Sunday, August 19, 2012

Italian Albania

The Italian occupation of Albania is one of the more misunderstood aspects of a period in which a great deal is misunderstood. Italy and Albania had a long history together, going back to ancient times. The old Roman Republic had settled on the Albanian coast even before the north of the Italian peninsula was under Roman control. Italian rule returned in the fifteenth century as the Albanian coast came under the control of the Republic of Venice (as did most of the Adriatic coast) until the Venetians were pushed out, centuries later, by the Ottoman Turks. In 1908 the Albanians revolted against Ottoman rule but were suppressed. However, they were not pacified and it was the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by Italy in 1911-1912 that inspired the last Albanian uprising which forever removed Turkish power from the region and established, at least temporarily, Albanian independence. In 1913 Albania was recognized as an independent country though most countries recognized that Italy had a ‘special relationship’ with the emerging state. Not long after, Albania began to fall apart after the onset of World War I. It was the Kingdom of Italy that came to her rescue.

Italians in Albania, World War I
Austria-Hungary, Serbia and Greece all sent forces to try to claim large pieces of Albanian territory, in the case of Greece, not always with the approval of the central government. The Kingdom of Italy sent a large expeditionary force to Albania in 1915 that pushed the invading Greeks out of southern Albania. The last of the Greeks were expelled in 1916 and a “neutral zone” was established across the frontier to protect Albanian independence which Italy took as its special concern. Greece later joined the Allies and helped in defeating Bulgaria and the Italian army in southern Albania pushed northward, expelling the last occupying forces (Montenegrins) from northern Albania by the end of the war. In the past, the major powers of Europe had, more than once, told Italy to look to Albania as a colony but in the aftermath of the First World War the Kingdom of Italy became the guarantor of Albanian independence, effectively Albania was an Italian protectorate. It was self-governing but relied on Italy for protection and for most of the money which funded the rebuilding of Albania after so many years of war and being an almost forgotten Turkish backwater.

Zog I
In the aftermath of World War I and the coming to power of the self-proclaimed King Zog of Albania, Italy was by the far the largest investor in Albania and loaned vast amounts of money to Albania to keep the country afloat. The sanctions imposed on Italy by the League of Nations over the war with Abyssinia further highlighted the importance of Albania for Italy due to the oil wells there. Italy, particularly Mussolini, was determined to never be at the mercy of an international organization that could starve the country of the resources that were vital to it. So, it should not really have been surprising when, after all of the investment and all of the loans Italy had given to King Zog to develop Albania, only to have him say he would not be paying these back that Italian forces were sent in to occupy the country. It should also be said, in all honesty, that when this actually happened, the occupation of Albania was not something that the bellicose Mussolini had planned out ahead of time. In fact, it could hardly have happened at a worse time for Italy. The default on the loans came the very month that the Spanish Civil War had ended and the Italian economy had already been pushed to the limit by intervention there and the war in Abyssinia along with the international sanctions that went with it. On top of all of that came the announcement from Zog that Albania would not be paying Italy the money they owed and it was only then that action was taken.

King Vittorio Emanuele III
For his part, King Vittorio Emanuele III warned against the occupation because of the destabilizing effect it might have on Italian relations with the rest of Europe. He worried, quite correctly as it turned out, that as Mussolini angered Britain and France it pushed Italy closer to Germany and made the country too dependent on a disreputable regime. But, Italian interests had to be secured, particularly the oil wells at Devoli which Albania had already given Italy access to. There was also the unstable element of the self-proclaimed King Zog. He had fought his way to the top of political power in Albania and, as his biographer Jason Hunter Tomes wrote, “unable and frankly unwilling to have much faith in any group of his people, Zog strove to keep all classes in unstable equilibrium. Through hours of hideously convoluted talk, he obsessively manipulated his assorted underlings (nearly all older than himself) in an effort to exercise personal control from seclusion”. Today he is most remembered for the brevity of his reign and for his place in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the heaviest smoker in history, sucking down 225 cigarettes a day.

Many other powers had been worried about the erratic rule of Zog and most of the Albanian people were kept in discontent and disarray. More liberal minded people were aghast at his promotion of himself to royal status while traditional Albanians were outraged by his abolition of Islamic law and marriage to a Catholic Hungarian-American. His great love of poker did not endear him to the population of a country whose religion forbids gambling. His government was rife with feuds and intrigue, there had been numerous attempts on his life and he maintained power by setting the feudal tribes against each other which meant that he had many enemies but who had little time to strike at him. Nonetheless, he lived a paranoid and reclusive existence, afraid to go out in public. There were also those nationalists in the country who sought to unite with the Albanian populations in neighboring countries to create the “Greater Albania” they had so long dreamed of. All of this made the various foreign ministries of the European powers extremely nervous that the misrule of Zog would cause Albania to be the spark to ignite another powder keg in the Balkans. As a result of all of this, there was little genuine outrage when Italy began to move against Albania which had long been recognized as a de facto Italian protectorate anyway.

Italian troops occupying Albania
Another point to keep in mind was that this was an occupation rather than an invasion. There were only a handful of casualties and hardly any resistance at all as the Albanian police and soldiers scattered pretty quickly after the Italian troops landed. Almost as soon as it happened, King Zog had already fled and was in a fleet of limousines racing for the border loaded down with gold bars, fancy furniture, designer suites and evening gowns, lavish jewelry and, of course, several crates full of cigarettes. Most were glad to see him go and many Albanians came out to cheer in welcome their so-called “conquerors”. Although publicly many countries condemned this action, it is important to note that most of these same powers were privately relieved that Italy had brought a potentially dangerous situation under control. Even the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, sent Mussolini (a man he despised) a telegram immediately afterwards thanking him for dealing with the situation and promising British support in the future. The only people who were genuinely nervous were the French who feared that, with the Adriatic secured, Mussolini might turn his attentions to recovering Nice, Savoy and Corsica from them.

Nothing of the sort happened of course. The Kingdom of Albania came into personal union with the Kingdom of Italy in the person of King Vittorio Emanuele III. It was an extension of the reign of the House of Savoy, not a political takeover of Albania by Italians, which is an important point to keep in mind. Of course, Mussolini would not have stood for anyone holding power who was opposed to his regime but, unlike most other similar incidents around the world, foreign rule was not imposed on the Albanians. The two viceroys appointed in succession to represent the King in Albania were, of course, Italians but all of the prime ministers of Albania were native Albanians who had been serving in government long before the Italian occupation. The first had even been the prime minister under King Zog, the next was one who had fought on the Turkish side against Italy in the Italo-Turkish War of 1912, yet after Albania was united with Italy even this man was given a seat in the Senate in Rome. The final two prime ministers were also native Albanians and it was the Albanian government, acting on its own, which had voted to depose King Zog (after he fled the country) and themselves voted for union with Italy. Which is not to say, of course, that there were no problems. An Albanian radical attempted to assassinate the prime minister and King Vittorio Emanuele III during a visit to Tirana but was, fortunately, unsuccessful.

Albanian Fascist Party
The military was reformed with 7.000 of the original 10,000 men of the Albanian army forming special Albanian units within the Italian Royal Army. There were six Royal Albanian Army Battalions, two fortress machine gun battalions, a Royal Guard battalion, two legions of Carabinieri and one Albanian MVSN legion. These forces would later take part in the Greek war and the war in Yugoslavia. A customs union with Italy was established along with a tariff union, more subsidies were sent to develop the country and Italian companies began investing heavily in the region. Further development would certainly have followed had it not been for the outbreak of World War II. During the war Albania received reward as well as unfair ridicule. After the initial setbacks of the invasion of Greece, Mussolini primarily blamed the Albanian units for the early defeats and while it is true that the Albanian forces performed quite poorly (some firing on their own men) this was an unfair effort by Mussolini to shift the blame away from his own mismanagement and ill-advised attack. After that, morale -not surprisingly- fell and many Albanians deserted and many units were disbanded.

Italian occupation lasted only a little while longer, until 1943, when Italy withdrew from the Axis. King Vittorio Emanuele III formally abdicated as King of Albania on September 8, 1943 by which time Albania had already been occupied by Nazi Germany with, as before, some Albanians collaborating and others resisting. Yet, it was only during that brief period of union with Italy that the long-held dream of a “Greater Albania” was achieved when the map of the Balkans was re-drawn to include most of Montenegro, parts of Serbia, Greece and other areas in a greatly expanded Kingdom of Albania. Sadly, that was a triumph that was very short-lived. After World War II Albania came under communist control and the rule of the brutal dictator Enver Hoxha, so radical a Stalinist that eventually he alienated Soviet Russia, Red China and Yugoslavia because of his murderous and self-destructive rule. Albania had the lowest standard of living of any country in Europe, yet, hope remains for the future as things have slowly began to recover from the communist era.

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