Like the rest of his race, Ahmed Zogu was first and foremost a warrior. Aubrey Herbert, Albania's greatest friend in the English political world of those days, who met him in 1913 when he was only eighteen, described him as "a reader of Shakespeare and a fine fighting man". Having served in the Austrian Army during the Great War, he became Commander-in-Chief of the Albanian armed forces in 1921, at the age of twenty-six. In that same year, he was made Minister of the Interior, having held the post briefly before; in 1922, he became Prime Minister.
By 1924, his vigorous government had aroused so much opposition among the unruly Albanians that there was a rising against him, led by Bishop Theophanes (Fan) Noli; and an attempt was made on his life-the first of several. He fled with five hundred followers to Yugoslavia, where he was lent money and mercenaries; enabling him to return to Albania before the end of the year with three thousand men and become dictator. At the beginning of 1925, he put an end to the nominal Regency and proclaimed a Republic, with himself as President.
As ruler of Albania, Ahmed Zogu was strong, efficient and, when necessary, ruthless. He was accused by his enemies of cruelty; and indeed, at times he was excessively stern, such as when he put down the revolt of the northern Catholic tribes in 1926, executing the Catholic priest who had inspired the revolt in defiance of the traditional immunity from the death penalty which rebellious clergy had hitherto enjoyed. He could also be high-handed. He levied a compulsory "benevolence" on the inhabitants of Scutari to pay for the building of a country house for himself on the shores of the lake there; he made it compulsory for his portrait to be displayed in every shop in Albania. Yet he had a good reason for his autocracy; he was one of the few real Albanian patriots who put the ideal of Albanian nationality before the loyalties of tribe, region or religious sect. His object was to create a united Albania, and in this he succeeded.
In 1928, the National Assembly proclaimed Ahmed Zogu Mbret; an elevation which he had anticipated during his years as President by putting his effigy on the stamps and coins. Eschewing William of Wied's more modest rendering of the Albanian word as "Prince", he proclaimed himself to the rest of Europe as His Majesty King Zog I; he also assumed the name of Scanderbeg III, after an Albanian national hero of the fifteenth century. As King, he worked even harder than he had done as President. "Ahmed Zogu is a ruler whose initials arc symbolical of his permeation of the affairs of his country", wrote the distinguished British administrator, Sir Harry Luke, during his reign. "It is literally the case that everything in Albania from A to Z comes under his notice and is vitalized by his energy". He improved education, opened banks, and introduced an internal air service, which was very necessary as the roads remained few and bad. He made an Albanian language out of the various tribal dialects. He banned the old Albanian practice of polygamy and introduced freedom of religion. He reorganized the gendarmerie, with the help of British advisers. He moved his capital inland from Durazzo to Tirana, a Moslem village consisting of a bazaar and four gaily-coloured mosques. Soon it became what Cetinje had been in the days when Montenegro was an independent kingdom: a village where almost every other house was a Legation. Zog set about transforming it into a modern capital city, aligning new roads, laying out public gardens, planting avenues of trees.
Though Zog had come back to power in 1924 with the help of Yugoslavia, it was to Italy that he turned for support when he was President and King. In return for Italian loans and large subsidies for developing the country, he signed a defensive alliance with Italy, and gave the Italians wide business concessions. Italy had long considered herself as having a claim over Albania, and at one moment had been offered the country during the preliminaries of the Treaty of Versailles. As her commitments in Albania increased, she came to exercise a kind of semi-suzerainty over Zog's kingdom. As a fierce nationalist, Zog grew restive under the Italian yoke: and in 1934, he got rid of his Italian advisers; whereupon Mussolini sent a fleet into Durazzo harbour and he capitulated. By 1939, the Italians had decided to tighten their hold on Albania still more; and in the spring of that year, they sent Zog an ultimatum which, had he accepted it, would have reduced him to being an Italian puppet. Zog played for time and began to take defensive measures, whereupon an Italian Army landed at Durazzo and elsewhere. That was the end as far as King Zog was concerned. With his young Hungarian Queen-whom he had married in the previous year when he, was forty-two and she twenty-two-his infant son, who had been born two days before the Italian invasion, and his six sisters, he left the country for good.
After King Zog's departure a Constituent Assembly declared that the Albanian crown had passed to the House of Savoy and King Victor Emmanuel consequently assumed the style of King of Italy and Albania. Towards the find of the Second World War the Communists gained control in Albania and declared a Republic. King Zog lived in exile until his death in 1961, moving from Greece to England, then to Egypt, and finally to the South of France after a brief spell in the United States. To Auberon Herbert (son of Aubrey Herbert and, incidentally, brother-in-law of Evelyn Waugh), who visited him when he was living at a country house in Buckinghamshire during the Second World War, it seemed that the exiled King Zog did "nothing but nurse his majesty, and take tiny, Parisian walks". He also expressed a desire to buy The Times newspaper and told Herbert: "I won't give a penny more than ten million for it". It was easy to laugh at this dethroned self-made Monarch; yet three million Albanians in exile take his memory seriously enough to acknowledge his son, Leka, as their King. For all his shortcomings, King Zog has a place in history as the father of his country.