Two World Wars

FIRST BALKAN WAR DISRUPTS ALBANIAN INDEPENDENCE 

Unfortunately, before the Ottomans’ settlement for the first Albanian state could be formalized, the First Balkan War began in 1912. Allies in the Balkans, including Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece, invaded the heart of the empire all the way to Constantinople. Meanwhile, Montenegrins attempted to seize Albanian lands for their own. In November of 1912, in the midst of the war, Albanian Christian and Muslim leaders met to declare Albania a sovereign state. As the Albanians were declaring independence, Serbians, supported by Russia, were plotting to seize a port on the Adriatic Sea. Concerned that a Serbian port on the Adriatic would primarily serve Russian interests, Italy and Austria-Hungary supported Albanian autonomy and defense of their land.

In the summer of 1913, the Albanians sought the support of Europe’s Great Powers in recognizing their sovereignty and gained another important ally in the United Kingdom. With support from the Great Powers, the Treaty of Bucharest finally recognized Albania as a neutral constitutional monarchy. Montenegro was forced to cede territory in the north back to Albania, while the Serbians withdrew from northern Albania under threat from Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. Though a victory for the new country, the treaty also left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Albanians, as they too were forced to cede territorial claims to predominately Albanian locales.

 

THE PRINCIPALITY OF ALBANIA AND WORLD WAR I 

The Principality of Albania was the first government established by independent Albania. Prince William of Wied, a nephew of the Queen of Romania, was selected by the Great Powers to be Albania’s constitutional monarch. While the Great Powers referred to him as “Prince” of Albania, most Albanians referred to their monarch as Mbret, or King, so as to not make him seem inferior to the King of Montenegro. However, the outbreak of World War I caused chaos in Albania and Prince William abandoned the country less than six months after arriving. 

To restore order to Albania’s precarious autonomy, Albanians split along tribal and religious lines; some looked to the Ottoman Empire for a Muslim monarch, while others looked to various Great Powers in Europe. As the war continued the Triple Entente made a treaty with Italy that essentially gave the kingdom of Albania to Italy on the condition that Italy joined the war on the side of the Entente powers. By the war’s end, Italy occupied much of central and southern Albania, while the northern mountains were once again occupied by Serbia. 

 

ALBANIA POST-PARIS PEACE CONFERENCE 

The political chaos in Albania continued in the years following the war. Nervous of losing territory and sovereignty, Albanians conceded to accept an Italian prince, as long as they would not be occupied by the Serbians. Nevertheless, the Paris Peace Conference of January 1920 agreed to partition Albanian territory between Yugoslavia, Greece, and Italy in the interests of avoiding territorial conflict between Yugoslavia and Italy. This agreement was made without the presence of an Albanian negotiator; the conference also lacked a delegate from the United States. 

Albanians of course rejected the agreement to partition their country and in January of the same year issued a statement warning that Albanians were prepared to use force to defend Albania’s national integrity. A bicameral parliament was likewise created and moved the government from Lushnjë to Tirana, which became the seat of Albania’s central government. 

In March of 1920, Woodrow Wilson blocked the Paris agreement, while at the same time accepting an official Albanian ambassador to Washington DC. However, Rome continued to occupy much of Albania. The Albanian government encouraged peasants to harass Italian troops. Albanian forces fought off the Italians after the Battle of Vlorë. In December of the same year, Albania was recognized as an official member of the League of Nations, though its territorial claims remained in dispute and Italy continued to occupy an island off the coast of Albania in the Vlorë Bay.

Yugoslavia did not give up as easily as Italy. They continued a hawkish foreign policy towards Albania, even supporting the creation of the Republic of Mirdita, a renegade government established by a disgruntled Albanian chieftain. Eventually, Yugoslavia invaded Albania beyond the area they had occupied since the end of the war, forcing the hand of the League of Nations. The League sent a commission of delegates to Belgrade, reaffirming the Albanian borders from 1913. 

 

VOLATILE SELF-GOVERNMENT 

Finally achieving these cohesive geographical borders did not solve all of Albania’s problems. The political situation was still highly unstable and volatile. Between July and December of 1921 the government changed hands five times. In December of 1921, Xhafer Ypi, head of the Popular Party, formed a government, appointing Fan Noli as foreign minister and Ahmed Zogu as Minister of Internal Affairs. Noli soon after resigned, once it became clear the Zogu was repressing the rights of his opponents, including the right to bear arms—a traditional Albanian right. 

In early 1922 Noli took over the premiership of Albania and quickly turned his back on the Popular Party. He married the leader of his oppositional Progressive Party and installed political protégées into positions of power. Noli then founded a new party, the Opposition Party of Democrats, which was formed of conservative Muslims, Western-oriented industrialists, and people overlooked by Zogu’s political machine. Though Zogu won  the1924 election handily, he eventually stepped aside in the wake of an assassination attempt. In June of 1924, a peasant revolt drove out Zogu and elected Noli as Prime Minister. Zogu and his allies subsequently fled to Yugoslavia.

Noli had visions of a Western style democracy: he called for dismantling feudalism, ratifying a constitution, improving local governments, helping peasants, and improving national health and transportation. Unfortunately, Zogu had hired an army of mercenaries in Belgrade and returned, ousting Noli and abolishing the Principality of Albania. He then created the Kingdom of Albania under Zog I, Zogu’s new name. 

 

THE KINGDOM OF ALBANIA AND ZOG I 

Zog I was unpopular among the Albanians. More assassination attempts followed his seizure of power, including one on a trip to Vienna. His government was backed by Italy, which made him unpopular among Italians as well, who considered him a drain on their country’s resources. In 1929, during the financial crisis, Italy loaned Zog I 100 million francs. When Albania could not pay the interest on the loan, Italy attempted to enforce strict regulations on Albania, which Zog ignored. 

Despite his unpopularity, Zog I accomplished much during his eleven-year reign, arguably transforming Albania from a feudal state to a modern country. He emphasized primary education and opened many schools for the population. He modernized the agricultural industry, increasing production throughout his reign though economic conditions remained poor. He also attempted to improve Albania’s infrastructure, investing money loaned from Italy into a national highway system. Further, Zog I abolished Sharia law, instead establishing a civic code based on that of Switzerland, while also accepting Jewish refugees fleeing from other parts of Europe. 

 

NAZIS AND ITALIANS LOOK TO ALBANIA 

The reign of Zog I of Albania was to be short lived, however. Following Germany’s annexation of Austria and subsequent move towards Czechoslovakia in 1939, Italy set its sights on Albania. In March of 1939, Mussolini attempted to buy off King Zog, an offer which Zog refused. The next month the Italians invaded Albania and installed Victor Emmanuel III as King of Albania. With Hitler’s continued expansion in Europe, the jealous Mussolini used Albania as a springboard into Greece. However, his invasion proved unsuccessful until Germany intervened in 1941. Their success in Greece united the entire Balkan Peninsula under the Fascist Party’s banner. 

After Italy’s surrender to Allied forces in 1943, the Germans occupied Albania. Nazis dropped paratroopers into Tirana before Albanian nationalists could seize control themselves. The proxy Nazi government did not exert direct control over the Albanians, but instead maintained popularity by espousing policies popular among Albanians. They annexed Kosovo and persecuted resident Serbs.

But the proxy government could not last while the Nazis were falling elsewhere in Europe. In 1944 a communist partisan group formed under the leadership of Enver Hoxha. Other resistance groups formed in the mountains, mostly royalist groups. Eventually the communists under Hoxha’s leadership ousted the Germans from Tirana after a 20-day battle in November of 1944. They also liberated Kosovo and parts of Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Under Hoxha, the communists moved quickly to eliminate all political enemies and secure their hold over Albania.