Zog I, the Albanian politician who convinced parliament to proclaim him king

Albania is a peculiar country, a rarity in the heart of Europe so, so unique that its staff of ministerial officials includes a man – a young man, born in South Africa in 1982 – named Leka Anwar Zog Reza Baudouin Msiziwe Zogu, who is popularly known as as Leka II because he is the pretender to the Albanian throne since the death of his father Leka I, although he does not militate for 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 parliament to crown him king. We are talking about Zog I.

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

Zog was born in Burgajet Castle in 1895 but studied in Beyoğlu, a neighborhood in 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 Albanian Declaration of Independence issued in 1912 by the Vlorë Assembly, recognized months later by the international community.

The support of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been decisive for this, which is why, when the First World War broke out, Zog enlisted in its army. At the end of the war, he returned to his country steeped in the European lifestyle and entered politics defending the interests of his former colleagues. beys, the local gentlemen of aristocratic lineage, who were joined by merchants and intellectuals forming the Popular Reformist Party. His support for the government against the annexation ambition of Greece and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia earned him the post of Governor of Shkodër in 1920 and Minister of the Interior the following year, changing his surname to Zogu, which sounded more Albanian.

Now, things were not going to be that simple. The struggle for power in the newborn state was harsh and bloody, to the point that in 1923 Zog was shot and wounded inside parliament itself and in 1924, after one of the opposition leaders was killed in which was clearly revenge on his orders – vendettas between clans were a tradition – the so-called June Revolution, a peasant revolt that brought together Orthodox and leftists, forced Zog into exile. He but he took refuge in Yugoslavia, where he agreed to the military aid of that country to return and recover the government. He did so, thanks to Pyotr Wrangel’s White Russians, who, under the command of Sergei Ulagay, had one of his bases there.

So Zog returned triumphant in 1925, being appointed by the Constituent Assembly prime minister and president successively for a period of seven years. His government was Western but had a major obstacle to the reform program he planned: Albania was a medieval country in practice, since the political, social and economic structures still maintained the characteristics of the Ottoman era. It was necessary to abolish the parafeudal system and the serfdom that prevailed in the rural world, something that 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.

Banknote of one hundred Albanian francs. Under the reign of Zog I, the first paper money in the history of Albania was issued / Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

Little by little, the changes came as a result of a political stability that had its counterpart in the marked personalism of Zog, progressively more and more authoritarian until he began to pressure the Assembly to transform the form of state from republic to monarchy. With no one strong enough to oppose him, on September 1, 1928 he was proclaimed Mbreti i Shqiptarëve (King of the Albanians) with the name of Zog I (chosen to eliminate the Ahmet, whose resonance is too Islamic). They immediately began to compare him with Skanderbeg, which, of course, he did not prevent. Let us remember that he claimed that ancestry on his mother’s side and, consequently, also granted royalty status to his relatives.

Although the modality chosen was the constitutional monarchy, taking the Italian example as a model, it also resembled the transalpine country in that in practice the leader concentrated extensive powers: in addition to monarch, Zog was granted the rank of field marshal, thanks to which was able to create an important police force that would guarantee him political tranquility to continue with his reforms. He also instituted a characteristic greeting with the name of greeting zogistjust as Mussolini did with the fascist (but instead of extending the arm forward, it was raised to the height of the heart), and issued the first paper money in Albanian history, backed by the previous accumulation of gold and jewels to form a National Treasure.

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

Behind the officer, women from the Albanian army can be seen making the Zogist salute/Image: Wikimedia Commons

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

In return, Zog married Countess Géraldine Margit Virginia Olga Mária Apponyi de Nagy-Appony, a Hungarian aristocrat with an American mother and a Catholic religion whose family had gone bankrupt and so she had had to go to work, both as a typist and as a clerk. shop assistant in a museum. The wedding was in 1938, with Count Galeazzo Ciano as the special guest, and the honeymoon was held in a convertible Mercedes Benz given to them by Hitler.

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

The presence of Mussolini’s brother-in-law was by no means accidental, since, as we said before, Albania and Italy had signed a friendship treaty in 1925 which, when the former encountered difficulties in repaying the loans received in the context of the Crisis of the 29, favored the control of the national industry by Italian companies, as also happened with commerce and banking but, above all, with monopolies such as those of the electrical service, post and telegraph, and sugar.

This left Albania very dependent on the Mussolini regime to the point of even affecting the army, with the presence of numerous military advisers who knew perfectly well the national defense plans. The Italian pressures went so far -they demanded the official teaching of the language from him- that Zog ended up breaking the agreement in 1933 to initiate a rapprochement with the Germans and French but it was not successful and he had no choice but to return to the Italian heartland.

However, things were no longer as before. In 1938, Albania welcomed a good number of Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany and a year later, two days after Leku, the firstborn of the kings, was born, Mussolini ordered the invasion. There was hardly any resistance, given the backwardness of the Albanian military, whose army only had thirteen thousand men, two planes… and dozens of Italian officers who knew the local defense plans by heart.

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

The campaign lasted only three days and Zog, who had overcome numerous attacks during his reign, had no choice but to take the path of exile once again.

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

The kings of Albania passing through Sweden in 1939/Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

But there was no option to return to Albania, where Enver Hoxha’s partisans had seized power in 1944, abolishing the monarchy and establishing communism. Zog was officially deposed in 1946, barred from setting foot in the country. He was not resigned to his fate and obtained British and American collaboration to attempt a coup but it 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 the restoration that the monarchists lost (they got only a third of the votes), although there were accusations of fraud and even a threat of armed insurrection that did not work.

Despite everything, Leka received authorization 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 pantheon built in Tirana.


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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