Updated: May 10
MONARCHY OR REPUBLIC?
By Otto von Habsburg
Excerpted from The Conservative Tradition in European Thought, Copyright 1970 by Educational Resources Corporation.
We come here to the formal aspect of the State -- the question of monarchy versus republic -- which is mostly discussed from a highly emotional rather than a rational point of view. The debate proceeds by arguments ad hominem. A few undignified occupants of royal thrones are enumerated, and are then presented as examples of monarchy as such. The defenders of monarchy are no better. They point to corrupt professional politicians, of whom there exist a sufficient number, and claim that this is the necessary consequence of a republican constitution. Neither is a rational argument. There have been good and bad monarchies -- good republics (like Switzerland), and others which are far from living up to the same standard.
Every human institution, after all, has its good and bad sides. As long as this world is inhabited by men and not angels, crimes and mistakes will continue to occur... Republicans are fond of claiming that a monarchical regime means the rule of the aristocracy. Monarchists, on the other hand, point to the economic difficulties, the tax burdens, and State interference in private life in present-day republics, and compare this state of affairs with the freedom and economic well-being under the pre-1914 monarchies. Both arguments are unconvincing. They use the old propagandist trick of comparing results brought about by entirely dissimilar causes. Anyone who is honest will compare present-day monarchies with present-day republics. It will then be apparent that the aristocracy of birth occupies no greater share of leading positions in monarchies than in republics, and that all states, whatever their form of government, are equally affected by the serious problems of the present day.
Republicans frequently claim, in addition, that monarchy is a form of government belonging to the past, while republicanism is that of the future. Even a slight knowledge of history is enough to disprove this. Both forms have been in existence since the earliest times (though the monarchical periods have usually lasted considerably longer than the republican ones). In any case, it is misleading to call an institution which we already find in ancient Greece, Rome and Carthage, the form of government of the future.
In any objective discussion, we must also assign this question its proper place in our hierarchy of values. It is not an accident that we speak of the "form" of government. There is a great difference between the "form" and the "content" -- or purpose -- of the State. The latter is its essential raison d'etre, its very soul. The former corresponds to the bodily form of a living being. The one can certainly not exist without the other; but in any sane hierarchy of values the soul occupies a higher place than the body.
The essential purpose of the State, its "content," is rooted in natural law. The State is not an end in itself; it exists for the sake of its citizens. It is therefore not the source of all law (a claim that is still far too widely accepted), nor is it all-powerful. Its authority is circumscribed by the rights of its citizens. It is only free to act in those fields that are outside their free initiative. The State is therefore at all times the servant of natural law. Its task is to give practical effect to this law; nothing more.
If the mission of the State is the practical realization of natural law, the form of government is a means by which the community attempts to achieve this aim. It is not an end in itself. This explains the relatively subordinate importance of this whole question. Undoubtedly a great deal of importance attaches to the choice of the right means, since this choice will determine whether or not the end is attained. But what is lasting in political life is only natural law. The attempt to realize this law in practice will always have to take account of current conditions. To speak of an eternally valid form of government, right under all circumstances, shows ignorance and presumption.
From this it would seem to follow that it is fruitless to try to determine -- mostly from the wrong philosophical premises -- the objective value of one or the other form of government. The discussion will only become fruitful if we keep in mind the end which every such form is intended to serve. It is therefore not a question of investigating what value we are to attach to monarchies or republics as such. What we must ask ourselves is which form offers the best chances of safeguarding natural law under present-day conditions.
Once this point has been clarified, we can pass on to two other problems, which have frequently been dragged into this discussion and are threatening to poison the whole atmosphere. There is constant controversy about the relation between monarchism, republicanism and democracy. Here again we encounter the blurred thinking characteristic of our era of slogans and propaganda. The concept of democracy has become infinitely elastic. In Russia it is compatible with mass liquidations, secret police and labour camps. In America, on the other hand -- and occasionally in Europe -- even political theorists are frequently unable to distinguish between republicanism and democracy. Furthermore, both words are used to designate conceptions and characteristics that go far beyond the political field, and belong to the economic or sociological sphere. It must therefore be clearly stated that, generally speaking, democracy means the right of the people to participate in determining their own development and future.
If we accept this definition, we shall see that neither of the two classical forms of government is by nature linked with democracy. Democracy can exist under both forms, just as there exist authoritarian republics as well as monarchies. Monarchists, in fact, frequently claim democracy functions better under a monarchy than under a republic. If we look at present-day Europe, there is certainly some truth in this argument, though its validity may be restricted in time and space. At the same time, it is necessary to point out that in small states which are strongly rooted in their traditions, like Switzerland, democracy and republicanism can coexist successfully.
Still more hotly discussed is the question of monarchism and socialism, and republicanism and socialism. The reason for this is largely that in German-speaking countries the great majority of the official socialist parties are republican in outlook. Hence we find there among narrow and uneducated minds the belief that socialism and monarchism are incompatible. This belief is due to a basic confusion. Socialism -- at least in its present- day form -- is essentially an economic and social program. It has nothing to do with the form of government. The republicanism of some socialist parties does not arise from their actual programs, but is due to the personal beliefs of their leaders. This is shown by the fact that the majority of the really powerful European socialist parties are not republican but monarchist. This is the case in Britain, in Scandinavia and in Holland. In all these countries we not only find excellent relations existing between the Crown and the socialists, but one cannot escape the impression that a monarchy provides a better soil for working-class parties than a republic. In any case, experience shows that socialism remains longer in power under a monarchy than under a republic. One of the great leaders of the British Labour Party explained this by the moderating and balancing influence of the Crown, which enabled socialists to carry through their program more slowly, more reasonably, and hence also more successfully. At the same time, a ruler standing above the parties represented a sufficient safeguard to the opposition, so that it need not have recourse to extreme measures in order to regain power. It could watch developments more calmly.
Whether or not this is true, the facts prove that it is unjustified to draw an artificial dividing-line between monarchism and socialism, or between monarchism and classical democracy. The same applies to republicanism. One other point must be mentioned. This is the frequent confusion, particularly among those not trained in political science, between monarchy as a form of government and one or other monarchical dynasty; in other words, the confusion between monarchism and legitimism.
Legitimism, a special tie with one person or one dynasty, is something that can hardly ever be discussed in reasonable and objective terms. It is a matter of subjective feeling, and is therefore advocated or opposed by arguments ad hominem. Any rational discussion of current problems must therefore make a clear distinction between monarchism and dynastic legitimism. The form of government of a State is a political problem. It must therefore be discussed independently of the family or person who stand, or stood, at the head of the State. Even in monarchies dynastic changes take place. In any case, the institution is of greater importance than its representative; the latter is mortal while the former is, historically speaking, immortal.
To look at a form of government merely with an eye to its present representative leads to grotesque results. For in that case republics, too, would have to be judged not on political grounds, but according to the characters of their presidents. This would, of course, be the height of unfairness.
It should be added that among the protagonists of monarchism in republican Europe, there are relatively few legitimists. King Alfonso XIII of Spain once remarked that legitimism cannot survive one generation. It is valuable where there exists a strongly established, traditional form of government, with which most of the citizens are satisfied. But this kind of legitimism can be found in republics as well as in monarchies. One can speak of republican legitimism in Switzerland and the United States just as one can speak of monarchist legitimism in Britain and Holland. In most countries of Europe, of course, there have been so many profound changes in the course of the centuries that legitimism is less frequently encountered. Under such conditions, it is particularly dangerous to have recourse to emotional arguments.
We are now in a position to define what we understand by a monarchy and a republic. Monarchy is that form of government in which the head of State is not elected, bases his office on a higher law, with the claim that all power derives from a transcendental source. In a republic, the highest officer of State is elected, and hence derives his authority from his electors, that is, from the particular group which elected him.
Leaving aside purely emotional considerations, there are good arguments for both of these basic forms of government. The most important arguments in favour of republicanism can be summarized as follows: In the first place, republics are, with few exceptions, secular. They require no appeal to God in order to justify their authority. Their sovereignty, the source of their authority, derives from the people. In our time, which turns increasingly away from religious concepts, or at least refers them into the realm of metaphysics, secular constitutional concepts and a secular form of government are more easily acceptable than a form rooted, in the last resort, in theocratic ideas. It is, therefore, also easier for a republic to embrace a secular version of the Rights of Man. The advantage this form of government offers would therefore seem to be that it is in closer touch with the spirit of our time, and hence with the great mass of the population.
In addition, the choice of the head of State depends not on an accident of birth, but on the will of the people or of an elite. The president's term of office is limited. He can be removed, and if he is incapable it is easy to replace him. Himself an ordinary citizen, he is in closer touch with real life. And it is to be hoped that, with better education, the masses will become increasingly capable of choosing the right man. In a monarchy, on the other hand, once a bad ruler has ascended the throne, it is almost impossible to remove him without overthrowing the whole regime. And lastly it is claimed that the fact that every citizen can, at least theoretically, become president, encourages a sense of political responsibility and helps the population to attain political maturity. The patriarchal character of a monarchy, on the other hand, leads the citizens to rely on their ruler, and to shift all political responsibility on to his shoulders.
In favour of monarchism, the following arguments are put forward: Experience shows that kings mostly rule better, not worse, than presidents. There is a practical reason for this. A king is born to his office. He grows up in it. He is, in the truest sense of the word, a "professional," an expert in the field of statecraft. In all walks of life, the fully qualified expert is rated higher than the amateur, however brilliant. For particularly in a difficult, highly technical subject -- and what is more difficult than the modern State? -- knowledge and experience outweigh sheer brilliance. The danger certainly exists that an incompetent may succeed to the throne. But was not a Hitler chosen as leader, and a Warren Harding elected president? In the classical monarchies of the Middle Ages, it was almost always possible to replace an obviously incapable successor to the throne by a more suitable one. It was only with the decadence of monarchism, in the age of the courtly despotism of Versailles, that this corrective was discarded. Nothing would be more appropriate in a modern monarchy than the institution of a judicial tribunal, which could, if necessary, intervene to change the order of succession to the throne.
Even more important than the king's "professional" qualifications is the fact that he is not tied to any party. He does not owe his position to a body of voters or the support of powerful interests. A president, on the other hand, is always indebted to someone. Elections are expensive and difficult to fight. The power of money and the great mass organizations always makes itself felt. Without their help, it is almost impossible to become the head of State of a republic. Such support is not, however, given for nothing. The head of State remains dependent on those who helped him into the saddle. It follows that the president is mostly not the president of the whole people, but only of those groups that helped him to attain office. In this way, political parties or groups of economic interests can take over the highest command positions of the State, which then no longer belongs to the whole people, but, temporarily or permanently, becomes the privileged domain of one or another group of citizens. The danger exists therefore that a republic will cease to be the guardian of the rights of all its citizens. This, it is stressed by monarchists, is particularly dangerous at the present time. For today the rights of the individual and of minority groups are in greater danger than ever before. Financial power- concentrations and large, powerful organizations generally are everywhere threatening the "little man." Particularly in a democracy, it is extremely difficult for the latter to make himself heard, since this section of the population cannot easily be organized and is of no great economic importance. If even the topmost pinnacle of the State is handed over to political parties, there will be no one to whom the weak can turn for help. A monarchical ruler, on the other hand -- so it is claimed -- is independent, and is there for all citizens equally. His hands are not tied in the face of the powerful, and he can protect the rights of the weak. Particularly in an age of profound economic and social transformations, it is of the highest importance that the head of State should stand above the parties...
And, finally, the Crown contributes to political life that stability without which no great problems can be solved. In a republic, the firm foundation is lacking. Whoever is in power must achieve a positive success in the shortest possible time, otherwise he will not be re-elected. This leads to short-term policies, which will not be able to cope successfully with problems of world-historical scope.
There is one more point we must consider before we can answer the question of which form of government will best serve the community in the future. Generally speaking, democratic republics represent a regime dominated by the legislature, while authoritarian regimes are dominated by the executive. The judicial power has not had the primacy for a long time, as we have shown above. It found its earlier expression in the Christian monarchies. It is frequently forgotten that the true ruler has always been the guardian of law and justice. The most ancient monarchs -- the kings of the Bible -- came from the ranks of the judges. St. Louis of France regarded the administration of justice as his noblest task. The same principle can be seen in the many German "Palatinates," since the Count Palatine (Palatinus) was the guardian of law and justice delegated by the King- Emperor. The history of the great medieval monarchies shows that the legislative power of the king -- even of a king as powerful as Charles V -- was severely limited by local autonomies. The same is true of the ruler's executive function. He was not, in the first place, a law-giver or head of the executive; he was a judge. All other functions were subordinate, and were only exercised to the extent necessary to make his judicial function effective.
The reason for this institutional arrangement is clear. The judge must interpret the meaning of law and justice, and to do this he must be independent. It is essential that he should not owe his position, his function, to any man. The highest judge, at least, must be in this position. This is only possible under a monarchy. For in a republic, even the highest guardian of the law derives his position from some other source, to which he is responsible and on which he remains dependent to some extent. This is not a satisfactory state of affairs. His most important task is not to pass judgment in actual legal disputes, but to stand guard over the purpose of the State and natural law. Above all, it is the task of the supreme judge to see that all legislation is in accordance with the State's fundamental principles, that is, with natural law. The monarch's right to veto legislation passed by parliament is a remnant of this ancient function...
The future form of the State will be something entirely new, something which will represent principles of eternal validity in a form appropriate to the future, without the errors of the past...
The hereditary character of the monarchial function finds its justification not merely in the "professional" upbringing of the heir to the throne. Nor is it merely a question of continuity at the summit of the political hierarchy, though such continuity is highly desirable when it is a question of planning for generations to come. Its deepest justification lies in the fact that the hereditary ruler owes his position not to one or another social group, but to the will of God alone. That is the true meaning of the frequently misunderstood words, "by the grace of God," which always signify a duty and a task. It would be wrong for the ruler by the grace of God to regard himself as an exceptional being. On the contrary, the words, "by the grace of God," should remind him that he does not owe his position to his own merits, but must prove his fitness by ceaseless efforts in the cause of justice.
While there is thus much to be said for a hereditary transmission of the supreme position of the State, there is also one serious drawback, which has already been mentioned. If the succession occurs automatically, there is the possibility that the throne will be occupied by an incompetent. This is the greatest danger of the monarchial system. On the other hand, this danger only dates from the period when the inflexible legitimism of Versailles came into being, and the safeguards present in one form or another in most classical monarchies disappeared. Such safeguards would therefore have to be built into any future monarchical constitution. It would be wrong to hand this task over to political bodies, as that would open the door to private interests. The decision should be left to a judicial tribunal. The king, as the highest constitutional judge of the State, cannot exercise his function in a vacuum. He will have to be assisted by a body representing the highest judicial authority, of which he forms the head. It is this body which should pronounce on whether a law or a regulation is constitutional, that is, in accordance with the purpose of the State. When the ruler dies, the other judges will continue in office. It should be their duty to pronounce on the suitability of the heir presumptive, and, if necessary, to replace him by the next in succession.
The activity of the head of State will undoubtedly go beyond the purely judicial field. He will have to control the executive, since it is his duty to see that the decisions of the judicial power are carried out in practice. Nevertheless, all these tasks will remain of secondary importance. It is in his judicial function that a twentieth-century monarch will find his primary justification.
The Archduke Otto von Habsburg (born 1912) was the last crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and is the present head of the House of Habsburg, and therefore pretender to the throne of Austria and Hungary. He is the author of several books and of many essays which appeared in scholarly journals in Europe and America; he holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Louvain. One of his chief interests has been the idea of Pan-Europeanism, and he has lectured and written a good deal on the need for Continental unity. In his The Social Order of Tomorrow* (London: Oswald Wolff, 1958), he asserts that today, more than ever, monarchy has a place in the modern world. The selection above is taken from the chapter "The State in the Twentieth Century"; he weighs the differing advantages and disadvantages of the monarchical and republican forms of government.
Reprinted in the public service of the national interest of the American people.