Why was Haile Selassie important

Haile Selassi, the last king of kings, was crowned 90 years ago

Few of the European participants in the glamorous ceremony on November 2, 1930 in Addis Ababa - be it the Marshal of France, the Duke of Gloucester, son of King George V of England or the Prince of Udine as emissary of the Italian king, his cousin - must have been aware that the coronation of Teferi Mekonnen as Neguse Negest - the king of kings -, Haile Selassie heralded the end of an era. With Haile Selassie (1892–1975), a cousin of Emperor Menelik II, the last representative of a dynasty that had ruled the Christian empire on the Horn of Africa since 1270 came to the throne of Ethiopia.

Würzburg (DT) "As the father of the country, rich in virtues, you endured a lot of shame, Charles of Austria." The opening song of the holy mass on the feast day of the blessed emperor Karl already gave an idea of ​​how his life was shaped. A large and virtuous heart, responsibility for a multiethnic state and, last but not least, a tragic fate determine the image that history and pious admiration paint of the last Habsburg monarch. On Saturday the blessed was commemorated at a spiritual symposium in Würzburg. Embedded in a supporting program consisting of the Rosary, Holy Mass and Eucharistic devotion - three forms of piety that Karl also actively cultivated - the historical and current significance of Karl's life and work were thematized.

However, it was not a dynasty in the strict sense, as every relative within the extended family was eligible for the imperial dignity. According to their founding myth, the Ethiopian imperial family was also referred to as the "Solomon dynasty" because it can be traced back to the Jewish King Solomon. According to the Old Testament, the "Queen of Sheba" visited the Jewish King Solomon. According to the Ethiopian legend, this queen was an Ethiopian ruler, whose association with Solomon gave birth to a son named Menelik, who, when he grew up, visited his father in Jerusalem, but then followed, with the Ark of the Covenant and accompanied by numerous sons of Jewish nobles Ethiopia returned, where he became King as Menelik I and subsequently the 'true Israel' came into being. The ark of the covenant - Ethiopian, tabot ‘- has been kept since then and until today, so the legend goes, in the old metropolis of Aksum (today located near the northern Ethiopian border with Eritrea).

In contrast to the Jews in Jerusalem, the Ethiopians - following their own narrative - soon adopted Christianity, which has since made up the core and essence of their identity. In fact and demonstrably, however, Christianity did not come to the Horn of Africa until the 4th century, probably across the Red Sea, where King Ezana made it the state religion. Since then, the empire of Aksum has led a decidedly Christian policy, was allied with (also Christian) Byzantium and intervened in southern Arabia in the 6th century to protect the Christians there. The "Solomonic dynasty" continued this Christian tradition, even though it did not take power until the 13th century.

Asfa-Wossen Asserate describes the life and work of Haile Selassie with a wealth of facts, differentiated and on a high literary level. From Stephan Baier

This tradition was still the official narrative of the Ethiopian Empire in the 20th century, the self-image of Haile Selassie was also rooted in this imperial ideology and practically all Christian Ethiopians were deeply convinced of the truth of this legendary tale, even if it is ahistorical. The reign of Haile Selassie was an era of crises and fractures, new challenges and a rapidly changing world. Even in the years before his coronation as regent, the emperor had understood that he and Ethiopia as its ruler had to position themselves in an international context - he made trips abroad, gave speeches to the League of Nations and presented himself to the world as the worthy ruler of an ancient Christian empire Tradition.

United States ally

Haile Selassie's role was threatened early on - in 1935, fascist Italy conquered her empire, the emperor fled into exile in England, not without making a brilliant speech in Geneva about his position and the role of his state and his dynasty in the international community. He doesn't fail to have an impact - Time Magazine named him Man of the Year in 1936. The British liberated Africa Orientale Italiana ‘in 1940/41, which, in addition to Ethiopia, had already included Somalia and Eritrea for decades.

Haile Selassie could now return to his throne. He had recognized where the future lay at the end of World War II - the Kaiser turned to the United States, which were happy to win an ally who, in an increasingly difficult environment, fit in well with their worldview. In the midst of an Arab-Islamic world that was becoming more and more anti-imperialist-anti-western, in which the old regimes were overthrown and revolutionaries with a leftist agenda took power, an arch-conservative Christian monarch seemed a valuable ally and a factor of stability that would also secure American influence helped. In this context it was only logical that the West helped to integrate Eritrea, the country on the Red Sea, into the Ethiopian Empire. In 1950 the United Nations had planned an Ethiopian-Eritrean federation, which was to be implemented in 1952, with Eritrea having its own parliament and its own constitution, but this federation was more and more dismantled and devalued as a result of Ethiopia, and Eritrea was finally annexed and annexed in 1962 incorporated as a province into the Ethiopian Empire.

As a Christian monarch a factor of stability in the region

Since the 1940s, Eritrea had become the location of American military bases, the most important of which, Kagnew Station, was a listening post in Asmara, from which the Middle East, South Asia, Africa and the Indian Ocean area were monitored. In this respect, the annexation of Eritrea by the US allied Ethiopia was definitely in the American interest. For his part, the emperor constantly received high American aid payments, on which the archaic empire was increasingly dependent.

His intransigent Eritrean politics, however, had created a trouble spot for Haile Selassie and his empire for decades, which not least contributed to his overthrow. With his brutal repression of Eritrean autonomy and independence and his attempt to play Christians and Muslims off against each other, the emperor turned the Eritreans of both religions against him. With his archaic, autocratic mode of rule, he created discontent throughout Ethiopia. The emperor liked to present himself as a modernizer - but his understanding of modernity was purely technical and scientific. His image of society remained deeply traditionalist, with imperial tradition and Christianity remaining closely linked - Ethiopia was and remained first and foremost a Christian state. The emperor, as it was also stipulated in the constitution of 1955, owed his dignity and dominant position in the kingdom to God alone. Popular sovereignty, the rule of law and human rights were at best relative terms, because the emperor stood above everything. Ultimately, the Ethiopian monarchy collapsed because of the rigid retention of this concept.

End of a 700 year dynasty

Haile Selassie did not understand the signs of the times. He learned nothing from a failed coup in 1960. In 1974, a left-wing military coup by Major Mengistu Haile Maryam ended not only half a century of the Haile Selassie era, but also the 700-year epoch of his dynasty, which in the 1955 constitution reveals the biblical myth of their descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had affirmed. With the reign of the emperor, who was murdered in 1975, the influence of the USA also came to an end, and the now communist Ethiopia turned to the Soviet Union.

Even if the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia has lost its dominant position under communist regimes - deep piety, which is still alive today in countless churches and monasteries and many Christian festivals, is also characteristic of both Ethiopia and Eritrea in the present, although both are left-wing Governments have. The Eritrean struggle for freedom, triggered by Haile Selassie's inflexible and violent repression around 1960, led to the country's independence in 1991 after more than 30 years. Ethiopia has not come to rest since the death of the last emperor until today. But in Aksum even today gullible tourists are shown the supposed palace of the Queen of Sheba.

The author is an orientalist. His new book on the history of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa will be published in spring 2021.

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