by Marcel Haas
In 1951, Sir Peter Ustinov played the role of Emperor Nero in the American epic Quo Vadis?, and was subsequently nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor in a Supporting Role. In 1935, his father Jona Freiherr von Ustinov, Russian noble and German citizen, began working for the MI5 and against the Nazi regime. That same year, Peter Ustinov’s great-uncle, David Hall, privy councilor to Emperor Haile Selassie, traveled to Berlin in order to get Hitler’s consent to have a large weapons cache delivered to Ethiopia, which was on the brink of an Italian invasion. The three men were part of the same family. All three lived and worked in a number of different countries, under different names, assuming a variety of ethnicities and identities. At times, Peter Ustinov’s father and great-uncle were on different sides in the European struggle. Always, however, were their stories entwined.
The history of Ustinov’s far-reaching family is one of migration, assimilation, and adaption. I stumbled across their fascinating stories when researching the Ethiopian-German relationship during the World Wars, and was quickly taken by what was a shining example of transnational history. Peter Ustinov, now the best-known member of the family and renowned for his acting career, was only the icing of the cake, however.
In 1850, the “black German” Welette Iyesus was born in Ethiopia to the German painter Eduard Zander and the Ethiopian court-lady Issete-Worq Megado. She married a German-Polish Jew from Cracow, Moritz Hall, who had emigrated to East-Africa in order to become a cannon-caster to Emperor Tewodros II. Together, they had twelve children, two of which were David Hall and Magdalena von Ustinov, née Hall. Magdalena would become Peter Ustinov’s grandmother, and through her he would be part Ethiopian. The same was true of course for David Hall, who had mostly inherited the fair complexion of his father’s side. Otherwise it would have been difficult for him to pass convincingly as the “civilized” descendant of an Ethiopian “princess” and a German “harbinger of culture,” as he portrayed himself in Berlin in 1935. Magdalena’s son, Jona von Ustinov, first worked for the German embassy in London, but was then turned by MI5 and became a British citizen. In the same year in which his nephew started working for British Intelligence, David Hall, son of a Jewish immigrant and an Ethiopian mother, travelled through Europe looking on his Emperor’s behalf for support against the Italian aggression in East-Africa. He succeeded in Berlin, where he used the full repertoire of ethnicity, colonial misconceptions, and the romantic notion of ancient royalty to gain the approval of Nazi Germany.
Sir Peter Ustinov died in 2004 in Switzerland, having assumed the Swiss citizenship in the 1960s in order to avoid being highly taxed in Great Britain. His life and family history are a fascinating web of migration, ethnicity, and loyalty. Above all, his family is an example of a transnational history that would be impossible if we only consider borders and national histories.
The Halls’ full story is far too complex to recount here in the limited space of a blog post. Therefore, I would refer you to my upcoming dissertation that will surely be finished at some point in the next decade. Watch this space.