Is Haile Selassie one of the most bizarre and misunderstood figures in 20th-century history?

King of Kings: The Triumph and Tragedy of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia by Asfa-Wossen Asserate – review

Is Haile Selassie is one of the most bizarre and misunderstood figures in 20th-century history?

Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia, in Geneva in 1935. Photograph: Lucien Aigner/Corbis

Haile Selassie is one of the most bizarre and misunderstood figures in 20th-century history, alternately worshipped and mocked, idolised and marginalised. This magnificent biography by the German-Ethiopian historian Asfa-Wossen Asserate (a distant relation of Selassie), and translated by Peter Lewis, is diligently researched and fair-minded; he is at last accorded a proper dignity. The book is manifestly a riposte to Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, which portrayed the emperor, and indeed Addis Ababa’s entire Amharic elite, as a comic-opera laughing stock.

Selassie came to power as regent of Abyssinia, later Ethiopia, in 1916, but many of the myths around him originated with Mussolini’s invasion of the country in 1935. Selassie and his armies resisted, but he was eventually forced into exile. In 1941, after six years of brutal occupation, the Italians were defeated by British and South African forces and Selassie was allowed to return to his throne in Addis Ababa, where he remained in power until 1974.

One unexpected side-effect of the plunder of Selassie’s sub-Saharan state by a fascist power was to give Jamaica’s fledgling Rastafari movement impetus and a cause. The invasion became a dominant event in the Rastafarian narrative of black martyrdom. Selassie was seen as a manifestation of the one true God and a bulwark against “Babylon” (oppressive colonial society). The movement took its name from Selassie’s pre-coronation title, Ras Tafari Makonnen.

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