Wanted Balkan King! January 26, 2013Posted by Beachcombing in : Contemporary , trackback
A question. What modern European country asked a cricketer, the son of a Sultan, a German prince, a circus acrobat and a Gaelic-speaking Scot to be their monarch within ten short years? The answer is, of course, Albania.
A tiny Adriatic power to the north of Greece, Albania has a history that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. But contrary to many propagandists for a greater Yugoslavia or even ‘Italia irridenta’ Albania does have a history and a proud one at that. The Principality of Arbanon, which emerges from the shadows in the twelfth century, marks the beginning of the modern country. And the Principality had a number of successor states until the Ottomans came in wielding their scimitar. Then, after a few centuries in the deep freeze, it emerged from the mess of the Balkans in 1912 free after a revolt against what was rapidly becoming Turkey. The problem was that the Ottomans had kept the Albanians under their heels for so long that no trace of a native royal line was left.
The Albanians did not quite put an advert in The Times saying ‘King Wanted’, but they came close… The first approach was made to an Albanian-loving Conservative British MP Aubrey Herbert. Herbert, who was passionate about Albania and defended the rights of the country – not least its right to exist – was persuaded not to take up the offer by the British Foreign Office. (Nota bene the FO has been responsible for almost every ill in the UK in the last 150 years). Simultaneously some other Albanians looked the other way and tried to offer their new throne to the son of Sultan Abdul Hamid, Burhan Eddine. Burhan did not come but according to a German circus performer, Otto Witte, OW got mistaken for Burham, was crowned, spent a few days enjoying the royal harem and declared war on Montenegro before running for the border. Witte was almost certainly a fantasist, certainly there are lots of holes in his account, but he is buried in a grave with the marker ‘King of Albania’ in Hamburg. He probably drank out on the tale.
In the end the Albanians were bullied by the Great Powers into accepting a German aristocrat, William of Wied. William arrived in the country 7 March 1914. His brief reign did not go well. By 7 September Europe was at war, Greece had occupied the south of Albania and much of the rest of the country was in a state of civil war. William sensibly slipped away and went to fight for the Kaiser. After the war there were further attempts to find a solution to this embarrassing lack of a royal line. William was not invited back: after all he had fought on the losing side. But the throne was offered again to Aubrey Herbet – a keeper – and also to the Gaelic-speaking John Stewart-Murray, 8th Duke of Atholl and the brilliant cricketer C. B. Fry. Incredibly, all three of these turned down the honour, perhaps they were aware of how William of Weid had made a fool of himself and Albania briefly became a Republic.
The aristocratic Albanians – Aubrey Herbert came closest when he called that heoric people ‘kings in rags’ – couldn’t deal with modern forms. Eventually it fell to their president Zog to become the next king in 1928. Zog was a conniver and a schemer but he served his country well, particularly given its several carnivorous neighbours. He went into exile in the war and the post-war Albanian communists prevented his return: they were busy creating a nightmare Maoist regime in the central Mediterranean and any hint of the Middle Ages might have made them look a little backwards. However, in 1997 about a third of Albanians voted for the restoration of the ‘House of Zog’: long and not entirely unhappy memories then.
Looking back Albania probably was right to look for a king but wrong to look for one outside their borders. What they really needed was one of the clan leaders from the country’s feudal interior to rule with an iron fist for a couple of generations. Still given that Fascist Italy had little Albania on its shopping list this was all academic. The poor bastards never really had a chance. Albania was not going to have a happy 1930s and it was certainly not going to have a happy war. If there is any regret it is that the country was allowed to slip out of the Western net in 1945. Unhappy memories of Churchill’s scheming…
Any other unlikely kings: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
29 Jan 2013: JKMol has this to add: First: the man’s name is Herbert [corrected above from Herbet, doh!]. I recall he was related to Evelyn Waughs second wife. You probably know about ” The man who was Greenmantle” by Margeret Fitzherherbert, Which I have (unread) and which will now be promoted to the must read pile. Second: The unhappy rule of William of Wied also saw the first attempt at peacekeeping in the Balkans. And the first Dutch casualty in failing. One wonders how someone who’d been involved in the bloody conquest of Atjeh could be so naively drawn into the Balkan quagmire. Third: There are still supposed to be some Albanian speakers in southern Italy. Thanks! JKMol!!!!