All hail King Zog?

  • Themes: History

The outlandish life of Albania's King Zog receives a vivid, if uncharitable, retelling.

King Zog of Albania at his desk.
King Zog of Albania at his desk. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Royal Fraud: The Story of Albania’s First and Last King, Robert C. Austin, CEU Press, £20.95

In September 1928 the world’s newspapers were full of photographs of Europe’s newest – and certainly strangest – monarch: the chain-smoking, wax-moustached King Zog I of the Albanians. Mustafa Kemal, p
resident of Turkey – the future Atatürk – was disdainful. At a party, he buttonholed the Albanian envoy. ‘Asaf Bey, I see lots of funny pictures in the newspapers,’ he said. ‘What’s going on in Albania? Are you performing an operetta?’

This jibe was hurtful to Zog – especially coming from Kemal, a leader he admired. Both were Muslim modernisers; the teenage Zog, then Ahmet Zogolli, had been in Constantinople during the reformist Young Turk Revolution of 1908. That Albania needed modernising was not in doubt: it was desperately poor; the north, where Zog’s family were chieftains, was still regulated by the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, a 15th-century tribal code that guided all areas of life, including blood feuds, marriage and the management of livestock.

The difference was that Kemal succeeded. In Royal Fraud, Robert C. Austin contends that Zog ‘left Albania almost as he found it – feudal, mostly illiterate, and poor’. Austin, a professor at the University of Toronto, does not like Zog. In his view, Albania’s monarch – who proclaimed himself king after stints as prime minister and president – was a gangster, who ‘ran the usual crooked state—more extortion racket than anything else’. His primary preoccupations were his own survival and selling Albania to the highest bidder – in this case Mussolini’s Italy, who made Albania a client state. His main success was in assassinating his political opponents. To cover his tracks, he sometimes assassinated the assassins.

At its best, Royal Fraud – a slim, 150-page book – has a certain brio. The story of Zog is an outlandish one: imagine The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope’s swashbuckling tale of royal skulduggery, adapted by the Coen Brothers. Austin is good at the walk-on parts, the thumbnail sketches, and has a sense of farce: the ‘dirty deeds specialists’ who murdered Zog’s rivals on foreign soil; the poorly trained assassins who, Austin writes, Zog paid to kill two League of Nations officials, only for them to target the wrong car and kill two American tourists. (It turned out the assassins were illiterate; Zog had given them written instructions.)

Conveyed with similar verve are the Great Powers’ early attempts to arrange a sovereign for the fledgling Albanian state. In 1914 they decided on Wilhelm of Wied, a minor German prince; he was ‘harmless’ but hopelessly out of his depth. He said so little that newspapers tried to make the best of it by comparing him to his Dutch ancestor, William the Silent. He never adjusted to Albania and left after barely six months. Later, after the Great War, the League of Nations renewed attempts to find a monarch who would guarantee stability. This time they looked to Britain, ideally a sporting gentleman with colonial spirit. A bizarre offer was made to C.B. Fry, the cricketer; another to Aubrey Herbert, Tory MP and Albanophile. For men like these, Albania was a bit of jolly: Richard Hannay, in John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, called it ‘the sort of place that might keep a man from yawning’.

It was not a jolly, but a proud nation forged in cataclysmic conditions. Austin, a specialist in early Albanian state-building, is especially good on this. With the Ottoman Empire collapsing, and Albania a restive region at its fringe, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro launched brutal attacks in the hope of partitioning the territory among themselves. These Balkan Wars were ‘Europe’s first real experience with ethnic cleansing’. In 1912, facing annihilation, Albania declared independence in the coastal town of Vlora; Zog, with his Zelig-like habit of being a witness to history, was there. (Like Trotsky, Stalin, Hitler and Tito, he would also have a sojourn in Vienna.)

In this time of irredentism and rapidly redrawn borders, ‘it was nigh impossible for a small state to survive’. The infant Albania was vulnerable, at the mercy of larger patrons: its independence was sponsored by Habsburg Austria; at the Paris Peace Conference, with Habsburg Austria no more, it fell to the US to prevent Italy and Greece from carving it up. Leadership proved elusive. In 1924 the US-educated intellectual and bishop Fan Noli ushered in a liberal democratic experiment, sending Zog into exile. He returned six months later in a comical coup with a ragtag army of White Russians and Serbs kitted out in Albanian national dress. He stayed in power for 14 years.

It was a bloody business. Zog’s elimination of opponents reminded me of the assassination montage at the beginning of Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo: the treacherous opportunist Essad Pasha Toptani, murdered by Avni Rustemi in front of Paris’s Hotel Continental; Rustemi himself, now Zog’s rival, murdered, visa in hand, as he set off for a new life in Boston; democratic activists and Kosovan leaders killed in cafés – it was usually cafés – in Bari, Thessaloniki, Prague. The upshot was that murder begat murder, or plots to murder at least: by 1939, at least according to the newspapers, Zog had incurred 600 blood feuds. He barely left the royal compound in Tirana.

Austin’s book is not an authoritative introduction to Zog; Jason Tomes’s King Zog of Albania (2003) is superior in this regard. The lack of footnotes also makes it hard to credit some of his claims, and occasional errors add an element of wobbliness. For example, he calls Essad Pasha Toptani Zog’s uncle when he was a distant cousin. He is, however, an accomplished curator of vignettes, and it is here that Royal Fraud succeeds. The most spectacular of these is Zog’s visit to Vienna in 1931, a rare excursion abroad. He was there for his health but also for a tryst (he was dating two Austrian sisters at the same time). There was a reason he never left Albania: too many people wanted him dead. Sure enough, as he left the Vienna State Opera with the sisters, he was set upon by two assassins at two different exits. A gunfight ensued; his body double was killed; Zog vowed revenge.

Austin also vividly relates one of Zog’s leading fixations: his search for a foreign bride. An Albanian would have been too delicate: it meant choosing between landowning families. He looked to the House of Savoy, to dispossessed Habsburgs and to the Greek royal family; all looked down on his lineage. He placed advertisements in American newspapers. Eventually he found Géraldine Apponyi de Nagy-Appony, a half-American Hungarian countess; she was beautiful but had no great fortune. They married in 1938. On 5 April 1939, she gave birth to his long-awaited heir, Leka. Two days later the Italians invaded, forcing Zog and his family into permanent exile.

Others have been more charitable to Zog than Austin: Ismail Kadare credited him with curbing anarchy and creating a ‘serious state’. At the very least, he deserves kudos for granting political asylum to Jews in the 1930s, an extraordinary act considering his financial dependence on Mussolini’s Italy. Austin concedes that, like his countrymen, he was remarkably free of antisemitism. However one draws up the balance sheet, he reached a melancholy and ignoble end. Austin portrays an aimless exile with a diminishing handful of stragglers; an increasingly poorly Zog was forced to look on as the Hoxha dictatorship erased him from history. Today, apart from a boulevard and statue in Tirana, he leaves precious little trace; meanwhile, politicians he assassinated – Rustemi, Luigj Gurakuqi, Bajram Curri – are celebrated as heroes of the Albanian national movement.


Daniel Marc Janes