Monday, February 6, 2017
When Monarchs Lost Power
At the end of World War I, the King of Italy was actually one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe, due to the fact that the original constitution of Italy was rather vague and reserved considerable powers to the King. It also made a difference that King Victor Emmanuel III was not a man who relished involvement in politics. He disliked stepping in and generally did so only when the politicians could not sort things out for themselves. So, when no liberal politician was prepared to take responsibility for the disastrous state of affairs in the country, he appointed Benito Mussolini to power. Despite the changes brought about by the Fascist regime, it was still the King who was the only one able to dismiss Mussolini from office in 1943. His power drastically declined after that, due to the situation of World War II at the time but the Italian monarchy had only a few more years of life left to it in any event. For Italy, as with some others, the King mattered a great deal right up until the point where he ceased to matter at all because he ceased to be King.
The fate that befell King Leopold III of the Belgians in World War II was somewhat similar to that which befell Grand Duchess Marie Adelaide of Luxembourg in World War I. She had been a monarch with rather robust powers and who played a prominent part in the government of her country. However, her decision to remain in Luxembourg during World War I when the country was under German occupation resulted in a considerable backlash that almost saw Luxembourg deprived of its independence by the victorious Allied nations and which almost brought down the monarchy in Luxembourg itself. Grand Duchess Charlotte gained considerable prestige for going into exile during World War II and standing for resistance to the German occupation (and indeed annexation of Luxembourg) but no monarch would ever be quite so influential again as had been the case prior to World War I. In recent years the Grand Duke Henri voluntarily gave up having any significant part in government due to his unwillingness to be a participant in certain actions by the government which violated Catholic moral teaching so that today the monarchy of Luxembourg is effectively ceremonial.
The French, of course, remained republican before, during and after both world wars. The last monarch to reign over France was Napoleon III who was, of course, the dominant figure in the Second French Empire but the last King to reign over France was King Louis Philippe. He was a constitutional monarch but still one in which he played an active role in government and making policy. That, of course, ended with his downfall and the end of the monarchy altogether.
In the Kingdom of Portugal, which was destroyed prior to the First World War, the monarchy had shifted from absolutism to constitutional rule with the Liberal Wars of 1823 to 1834, the cause of absolute monarchy being defeated with King Miguel I but the monarch retained certain powers and continued to play an active role in national policy right up until the overthrow of the last King of Portugal, Manuel II, in 1910.
So, as we can see, World War I had a major impact on the power of kings but only in certain countries. For others, World War II was the pivotal conflict and for others, neither had all that much to do with their ultimate overthrow or loss of power to elected politicians. The years between the wars saw some of the most dramatic changes; the King of Spain lost his throne, the King of Denmark lost his power while the Kings of Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia saw themselves empowered to the point of practically becoming absolute monarchs. The purely ceremonial monarchies of today are a rather recent innovation when one takes the broad view and, as was seen in the recent Supreme Court case involving Britain leaving the European Union, we are reminded that monarchs today, such as the British monarch, often still retain considerable power and authority but are simply not allowed to exercise it. Given how chaotic politics is becoming these days, I would say it is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that a monarch who acts to put himself (or herself) at the forefront of a campaign for national revival in a time of emergency might be able to reverse this recent trend. However, whether any would and whether the situation develops in a way that would be conducive to it, is anyone’s guess.