The Times April 25 2011
The royal wedding makes an old radical swell with pride
Bereft of real monarchs, eastern Europe is ruled by politician-kings
In my younger, radical days, I was a red-hot republican. Kings and queens were an absurd anachronism — their claim to rule because of some accident of birth an insult to reason and democracy; their insatiable appetite for yachts, palaces and personal toothpaste squeezers an expensive outrage.I still think the Royal Family costs too much, but it’s not only the onset of middle age that makes me flush with patriotic pride when I think about the royal wedding. My reason goes deeper, too, than the knowledge that nobody does pomp and circumstance better than us. Rather, after twenty years of reporting on central and eastern Europe, I appreciate the profound importance of the monarchy in ensuring social stability, providing a symbol of healthy national identity, even safeguarding the rule of law.
The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War destroyed Europe’s historical continuity, setting in motion a chain of disasters from which it has yet to recover. Out went Karl I, the Habsburg Emperor, in 1918 and with him went nascent democracy, political and economic stability, property rights, protection for minorities and a flourishing middle class, the best guarantee of prosperity. Bolshevik revolutions, right-wing putsches, fascism, Nazism and decades of Soviet dictatorship followed. In Russia the Romanov royal family was killed in a messy execution, the bourgeoisie was physically eradicated, property was “socialised” and 70 years of terror ensued. Russia and the world are still paying the price.
Even now, hazy memories of peace and stability under the Habsburgs endure — and not just among conservatives. The royal name still resonates across its former domains. Gyula Horn, a socialist Prime Minister of Hungary and once an ardent communist, made Gyorgy Habsburg, the grandson of Karl I, his ambassador for European integration in the 1990s.
Constitutional monarchies — politically constrained, this is the 21st century, after all — stabilise young democracies. When right-wing soldiers attempted a military coup in Spain in 1981, storming parliament and holding MPs hostage, King Juan Carlos, probably the only figure around whom the nation could unite, took control and helped to restore democracy.
Bereft of actual monarchs, much of central and eastern Europe is now ruled by politician-kings whose formative years were spent under communism, when the divine right of royalty was replaced by the divinity of dialectic. From the Baltic to the Balkans, these politicians picked up bad habits of minds. First, the authoritarian impulse is ingrained in them because the end always justified the means on the path to a just and classless society. And second, because that classless society turned out to be a cruel joke, they still have the “screw the system” mentality of those who lived under communism. There is barely any sense of public service, and these self-interested politicians ensure that they and a few lucky courtiers are enriched by crony capitalism while poverty and corruption soar.
Nor have the squabbles of empire faded. Old enmities have been reawakened: none could have been more destructive than the wars that ripped Yugoslavia apart; today Hungary and Slovakia constantly squabble. National identities are formed against imagined enemies, internal or external. Uncertain of their place in the world, new states obsess about banner and flags, languages and emblems. Hungary’s controversial new constitution, approved last week, makes much of the millennia-old Holy Crown, the centrepiece of its coronations. That has sparked accusations that the ruling party is wallowing in a nostalgia at odds with a 21st-century European democracy.
Ironically, Gyorgy Habsburg is far more modern and open-minded than most of Mitteleuropa’s leaders. Prince William and Kate Middleton have shown how a young, attractive couple can be a focal point for a national identity rooted not in ancient grievances but in simple pride in a country’s history and enjoyment of its pageantry. Perhaps it’s time for a Habsburg to be crowned again. Step forward, King George?