307 The deferred 20th-century demise of the ancien régime

In 2014 the world will begin to mark the centenaries of the First World War and its attendant effects. These include the end of the age-old Central European dynasties. However, the end of the dynasties began earlier, in 1910, one hundred years ago this week, in unexpected places. As far as Schwartz is concerned, the celebrations can start right now.

One hundred years ago this week [written on 25 August 2010] the final unraveling of the dynasties of the ancien régime began. It started on the furthest ends of the Euroasian continent, in Korea and Portugal and proceeded in a pincer movement to bring down the empires of the center. This is a different view of early 20th-century history than I have so far encountered in the textbooks. Histories of that period are full of the end of empire and its premonitions, but they pay little attention to the age-old dynasties that disappeared around the time of the First World War. I cannot believe that bonds between a dynasty and a people that lasted for hundreds of years can be done away with from one day to the next. In consideration of that postulate, let us have a look at the end not of the empires but the dynasties. The selection below is limited, with the exception of the Qajars, to dynasties that exercised rule for at least a quarter of a millennium. The final, uncomfortable example, concerns the present-day reaction to the authoritarian cessation in 1924 of a polity that had existed for 1292 years.


Joseon (Chosun) dynasty of Korea (1391-1910): 519 years

1910, 22 August: the seal of Emperor Sunjong of Korea is put to the Treaty of Annexation – by Japan. The occurrence is known in Korea as Humiliation of the Nation in the Year of the Dog. Sunjong, who had succeeded his father only in 1907, was the last ruler of the Chosun dynasty, which came to power in 1391. Called by some commentators “weak and incapable,” by others “retarded,” he spent the remaining sixteen years of his life in a private enclosure of Changdeokgung Palace. No reference to a centenary marking of this event could be found by Schwartz on Internet.

Emperor Sunjong (1874-1926; r. 1907-10)

Braganza and Braganza-Coburg rulers of Portugal (1640-1910): 270 years

1910, 4 October: the last Braganza king of Portugal, Manuel II, flees to Gibraltar from revolutionaries and the Portuguese Republic is proclaimed. The end of the Bragazna dynasty, established in 1640, was not as abrupt as this may sound. Manuel had ruled for only two years, following the assassination of his father and elder brother in 1908. Manuel was known thereafter to royalist Portuguese as O Rei Saudade, the Lost King.

King Manuel II (1889-1932; r. 1908-10)

These unrelated events may not even have been known to the protagonists in their relatively isolated countries 10,500 kilometers apart from each other. Yet they inaugurated a season of similar occurrences in intervening lands, occurrences that affected more than two-thirds of Eurasia directly and the rest of world indirectly.

The fateful dates that followed within a decade and a half of those days in 1910 were:


Ch’ing (Manchu) dynasty of China (1644-1912): 268 years

1912, 12 February: Empress Dowager Longyu abdicates on behalf of the last emperor, Hsüan Tung or Puyi. China becomes a republic. Puyi retained imperial dignity without a throne until 1924, when he was forced to leave the Forbidden City. In the decades to follow his doings were dictated by Chinese and Japanese masters. For ten days in 1917 he was restored to the throne, and from 1932 to 1945 was styled ruler of Manchuria by the Japanese. Puyi died in Beijing on 17 February 1967.

Emperor Hsüan Tung (Puyi, 1906-67; r. 1908-12)



House of Romanov, tsars of Russia (1613-1917): 304 years

1917, 15 March (new style; 5 March, old style): Tsar Nicholas abdicates as ruler of Russia, the last representative of the Romanov and Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov dynasty that came to power in 1613.

7/17 July 1918: executed at Yekaterinburg with his entire family by the Bolsheviks. All were canonized as Bearers of the Passion in 1981 by the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia and in 2000 by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Tsar Nicholas II (Nikolai Alexandrovich, 1868-1918; r. 1894-1917)



Hohenzollern electors of Brandenburg, kings of Prussia, emperors of Germany (1440-1918): 478 years

1918, 9 November: Prince Max of Baden announces the abdication of the Hohenzollern emperor of the German Empire and king of Prussia, Wilhelm II. From 1440 on the Hohenzollerns had occupied royal and imperial positions in Germany.

The following day, Wilhelm left Germany for the Netherlands, where he remained for the rest of his life, protected from extradition by Queen Wilhelmina. He was allowed to remove the contents of his palace at Potsdam, which he installed in a country house in the town of Doorn that became the last Hohenzollern palace. He died there on 4 June 1941.

Kaiser Wilhelm II (Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert von Hohenzollern, 1859-1941; r. 1888-1918)


Ernestine dukes of Saxe-Meiningen (1618-1918): 300 years

1918, 10 November: forced abdication of Bernhard III, the brother-in-law of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

“Bernhard assumed the duchy of Saxe-Meiningen after the death of his father in 1914. His short reign was affected by World War I. When Germany lost the war, all the German princes lost their titles and states. Bernhard was forced to abdicate as duke on 10 November 1918, and spent the rest of his life in his former country as a private citizen.” (Wikipedia)

Bernhard III (1851-1928, r. 1914-1918)

Albertine Wettin counts, dukes, prince-electors and kings of Saxony (1485-1918): 433 years

1918, 13 November: sharing the fate of his Hohenzollern protectors, King Friedrich August III of Saxony abdicates and leaves Dresden without a fight. The son of Maria Anna de Bragança e Saxe-Coburgo-Gotha and through her and his Wettin father related to many of the royal houses of Europe, Friedrich August III lowered the curtain on the rule of the best-connected dynasty in Europe.

Died in Sibyllenort, Lower Silesia and was buried in Dresden.

Friedrich August III (1865-1932; r. 1904-18)

Habsburg sovereigns of Austria-Hungary (1276-1918): 642 years

1918, 11/13 November: Karl I, emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, relinquishes political responsibility for the two halves of his empire, ending Habsburg political authority that can be said to have commenced in 1276. The Hungarians called him thenceforth the last king.

Karl did not consider his relinquishing of power to constitute abdication. In 1919, when he refused to cede formal power to the Austrian Republic, he was obliged to leave the country with his family. After an unsuccessful attempt to regain the Hungarian throne in 1921 he was banished by the Allies to Madeira. He died in Funchal, Madeira, on 1 April 1922. In 2004 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II for putting his Catholic faith above other considerations in his politics.

Kaiser Karl I (Karl Franz Josef von Habsburg, 1887-1922; r. 1916-18)


Ottoman sultans of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922): 623 years

1922, 1 November: The Turkish Grand National Assembly abolishes the sultanate, putting to an end the tenure of Mehmed VI and Ottoman rule itself, which had been in force since 1299.

“He died on May 16, 1926 in Sanremo, Italy, and was buried at the mosque of Sultan Selim I in Damascus. On November 19, 1922 his first cousin and Crown Prince Abdülmecid Efendi was elected Caliph, becoming the new ancestral head of the dynasty as Abdülmecid II.” (Wikipedia.)

Sultan Mehmed VI (1861-1926, r. 1918-22)



Qajar dynasty of Persia (1781-1925): 144 years

1925, 31 October: formal cessation of Qajar rule, after the sultan had been deposed in 1921 by a military coup lead by Reza Pahlavi and had left the country with his family in 1923.

Died on 21 February 1930 in Neuilly-sur-Seine. His brother Mohammad Hassan Mirza claimed to be holder of the dynastic succession.

Ahmad Shah Qajar (1898-1930; r. 1909-25)

None of these ten individuals was a charismatic leader. Their titles, dignities and offices had been hollowed out by the time they inherited them. The choices available to them, especially the political choices, were not those of sovereign rulers. The glorious past of their dynasties must have weighed on them heavily, one more than the other. Yet, they represented centuries of national tradition; their names were often synonymous with their countries or empires. Their departure from the scene was more than a personal event.

If nature abhors a vacuum, so does society. The space absented by the lost kings is hardly a vacuum. For different reasons, local and foreign tourists flock irrepressibly to the Chosun imperial palaces of Seoul, Mafra Palace of the Braganzas, the Forbidden City, the Hermitage, the Hohenzollern palaces of Berlin and Potsdam, the Wettin Zwinger in Dresden, Habsburg Vienna, Budapest and Prague, Ottoman Topkapi and Qajar Golestan Palace. They come less out of interest in the political history of empires than out of fascination for the personalities of the dynasts and their glamorous palaces. Nonetheless, there is a void, a phantom sensation where once had been a head.

Several of the disempowered dynasties have maintained their family structures and continue to advance pretendents to the thrones they were forced to leave. The son of Kaiser Karl I, Otto von Habsburg (1912-2011), relinquished the crown-princedom of Austria in 1961 but continued to claim Hungary until his death. From 1979 to 1999 Otto settled for the more modest office of a member of the European Parliament. The Wettins have been successful in the twenty-first century in claiming properties that were seized from them in the 1910s and 1940s. Some of the ancient dignities represented by the lost kings have been revived as symbols, even if ironically. The first post-Communist president of Russia was called Tsar Boris.

For the above ten lost kings and their progeny no restoration has ever been in sight. But there is an eleventh man who left a gap like a geological fault, a fault that rumbled on and off in the twentieth century and erupted in an earthquake in the twenty-first. The Ottomans were not only sultans of the empire that bore their name. Following their accession to power in 1299, they also laid claim to the caliphate, the political leadership of the umma, the world community of Muslims. This is the largest single polity in the world.

The Caliphate (632-1924): 1289 years

1924, 3 March: Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), the founder of the Turkish Republic, abolishes the caliphate, which before it was held by the Ottoman sultans had been in the hands of Abbassid (8-13th century) and Ummayad (7-8th century) rulers since the year 632. The last caliph was Abdülmecid II, a cousin of Mehmed VI.

Abdülmecid II (1868-1944; r. 1922-24)

The restoration of the caliphate was the central aim of Osama bin Laden (1957-2011) and of most jihadi movements. The dynasties strike back.

© 2010 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 25 August 2010. On 29 January 2013 the Ernestine duchy of Saxe-Meiningen added, and wording concerning Osama bin Laden and Otto von Habsburg adapted.

13 March 2017: The Caliphate of the Islamic State bears little resemblance to its predecessor, and in my judgment – or is it only wishful thinking? – will soon be little more than a name. It will however not be the last Caliphate.

A quiet summer at home was interrupted only for the first ten days in August, which Loekie and I spent in Romania. From 2 to 6 August I was on the faculty of the Transylvania Heritage University in the village of Daia, east of Sibiu.  The founder and head of the university is the Brussels art dealer Jan De Maere, who built the small, delightful campus on ground that he owns in Daia. The Romanian students came from museums, art galleries and government, the foreign students were adults from the U.S., Spain and Germany. The summer course took as its subject art connoisseurship, a field on which De Maere will be taking his Ph.D. in Geneva later this year. The students were able to benefit from discussions in Daia and at the Brukenthal Museum in Sibiu between De Maere and the faculty, which also included Claus Grimm, retired director of the House of German History in Augsburg, George Gordon of Sotheby’s, Maximiliaan Martens of Ghent University and others who arrived after we left. All classes, as well as the visits to Sibiu and excursions to towns and fortified churches in the province, were attended by all students and faculty, making for intense discussions at quite a high level. The talks included inspiring demonstrations of what good connoisseurship can accomplish and how damaging the practice can be if it gets carried away with itself. I’ll be returning next year.

From the 6th to the 10th, we were grateful guests of friends in the tiny village of Mănăstirea Humorului in the province of Suceava in the east of the country. The countryside there, in Bucovina, is hillier and greener than Transylvania, and the villages seem quite a bit more prosperous. The painted (but also fortified) churches of that part of Romania are rightfully famous. While enjoying ourselves immensely, we were unable to ignore the tensions in the country, including more vivid reminders of 20th-century wars, pogroms, occupations and ethnic persecutions than we experience in Western Europe. In Romania these are not all smoldering ashes. There are dangerous sparks that could ignite relations between groups inside Romania and neighboring countries.

In October we will once more be on the move, to Prague in the first week of October and in the third week to Athens. Flying on the wings of Rembrandt.

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