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The Throne of Zog: Monarchy in Albania 1928-1939

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Jason Tomes looks at the reign of King Zog.

Shortly before five o’clock on Saturday, September 1st, 1928, Europe gained a new kingdom and its only Muslim king: thirty-two year-old Zog I of Albania. Few foreign journalists were actually present in the Parliament House in Tirana to see him swear his oath on the Koran and the Bible, yet the birth of the Kingdom of Albania – a native monarchy, not an alien imposition – did attract a flicker of international attention. King Zog was a curiosity. So he has remained. Information about him was scarce enough even during his reign. Then the Albanian Communists, who governed from 1944 to 1991, minimised his place in history and shunned the rest of the world. For five decades, Albania was synonymous with hard-line Marxism-Leninism. Two visitations of the global media circus – in 1997 and 1999 – have latterly conveyed a picture of the disorder that has followed Communism. What about the Zogist monarchy that went before it?

The modern state of Albania came into being as a result of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 after 500 years of Ottoman Turkish rule. The Great Powers recognised its independence yet drew its boundaries so tightly that half of all Albanians were outside them. A German princeling, Wilhelm of Wied, was chosen to be its ruler. He stayed a mere six months in a land so racked by revolt and subversion as to be widely reckoned ungovernable.

A population of just under one million lived in a territory about half as big again as Wales. Albanians comprised two ethnic sub-groups, Ghegs in the north and Tosks in the south, yet this division was generally less significant than the effects of a relentless succession of high mountain ranges which split the land into isolated valley communities, self-sufficient and often hostile to their neighbours. The Ghegs formed a tribal society, resembling the Scottish clans of old, and managed their affairs according to ancient customary laws with recourse to the blood feud. The Ottomans had never really mastered these people. In the south, meanwhile, Turkified landowners called beys ruled their great estates as private fiefdoms. Nearly three-quarters of Albanians were Muslims. The Christian minority was Orthodox in the south and Roman Catholic in the north. Language did act as a unifying force, but Albanian existed in two main dialects and it had only just started to be written for practical purposes. Nine out of ten Albanians could not read.

Nominally neutral during the First World War, and without a recognised government, the country was overrun by seven foreign armies. In 1920, however, a band of nationalists re-established an Albanian state and persevered in the face of insurgency, foreign depredations, and a serious threat of partition by Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia. Prominent among these politicians stood Ahmed Zogu, chieftain of a Gheg clan in the Mati valley in north central Albania. He served as premier for over a year until shot and wounded in Parliament. Then a revolution drove him into exile in 1924. Six months on, however, Zogu returned and staged a coup  with the aid of Yugoslavia (on the understanding that he would not pursue the Albanian claim to Kosovo).

In Zogist history, this seizure of power constituted ‘The Triumph of Legality’. With superficial regard for constitutional niceties, Zogu had himself elected president, but Albania was now a dictatorship, since the semblance of a cabinet, parliament, and elections scarcely mitigated the reality of one-man rule. He relied on the gendarmerie, a network of informers, and ultimately the warriors of his own Mati clan. Chieftains who co-operated received ‘peace money’ payments for nominal military services. Those who did not ran a risk of assassination, for, in Albanian politics, the venerable blood-feud merged into narrowly targeted terrorism. By such methods, Zogu successfully asserted central authority across the whole country, albeit unevenly, achieving a degree of public order unknown for decades. His regime still remained a rickety one, characterised by secrecy, intrigue, procrastination, insolvency, censorship, and pervasive corruption.

President Zogu declared that his goal was ‘to civilise my people and make them as far as possible adopt Western habits and customs’. Exposure to the ideas of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, followed by a couple of years in Vienna during the First World War, had convinced Zogu that Albania could not survive as an ethnographical museum piece. Like other Balkan states, it should repudiate the legacy of the Ottoman period and strive to catch up with the rest of Europe. Throughout Zogu’s years in power, his rhetoric was always of modernisation: roads, bridges, schools, literacy, public health, agronomy, tourism and industry. In practice, progress proved to be patchy, at best, and virtually non-existent in remoter regions, as beys and chieftains resisted reform and foreign investment failed to materialise. The development programmes depended almost entirely on Fascist Italy, which subsidised Albania from 1925 in return for political rights not far short of a protectorate. 

Italian money helped ‘manage’ the elections which produced the constituent assembly that offered Ahmed Zogu the ‘illustrious crown of the historic Albanian throne’ in 1928. The idea was all his own, and cherished for who knows how long. He had first been fascinated by the story of Napoleon Bonaparte during his schooldays in Istanbul. King Ahmed sounded too exclusively Islamic, so the new monarch adopted his surname (which means ‘bird’). By the rules of Albanian grammar, when the noun Zogu is preceded by a title, it takes the indefinite form and loses the last letter: hence the monosyllable by which the King is known abroad.

Six days of public holiday followed Zog’s accession. Troops were reviewed and bonfires lit. Sheep were slaughtered in front of the palace. Italian aeroplanes dropped confetti. Six colonels were raised to the rank of general. Two thousand prisoners went free. But what did it matter if the dictator chose to call himself King instead of President? True, the change made it harder to remove him by constitutional means, but these had never counted for much in Albania anyway. Zog said that monarchy would strengthen ‘the sense of security that was necessary to a young country just emerging from disorder’ and sustain ‘a stable Government which would encourage the people to set to work and build up the State on a firm foundation’. Albanians understood a king better than a president, he argued: look at their local organisation. He would be the unifying chieftain of chieftains and bey of beys – an over-sanguine assessment, this, of the loyalty of Albanian notables (as Zog knew perfectly well). 

King Zog ruled his nation in precisely the same fashion as President Zogu. Through hours of tortuous conversation, endeavouring to disguise his own opinions, he manipulated his collection of underlings in an effort to exercise personal control. Reluctant to trust anyone, except his own Mati adherents, he contrived to keep his hold on power by playing each social group off against another: Ghegs against Tosks, landowners against townsmen, army against gendarmerie, Muslims against Christians, Roman Catholic against Orthodox, and clan against clan.

The monarchy was supposed to reduce the need for this kind of political balancing act by enabling the mass of Albanians to identify with the national leadership, yet the very character of the regime made it hard to construct a popular base. The respect accorded to ancient thrones did not spring up overnight, and the methods used to force its growth were typically crude. Officials stencilled ‘Long live the King’ on the walls of public buildings and ordered shops to display Zog’s portrait on pain of a fine. In some places, a huge letter ‘Z’ was burnt onto the hillside.

On Monarchy Day (September 1st), the King’s Birthday (October 8th), and Independence Day (November 28th), thousands were required to parade through towns in groups suggestive of unity and progress: councillors, military conscripts, schoolchildren, women in Western-style clothes, cyclists, scholarship students, civil servants, athletes, artists, the chamber of commerce, and clan reservists. Before the podium, right forearms swung stiffly across chests to make the Zogist salute (flat hand over heart, with palm facing downwards). The people of Tirana beheld the King himself – a uniformed speck surrounded by Royal Guards (recruited exclusively from Mati). Except on national holidays, Zog hardly ever appeared in public. What foreigners diagnosed as paranoia, most Albanians regarded as prudence. The King was the object of hundreds of feuds, and a man ‘at blood’ quite often resorted to self-incarceration as his best defence.

The stage management of Zogist jamborees clearly owed much to Fascist models. The royal regime was not militarist, racist or expansionist, but it was outspokenly nationalist. Zog explained,

The average Albanian knows nothing about nationality. He has always looked up to the head of his tribe, or his Bey, as the supreme authority.He had to be taught gradually to transfer this local allegiance to the national government, so the nascent education system sought to encourage ‘admiration for the saviour of the nation and great leader of our State’.

According to Zogists, the Albanian throne had a 2,500-year history. By positing continuity from semi-mythical Pelasgians (mentioned by Homer and Herodotus) and asserting that ancient Macedonia, Epirus and Illyria were in some sense Albanian states, they devised a list of precursors for Zog which included Achilles, Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus and Queen Teuta. This roll-call of monarchs, however, suffered from the weakness that none of them had actually thought himself or herself Albanian. More often, then, the royal heritage of Albania was simply defined as Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, Lord of Kruja (in central Albania), who had rebelled against the Turks in the fifteenth century and held them at bay for twenty-five years. Skanderbeg’s victories against overwhelming odds had secured him a place in European history, and the literary pioneers of the Albanian national revival, re-discovering him late in the nineteenth century, seized upon the only plausible precedent for Albanian self-government. Skanderbeg’s banner of the doubled-headed black eagle on a crimson ground became the national flag. In 1928, Zog purported to be filling Skanderbeg’s throne, left vacant for 450 years, and he claimed the medieval hero’s helmet and sword as regalia. When an Austrian museum refused to hand them over, he had to content himself with the horned helmet motif as his royal crest, while propagandists came up with more fanciful links with Skanderbeg: both kings had a special birthmark, for example, and their mothers dreamt the same dream before their births. Stories of almost supernatural feats supported the image of Zog as God’s gift to his people. No flattery sounded too extreme, as approved biographies sought to portray ‘the characteristics of his great soul in their true historic forms’.

Aside from the King, the House of Zogu comprised his mother, six sisters, a half-brother, and several nephews and nieces. They were a close-knit traditional family, and the women stayed hidden away at first, in accordance with local ideas of modesty. Only after her death in 1934 did Sadije, the Queen Mother, undergo apotheosis as ‘Mother of the Nation’. It became the custom for loyal delegations to lay a wreath at her mausoleum. Then some of the royal princesses began to venture timidly into the public eye. Zog vocally endorsed ‘cultural freedom for women’. Having abolished polygamy and the veil, he arranged for his three youngest sisters to tour the country in 1937 in tight skirts and flesh-coloured stockings. Fashion apart, though, the Zogu princesses were not pioneering feminists. They spent their lives waiting for their brother to find them husbands. Albanian spouses were barred on political grounds, but how many foreign princes wished to marry a Muslim from a brand new dynasty? The husbands of Zog’s two elder sisters had long since disappeared from the scene – one divorced and the other assassinated (some said on royal orders) – and the King seemed happy to live in a household of women. Prince Xhelal, his half-brother, played no part in royal events, remaining largely forgotten in Mati. The princesses meanwhile became notorious for their jewellery, fur coats, and overseas shopping trips.         
Critics of the monarchy accused it of extravagance. The 1928 constitution set the King’s civil list at 500,000 gold francs per annum (around £20,000) plus staff allowances and an extra 120,000 for the Queen Mother and princesses. Although far less than the income of many other monarchs, this did amount to over 2 per cent of the total Albanian budget. The day-to-day lifestyle of Zog did not seem so lavish to upper middle-class Western European diplomats. He sat at his desk from early till late, chain-smoking through endless interviews, and often dined alone on food prepared by his mother or eldest sister (to guard against poisoning). His palace was a two-storey villa of yellow stucco built for a Turkish merchant before the War. But luxury, like poverty, is relative. Albanians endured the poorest living conditions in Europe. Malnourished peasants survived in mud and wattle shacks on a diet of maize bread and salt. Estimated GNP per capita was about £12.

State finances hovered on the brink of bankruptcy, as the taxation system was grossly inefficient and unfair. While tithes wrenched a pittance from the poor, the top rate of income tax was only 6 per cent and evasion all but universal. Zog did not dare to tax the rich and powerful for fear of provoking rebellion. The state barely stayed afloat, because a third of public spending was normally covered by loans from Italy (with no real prospect of repayment). In this context of perpetual deficit, the royal household certainly looked profligate.   

Zog’s ostentatious expenditure was, in part, an attempt to outstrip the wealthiest beys, who tended to view him as a social inferior. He embarrassed them with his munificence when it came to exchanges of gifts and dazzled them with his fleet of half a dozen limousines (mostly Mercedes Benz). To impress traditional chiefs, the King displayed his collections of antique rugs and guns. A new royal residence – fit for a King – was long under construction outside Tirana, and, in the nearby port of Durrës, a showy Summer Palace was actually completed in 1932. Though likened by a British tourist to ‘the casino in one of the minor Belgian sea-coast resorts’, it boasted marble halls and Louis Quatorze decor. It was shockingly under-used. ‘He built this palace for distinguished guests,’ the steward on the Bari-Durrës ferry would explain, ‘but he never seems to have any’.

Great Britain, France, and the US had greeted the kingdom with a modicum of politeness. They wanted to believe Zog when he assured them that monarchy would help promote peace and stability – but how, when there was no son and heir? The Yugoslavs objected to his formal title – King of the Albanians – as it could be read as including the Kosovars. Only the President of Turkey, however, openly derided the change. ‘What’s going on in Albania?’ laughed Kemal  in 1928, ‘Are you performing an operetta?’ This jibe hit home, and was widely credited with persuading Zog to appear less often in his most flamboyant white and gold uniform (the one with plumed fur hat and black cloak).

Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria all had kings. The ruler of Albania wished to be their equal. Thanks to alphabetical order by country, he now took first place in the Almanach de Gotha, the unofficial handbook of European royalty, yet established monarchs avoided him. So did foreign statesmen. Though Albania was legally a sovereign nation, it was wholly subordinate to Italy in all its foreign affairs (except for 1933-35 maybe), so any direct contact with Zog would merely have clouded relations with Mussolini. Only Italian Fascists paid occasional visits, notably Count Ciano to inspect the progress of ‘lira imperialism’.

Western journalists had rarely taken Albania seriously, and the King’s bizarre name did not help, yet no one met Zog and still took him for a joke. His sly cleverness commanded grudging respect even when his ingratiating manner failed to charm. Those expecting a rugged mountain warrior were disconcerted to discover a slender, soft-spoken gentleman in an immaculate pin-stripe suit and silk tie. His cultivated urbanity, neat moustache, and ever-present cigarette-holder seem to have given rise to the mistaken idea that he was something of an international playboy. Although his sisters frequented the Côte d’Azur, the King did not venture outside his realm for fear of usurpation, revolt, or invasion in his absence. His one and only foreign trip, to Vienna for health checks in 1931, ended with the most famous of many assassination attempts. After Zog drew a gun and fired back, his reputation as a dashing royal gangster was sealed so far as the European press was concerned. ‘One of the most picturesque and romantic figures of our time,’ enthused one popular reporter, who judged that His Majesty might have stepped straight from the movie screen.

The Albanian monarchy reached the peak of its publicity in April 1938, when the King at last took a wife. His search for a bride had been remarkably difficult. He would not marry into an Albanian family, lest his choice accentuate political rivalries, but he had little chance to meet any foreign women. Matrimonial agents based in Vienna had to persuade potential queens to take a free holiday in Tirana. There, efforts were made to invest the royal court with a social aspect (almost wholly absent till the mid-1930s) by means of a formal protocol of etiquette, Austrian servants, and a large prefabricated ballroom. New Year’s Eve at the palace became a grand affair from 1936 – tiaras, champagne, and pâté de foie gras – and photographs of these parties, more than anything else, sustain the negative image of Zog the idle wastrel. 

Compelled to drop his sights from royalty to nobility, the King wooed an orphaned Hungarian countess, Geraldine Apponyi de Nagy-Appony, pretty and twenty-two years old, who wed him on the 487th anniversary of the marriage of Skanderbeg. The service had to be a civil one – it lasted a mere seven minutes – because any religious content would have caused controversy. Zog had always wanted a Christian queen, as a Westernising influence and a mark of approval for mixed marriages in general. His own Muslim faith appeared lightly held, and his approach to religion was normally syncretic: his family celebrated Bajram, Ramadan, Christmas, and Easter. Geraldine was a Roman Catholic, and his refusal to agree that children of the marriage should be brought up in the Church prompted a denunciation from the Vatican. Nevertheless, with the wedding celebrations, the twenty-fifth anniversary of independence, and the tenth anniversary of the monarchy, the House of Zogu enjoyed its heyday in 1937-38 in terms of outward show.  

After Hitler occupied Prague in March 1939, Mussolini felt the need to demonstrate his own Fascist audacity. Italy invaded Albania on April 7th, two days after Queen Geraldine gave birth to Crown Prince Leka. Albanian resistance was minimal, King Zog fled abroad with a considerable fortune, and the monarchy stood revealed as a failure as great as most of his other modernising schemes. Beyond Mati, the populace seemed indifferent. Had their King meant any more to them than the Ottoman Sultan before him? They followed the lead of their beys and chieftains, among whom any slight regret at his leaving was easily overcome by Italian largesse. Italy had intervened, said Ciano, to liberate Albania from ‘a selfish, narrow-minded, venal, treacherous, cruel ruler possessing all the despicable attributes of a feudal lord in the dark ages’.   

King Zog himself had sometimes observed that his homeland was ‘centuries behind the rest of Europe in civilisation’. It is a moot point whether he is better compared to other dictators of the 1930s or – as he would have preferred – to men who tried to found their own dynasties in much earlier times. In his own day, perhaps the new Arab kingdoms of Iraq and Saudi Arabia presented most points of similarity. He might also be likened to a host of more modern rulers of post-imperial countries in Africa and Asia with little cohesion, bad frontiers, and undeveloped economies (though, of these, only the alarming Jean-Bedel Bokassa assumed royal status in the Central African Empire). Defenders of Zog are less anxious to contend that he governed his kingdom well as to explain the scale of his achievement in governing it at all.

The King, who died in France in 1961, never abandoned his claim to the throne. Leka, his son, returned to Albania in 1997, as its government disintegrated along with dozens of fraudulent ‘pyramid investment companies’. Voters rejected the monarchy by two to one in a referendum (though Leka disputes the result). The historical reputation of Zog has since been a shibboleth of party politics. Opposition control of Tirana city council accounts for the first sign of official rehabilitation: since June 2000, the highway running north from Skanderbeg Square has reverted to the name of Boulevard Zog I. 

Jason Tomes, who lectures in history for Boston University, is writing a biography of King Zog.



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