A curio of German history to mark the 20th anniversary of Nena first getting to number one or whatever it is that’s going on today.
Life, as Ireland’s pre-eminent thinker Ronan Keating once whimsically opined, is a rollercoaster. Few are as familiar with the dizzying highs and crashing lows of the crazy ride we call life than German fairground impresario Norbert Witte. Earlier this year the feature-length documentary Achterbahn (“Rollercoaster”) told his incredible and incredibly depressing true story, which involves freight ships, corruption, a fatal fun-fair collision, Peruvian jails and 167 kilos of cocaine. It’s a tale any reasonable fiction editor would reject as implausible and as I can’t do it justice, have a read of this to catch up.
In any case the carousel seems to be turning again for Witte. Well at least the Ferris wheel in his beloved Spreepark, which has once more creaked into action. After setbacks which would have buried a lesser man, it would be unwise to write Witte off. His persistence in the face of failure, his knack for doing the wrong thing on a spectacular scale is, you see, in his blood.
Norbert’s grandfather Otto Witte, born in 1872, initially made his living in circuses and fairgrounds with magic tricks, sword-swallowing and acrobatics. He was also a compulsive adventurer, and his 1939 autobiography is a knockabout picaresque of espionage, intrigue and romance. In numerous instances Witte gets himself out of a tight spot thanks to his winning way with the ladeez or just a particularly impressive card trick. Much of his account, you may assume, is to be approached with scepticism. However his most audacious escapade has been so often re-told, and Witte himself was so insistent on its authenticity, that despite a lack of independent evidence it would be churlish, rude even, not to believe it. It’s captured in the book’s title: 5 Tage König von Albanien (“King of Albania for Five Days”).
In 1913 the Balkans were a fractious, bewildering patchwork of ever-shifting loyalties and simmering tensions. The Ottomans were losing control of their domains and Albania, in particular, was pushing for independence. The Turks planned on installing Ottoman prince Halim Eddine as their puppet, while the European powers were hoping to put a minor German prince on the throne. Suffice it to say that a barely educated carnie was not what anyone had in mind for the top job.
According to Witte, 1913 found him engaged by the Turkish secret service (it’s a long story), when someone remarked upon his startling resemblance to Halim Eddine. Witte had never ignored an opportunity for troublemaking and he wasn’t going to start now. Going somewhat off-message, he sent telegrams from Constantinople to Tirana announcing the arrival of the “prince” to assume military command, before turning up himself, outfitted in a uniform from a Viennese costume supply shop. It did the trick, and the way Witte tells it, the assembled generals were so impressed by his decisive command that they spontaneously offered him the crown while rival warlords lavished gifts on him.
Witte was a whirlwind of regal activity, making plans for military action and preparing to take control of the Albanian independence movement. But sadly it couldn’t last, and even with the unreliable communications of the day it wasn’t long before he was rumbled. Less than a week into his reign King Otto grabbed whatever he could carry from the gift pile and made his escape, his most lasting regret being that he never availed himself of the harem.
Regardless of the legitimacy of his reign or even the veracity of his tale, Witte always insisted on being referred to as the ex-king of Albania, a title which found its way on to his business card, his correspondence and finally, in 1958, his gravestone.