Oh, those exiled monarchs!-Obit Mag
July 9, 2012
King Zahir Shah, and the Exiled Monarch
Michael Currie Schaffer
Obit Mag: July 5, 2012
By the time King Mohammad Zahir Shah died five summers ago, at age 92, he could hardly have seemed less representative of the country he ruled from 1933 to 1973. In the decades since his overthrow, Afghanistan had become known as a blood-drenched land tyrannized by barely literate terrorists, mullahs, and warlords. Its worldly former king, on the other hand, spent those years in a quiet Italian villa, venturing out for the occasional trip to an antiquarian bookshop. Yet if the French-educated Zahir Shah was out of place among the strongmen and religious fanatics of Kabul, he was a classic example of an archetype that once flourished in more cosmopolitan locales: the exiled royal.
That archetype wasn’t always so rare. Back when a teenage Zahir Shah took his throne — the same year Franklin Roosevelt entered the White House — such figures were well-known in a Europe whose capitals had long swarmed with displaced Romanovs, Habsburgs, or Bourbons. And when Afghanistan’s monarchy was itself upended four decades later, the blue-blooded exile scene included new outcasts from thrones in the Middle East and Asia. But by the time Hamid Karzai finally brought Zahir Shah back to Kabul, although not back to the throne, the ex-king was among the last of his elite tribe.
In its earlier days, that tribe included towering historical figures — many plotting battlefield comebacks against the usurpers back home. British King James II wound up under the protection of his French counterpart after being deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. His return home two years later ended in defeat at the Battle of the Boyne. A century later, the heir to the French throne, Louis XVIII, spent years wooing royal houses across Europe, who in turn helped him take power after Napoleon’s defeat. Exile, in fact, was something of a tradition among France’s 19th century kings and emperors: Napoleon died on the south Atlantic island of St. Helena. Kings Charles X and Louis-Phillipe ended their lives holed up in foreign monarchies. Their imperial successor, Napoleon III, died while banished to England in 1873.
The heyday of the exiled monarch, however, came later, after World War I helped end many European monarchies for good. The luckier ones — like Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm or Habsburg emperor Chares I — lost their crowns without losing their lives. Not that they were always satisfied with merely surviving: Charles spent his final years plotting in vain to bring the monarchy back to Austria, or at the very least to Hungary. Still, he lived to scheme another day. The Russian Royal family was slaughtered, leaving less-credentialed relatives to rally overseas émigrés against the Bolsheviks. But when it came to getting back into power, appealing to anticommunism proved no more successful than appealing to the divine right of kings. The age of monarchy was passing for good.
Perhaps those long odds against a restoration explain the rise in the 1920s of a more comic archetype: the exiled royal dandy. While the deposed Portuguese King Manuel II spent his forced Parisian retirement writing a book on renaissance literature, King Zog of Albania was a classic early jet-setter. He spent World War II at The Ritz in London, at one point demanding a more exclusive air-raid shelter than the one ordinary guests used (the hotel ultimately provided a ladies’ cloakroom for the Albanian contingent). After the war, “King Zog’s circus,” as British officials called his 115-member court, moved on to the French Riviera.
Zog’s Egyptian friend King Farouk proved an even bigger exemplar of this archetype — literally. By the time he died in Roman exile in 1965, the displaced gourmand weighed nearly 300 pounds. The weight, however, didn’t stop him from becoming a playboy fixture of Rome’s Via Veneto. In his autobiography, Federico Fellini recounts a scene that inspired La Dolce Vita: “One evening I sat enthralled for a long time, gazing at a fat man with a black mustache drinking mineral water at a table in the Cafe de Paris, enjoying the cool sunset with a girl like some fruitful goddess: it was the ex-king Of Egypt, Farouk. I watched the photographers prowling round his table and realized that they were pushing their bulbs closer and closer to him, just to annoy. In the end Farouk leapt furiously to his feet, the table was overturned, people rushed up and the cameras flashed more than ever.”
The most famous of the café-society ex-monarchs wasn’t officially an exile at all — Edward VIII of England, who abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson. As the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the couple settled in Paris, seething over slights from his royal relatives (from whom they nonetheless gladly accepted an allowance). The resentment pushed Edward to flirt with Hitler; Winston Churchill eventually made the duke governor of the Bahamas to get him out of the way. After the war, the couple was back in Paris, throwing lavish parties in their government-owned house in the Bois du Boulogne. Among those they hosted was Gore Vidal, who came away unimpressed. While Mrs. Simpson had “a flapper’s wisecracking charm,” Vidal wrote in a 1995 memoir, the ex-king “always had something of such riveting stupidity to say on any subject that I clung to his words like the most avid courtier of the ancien regime.”
Edward VIII died in 1972, a year before Zahir Shah joined the ranks of the formerly crowned. By that point, the supply of blue-blooded exiles was dwindling. While the decade saw the 1973 overthrow of Greece’s King Constantine and the 1979 flight of Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi, it also demonstrated once and for all that fulminating from distant hotel suites isn’t the way back to the palace. Instead, the model for restoration was blazed by Spain’s Juan Carlos, who returned home under the tutelage of the dictator who dominated Spain during the royal family’s absence. When Francisco Franco died, Juan Carlos took the throne as the sort of quiet, constitutionally checked monarch who could finally bring his country into the 20th century.
With his reserved manner and his fondness for chess, Zahir Shah may have had similar dreams. During the Soviet invasion, he refused to lead the Aghan resistance; after the Taliban’s fall, he declined to challenge Karzai for the presidency. In the process, he got closer than many might have thought possible to the dream life of monarch as country gentleman: When he died, the ailing ex-king was again in Kabul, enshrined in a new constitution as “father of the nation.”
“I do not care about the title of King,” he told reporters. “The people call me Baba [grandfather], and I prefer this title.” His was not the glamorous style of many royal exiles who stayed abroad, and hardly the power imagined by some who sought to return home. But given the track records of Zahir Shah’s dwindling breed of deposed kings, he did pretty well for himself
Michael Currie Schaffer is writing a book about the pet industry and American culture. He last wrote for Obit about Effi Barry.