Inspiration By Attempted Assassination– Zog: The Man Who Would Be King 

There is a tendency to discount Albania’s King Zog as a rather ridiculous pseudo-monarch. His popular bio goes something like this: a foolish incompetent, bad at almost everything except for deadly feuds, miraculously avoiding assassination and corruption on a breathtaking scale. It does not help Zog’s reputation that his name is ludicrously memorable. One cannot help but think that no self-respecting king would ever allow themselves to be called Zog. He had a comic strip character kind of name, except that the joke was on whoever crossed him. Zog was lethal when it came to his enemies.

As for his real name, Ahmet Mehtar Zogolli, it was much more difficult to pronounce or remember. The name smacks of something straight out of the Orient, with the usual connotations of despotic behavior and lurid intrigues. Not since Pepin the Short has a monarch been so degraded by his name. It does not help his reputation that Zog led Albania, a nation that was perhaps the most backward in Europe at the time, into oblivion. He fled in the face of Italian invasion, never to return. Zog lived out his life abroad on the proceeds of his thievery.

Bulletproof - Statue of King Zog in Burrel Albania

Bulletproof – Statue of King Zog in Burrel Albania (Credit: Attila Terbocs)

A Game Of Survival – Forms of Chicanery
With the gift of hindsight, Zog’s misrule in Albania seems rather harmless in comparison to the hardline Stalinism that would come to later dominate the country. In other words, Zog’s rule was bad, but it could have been much worse. His time in power moved Albania towards achieving a national identity, with a central government and modest improvements in communications and transportation. That may not sound like much, then again considering the state of Albania at the time – rampant poverty, mass illiteracy, epidemic levels of malaria and tribal violence – Zog was something of a minor success. He was a formidable politician, despite or more likely because of his inherent flaws. Zog’s greatest success was reserved for himself, as was the Albanian treasury. He had an ability to cheat death. Most famously by surviving more assassination attempts (55), than any head of state in modern history. Zog may have survived, but leading Albania during the 1920’s and 1930’s also meant taking a few bullets. Most famously on some stairs inside the Albanian parliament in Tirana on February 23, 1924.

To say that Albania during the 1920’s was a nation in flux would be a massive understatement. Its existence was hardly assured. Albania had only been a nation-state since 1912. In the aftermath of the First World War it looked as though it would become subsumed in a greater Italy or a greater Greece or a greater Yugoslavia. Instead it was left as it was, a struggling nation surrounded by external enemies and beset by internal discord. Its politics were riven by tribalism, blood feuds and endemic corruption. In other words, Albania, was a terrible mess. Trying to bring order to this chaos would take a leader the likes of which had not been seen in the land for centuries. That leader was nowhere to be found. The man who rose to the top was Zog. He did this through every form of chicanery known in the annals of bad government. Threats, assassinations, torture, payoffs, Zog would go to any lengths in building a base of power. His enemies largely played by these same rules. The difference being that Zog was much better at it.

Take a bow - King Zog greeting one of his Royal Guard

Take a bow – King Zog greeting one of his Royal Guard

Crisis Management – A Moving Target
By 1923, the Albanian government was in crisis. This was nothing new, since the government during this period was always in crisis. A vote was to take place that would hopefully lead to a decisive majority that would enact constitutional reform. Zog, who was Prime Minister at the time, hoped to expand his power through this process, but first he and his allies had to win the election. The opposition’s fear was that if Zog won, he would make himself a virtual dictator. The outcome was fraught with uncertainty, as the Zogist’s came within a whisker of winning a majority. Zog took to dispensing favors in the hopes of gaining enough allies to form a new government. The vote for one would take place in late February. This was a great opportunity for Zog, as well as for the opposition which felt it was their last chance to stop him.

Assassination was politics by other means, specifically violent ones. Zog certainly knew this since he was a target for assassins throughout his political career, including on the mid-afternoon of February 23rd.  Zog was making his way up the stairs to parliament where he was to rally support in the vote for a new government. While making a turn in the stairwell, an opposition supporter fired shots at him. Two bullets struck Zog. He was hit in the wrist, abdomen and thigh. This did not detain him from making his way to Parliament. A shocked crowd of deputies watched a reeling Zog make his way to a seat. Rather than call for immediate medical care which he obviously needed, Zog instead prepared to make a few remarks. While this dramatic scene was taking place, more shots rang out. The assassin had managed to make his way to the bathroom, locked the door and fired rounds from inside of it. He would eventually be forced to surrender. The greatest drama was back in parliament.

A chestful of medals rather than bullets - King Zog

A chestful of medals rather than bullets – King Zog

A Question Of Respect – Profile In Courage
The fact that the man who had just shot him was holding out did not keep Zog from saying a few words. Amazingly, considering the situation, these were delivered in his typically laconic fashion. “Gentlemen, this is not the first time in the world that such a thing has happened in a parliament. I ask my friends to leave it alone and deal with it afterwards.” He then proceeded to stay seated for several minutes. When his personal physician arrived, Zog finally allowed himself to be treated. He then made his way out of parliament under his own power. It was a crazy display of courage that would become legend to his supporters.

Meanwhile, the opposition must have wondered how they would ever rid themselves of Zog. Fortunately for them, political missteps in the coming months by a recovering Zog would lead to him fleeing the country a year later. This was but a brief respite. Zog would be returned to power a year later by Yugoslav troops. He would rule Albania for the next fourteen years. Zog was a remarkably resilient man, both physically and politically. He may not have been a great leader, but he was not a ridiculous one either. Any man who can give remarks a few minutes after taking bullets deserves respect, both then and now.

55 Lives Later – The Incredible Life And Legacy of King Zog

On the night of February 21st, 1931 the King of Albania, Zog was leaving the State Opera House in Vienna after watching a performance of the Italian opera Pagliacci. There were two men waiting outside for him. They were hoping to make life roughly imitate art.

The opera’s story line concerned a murder that involved a romantic entanglement between a servant, village girl and a couple of brothers. Zog must have found the story line familiar. He was no stranger to the idea of murder for vindication. This was a man who while prime minister in 1923 had been shot three times on the steps outside of parliament in the Albanian capital of Tirana. Instead of being whisked away for immediate medical care, Zog steadied himself, entered parliament and gave a speech while still bleeding. If a man wanted to be leader of Albania, he had better be prepared to suffer such traumas.

The Man Who Would Be King

The Man Who Would Be King

Zog’s winter sojourn in Vienna had been his first trip abroad since he had been crowned king. The decision to create a monarchy was Zog’s own. He had been President from 1925 – 1928, but his ambitions were far greater. In 1928, he became the first Muslim king of a European nation. Uniquely, he had sworn an oath on both the Koran and the Bible. This was not as strange as it may seem, though Albania was a majority Muslim nation, it also had sizable populations of Orthodox and Catholic Christians. Symbolism at the coronation was not just religious either. Zog had worn a gold crown that weighed nearly eight pounds. With Zog’s decadent pageantry, Albania joined the rest of Europe with a royal house, albeit at a time when monarchies had lost most of their power on the continent. The Albanian state was playing catch up by looking backwards, rather than to the future.

Albania was primitive, even by the standards of developing countries at that time. The country was plagued by poverty and illiteracy. Zog had introduced education reforms to deal with the former, but regarding the latter he relied on Italy to provide foreign investment. To do this, concessions had to be made which allowed the Italians a decisive role in the economy. Zog had not helped matters, by constantly raiding the country’s finances for private gain. He hoarded gold and precious jewels which were the state’s only hard currency. Zog was both a modernizer and a bandit. Meanwhile, the average Albanian was forced to live in dire poverty. Homes were nothing more than hovels, while annual personal income was barely enough to subsist on and infrastructure was rudimentary. It was by far the poorest nation in Europe.
Being Europe’s newest and certainly its most exotic monarch meant that Zog was not exactly accepted by the European community of nations or nobility. He had little reason to leave his nation on international travel. There was the serious business of running a dictatorship. Better to stay at home in order to keep a finger on the pulse of the disparate factions and would be rebels who would have liked nothing better than to see Zog relieved of not only power, but also his life.

The threats Zog experienced were a direct offshoot of the fact that Ottoman Turkish rule in Europe had lasted longest in Albania. It was not until after the First Balkan War in 1913 that an independent Albanian nation was established. Oriental intrigue and cut throat court politics were the legacies of Ottoman rule. Zog’s real name had been Ahmet Muhtar Bej Zogolli. His family was a beylik, feudal provincial chiefs in the Ottoman system. Backwardness and blood feuds had permeated Zog’s upbringing. He carried on this tradition when he came to power, murdering or exiling political opponents.
Of course, Zog had reason to be nervous, his enemies were legion. He was so scared of being poisoned, that he placed his mother in charge of the Royal Kitchen. To ensure loyalty within the army ranks, he placed four of his sisters each in charge of an army division. He trusted only his fellow tribesmen from the Mat District of north central Albania where he had once been governor. This made it difficult for him to go anywhere outside of his capital or tribal homeland. He tried not to be seen in public. Yet despite his intense paranoia, Zog had pressing medical issues that called for better care than could be found at home. His health problems were not surprising when one considers his lifestyle of all night poker games and a habit of smoking on average 150 cigarettes a day. In 1931 he finally decided to venture abroad. This brought him to that fateful moment in Vienna. Was this to be the end of Zog and the Albanian royal throne?

The two would be assassins opened fire before Zog and his entourage could get away in their car. Zog’s aide de camp took a bullet for the king and was killed, his minster of court was also wounded, but Zog came prepared. He pulled out his own gun and opened fire right back. He is the only known modern leader to fire back at his assassins. Security for Zog was a matter of personal response.  Zog survived the exchange without even a wound. This would not be the last attempt on his life. He is said to have survived an incredible fifty-five assassination attempts.

King Zog and Queen Geraldine in Exile

King Zog and Queen Geraldine in Exile

Several years later it was not just many of Zog’s own people who wanted him dead. The Italians just missed capturing him when they invaded in 1939. Zog – who had been so averse to international travel – than began a career in exile where he hopscotched from one country to another, including, Greece, Egypt, Great Britain and finally France where he would die thirty years after the brush with fate in Vienna. By that time, Zog had among other things bought and sold an estate in New York and inhabited a whole floor of the Ritz Hotel in London. He paid his hotel bill with bars of gold bullion. In his life, Zog had been part of a beylik, a governor, a president, a prime minister, a king and an exile. He had lived in one empire, one newly formed nation and four other countries. He had married an impoverished half-Hungarian, half-American aristocrat. He met her on that same trip abroad that took him to Vienna in 1931. She had caught his eye in Budapest at the Hungarian National Museum where she was working at a job selling postcards in the gift shop.  They stayed together for the rest of his life. Zog would never set foot on Albanian soil again after his exile in 1939, but his wife, known as Queen Geraldine did. In 2002 she died in Albania.

The Crown Prince of Albania - Leka

The Crown Prince of Albania – Leka

As for Zog’s legacy, perhaps it is best summed up by his son Leka’s attempted returns to the claim the throne. The first time in 1993, he tried to enter with a passport that had been issued by his Royal Court in Exile. On the document his profession was listed as “King.” In 1997, after a failed pyramid scheme collapsed the economy (these things could only happen in Albania) and wiped out most of the population’s savings, Leka attempted to reclaim the throne by referendum. Two-thirds of Albanians voted against him, but Leka charged that the election had been a fraud. The upshot literally was a shootout where one man was killed, but not Leka. Like his father, he was a survivor. Later he was allowed to return for good. He died there of natural causes in 2011. Finally in late 2012, Zog’s remains were moved from a cemetery outside of Paris back to Tirana where they were interred in a mausoleum. The king had returned home, in death if not in life, and the Albanian experiment with monarchy was finally laid to rest.