27, FEBRUARY, 1916: Small, Fried…

Nationalism can be very bad for the hindsight. In Britain, for instance, there are individuals, national newspapers and political organisations inclined to the view that no people suffered the burdens of twentieth-century global madness more completely than the British. In fact, despite the heavy casualties, bombing raids and social disruptions of two world wars, the British had a relatively easy twentieth century by European standards.

Before you get outraged on behalf of your ancestors and report me to the Heritage Denial authorities, think about where in Europe you’d rather have been. Once you eliminate all those countries invaded, occupied, blighted by dictatorship, scarred by revolution, slaughtered, wiped out or all of the above, you’re left with Sweden, Switzerland and maybe Iceland – and if that’s not enough to convince you, try taking a look at those European countries dealt really bad hands.

Poland springs instantly to mind – invaded, ravaged, partitioned and oppressed over and over again – but the same could be said of many other nations, especially those on the frontiers of ambitious empires or would-be empires. Albania is one of those nations, and the context surrounding events on 27 February 1916, when Austro-Hungarian forces captured the Adriatic port of Durazzo (now called Durrës), gives me an excuse to sketch out the early years of one European country’s rotten twentieth century.

Part of the southern Balkans, nestling between mountains and the Adriatic coast, Albania reached the twentieth century as an ethnically mixed, essentially tribal society, governed as a province of the Ottoman Empire. Like many of the more far-flung territories nominally ruled by the Sultan in Constantinople, it was basically autonomous, and in July 1913, after Turkey’s defeat in the Second Balkan War, it was given formal status as an autonomous principality. Sounds good, but removal of the theoretical protection offered by Ottoman ownership left Albania’s expansionist neighbours free to include it in the territorial carve-up surrounding the Balkan Wars.

I put together some background to the mysteries of the Balkan Wars in a previous post (6 September, 1915: Caveat Emptor), but from an Albanian perspective they left Greece, Serbia and Italy ready and anxious to control some or all of the country.  While Italian influence dominated the ‘independent’ centre of the country, Greek incursions to the south and Serbian to the north meant that three separate Albanian governments were claiming international recognition by early 1914.  Europe’s great powers, united in exasperation at the dangerous chaos of Balkan politics, responded with the old-school expedient of appointing a monarch to sort out the mess.

Prince Wilhelm of Wied, a German princeling with strong links to Vienna, took the throne in March 1914.  He sought a semblance of legitimacy by appointing Essad Pasha, the region’s last Ottoman governor and its only internationally recognised authority, as his war minister – but Essad made his own bid for power almost immediately, and was gaining some measure of control over Albania’s largely lawless central region when the outbreak of general war in Europe moved the goalposts in his favour.  Prince Wilhelm’s brief flirtation with international significance ended when he fled the country in September, and for the next year Albania remained divided, with Serbian and Greek armies of occupation remaining static in the regions to the north and south of Essad’s central fiefdom.

This unhealthy balance was upset by the Central Powers’ invasion of Serbia in the autumn of 1915, which ended Serbian occupation of the north but also put Austro-Hungarian forces in what passed for control of central Albania by the end of the year, forcing Essad’s flight to Salonika. The Italian Navy had meanwhile captured the Albanian port of Valona (Vlorë) as part of the operation to evacuate the retreating remnant of Serbia’s army to Corfu, but though Italian warships bombarded Durazzo and set parts of the town ablaze, no serious attempt was made to prevent the port’s capture. Remaining in Austro-Hungarian hands , it formed part of the Adriatic naval front line until late 1918.

Albania spent the rest of the War in a state of chaos.  While Austro-Hungarian authorities struggled in vain the control the northern, central and coastal regions, the Bulgarian Army took over part of eastern Albania until 1917. The Greeks, chronically unable to decide which side of the War they were on, withdrew from southern Albania in the autumn of 1916, but were replaced by Italian and a few French troops. Though a major burden on Albania’s primitive economy, these occupying forces were little more than targets for the local warlords who actually controlled most of the country, and who were generally happy to take money from one side to undertake guerilla activities against another.  Here a map, stolen of course and removable on demand, of Albania’s theoretical divisions in late 1916.



Green for Italian, pink for French, muddy green for Austria-Hungary… and this map ignores the Bulgarians to the northeast.


No credible political authority had emerged in Albania by the time a collapsing Austria-Hungary withdrew from the Balkans in September 1918, and Italian forces remained to occupy the country after the Armistice.  Now the sole targets for guerilla attacks (by warlords, independence fighters or bandits, depending on your viewpoint), the Italians quit the country in 1920, and later that year local warlords fought off an attack through the northern mountains by forces from the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later known as Yugoslavia).  Albania’s existence as an independent nation was finally settled in 1921, with Italian, Greek and Yugoslav agreement to appoint a ‘regency council’ as its governing body, but a century of troubles had barely begun.

Factional struggles amounting to clan warfare prevented even a modicum of political stability during the 1920s, and to cut a long story short Albania went through serial regime changes before becoming a republic, a monarchy under King Zog, a possession of Mussolini’s Italy, a Nazi-occupied state and, for almost fifty years from 1944, a Communist state under the truly bizarre dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.  These days Albania is trying to join the EU, and anyone who thinks the country doesn’t deserve peaceful integration with the rest of Europe has been reading the wrong newspapers, but internal factionalism, widespread corruption and communal division remain serious obstacles to progress, and the Balkans are still a very volatile place oxycontin 10mg.

So the First World War was tough on every European participant, Britain included, but for Albanians it was terrible every day, a story of danger and deprivation for all, and a mere chapter in the chronicle of more or less violent oppression that was to be their lot for the rest of the century.  Just thought you should know…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *