Albania is a peculiar country, a rarity in the heart of Europe so, so unique that its ministerial staff includes a man -young, born in South Africa in 1982- named Leka Anwar Zog Reza Baudouin Msiziwe Zogu, who is popularly known as Leka II because he is the pretender to the Albanian throne since the death of his father Leka I, although he does not make militancy of it. He is also the grandson of another unusual character, a politician who reached the presidency of the country establishing a kind of enlightened dictatorship that convinced the parliament to crown him king. We are talking about Zog I.

Zog was just the nickname of Ahmet Muhtar Zogolli, the third son of the governor of the Mati district. He belonged to a wealthy landowning family that dominated the region in an almost feudal regime and that had done well under Ottoman administration, despite the fact that the maternal branch claimed to be descended from the hero Skanderbeg.

Zog was born in Burgajet Castle in 1895 but studied in Beyoğlu, a neighborhood of Istanbul – where he also received military training – and on the death of his father in 1911 he inherited the position he held. From there, he participated in the Declaration of Independence of Albania that emerged in 1912 from the Assembly of Vlorë, recognized months later by the international community.

The support of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been decisive for this, which is why, at the outbreak of World War I, Zog enlisted in its army. At the end of the war he returned to his country steeped in the European way of life and entered politics defending the interests of his old beys, the local lords of aristocratic lineage, who were joined by merchants and intellectuals forming the People’s Reform Party. His support for the government in the face of the annexationist ambitions of Greece and the kingdom of Yugoslavia earned him the post of governor of Shkodër in 1920 and that of minister of the internal affairs the following year, changing his surname to Zogu, which sounded more Albanian.

However, things were not going to be so simple. The struggle for power in the newly born state was hard and bloody, to the point that in 1923 Zog was wounded by gunshot inside the parliament itself and in 1924, after one of the opposition leaders ended up dead in what was clearly a revenge by his order – feuds between clans constituted a whole tradition – the so-called June Revolution, a peasant revolt that brought together Orthodox and leftists, forced Zog into exile. But he took refuge in Yugoslavia, where he negotiated military aid from that country to return and regain control of the government. This he did, thanks to Pyotr Wrangel’s White Russians, who, under the command of Sergei Ulagay, had one of their bases there.

So Zog returned triumphantly in 1925, being appointed by the Constituent Assembly first Prime Minister and President in succession for a period of seven years. His government was Western-style but had a major obstacle to the reform program he had planned: Albania was a medieval country in practice, as the political, social and economic structures still maintained the characteristics of the Ottoman era. It was necessary to abolish the semi-feudal system and serfdom that prevailed in the rural world, which Zog achieved thanks to the fact that he had full powers in the absence of opposition – except for some minor Kosovar leaders – and the financial aid of an Italy that at that time seemed a sincere ally; it would soon be seen that this was not the case.

Behind the officer, Albanian army women are seen giving the Zogist salute./Image: Wikimedia Commons

Little by little, changes came about as a result of political stability which had its flip side in Zog’s marked personalism, progressively more and more authoritarian until he began to pressure the Assembly to transform the republican state into a monarchy. With no one strong enough to oppose, on September 1, 1928 he was proclaimed Mbreti i Shqiptarëve (King of the Albanians) with the name Zog I (chosen to eliminate the Islamic-sounding Ahmet). At once they began comparing him with Skanderbeg, which, of course, he did not prevent. Let us remember that he claimed that lineage on the maternal side and, consequently, he also granted royal status to his relatives.

Although the chosen form was constitutional monarchy, modeled on the Italian example, it also resembled the country across the Adriatic in that in practice the leader concentrated broad powers: in addition to monarch, Zog was granted the rank of field marshal, by virtue of which he was able to create an important police force to guarantee him political tranquility to continue with his reforms. He also instituted a characteristic salute with the name of the Zogist salute, just as Mussolini did with the fascist salute (but instead of extending the arm forward it was held at heart level), and issued the first paper money in Albanian history, backed by the prior accumulation of gold and jewels to form a national treasure.

Zog I swore on the Bible and the Koran, aware of the need to maintain ethnic and religious balance (he was Muslim, although he abolished Sharia in favor of a civil code copied from the Swiss, following Atatürk’s example a decade earlier), in the same way that he tried to do the same in the linguistic field, given that the Albanian language diversified into several variants. Likewise, in order to avoid the absorption of Albania by some neighbor, merger with another country was prohibited. This did not prevent marriage alliances from being sought and, in fact, one of Zog’s sisters became engaged to the heir of the Turkish sultan Abdul Hamid II.

The royal wedding of Zog and Géraldine/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

It was a unique case that extended only to the Muslim world, since the other European royal houses ignored the Albanian one for lack of family ties with it and for being self-proclaimed. This meant that Zog I had to look for a wife in his own country, something doubly thorny because he had broken his engagement with the daughter of Shefqet Vërlaci, the country’s largest landowner and opposed to any agrarian reform; Vërlaci was the one who shot Zog in 1923 and the first prime minister Zog overthrew on his return from Yugoslav exile, so it was impossible to become related to him.

Instead, Zog married Countess Géraldine Margit Virginia Olga Mária Apponyi de Nagy-Appony, a Hungarian aristocrat with an American mother and Catholic religion whose family had been ruined and therefore she had had to go to work, both as a typist and as a museum clerk. The wedding was in 1938, with Count Galeazzo Ciano as a special guest, and they honeymooned in a Mercedes Benz convertible given to them by Hitler.

Ciano’s presence was not coincidental or much less, since, as we said before, Albania and Italy had signed a friendship treaty in 1925 which, when the former found difficulties in repaying the loans received in the context of the 29 Crisis, favored control of the national industry by Italian companies, as also happened with trade and banking but, above all, with monopolies such as electricity, mail and telegraphs, and sugar.

King Zog accompanied by Count Galeazzo Ciano, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, in 1937./Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

This left Albania highly dependent on the Mussolini regime to the point of even affecting the army, with the presence of numerous military advisers who were fully aware of the local defense plans. The Italian pressures went so far – they demanded the official teaching of their language – that Zog eventually broke the agreement in 1933 to initiate a rapprochement with the Germans and French but was unsuccessful and had no choice but to return to the Italian fold.

However, things were no longer as before. In 1938, Albania took in a large number of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and a year later, two days after the birth of Leku, the royal couple’s firstborn, Mussolini ordered the invasion. Hardly any resistance could be presented, given Albania’s military backwardness, whose army had only thirteen thousand men, two planes… and dozens of Italian officers who knew the local defense plans inside out.

The invasion lasted only three days and Zog, who had survived numerous assassination attempts during his reign, had no choice but to go into exile once again.

The escape was adventurous, accompanied by his family (and the royal treasure) through Greece, central Europe, Scandinavia and Belgium, until arriving in Paris. When the Wehrmacht crossed the French border and advanced on the capital, they had to pack their bags again and cross the English Channel, allegedly aided by a British agent named Ian Fleming, the same one who would later create the James Bond character. Unable to contact the Albanian resistance, they stayed in London until the end of the war, when they left England to settle in Egypt, given that King Farouk had maintained good relations with them, with a view to trying to regain the throne.

The kings of Albania on their visit to Sweden in 1939/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

But there was no option to return to Albania, where Enver Hoxha’s partisans had taken power in 1944, abolishing the monarchy and establishing communism. Zog was officially deposed in 1946, banned from setting foot in the country. He did not resign himself to his fate and obtained British and American collaboration to attempt a coup but failed, apparently due to information provided by the spy Kim Philby, and the monarch was sentenced to death in absentia. He then returned to Paris, where he would die in 1961, being succeeded by his son Leka; his widow, on the other hand, would have a long life until 2002.

The communist regime ended in 1990 and seven years later Albania called a referendum on restoration that the monarchists lost (they only got a third of the vote), although there were accusations of fraud and even an attempted armed insurrection that did not succeed.

Despite everything, Leka received permission to live in the country and in 2012, a year after his death, the remains of Zog I and his family were transferred to a royal mausoleum built in Tirana.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 14, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Zog I, el político albanés que convenció al parlamento para que le proclamaran rey


Albania and king Zog. Independence, republic and monarchy, 1908-1939 (Owen Pearson)/A biographical dictionary of Albanian History (Robert Elsie)/Italy and Albania. Financial relations in the Fascist Period (Alessandro Roselli)/The albanians. A modern history (Miranda Vickers)/King Zog. Self-made monarch of Albania (Jason Tormes)/Wikipedia

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