ALBANIA: The Man Who Was King

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In the rough, gaudy amusement quarter of Hamburg known as Sankt Pauli, where anything goes, one of the quieter attractions—but a good one—was white-thatched, bushy-mustached Otto Witte, a lifelong circus performer who made his first public appearance as a lion tamer at the age of eight. All Otto had to offer was stories, but it was a blase man indeed who could walk away from Otto's tales of how his skill at magic won him the honorary chieftainship of an African Pygmy tribe, or of the time that he tried to elope with the Emperor of Ethiopia's daughter.

But sooner or later, Otto's monologues always turned to the greatest coup of his career—the days of his kingship. Early in 1913, in the confusing days of the Balkan wars, he was traveling through the Balkans with a small circus, doubling as sword swallower and magician. Albania had just proclaimed its independence of the Ottoman Empire. While the great powers sought a European princeling to head the new state, some Albanian Moslems had their heart set on Prince Halim Eddine, a kinsman of the Turkish Sultan.

One of his fellow circus performers noticed that Otto Witte bore a striking resemblance to Halim Eddine, and then and there the whole beautiful scheme sprang full-blown to Otto's mind. In no time at all a pair of telegrams, purportedly originating in Constantinople, were on their way to Essad Pasha, Albanian-born commander of Turkish forces in the Durazzo area. One telegram was signed "Sultan" and the other "High Command," but both carried the same news: "Prince Halim Eddine arriving Albania, will assume command all troops stationed there."

The Five-Day Wonder. A few days later, Otto Witte rode into Durazzo, resplendent in fancy-dress uniform and medals. The entire population of the city turned out to cheer him. Graciously, Otto greeted his adherents, then ordered Essad Pasha to assemble his forces for a campaign "to conquer Belgrade." This, Otto would recall with a grin, so delighted the local military that they promptly expressed the intention of proclaiming him King of Albania. Soberly, "Prince Halim Eddine" agreed to mount the throne. His title: King Otto I.

For five days all went well. With royal mien, King Otto accepted professions of loyalty from the troops "and from 25 harem girls as well." To consolidate his rule, he ordered an amnesty for all Albanian jailbirds, made lavish distributions of gold among the local chieftains. (To this day, one former foreign consul in Albania argues that no mere circus performer ever had that much money to spend, remains convinced that Otto was acting as an agent of the Austro-Hungarian government.) Then, genuine telegrams began to pour in from Constantinople. "It was a shame," Otto used to tell his admirers. "I would have established a fine, wise government." But "to avoid unnecessary bloodshed'' (his own), Otto slipped quietly out of town.

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