King Zog

Knowing nothing about the story, except vaguely its strangeness, out of simple curiosity I picked up this biography, King Zog, by Jason Tomes.

Albania was an outlying part of the Ottoman Empire. A most backward, primitive, impoverished land (which it still is). A century ago it had no railroads, hardly even any roads, and three automobiles. Scant literacy or intelligentsia. No law, apart from a tribal vengeance code.

The tale begins with the outbreak of the First Balkan War in 1912, a confusion of would-be states scrambling in a war of all against all.

Enter Ahmed Zogolli. Just turning seventeen.

His early life is murky. The bio is full of “might haves” and “perhapses.” He apparently had some schooling in Constantinople (Istanbul). But in 1912 he didn’t come out of nowhere — not quite exactly. He’d inherited the chiefdom of a small Albanian backwoods clan, the Mati, with a ragtag army of maybe a few hundred men.

Albania was actually full of petty chiefs like him. But Zogolli, despite his extreme youth, excelled them all in intelligence, self-possession, self-discipline, guile — and in his vision for nation-building. Already he was a player when a statelet of Albania emerged out of the war in 1912. The European powers put a minor German prince on the throne; Zogolli backed him; he didn’t last. When WWI soon erupted, the Austrians came in, and he aligned with them too.

They gave Zogolli, now 21, a rank of Colonel, and even brought him to Vienna to receive a medal and an audience with the new Emperor Karl. All very nice. But then he was told it would be best to just remain in Vienna.

So he sat out the rest of the war, nightclubbing — and studying history. At war’s end he finally returned to Albania where, Austrian rule having disintegrated, a provisional government emerged. Within months Zogolli was minister of the interior, and soon thereafter calling all the shots. By 1922 (now all of 27), he was also prime minister.

The next year Zogolli organized elections — the only free election Albania ever had until the 1990s. His own party didn’t do too well. In 1924, on his way to Parliament, he took three bullets from a would-be assassin but persevered to deliver his speech. Nevertheless, things were falling apart, and Zogolli was soon ousted and exiled. However, his successor was such a crackpot that by year’s end Zogolli managed to return again, raise a new army, and seize control. He rode at the head of his tribal warriors wearing a pressed business suit.

Now, he made himself president, restyled as Ahmed Zogu; and in 1928 as King Zog I.

It was not a cushy billet. Albanian politics (if it could be called such) was a morass of tribal blood feuds; and in consolidating power, Zog had stepped on many toes. He managed to hold things together, just, but foresaw an almost inevitable violent end.

A certain fearlessness had vaulted him to power, yet he lived in constant fear now, and it kept him virtually imprisoned in the palaces he built.

In these circumstances, a benevolent monarchy was not in the cards. Some repression was required. Some inconvenient characters did die violently. At least the word “torture” does not appear in the book.

However, it was not solely self-aggrandizement. As mentioned, Zog did see himself on a nation-building mission, little though he had to work with. Albania was still a collection of feuding clans with no national consciousness. Zog did do some things of a liberal, progressive nature, trying to drag the country out of the Dark Ages. But a key hindrance was simple lack of money. Obviously, these grizzled tribesmen would not submit to taxation. Indeed, what funds Zog did manage to scrape together went largely to buying off warlords.

He did not get a queen until 1938: Geraldine. He couldn’t marry any Albanian gal because of the clan rivalry factor, and mainline European royalty shunned him as an upstart adventurer. Geraldine was of minor Hungarian nobility and half American. It actually seems to have been something of a love match.

Zog’s challenge was not just to play off rival warlords but (to keep Albania in existence) also Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece. He made Albania virtually an Italian client state. Though accused of selling the country out to Mussolini, the riposte was that he’d never actually delivered it. But finally, in April 1939 — Mussolini, to keep up with the Joneses — that is, the Germans, who rolled up Czechoslovakia — invaded Albania, after an ultimatum that Zog refused.

Albania would have been totally outclassed militarily, even had anyone been willing to fight. But no one was. Zog fled into exile, yet again.

For the next 22 years he and his court flitted among various countries, financed by quite a bit of loot he’d managed to accumulate and abscond with. Unsurprisingly, Zog intrigued relentlessly for a return. During WWII, various partisan armies — none supporting him — fought over Albania. The eventual victor was Enver Hoxha’s Communists, who installed a brutal Stalinist regime, that lasted until 1991.

Zog had meantime ruined his health in numerous ways, including smoking more cigarettes than was humanly possible. He was 65 when he died in 1961.

He did not come back again.

Geraldine lived until 2002.

4 Responses to “King Zog”

  1. Peter Tompa Says:

    Albania did have some wonderful coins struck during his rule. I believe they were designed and struck in Italy. I’ve heard he was a coin collector. Any information on that?

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    The book never mentioned coins at all!

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Good book, thanks for the synopsis.

  4. Peter Tompa Says:

    Here is something about his coins, some of which have great neo-classical designs. I think I read something about him being a coin collector from Mrs. Clain-Stephanelli, a wonderful lady who was the curator for coins at the Smithsonian. https://www.mintageworld.com/blog/coins-of-albania-coins-of-the-world/amp/

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