonest politicians, many of whom rot in prison, put there by their electors. In Baltimore, where I resided for almost 15 years, all three mayors during my residence there had to step down on corruption charges. In 2014, Bob McDonnell, the governor of the neighboring state of Virginia, and his wife, Maureen, were indicted on federal corruption charges; so was the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich (who was sentenced to 14 years in prison), as well as three other governors of the same State.

If you still believe that democracy is a solution to the problem of corrupt government, you’d better read Plato’s Republic or Gorgias, or buy a lantern and, like Diogenes in Athens who tried to find an honest man, look for an honest civil servant who puts the good of those who elected him before self-interest. Many of those who believe democracy to be the best confuse commitment to democracy with commitment to simple human honesty and decency. Unfortunately, when it comes to honesty, democracy does not score higher than other regimes and is likely to continue being the source of frustration to those who put their faith in the people.

The list of corrupted democratic politicians will continue to grow in; and this is not a question of probability but certainty. Democracy, it needs to be stressed, provides more transparency than any other system; it may have eliminated the arbitrary brutal use of physical violence by the politicians, which means that we no longer need to be afraid of living under autocrats like generals Pinochet or Franco and shah Reza Pahlavi, or African political gangsters, like Paul Biya of Cameroon, president since 1982, who exploit and abuse their people. However, as thirst for blood among democratic leaders goes unsatisfied, they instead turn filling their pockets and deceive the naïve public that they serve. That is why the system is not working very well.

An army of naïve political scientists and commentators write books for the believers in popular government on “how to save democracy.” The journalists of the Washington Post lie to the public that “democracy dies in darkness,” while supporting corrupt Left-wing politicians. Social activists, on the other hand, scream louder and louder that the only way to save democracy is to expand it even further. The last suggestion is the surest way to corrupt even more people. Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but any amount of power will also corrupt – which means that allowing more people to govern will also corrupt a greater number of them. In recent decades democracy started looking like a place where everyone could enrich himself. The careless get caught; others get away; and ordinary people get no share in the big pie.

Thomas Jefferson was an idealist who, as we learn from his letter to J. Langdon, 1810, thought that hereditary monarchs were “all body and no mind,” who can do nothing but mischief. But he was also a realist who knew that the only way to make democracy work is, as he explained it John Adams in a letter of October 28, 1813, to find natural aristocrats to rule over the rest: “The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society… May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government.”

That was two hundred and eight years ago. Today we can say that Jefferson was mistaken. The democratic environment, which tends to grow and destroy non-democratic elements around it, is fundamentally hostile to creating conditions in which aristocratic virtues can grow. Rather, the opposite is the case – under the influence of democracy even royals succumb to the democratic malaise. It happened to Prince Harry who has recently left the confines of Windsor Castle to settle down in democratic America. So far, the news for the lovers of monarchy is not good. Instead of transplanting aristocratic virtues to America, Prince Harry has become a celebrity. He began his life in the New World by whining on Oprah Winfrey’s show how miserable it is to be a royal and how nasty other royals can be. If you are emotional, you can even feel sorry for him – he is presented as a man who suffered greatly under the heavy yoke of the aristocratic code.

We should not be surprised, however, why democracy suffers from malaise. The political consequence of the decline of aristocratic order was described by the English poet and literary critic, Matthew Arnold. In his essay “On Democracy” (1879), Arnold saw what Jefferson (most likely because his dislike for hereditary aristocracy deprived him of objectivity) missed. He points out that there where aristocracy does not exist, ordinary people are deprived of the ideal that can ennoble them. Where are the Washingtons, Hamiltons and Madisons today? Arnold exclaims in his essay, pointing to the fact that American democracy is unable to regrow the greatness which one found in the generation raised when America was part of the British Crown. What grew instead was the power of the State.

Arnold, it seems, was right, which is testified by the language used in democratic countries. “The most powerful man in the world,” and “the most powerful woman in the world” (as Americans refer to the President and the First Lady); or “the most powerful country in the world” – all are part of everyday journalistic vocabulary in America. (Even the presence of the omnipotent Xi Jing Ping at the same dinner table is unable to change this democratic perception).

It would be wrong to think that such expressions mean that Americans are self-obsessed. Rather, they point to what Matthew Arnold predicted must happen. When a country lost its highest class which “dictated the tone for the nation,” the nation tended to augment the power of the State to see it as dignified and great. However, this democratic jive is not peculiar to America. It can be found in France, another country in which democracy, too, took very deep roots. The President of the Republic acts and looks (especially during the swearing in ceremony) like a secular king, anointed by the people. His residence, the Presidential Palace, just like the White House, reminds you of royal residence.

This is not so in Great Britain. 10 Downing Street looks like an unpretentious townhouse which you see all over London or Baltimore; and it was so even at the end of the 19th century when the British ruled over one fourth of the globe. British Prime Ministers behave like “civil servants.” The reason is simple: Prime ministers in a constitutional monarchy have someone above them, which is a reminder that the power of the people has limits. Whatever a Prime Minister may think of his great talents, the existence of the monarch, even if only symbolic, has a tempering effect on the Prime Minister’s ego. That is why we can’t imagine someone like Donald Trump as British Prime Minister. Were it to happen, I suspect that the British would likely choose to live under a real, not symbolic, monarchy.

Monarchies are a common heritage of all those who look for the cultural roots of Europe. The British monarchy is not the only one in Europe. Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Monaco and Norway are monarchies, too (the Bulgarian king Simeon lives in Spain). But the British monarchy is the most visible and its well-being should matter to everyone. It is the most powerful symbol of the old order which is obsolete only to those who put faith in a system that is far from being ideal. For this defective system to work for the common good we need to be very vigilant. The proclivity for corruption of the managers of this system is (or should be) all too obvious and given the fact how often these managers of democracy are charged with financial impropriety, one may wonder whether any constitutional monarch would survive if he was so often implicated in corruption scandals.

However, what should worry us more than financial scandals are the totalitarian tendencies which democracies developed in the last several decades. Monarchy is a place where a nation finds the continuity of its tradition while totalitarian regimes erase all traces of the past. Democracies today are in the process of doing just that. Changes in the language so that it mirrors an egalitarian worldview, destruction of monuments, changes in educational curricula, forcing us to accept the idea that sex is a matter of choice are the most visible signs of the break with tradition. However, why that is the case should not surprise us. The past and human relationships tell us that reality is hierarchical. Hierarchy is what the progressive egalitarians are against. The past stands in their way to claim absolute power.

There is only one other institution which is like monarchy: it is the Papacy in which the Catholics, regardless of their nationality, find the continuity of their tradition. In one respect, the Papacy is an even more powerful symbol than monarchy – it is older than any single dynasty, and it includes our Greek and Roman heritage, while the monarchy is national. To be sure, not all popes were saints. Only a few of them lived a life which would lead anyone to heaven. But saintliness of life applies to individuals, while tradition is group behavior. When it is based on high ideals, tradition translates into noble behavior of a group, which we call a nation. The function of tradition is to provide us with signs that lead us in this life. Without clear signs on how to behave, nations are lost. They become demoralized and are in danger of indulging in monstrous behavior.

The monarchy will last as long as the royals behave like royals. This is what they owe us — ordinary people. We do not need royals who act like celebrities; we need the aristocracy to ennoble us, take us to a higher level. Once royals act like the commons, the monarchy will vanish; and when that happens, the future will likely, once again, belong to nationalist democracies turned totalitarian. As 20th century experience teaches us, democracies tend to collapse in times of crises and generate hard-core dictatorships, outside of which there is no source of values except ideology.

Mr. Trump acted like those mad kings described by Thomas Jefferson in his letter. But the problem with Jefferson’s argument against monarchy, which is the only one he formulated, is that one can always dethrone a mad ruler and replace him with a sane one. However, it is impossible to dethrone a population seized by egalitarian madness, enticed by populist demagogues who speak like Mussolini or Hitler. Seeing Greta Thunberg on the throne of Sweden would be something truly terrifying. We can only hope that the Swedish king, Carl Gustaf, will continue to rule with dignity, as he has done for many decades, and that monarchies will survive to save us from mad populists and democratic egalitarians.


Zbigniew Janowski is the author of several books on 17th century philosophy, as well as, Homo Americanus: The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy in America and is the editor of John Stuart Mill’s writings.


The featured image shows, “The Coronation of Queen Victoria in Westminster Abbey 28 June 1838,” by Sir George Hayter; painted in 1838.