Among Europe’s Ex-Royals

What do the descendants of dethroned monarchs have to offer the continent in the 21st century?

photo of a man in purple sweater standing in front of a large painting of a royal wedding and beside a piano on which five portrait photos are displayed
Prince Leka II of Albania, photographed in February at his residence in Tirana (Jelka von Langen for The Atlantic)

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One peculiarity of European aristocrats is that their names pile up, like snowdrifts. It’s lunchtime in Tirana, the capital of Albania, and I am about to meet Leka Anwar Zog Reza Baudouin Msiziwe Zogu, crown prince of the Albanians.

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The Albanian royal residence is easy to miss, tucked away on a quiet side street behind the national art museum. While Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms, including 188 staff bedrooms, 19 staterooms, and 78 bathrooms, the Albanian residence would be among the smaller, more understated houses in a wealthy American suburb. Its front gate opens onto a yard where the country stores its unwanted Soviet statues: Lenin, Stalin, and the Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha all gaze with stony fortitude at a generic Stakhanovite maiden. Lenin has no arms. Hoxha’s nose is missing. The gate is guarded by an elderly manservant for whom the term faithful retainer might have been invented. Because I am British, his thinly disguised irritation at my presence makes me feel right at home.

And here is the prince: 39 years old, more than six feet tall, with a sandy beard, navy blazer, and soft South African accent, saying goodbye to his wife, Crown Princess Elia, and their 1-year-old daughter, Princess Geraldine. The pair are about to go to the park—without bodyguards—and Prince Leka II takes me inside, to the drawing room, where the faithful retainer brings me an espresso. Next door is a room devoted to Albanian history (“what a lovely scimitar,” I find myself exclaiming, my reserves of small talk inadequate at the sight of the family’s sword collection), and beyond that is a cozy lounge with a leather sofa, its domesticity slightly compromised by the bows and arrows hanging on the wall.

Leka’s cosmopolitan name tells the story of his family. Zog is for his grandfather, an Ottoman bey, or chieftain, who became prime minister of Albania in 1922 and upgraded himself to president three years later, then to king in 1928. That arrangement lasted for 11 years, before Mussolini invaded, in 1939, and made Albania part of the Italian empire. Zog fled to Greece, along with his wife, Geraldine, and two-day-old son, whose name would later be styled Leka I. The family subsequently moved to Turkey, then France, then London, then Egypt, and then back to France, where Zog died, in 1961. His widow and son moved to Spain and then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) before ending up in South Africa.

Leka II’s other names pay tribute to the leaders who helped the royal household in its long exile: Anwar is for Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat; Reza is for Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran; Baudouin is for Boudewijn, an uncle of the current king of Belgium. Msiziwe is a Zulu honorific, derived from the word for “helper,” a reminder that when Zog’s grandson was born, in South Africa, the government symbolically designated the maternity ward as Albanian soil.

Prince Leka grew up in the last days of apartheid. He has a strong childhood memory of visiting the beach at Durban and asking why the family’s Zulu driver could not join them. “It was a white beach,” he says. Then he looked across at the Black children playing in their segregated area and wondered why he couldn’t play with them. “Do you ever watch Trevor Noah?” he asks me. “I resonate with his ideas, his philosophy,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “If we don’t recall our legacy and the torments of the past, it’s nothing good for the future.”

Leka is a paradox—a royal prince living in a democratic republic. His position is lonely, as the only son of an only son. He has assigned himself an immense task: to act as a unifying figure in a poor country with a febrile political system still scarred by half a century of authoritarianism, in a region marked by religious violence. And the tools available to him are few: a resonant name, a gentle manner, and a handful of social-media accounts. Leka is active on Facebook and Instagram, and occasionally drops into Twitter, where his unverified account promises to share a “combination of personal and official happenings.”

2 photos: statue of man standing in uniform clasping the hilt of a sword resting on ground; set of family photos in frames
Left: A statue of King Zog in Tirana. Right: Family photographs displayed at the Albanian royal residence. (Jelka von Langen for The Atlantic)

Across Europe, royal families are variously seen as tourist attractions, embarrassing artifacts, spiritual leaders, and symbols of national identity. Several countries that exiled their monarchs in favor of fascism, communism, or military rule—Greece, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and of course Albania—have now allowed their royal families back home, making uneasy pacts with history. They are royal but not royal, monarchs without thrones, caught between the past and the future. A surprising number of them have gone into politics. What do their countries want from them?

Leka lives modestly; the original royal palace was confiscated by the Communists in 1946, and the royal household today receives no funding from the state. He has no constitutionally recognized role. And he has only a minuscule chance of regaining the throne. In some ways, his story is quintessentially Millennial: In previous generations, a crown prince could look forward to a secure, permanent job, with a salary and great benefits. Instead Leka is performing royal duties for “exposure,” in hopes of being hired full-time.

Think of it as an unpaid internship in monarchy.

The history of Europe can be told through its royal dynasties—the Habsburgs, the Bourbons, the Romanovs, the Stuarts, the House of Hohenzollern, the House of Orange. Some kings were imported: The great powers of Europe decided that Albania needed a monarch, so in 1914 they sent over a German army captain to do the job. (He lasted six months before being forced into exile.) Some kings were elected: The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s laudable attempt to widen the monarchy’s applicant pool led to repeated wars. Some kings were executed: Charles I of England lost his head to an ax and Louis XVI to the guillotine.

Europe has 12 remaining monarchies, including three principalities and a grand duchy. But the continent is also lousy with dethroned or exiled royals, many of whom have returned to their ancestral homelands. King Michael of Romania was kicked out by Communists, but his daughter Margareta, custodian of the Romanian crown, is back there, and has co-founded a charitable foundation. Constantine II, a former king of Greece, flew his family to safety in Italy after a coup in 1967. He now lives a quiet life in a Greek resort town. Crown Prince Alexander of Serbia was born in a suite at Claridge’s in London after his father fled Yugoslavia during the Second World War. He now lives in the royal palace in Belgrade. Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a former king of Bulgaria, spent 50 years in exile. He served as the country’s prime minister soon after he was allowed home, in 1996.

The further royals get from power, the odder the whole business seems. There are three main claimants to the French throne. One of them—Jean-Christophe Napoléon Bonaparte, who works in private equity—has a LinkedIn profile. Another, Jean d’Orléans, count of Paris, is six generations away from the last king of France, Louis-Philippe, but feels the need to keep the monarchist presence alive on the internet. “In the last 30 years, the politics of our country has completely altered our social bonds through its hedonistic individualism,” he explains on his website. “It therefore seemed important to me to accompany my commitments with appropriate communication.” (For the record, this is also why I tweet.)

The third claimant goes even further. Louis de Bourbon, duke of Anjou, has the type of spicily partisan Twitter presence more usually associated with Substack writers. The self-styled Louis XX has spoken out against gay marriage and backed the “silent majority” of France’s “yellow vest” protesters. In 2020, after an activist removed the hand of a royal statue in Kentucky during racial-justice protests, he tweeted: “As the heir of #LouisXVI, and attached to the defense of his memory, I do hope that the damage will be repaired and that the statue will be restored.” Americans were unimpressed. Many of the 8,000 quote-tweets ran along the same lines: “Your family has never been particularly good at reading the room have they,” said one. “You act like that’s the worst body part Louis XVI ever lost in front of a crowd,” offered another.

The French public has greeted the jostling among the three pretenders mostly with indifference or contempt. But other former kingdoms have taken a softer stance toward their aristocrats. Leka’s presence in Tirana is a signal that the intolerant, paranoid days of communism are over. Although his father’s politics were right-wing, he is resolutely nonpartisan, and his patchwork family—Anglican mother, Catholic grandmother, Muslim grandfather, and Orthodox wife—is a model for a country trying to resist the divisions that have long plagued the Balkans. He presents himself as the answer to a question: If a country does not define itself by a religion or an ideology, does it need another focal point, a symbol of national unity? “We are lacking role models,” says Grida Duma, a member of Parliament for the center-right Democratic Party. “From Byzantine times, we have had the luck and the misluck to be in the middle of cultures—and being small, as a country in the middle of cultures, it’s very hard to create identity.”

Before I arrived in Tirana, the royal household assigned me a fixer—Biniamin Bakalli, billed online as the family’s former “head of protocol,” now a voluble middle-aged businessman with an American passport and a deep loathing of communism. Ahead of the scheduled interview with Prince Leka, Bakalli took me to an underground museum in the center of the city, made from one of the country’s 170,000 abandoned bunkers, which stand as concrete-and-steel monuments to the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha’s paranoia. Bakalli paid the admission fees, although he noted later that he was entitled to free entry, because the victims of communism whom the museum was set up to remember include several members of his family.

Hoxha was still in power when Leka was born, in 1982. Back then, his family’s chances of returning to Albania looked remote: If they did, they were likely to be executed by the Communist government. Even owning a picture of King Zog carried a long prison sentence.

Under Communist rule, Albania proclaimed itself a republic and disavowed its former monarch. Lea Ypi, a London School of Economics professor who grew up in Communist Albania, recalls that whenever the former ruler was mentioned in her lessons at school, it was never as King Zog, but as “Zog the tyrant.” A handsome, ruthless chain-smoker with a tiny mustache, he’d thrived in the bear pit of Albanian politics and reportedly survived more than 50 assassination attempts.

That the Communist regime branded him a tyrant is ironic, however. Hoxha—or “Uncle Enver,” as children were told to call him—executed at least 6,000 political opponents, intellectuals, and religious leaders. He killed his own brother-in-law and all but one of his interior ministers. He broke with the post-Stalin Soviet Union after deciding that Nikita Khrushchev was a softy. His only major allies were the Chinese Communists—until 1978, when he broke with them too. Long poised between the Ottoman empire and Christian Europe, Albania had been a religiously diverse country for centuries, but in 1967 it became an atheist state, because Hoxha’s government tolerated no alternative power bases.

photo of the city of Tirana with blue sky and hills in background
Tirana, photographed in February. The city’s Socialist mayor, Erion Veliaj, calls Leka “a de facto ambassador of the new Albania.” (Jelka von Langen for The Atlantic)

The exhibits at the bunker museum demonstrate his mania for control—for instance, he had the beards of tourists shaved off at the border—and the totality of the surveillance state he constructed. Ypi’s family developed an elaborate code to discuss friends and family who were taken to labor camps, referring to them as going to “college” and either “graduating” (being released) or “dropping out” (being executed).

Hoxha died in 1985, leaving behind the third-poorest country in the world. His legacy of a one-party state ended six years later, when the first multiparty elections were held. The transition from communism to capitalism was fraught, as an estimated two-thirds of the population used their new economic freedom to invest in pyramid schemes—the inevitable collapse of which caused panic, riots, and mass emigration. By the late 1990s, Ypi says, “there was no state.” In addition to food shortages and electrical blackouts—nothing new—the old armories had been looted. Men and women carried weapons, “and because they had been trained under communism to use guns, they could also use them.”

Against this background, King Zog’s son secured a referendum on the return of the monarchy in 1997. The striking, 6-foot-8 Leka I, who regularly dressed in military fatigues, returned to Albania to campaign. He toured the country to make his case; Ypi remembers watching television ads extolling the virtues of kingship. “Every evening, a split screen showed images of Albania in flames alongside photos of landmarks in Oslo, Copenhagen, and Stockholm,” she writes in Free, her recent memoir. “Written in blue under the photos one could read: ‘Norway: Constitutional Monarchy’; ‘Denmark: Constitutional Monarchy’; ‘Sweden: Constitutional Monarchy.’  ” All this could be yours, the commercials promised, if you just let the heirs to Zog return home. Ypi watched these ads over the sound of Kalashnikovs being fired in the streets.

The ad campaign didn’t work. The official result was a two-thirds majority for a republic, although Leka I would maintain to his death that the vote had been rigged against him. A recount led to protests, which led to violence, which led to Leka I fleeing the country again, and being convicted in absentia of organizing an armed uprising. But the wheel kept turning, and five years later, in 2002, he was granted amnesty and invited home. Next to him as he disembarked from a plane at Tirana’s airport was his 20-year-old son.

Suddenly, Prince Leka II’s life changed. He went from being a private citizen in the global South to a half-prince in a homeland he had never really known. He had grown up surrounded by Albanians, “old mountain men” of his grandfather’s generation, who reminisced about a bygone version of the country. He always felt his destiny was there.

“I can’t believe it’s 20 years since I’ve been back,” Leka tells me as we drink our coffee under a picture of his grandparents’ wedding ceremony, rescued a few years ago from a shop run by two little old ladies. I tell him that the worst part about approaching 40 is that you realize you are, indisputably, a grown-up. “We’re getting old,” he agrees. “And as you reach the age of 40, you ask yourself: What have we achieved? 

After the family’s return, the young Leka fashioned for himself a course in kingship. Like his father, he attended Sandhurst military academy, England’s equivalent of West Point. He studied international relations in Kosovo, and Italian in Perugia, Italy. After returning to Tirana, he worked for the Albanian government, spending three years as an adviser in the ministry of foreign affairs, then three years in the ministry of the interior and a year in the president’s office.

Still, Leka is right to wonder: What has he achieved? When his father died a decade ago, Leka inherited a crown that doesn’t exist. He has a job that very few people in history have ever held—but what exactly is it?

He does charity work through a foundation named after his grandmother Queen Geraldine. Sometimes he acts as a kind of diplomatic wingman: In 2019, he accompanied the Albanian president on a visit to Monaco. He also receives pleas for help in navigating Albania’s labyrinthine (and corrupt) bureaucracy and legal systems. “You have to understand, it’s a very difficult country,” Leka says. “And a lot of people feel that they are disenfranchised or neglected; they have issues.” The mysterious, enduring glamour of monarchy means that nonprofits, international organizations, and politicians take his calls.

And then there is his unofficial ambassadorial role, improving the international reputation of a country that was closed to outsiders for half a century. When other Europeans think of Albania at all, many imagine it as an exporter of drug dealers and criminal gangs. This casual prejudice was the reason Leka accepted an interview request out of the blue from a British writer at an American magazine. “You’re five times more likely to be robbed in London than Tirana,” he tells me. “We have 375 kilometers of pristine coastline, the Ionian Sea, the Adriatic Sea  … The potential which Albania has is quite incredible.” He is right; this is a country with medieval ruins, wild mountains, and not a single McDonald’s.

2 photos: a sunlit public plaza with people strolling and biking with mix of modern and traditional buildings; a man in suit and tie sits on large leather sectional sofa by coffee table with wall full of bows, arrows, and spears in background
Left: Skanderbeg Square in central Tirana. Right: Prince Leka II of Albania, in the royal residence in Tirana, in February. (Jelka von Langen for The Atlantic)

One of the greatest functions of royalty is simply to be seen. That is why medieval monarchs held royal progresses, touring their lands, touching the sick, and hearing the grievances of the poor. They sent portraits of themselves to be displayed in cathedrals and countinghouses. They put their face on coins. The modern version of this is social media, and Leka has become a sort of, well, prinfluencer. His wife, Elia, is particularly popular on Instagram—she was a member of the Albanian answer to the Spice Girls before marrying him—and he posts photos of himself with extravagantly bearded religious leaders or in black tie at the weddings of fellow royals, and the occasional selfie at the beach with baby Geraldine.

It is fashionable to deride modern celebrities as “famous for being famous,” but this is a style pioneered by shadow monarchs. With no army or bureaucracy to enact their desires, they draw power from their symbolism.

Like other kinds of influencers, though, modern royals (and pretenders) must carefully defend their brands from controversy. They tend to promote virtues that are nebulous and expansive enough to seem above party politics. “Tolerance” is the most obvious, as a softer way of talking about pluralism. “Taking care of the planet” is the defanged version of environmentalism. “Empowering women” is another favorite, although even this is considered edgy in Albania, where Leka gets dismissive comments when he takes Geraldine out in her stroller alone—many Albanians see child-rearing as women’s work and therefore demeaning for a father, never mind a prince. In that context, his support for women’s charities and his Instagram dad-posts are quiet political statements.

This is one way Leka is unlike his father—the “soldier,” as the son refers to him. “He was from a different era,” he tells me, choosing his words carefully. In fact, a repeated refrain I hear from many people I meet in Albania is that Leka is too nice to be a ruler. “He’s well mannered, well educated, and, politically, sorry, he’s too good,” the Albanian journalist and author Erald Kapri says. He doesn’t have the killer instinct? I ask. “In Albanian politics, you should have it.”

Leka himself deflects the question of whether he will ever be king. “As a family, we are not working for a referendum,” he says. He wants to “be part of the system,” and is pleased when he is asked to join government meetings with foreign ambassadors and emissaries from NATO and the European Union. When I ask him about the loneliness of his job—whom does he complain to?—he responds with a quick smile: “I never complain.” I press him, hoping to discover a secret WhatsApp group of dispossessed royals sending one another cry-laughing emoji under the table at boring state dinners. He will admit only to discussing his job with his wife.

Karl von Habsburg has entered the Zoom. The 61-year-old head of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine would today be the leader of the Austro-Hungarian empire, if there were an Austro-Hungarian empire left to lead. Instead, he is fiddling with his microphone and talking to me.

Karl’s father, Otto, was the last crown prince, born in 1912. His given names were Franz Joseph Otto Robert Maria Anton Karl Max Heinrich Sixtus Xavier Felix Renatus Ludwig Gaetan Pius Ignatius, and his titles included king of Hungary and Bohemia, margrave of Moravia, and grand prince of Transylvania. It was the assassination of Otto’s great-uncle Archduke Franz Ferdinand that triggered the First World War—and in turn the dissolution of an empire that covered parts of modern-day Austria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Croatia, and the Czech Republic, among other nations.

Otto von Habsburg was a child when he became an ex–crown prince, and he had to find a new path. He learned seven languages, and he remained active in politics, earning a doctorate in political and social sciences and opposing the rise of the Nazis. He fled to the United States after Austria was annexed by Hitler. Otto devoted himself to “pan-Europeanism,” pragmatically renouncing the throne in 1961 and spending 20 years as a member of the European Parliament instead—not as fancy as being an emperor, admittedly, but the expenses were generous and there was less chance of being assassinated. Otto helped organize the Pan-European Picnic of 1989, on the border between Austria, in the free-market west of Europe, and Hungary, part of the communist east. It was described in his Guardian obituary as “one of the events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism.”

Four of Otto’s children also became politicians: Karl is a former member of the European Parliament for Austria, Walburga was in the Swedish Parliament, Gabriela was the Georgian ambassador to Germany, and Georg is the Hungarian ambassador to France. “What people tend to forget is that my ancestors were for 800 years professional politicians,” Karl tells me. “Yes, the circumstances have changed slightly … but you’re stuck with the bug.” The “bug,” in Karl’s case, means a genuine and lifelong advocacy for pan-Europeanism, which is an unfashionable sentiment in an age of rising nationalism.

2 photos: men play dominoes on a sunlit bench with a food cart and building in background; looking up from below at statue of a woman with crown and flowers, blue sky in background
Left: Men playing dominoes in Tirana. Right: A recently unveiled statue of Queen Geraldine. (Jelka von Langen for The Atlantic)

For Karl’s birthday last year, a group of Czech monarchists made him a replica of their country’s revered Crown of Saint Wenceslas. From the news reports, I sensed a slight mismatch in enthusiasm between the monarchists and their desired monarch. Was this not awkward—a reminder of what he had lost? “It is very impolite not to accept presents,” he tells me, diplomatically. “So it’s very nice. But then on the other side, this is not exactly a piece you would like to have standing at home on your mantelpiece.” He has given the replica to the Order of St. George in Vienna, to be displayed in its offices.

What can an old family like the Habsburgs offer 21st-century Europe? “A sense of history,” Karl says. “If you want to understand or do any prediction on what might theoretically be happening in the future, you have to base it on something.” Like other shadow royals, he performs an informal diplomatic function, as a kind of ermine-clad back channel. When the funeral of King Hassan II of Morocco was being arranged in 1999, Karl tells me, “I was in a rather advanced position compared to the representative of the Austrian state, because there’s a personal relationship there also between his family and my family.”

Bearing that in mind, I ask whether he thinks the Habsburgs will ever be restored to power. “The words never and always, these are two expressions that should only be used in a religious context, and not necessarily the political context,” Karl replies. And then, with the assurance that flows from membership in a dynasty that first sat on the throne of the Holy Roman Empire in 1273, he adds, casually: “Two generations in this framework, it’s very little.”

“Royalty was like dandelions,” writes the fantasy author Terry Pratchett in Feet of Clay, his novel about the appearance of a long-lost heir to the fictional throne of Ankh-Morpork. “No matter how many heads you chopped off, the roots were still there underground, waiting to spring up again … Whoever had created humanity had left in a major design flaw. It was its tendency to bend at the knees.”

Removing the monarchy doesn’t remove this tendency. Look at the United States, in thrall to its own aristocratic dynasties—the Kennedys, the Bushes, arguably even the Trumps—and delighted to have a satellite branch of the House of Windsor, even though the country fought a literal war to make Prince Harry’s ancestors butt out of American politics. Monarchy speaks to a deep need in people—the need for a connection with the past, and a sense of continuity across time. Less wholesomely, it also suggests a widespread desire for fixed, unarguable hierarchies and a lingering opposition to the idea that jobs should be distributed on merit. These are strong currents in the human psyche, and they are resistant to change.

On my last day in Albania, I meet Erion Veliaj, the Socialist mayor of Tirana, at a private lounge in the airport. Young, forceful, and charismatic, he explains that his party’s roots lie in the anti-monarchist movement, “but that doesn’t blind me to accept that this was part of our history.” The city he runs is shaped by the rule of King Zog, who enlisted European architects to design wide roads and open squares, turning a rural settlement into a modern capital.

Tirana now looks like any other European city, but it is pockmarked with scars from the past. The bunkers are still there. Ten minutes’ walk from my hotel stands the House of Leaves, the former surveillance headquarters, now turned into a museum. The city’s most fashionable district, where you can drink espresso and eat sushi in the sunshine, was within my lifetime the “Blloku”—the block reserved for Hoxha and his politburo, where they sealed themselves away from a discontented populace.

For Veliaj, pragmatically accepting Leka’s unofficial role is part of a generational process to make peace with this history. That acceptance would not have been possible under Leka’s father, who associated himself with the political right. “You can throw toxins, or you can be a healer,” says Veliaj of Prince Leka II. “He’s become a de facto ambassador of the new Albania. And I really appreciate that. So, although politically we’re on different sides of the spectrum, he is someone I am proud to call a very good friend.”

No one I met in Albania believed that Leka would ever be king. In the 2021 elections, the right-wing monarchist party, the PLL, won just a single seat. When I asked about succession, Leka told me he would ask Princess Geraldine, when she turned 18, if she wanted to be his heir. “Legally, according to the Albanian royal constitution, it would go directly to the first male,” he said. But the rules can be fudged, not least because Zog’s laws were overhauled by the Italians, and then the Communists, and the constitution has no legal standing. At the time, Leka’s statement seemed like a sweet endorsement of gender equality and personal choice. It was only later that I realized choice is antithetical to monarchy. The whole point is that you get whomever you’re given.

Then again, maybe this kind of contradiction should be embraced. Albania is an experiment in multiethnic, multiparty democracy. A republic with an unofficial monarch, living in a plain house and taking his daughter to the park without armed guards? It sounds absurd. But while dictatorships are simple, democracy is not. And people do have a deep, almost spiritual hunger for leaders who are more than mere bureaucrats or legislators. We want symbols.

Before I left the royal residence, Leka showed me something. Above the double doors in the reception room was a portrait of King Zog. It had been given to his father by a family who had hidden it for half a century in their basement, despite the great personal risk. As Albania’s ruler, Zog had been a tyrant and a modernizer, a viper and a visionary, intent on obtaining and holding power at any cost. His grandson will have to find his own way to be royal—or to be ordinary instead.

This article appears in the May 2022 print edition with the headline “The Shadow Royals.”