Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
5. Absolute Monarchy: Hypertrophy of Royalty Leading to the Populist Totalitarian State
The harmonious result attained in feudal society began to crumble with the dissemination of the principles of the legists129 and other factors. From then until the Revolution of 1789, royal power in Europe tended to absorb the ancient autonomies and to become ever more centralizing.
a. The absolute monarchy absorbs the subordinate bodies and powers
The absolute monarchy spreading throughout Europe was very different from the system of superposed elites, noble or otherwise, which had existed in so many nations. The powers formerly spread among the various levels were gradually concentrated in the hands of the king, who increasingly identified himself with the State. Whence the famous phrase attributed to Louis XIV: “L’Etat, c’est moi.”
In contrast to the feudal monarch, the absolute monarch of modern times was surrounded by a nobility that accompanied him day and night, serving him mainly as an ornamental element without any effective power. In this way, the absolute king found himself separated from the rest of the nation by a deep trench, or better, an abyss. Such was the case in the modern French monarchy, for example, which had in Louis XIV, the Sun King, its most complete model.130
With greater or lesser eagerness, most late eighteenth-century monarchs tended to adopt this model. At first glance, they impressed by their omnipotence. The appearance of unlimited power, however, was merely superficial and only partially veiled the profound impotence in which the absolute kings put themselves by their isolation.
b. The only solution for the absolute monarchy was to support itself with civil and military bureaucracies, the heavy “crutches” of absolute monarchy
By becoming increasingly detached from the intermediate bodies that constituted the nation, absolute monarchs either lost or weakened their natural supports through the suffocation produced by their own absolutism.
Unable to stand, walk, and struggle alone, and deprived of their natural constituent elements (the intermediate bodies), absolute monarchs were forced to support themselves with ever larger bureaucracies. These bureaucratic networks became the heavy crutches, brilliant but fragile, of this late eighteenth-century monarchy. The larger a bureaucracy is, the heavier it is. The heavier it is, the more it burdens those obliged to carry it.
Through this process, absolute and bureaucratic royalty began to devour the paternal, familial, and organic state.
We shall mention a few historical examples to illustrate how this process occurred in some European countries.
c. The centralization of power in France
1) Under the Kings
In France the great fiefs were gradually reabsorbed by the Crown, particularly through marriage alliances between members of the Royal House and heiresses to great feudal units. Meanwhile, a kind of centripetal force concentrated the realm’s main levers of command and influence in Paris. Louis XIV pursued this policy to its extreme.
The last feudal territory absorbed by the French Crown was the duchy of Lorraine, incorporated through diplomatic negotiations that still retained aspects of a familial arrangement. The Treaty of Vienna (1738) between France and Austria established that Lorraine would belong during his lifetime to Stanislaw Leszczynski, the dethroned king of Poland and father of Queen Marie Leszczynska, wife of Louis XV. When Stanislaw died, the duchy of Lorraine would automatically be incorporated into the kingdom of France. So it happened.
2) Weakness of the Ostentatious Bonapartist “Omnipotence”
The ostentatious and ominous archetype of this bureaucratic monarchy, which no longer had anything paternal about it, was Bonaparte’s entirely military, financial, and administrative state.
After defeating the Austrians at Wagram (1809), Napoleon occupied Vienna for a few months. When the French troops finally left, Emperor Francis I of Austria returned to his capital. The Viennese offered him a festive reception to console him for the crushing defeat and the misfortunes he and the country had suffered.131 It is reported that, upon hearing this news, the Corsican despot could not help exclaiming, “What a strong monarchy!” Thus did he term the Hapsburg monarchy, perhaps the most paternal and organic of Europe at that time.
History proved Bonaparte right. When he was definitively crushed at Waterloo at the end of the Hundred Days, no one in France thought of offering him a festive homage in reparation for the immense tragedy that had befallen him.
The entry of Charles X in Paris, after he is crowned at Rheims
On the other hand, when the Count of Artois, the future Charles X, entered Paris for the first time since the Revolution as official representative of his brother Louis XVIII, a grand celebration was held to acclaim the legitimate dynasty returning from exile without the laurels of any military victory, but with the prestige of an immense misfortune borne with majestic dignity.132
After his second and definitive abdication, Napoleon, isolated in defeat, was reduced to such an impotence that he was forced to request shelter from one of his archenemies, the King of England. Not even the prospect of his imminent downfall aroused in his closest followers the filial love of loyal subjects for their monarch and the courage to undertake some guerrilla action or revolution on his behalf.
On the contrary, guerrilla actions and revolutions did break out in Vendée and the Iberian Peninsula, where people were inspired by loyalty to their legitimate princes.133 Also, the steadfast loyalty of the brave peasants of the Tyrol is legendary. Led by Andreas Hofer, they rose up against Napoleon in the name of the Catholic Church and the House of Austria.
These defenders of the Faith—as well as of the Portuguese and Spanish Crowns and independence, the French throne, and the Hapsburgs—shed their blood for dynasties that still bore considerable traces of the fatherliness of bygone days. In this and in many other ways, these dynasties differed radically from the harsh and arrogant despotism of Napoleon Bonaparte and the weak and cowardly despotism of his brother Joseph, whom he brashly promoted from “king” of Naples to “king” of Spain.
Except for the Hundred Days’ adventure, the French army accepted Napoleon’s fall with discipline. However epic and brilliant may have been the memories that united it to the Corsican, they did not have the force of cohesion of familial ties. Napoleon could not say of his armies what Queen Isabella of Castile affirmed, not without a certain envy, of the loyal and bellicose Portuguese people. The secret of their loyalty and dedication, she said, was that the brave Portuguese combatants “are all sons, not subjects” of their king.134
d. The dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire
The throne of the Holy Roman Empire, elective from its origins, became de facto hereditary in 1438, when Albert II, the Illustrious, from the House of Austria, was elected. From then on the college of Electoral Princes always chose the head of this House for the imperial throne. The election of Francis of Lorraine in 1745 was only an apparent exception, since he had married the heiress of the House of Austria, Archduchess Maria Theresa of Hapsburg. The house of Hapsburg-Lorraine thus came into being as the legitimate continuer of the House of Austria at the head of the Holy Roman Empire.135
Nonetheless, the strongly federative character of the Holy Roman Empire lasted until its dissolution in 1806, when Napoleon forced Emperor Francis II (Francis I of Austria) to abdicate. With his imposition of the Confederation of the Rhine that same year, the Corsican drastically reduced the number of sovereign principalities in the Empire.
The subsequent German Confederation (1815-1866), which had the emperor of Austria as its hereditary president, represented a conservative interim in this centripetal march. It was, however, dissolved after the Austro-Prussian war and the battle of Sadowa (1866). The North German Confederation was then formed under Prussian hegemony. Austria and the states of southern Germany were excluded.
After the defeat of Napoleon III in 1870, this confederation became the German Reich, which was much more centralized and recognized only twenty-five member states as sovereign.
The centripetal impulse did not stop here. The Anschluss of Austria and, shortly thereafter, the annexation of the Sudetenland to the Third Reich (1938) carried this impulse to an extreme and resulted in the Second World War. The nullification of these centripetal conquests of Adolf Hitler and the recent incorporation of East Germany into the present German state may mark the final point of these successive modifications of the German map.
e. Absolutism in the Iberian Peninsula
1) Before the French Revolution
The march toward royal absolutism in Portugal and Spain followed a similar pattern.
With the decline of the Middle Ages, the political and socioeconomic organization tended to become centralized in both Iberian kingdoms. This tendency was shrewdly exploited by their respective monarchs, with the aim of broadening and consolidating the Crown’s power over the various bodies of the State, especially the high nobility. When the French Revolution erupted, the power of the kings of Portugal and Spain had reached its historical apex.
Of course, this did not take place without much friction between the kings and the nobility.
This tension provoked dramatic episodes in Portugal. During the reign of John II (1481-1495), the Duke of Braganza and other great nobles were executed. The Duke of Viseu, the Queen’s brother, was stabbed in the monarch’s presence. In the reign of Joseph I (1750-1777), the Duke of Aveiro and some of the most outstanding figures of the aristocracy—among whom were members of the illustrious house of Távora—were publicly executed.
In Spain, this centralizing tendency was already noticeable in several monarchs of the House of Trastamara. It grew throughout the following reigns, becoming fully defined during the reign of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. It reached its apex with the kings of the House of Bourbon in the eighteenth century.
Among the initial measures taken by Ferdinand and Isabella were the demolition of many castles, the prohibition of building new ones, the curtailing of nobiliary privileges, and the transfer of seaport administration to the Crown. These measures diminished the power of the nobility. Concomitantly, the mastership of the main military orders was incorporated into the Crown.
At the end of this evolution—prior to 1789—the historical nobility was increasingly inclined to gravitate around the monarch and reside in the capital, frequently in the royal palaces themselves. In this way its members imitated the nobility of other European countries, following the trend established by the Sun King and his successors amid the unparalleled magnificence of Versailles.
These nobles held high positions at court. Court life absorbed a great part of their time and demanded a luxurious lifestyle that exceeded the revenues of their patrimonial lands. Consequently, the kings remunerated many of these nobles for their services at court. Even then, however, this remuneration and the patrimonial revenues were often insufficient. In more than one court, nobles incurred crushing debts, at times paid off through mésalliances with the upper bourgeoisie or with subsidies granted by the king as a favor.
2) The Consequence of Absolutism: the Weakening of the Nobility and Royal Power Itself
After the ill-fated Napoleonic invasions of Portugal (1807-1810) and Spain (1808-1814), both monarchic regimes became increasingly liberal. These Crowns thereby lost not only political but also socioeconomic influence. The growing largess with which the Portuguese and Spanish monarchs granted titles of nobility, on the other hand, brought many plebeians into the nobility. They were ennobled because of mere personal preference of the monarch, or for services rendered to the State or society in various fields.136
Although this expansion of the nobility corresponded to reasonable demands of socioeconomic transformations by recognizing the value of these services to the common good, at times it lacked discretion and discernment, thus depreciating the prestige the nobility enjoyed. As a result, the reward received by authentic promoters of the common good became increasingly less meaningful. The nobility can only suffer by such a lack of discreet and discerning selection, since nobility and selection are correlated concepts.
After the proclamation of the republic in Portugal, in 1910, the nobiliary titles, honorific distinctions, and rights of the nobility were abolished.137
The proclamation of the republic in Spain in 1873 and again in 1931, with the successive monarchic restorations, twice led to the abolition and subsequent restoration of the nobility’s rights and privileges. All this had a traumatic effect on the institution of the nobility.
f. The super-powerful bourgeois state — the omnipotent communist state
Concerning the present status of this centralizing process, it should be noted that already in the nineteenth century the super-powerful bourgeois state was beginning to take shape in various nations, some residually monarchical, others triumphantly republican.
Throughout the Belle Epoque—as during the period between the Wars and in the aftermath of World War II—more and more crowns fell as the super-powerful democratic state paved the way for the omnipotent proletarian state.
A history of the absolutism of the proletarian state, the furious maligner yet remote continuator of the Enlightenment’s royal absolutism, is clearly outside the scope of this work. So is a history of the rise of perestroika, glasnost, and socialist self-management—reactions that malign yet perpetuate proletarian absolutism.
(130) The absorption of nobility by centralization and the hypertrophy of royal power did not equally affect the nobilities of every country and every region within a country. A typical example of a nobility that resisted this destructive influence of the absolute monarchy was that of Vendée, in France. This region later became a focus of resistance to the French Revolution. Regarding the resistance of the Vendean nobility to the central power, the renowned historian Georges Bordonove relates: “The nobility of Vendée forms a caste, not shut in idle remembrances, but animated by its own dynamism. The existence of Versailles has not weakened it in the least, either physically or morally. Save exceptions, the influence of the new ideas, the thought of the philosophers and rhetoricians of the Age of Enlightenment, leave it indifferent. On the other hand, it has only too great a tendency to remember the role it played in past centuries, the power and the fortune it possessed, the past greatness and the preeminence of Poitou. It suffers, undoubtedly, from the diminishing of the nobility in benefit of the centralizing power of the State. It has never entirely forgiven Richelieu for having demolished its feudal castles, nor the Sun King for his haughty absolutism” (La vie quotidienne en Vendée [Paris: Hachette, 1974], p. 49). To better understand the Vendean nobles’ reservations about royal absolutism (against which, in turn, the revolutionaries of 1789 so furiously and profusely cried) we must bear in mind that the throne had no more ardent defenders than they, nor did the revolutionaries find more heroic and lofty opponents.
(131) See Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites, Documents X.
(132) The magnificent reception the Parisians gave their future king is described with exemplary fidelity by the aforementioned historian Georges Bordonove in his work Les Rois qui ont fait la France—Charles X. Passages of this description are transcribed in Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites, Documents X.
(133) Beyond suspicion of any bias on this point, the renowned Austrian historian Johann Baptist Weiss narrates the epopee of the Portuguese patriotic reaction against the Napoleonic troops, unsuccessfully commanded, consecutively, by three of the Corsican’s most outstanding generals: Junot, Soult, and Massena. He writes about the early successes of the national reaction against Junot and his troops:
“The Portuguese unfurled their national flag at the tolling of bells, amid festive joy and fireworks, in the city [of Oporto]. The movement spread throughout the country like fire on dry grass. On June 11, 1808, the old governor of Trás-os-Montes proclaimed the Prince Regent as sovereign and called the inhabitants to arms. In the cities and towns the people responded: `Long live the Prince Regent! Long live Portugal! Death to Napoleon!’
“On June 17 the same acclamation resounded in Guimarães, on the 18th in Viana; on the 19th the Archbishop of Braga reinstated the prerogatives of the royal House of Braganza, with great affluence of people; he kissed the old flag and blessed the people, who sang the Te Deum. A junta was then elected, with the Archbishop as president.
“In Coimbra the university students rebelled in support of their country’s liberation, and their temple of learning was transformed into an arsenal of war. Gunpowder was prepared in the chemistry laboratory. The students went throughout the towns, inciting the laborers to arm themselves; they were received with the tolling of bells, fireworks, and joyful cries. Everyone armed himself; the workers brandished their scythes and dug up cannons buried after the last war with Spain; friars went at the head of the troops with crucifixes in their hands. The clergy was all fire and flames for the national uprising, but it prevented the cruelties that were committed in Spain against the French.
“The situation of the Bonapartist troops became difficult. Junot clearly perceived the tremendous danger. He could receive no help from France, either by sea, because the English warships dominated it and kept watch along the coast, or by land because Spain was in arms and all mail was intercepted. With 24,000 men he could not dominate the uprising of a whole people” (Historia Universal [Barcelona: Tipografia la Educación, 1931], pp. 262-263).
(134) Elaine Sanceau, The Reign of the Fortunate King (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1970), p. 123.
(135) An earlier exception was that of Charles Albert, Elector of Bavaria, who received the imperial crown after the death of Charles VI, the father of Archduchess Maria Theresa. With the name of Charles VII, he occupied the imperial throne for a very short period (1742-1745), and his death opened the way for the election of Francis of Lorraine. The latter’s ascension to the supreme dignity of the Holy Roman Empire in itself constituted a proof of the political power of the House of Austria. Francis of Lorraine was elected emperor at the request of Maria Theresa, who thereby obtained for her spouse the highest nobiliary title of Christendom, proportioning the marriage of the illustrious heiress of the Hapsburgs with someone who had been merely duke of Lorraine and grand duke of Tuscany.
(136) Perhaps no monarch was more inclined to make the nobility an open class than King Charles III of Spain (1759-1788). See section 9 c of this chapter.
(137) With regard to the situation of titled nobles under the republican regime, Dr. Rui Dique Travassos Valdez explains: “The article of the Constitution of 1911 that abolished nobiliary distinctions in the country was later modified, based on the consideration of acquired rights. Nobles whose title had been personally granted during the monarchy, and who had paid the necessary fees, were thereby legally authorized to use their title, with the condition that their civil name precede it….
“During the exile of King Manuel II, many approached the sovereign, as head of the nobility (the Miguelistas, for their part, approached the leader of their Cause), requesting from him authorization to use their title. This authorization was usually deferred…and had more the character of a promise of official renewal in the event of a restoration of the monarchy.
“When the King died, Duarte Nuno, Duke of Braganza, was recognized by most of the Portuguese monarchists as uniting in himself the dynastic rights of the two branches of the House of Braganza. A Commission of Verification and Registry of Titles was established, followed by the Nobiliary Council, an organ to which this Prince granted powers to deal with these issues.
“None of these organs has legal standing in the State. However, it is noteworthy that several titled nobles, whose titles were only recognized by one of the aforementioned bodies during the republican regime, were designated by their title (always preceded by their civil name) in the ‘Diário do Governo,’ as is the custom with those who had a decree in their favor” (“Títulos Nobiliárquicos,” in Nobreza de Portugal e do Brasil [Lisbon: Editorial Enciclopédia, 1960], Vol. 2, pp. 197-198).