The most universal story, the first born, the only one since the world began, be it the patriarch of the saga called Adam, Michael Corleone, Nicolás Románov or Felipe de Borbón, is led by a family and its objective is power. It doesn’t matter if they use horse heads, weapons, swords or gold doubloons… the story of power will be familiar or not.
At least that is the slogan of the latest book by Simon Sebag Montefiore, popular author of historical works such as ‘The Romanovs’ or ‘Call Me Stalin: The Secret History of a Revolutionary’. “Most world histories are very distant, while most biographies are very detailed. I wanted to find a balanced way to combine these two ways of storytelling to reflect diversity and a sense of continuity. It’s the ideal way to understand the big facts”, explains the British about the origin of the ‘The World: A Family Story’ (Critical), a million-year absorbing ride through the veins of power.
All of this at a time when Europe, unlike other continents, has abandoned the family for economic and ideological reasons as a unit for great occasions. “It is very difficult to make a nuanced story in the current period of progressive radicalism”, warns Montefiore during an interview with ABC.
– In your book you show that in other continents there is still a lot of power in family dynasties, but Europe is taking other paths. Did Europeans disown their families?
– Representative government, starting with the Enlightenment, began to replace the idea of clans and family interests. Today, we like to pride ourselves on being very secular, rational, and superior to supposedly basic things like tribes or families. That’s because our states have begun to offer the promise of fairness and meritocracy, replacing the need for families to protect individuals. However, this is not the case in Africa and most of Asia and South America, where people don’t really trust states to provide this protection. There the familial power is still growing.
–At the end of the book, he paints a terrible picture of the threats (climate change, pandemics, political crises…) that threaten humanity. Why does the future cause so much disquiet?
– We certainly look to the future with fear, but one of the themes of the book is that in all ages we have believed that the end of the world was imminent. This time it seems to be more viable than usual. All sorts of massive, self-created dangers are looming. The marks of our triumph as a species come at a terrible cost. And the question is, can we control the price of success while building the future? This is our challenge.
“There are no pure families, nor pure religions, nor pure nations or races. Everything is the product of mergers and fusions »
– Is the solution in the family or is it one of the challenges to be overcome?
I think we will see a return to the nuclear family. Just when we thought that family was no longer important, that we were all part of global, corporate, or gender and identity communities that transcended family, we had to open the viewer. The bigger the crisis, the more important the family. The pandemic has shown how when you’re in a crisis, you always come back to your loved ones. Now people work from home, from their homes, instead of going to the office so much. The family will be increasingly important in the face of what is to come.
– Do dynasties and families have nationality?
–I would say that dynasties have their own nationality, although they are compatible with others. Families’ goals are completely flexible. Families can represent anything from kingdoms to opposing religions, depending on the circumstances. The Ptolemaic kings, for example, were of Greek culture and origin, but they became Egyptians without any problems. Likewise, the Mughals of India conquered Asia as Turkish conquerors, but soon became Indians. The key to families is hybridity. There are no pure families, pure religions, pure nations or pure races. Everything is the product of mergers and mergers.
– You comment in the book that the Spanish monarchy was born from a marriage, that of the Catholic Monarchs, and then suffered a serious crisis precisely because of its excesses. Familial indigestion?
–Yes, the use of family dynasties always has this problem. The first obstacle to familial power is biological. You can always have someone who turns out to be a complete idiot and doesn’t understand their country’s politics. But it also raises the problem of endogamous marriages, like that of the Habsburgs, the Herods of Judea or all the Egyptian pharaohs, who tried to strengthen the family by marrying close relatives. In the case of the Spanish Habsburgs, they constantly tried to build an alliance with their Viennese cousins, but finally achieved something unexpected. The book is full of ironies like that. The entire story is littered with unintended consequences and characters achieving the exact opposite of what they expected.
–Many of the Habsburgs are branded with a dark legend about their life. Do you think there was a fair reading of your biographies?
–No, in the book I avoided the black legend. For example, for me Felipe II is a fascinating, complex character with a certain sense of humor, but also iron determination. What needs to be understood about him is that he had an incredible vision for governing. Although I am a British historian, I am more interested in him than I am in Elizabeth I. What happens to Spanish history is the symptom of success. Every time a country becomes the most powerful in the world, it doesn’t take long for it to become an unsustainable empire. Its edges are very wide. Your ambitions, excessive. They become uncontrollable. And they become the target of propaganda for smaller and more dynamic players, like England and Holland in the Spanish era. It has already happened to the Spanish black legend, but now it is also happening to the British empire. We suffer from the same disease: the hangover of success. Spaniards are no worse than anyone else in this regard. They were brutal empire builders, of course. But all empires are built on violence.
-Then the heirs of that empire shouldn’t ask for forgiveness?
“Excuses don’t really work from this distance. Apologies are a very tenuous and superficial solution. Once the perpetrators are dead, it is foolish and regressive to go after the ancestors centuries later. Excuses are cheap. The best cure for history is the light of revelation. A clear and unambiguous narrative of what really happened.
Q: You, who know so much Russian history, do you think Putin will be able to create his own political dynasty?
-Dynasty, I don’t think so. His regime is similar to a dynasty, where many of the rulers’ children are within the system. A kind of elite circle, a retinue that behaves exactly like an imperial court. And, of course, his top courtiers expect power and money to be protected by Putin and his successor. But it is not a dynasty.
Will he be able to survive the war?
-Possibly. Once you roll the iron dice, as Bismarck said, everything is exaggerated with war. Everything is accelerating, sharpening, intensifying… But if the war comes to a standstill, Putin may survive. He will retain power as long as he lives. This does not mean that, if Ukraine wins significant military victories, it will be able to end its overthrow.
-Franco also failed to create a family regime. Why did it fail in this purpose?
–The first reason is that Franco had no children, which was a problem in a very conservative Catholic Spain. When he died, he considered himself a unique and irreplaceable figure. He just thought he had found a new way to extend Franco’s rule through Juan Carlos. The king played well with the dictator. He showed some cunning against Franco, who was very cautious and outlived other dictators because Spain was unimportant. During the 1950s and 1960s, as a result of Franco’s victory, Spain became impoverished, reduced to a provincial and isolated country, to the point where it did not matter on the world stage. Then, with democracy, Spain regained its place among the leading Western nations. And this is to be celebrated.
“Juan Carlos showed some cunning against Franco, who was very cautious and outlived other dictators because Spain was unimportant”
–How do you see the future of the great Spanish family, the Bourbons, after the legacy of Juan Carlos?
–The Bourbons will survive how much Juan Carlos pissed them off. He did a lot of crazy things to serve himself, but he also did a great service to democracy and it’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten. In Western European constitutional monarchies, family dynasties are a good way to embody democracy in a person, in a family. Although it seems terribly irrational according to radicals and anti-monarchists, these families are proving very useful in the age of populism.
–The book showcases very powerful women in history who have ruled despite patriarchy. Is there another story to discover?
–They were always underestimated, left out of history and, if they had power, accused of megalomaniac and nymphomaniac monsters. But the truth is that women have been very important, especially in family systems. What history shows is that the argument that if women ruled the world it would be more peaceful is not true. Unless the world was ruled by good Nordic prime ministers… not true. Women are just as capable, monstrous and inept as men.