From Nothing More Than His Imagination – Leka of Albania: The Man Who Would Not Be King (Part One)

Back in my college days I had a friend who had grandiose ambitions of making deep, meaningful films. The kind of art house fare that is the preserve of pretentious pseudo-intellects, whose main attribute is a high opinion of themselves. This certainly explains the cinematic designs of my friend, who made possibly the worst films I have ever seen. Imagine a young man standing in front of a mirror with a zombie like expression plastered on his face. Then suddenly stock footage is shown of a freight train steaming down a track with its whistle blaring. This was a surprising take to say the least. My friend tried to attach himself to other misunderstood film directors who were shunned by the unenlightened public. He stated that his main influence was the German director Wim Wenders, who made the second worst films I have ever seen.

Not long thereafter, my friend became a former one, as he recoiled angrily at my questioning of his incomprehensible films. He grew increasingly haughty and arrogant, viewing anyone who could not understand his artistic endeavors for their greatness as little more than provincial fools. As a sort of laughable thought experiment, I used to imagine my former friend graduating to self-declared greatness. He was the kind of guy who would have awarded himself an Oscar, if that accolade had not been beneath him. My friend was akin to a self-declared monarch who had no throne to ascend. He would have made a great would king of Albania. If it did not already have one.

Like Father Like Son - King Zog & Leka

Like Father Like Son – King Zog & Leka

Setting A New Course – A Royal Mess
This friend came to mind while I was reading about Leka, Crown Prince of Albania. Here was a man who aspired to royal greatness, but whose efforts. whether by a perpetually unenlightened Albanian public or the vicissitudes of geopolitics were thwarted. His attempts to assume what he considered his rightful place among European royalty were not successful. That never stopped Leka from having a high opinion of himself, to the point where he saw Albania as his personal inheritance. This was stretching the limits of credulity. Leka spent almost none of his childhood in the country and never set foot on Albanian soil until he was 48 years old. Nevertheless, Leka was nothing if not ambitious, something he shared with his father, King Zog.

It was Zog who created a monarchy out of nothing more than his imagination and then proclaimed himself King of Albania. He single-handedly founded a European house of royalty just a decade after such exalted dynasties as the Habsburgs and Romanovs were ruined by revolution. An impressive accomplishment, even if some did not take Zog seriously. Leka had the same sort of delusional grandeur as his father. Being heir to the throne his father created only stimulated a need for recognition. He thought himself born of greatness, a man who might lead Albania out of the Stalinist wilderness in which it was lost. This was enough to set his life on one of the strangest courses any prospective monarch has ever followed.

Mothers Finest - Queen Geraldine with Leka I

Mothers Finest – Queen Geraldine with Leka I

At Home Abroad – The Albanian Globetrotters
The heir to the throne of Albania was born in the early morning hours on April 5th, 1939 in Tirana at the Royal Palace to King Zog and his wife Queen Geraldine. While the king was Albanian through and through, the mother’s background was a quixotic mixture of Hungarian aristocratic and American blue blood. The heir was given the name Leka, which is the Albanian form of Alexander. Unfortunately for the infant heir, only two days after his birth the royal family was forced to flee the country. The Italians were tired of propping up Zog’s profligate corruption. They invaded when Mussolini decided to invade in the hopes of recreating what he believed would be a new Roman Empire. Leka and his mother were put into an ambulance and transported through the mountains to Greece. Zog would soon follow with over a hundred members of his retinue in tow. Along with him came ten cases of valuables. These, along with the gold reserve of Albania’s treasury, which Zog had secretly been moving to England and Switzerland, would ensure he and his family would live comfortably on the proceeds of his theft.

Zog never returned to Albania. It would be over fifty years before Leka would return to the land that might have been his to rule. He would have no historical memory of Albania to base his future claims to the throne upon. That never stopped Leka from trying to get back to his royal roots. His lightning quick exile meant Leka would spend much of his life globetrotting. He and his parents would live in Great Britain at several addresses. The most notable of these was an entire floor of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in London. They then spent several of his formative years as the guest of another embattled monarch. King Farouk in Egypt. At an English school there, he became boyhood friends with the heir to Bulgaria’s throne. Leka was educated at a variety of highbrow institutions, including Sandhurst in England and the Sorbonne in France. His education at Sandhurst led to Leka receiving a military commission in the British Army.

The Man Who Would Not Be King - Leka I

The Man Who Would Not Be King – Leka I

The King & I – Would Be Monarch
After his father died in 1961, Leka was proclaimed King of Albania by the Albanian National Assembly in Exile at a hotel in Paris. This state of royal affairs fit the strange pattern of Leka’s life as a would-be monarch. He was the nominal choice to lead the country by Albanians abroad, but their support and his title meant next to nothing. Albania was a hermit nation locked in the iron grip of the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha. A hardline communist dictatorship that did not allow outsiders in or its citizens out. Leka had no military or political power with which he might attempt to overthrow the regime. All he could do was look on helplessly from abroad while tending to dubious business interests. Leka was said to trade in commodities. His definition of commodities would give new meaning to that word. Leka’s life was about to enter a much more bizarre phase.

Click here for: A Pistol Beneath His Pillow – Leka of Albania: The Failed Restoration (Part Two)

 

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.