Golden Journal No. 39:
Legions of Zog

Story of Albania, Part Two

In the summer of 1911, Sultan Mehmet V made a personal visit to Ottoman-ruled Kosovo, to grant concessions to the Albanians. The sultan repealed many of the harsh measures enacted during the 1910 Albanian revolt and added new concessions as well, including a two-year pause on conscription and taxes in Albanian lands.

Albanian chieftains considered the concessions an expression of weakness, and promptly rose again in revolt. The 1912 revolt attracted many Albanians who served in the Ottoman army, and within months the Young Turk government again had to make concessions. Schools would re-open, teaching in Albanian, courts and government offices would again use the Albanian language, and the Albanian lands would be gathered into one vilayet, or province. Conscription would resume, but Albanians would only serve in the Albanian vilayet.

While that quelled the revolt, it also signaled Ottoman weakness to predatory neighbors, setting the stage for the Balkan Wars and the loss of most of the Ottoman Empire’s remaining European territories. Understanding that a victory by the Balkan states would lead to the winners dividing Albanian territories among themselves, the Albanians – including the former rebels – now fought enthusiastically for the Ottoman Empire they had assailed only weeks before.

Despite fierce Albanian resistance, most of Albania fell under occupation by Serbian, Greek and Montenegrin troops. Albanian nationalists responded by declaring independence, and appealing to Austria-Hungary for support. The Austro-Hungarians in turn invited the Italians to join a diplomatic intervention – neither of the rival powers wished to see Serbia establish its own coastline on the Adriatic. That led to a six-power conference in London to decide the fate of the Albanians, followed by a second conference in Bucharest.

Prince Wilhelm and his wife, Princess Sophie, arrive at Durrës, March 1914.

The conferences awarded large slices of Albanian-inhabited territory to the Balkan states; worst of all, from an Albanian viewpoint, they handed Kosova, the ethnic core of Albanian identity and long-time center of Albanian nationalism, to the Serbs. The Balkan states were no more satisfied: Montenegro was denied the long-desired fortress-city of Shkoder, Greece had to evacuate northern Epirus, and Serbia gave up its hold on the Albanian port of Durrës and the surrounding coastline. The Albanians set up a provisional government, but the Great Powers rejected this move and declared that Albania would become a principality ruled by Wilhelm Prince of Wied, a middle-aged German staff officer in the midst of a middling military career. But Wilhelm did have influential relatives, with his aunt Queen Elizabeth of Romania pressing his case. He accepted the throne in February 1914, and arrived in his new capital, Tirana, a month later.

Wilhelm, called king in Albania but prince by foreign governments, immediately faced a series of impossible problems. A rebellion broke out among Muslim Albanians unwilling to accept a non-Muslim sovereign. Greeks in southern Albania – the region Greek nationalists called Northern Epirus – staged a revolt of their own as a pretext for renewed occupation by the Royal Hellenic Army. Wilhelm had no formal armed forces and no civil service, and no connections with Albanian chieftains who might have provided some muscle and the semblance of order. And then came the First World War.

Austria-Hungary had provided Wilhelm with a cash subsidy, and now demanded that Wilhelm join the war on their side and confront the Montenegrins on his northern border. Without an army, the prince had little choice but to decline and assert his neutrality. Pressed by Muslim rebels and renewed Greek incursions, Wilhelm headed for Venice and a comfortable exile, but refused to abdicate his crown.

By November, the Greeks had re-occupied Northern Epirus and Italian troops had landed on Sasano Island and occupied the port of Vlorë. Without even the semblance of a central government, the rest of the country fell into violent anarchy. In late 1915, the war arrived in Albania, along with the retreating Serbian army and huge numbers of refugees. The Serbian troops made it to the coast, where Italian ships evacuated them to the Greek island of Corfu. Most of the refugees perished from cold or hunger, while others were massacred by vengeful Albanians.

Vlorë under Italian occupation, 1920.

Austro-Hungarian forces followed, and a front developed across Albania with the Austrians occupying the northern two-thirds of the country and the Italians the southern third. The Austrians termed Albania friendly territory, building roads and schools and enrolling thousands of Albanian recruits in their own forces. The front remained relatively stable until the autumn of 1918, when the Austrians retreated as their Dual Monarchy collapsed. The three divisions of Col. Gen. Karl von Pflanzer-Baltin’s Albania Army Group scored the last victory of Habsburg arms in an August 1918 counter-offensive, and were the last units of the Imperial and Royal Army to leave the field.

Behind them they left renewed anarchy. Serbia troops seized northern Albania, massacring Albanians they believed had supported the Austrian occupation. The Italians declared a protectorate over central Albania, while the Greeks once again seized the south. The secret April 1915 Treaty of London had promised parts of Albania to Italy as well as control of Albanian foreign relations, while other wartime agreements had granted pieces of Albania to Montenegro, Serbia and Greece.

American President Woodrow Wilson refused to accept any secret promises, and did not allow his putative allies to carve up Albania. With American backing, the new League of Nations admitted Albania as a full member, and while Serbian, Montenegrin and Greek forces withdrew, the Italians remained. While the Americans blocked Italian claims at the Paris Peace Conference, in June 1920 the Albanians rose against the occupation. About 4,000 Albanians, some of them unarmed, faced 15,000 Italian troops and inflicted over 2,000 casualties on them. The Italians soon withdrew, but that came more as a result of widespread mutinies among Italian troops demanding demobilization now that the war had been over for nearly a year and a half than it did from Albanian military achievements. But it did give rise to a legend among the Albanians that they had “driven the Italians into the sea.”

These Albanian irregulars have captured an Italian artillery battery outside Vlorë, 1920.

Albania remained a principality in name only; the new government made their views clear that Prince Wilhelm was not welcome to return. Wilhelm had spent the war as a German staff officer, and afterwards continued to claim the throne of Albania. The Albanians ignored him, and established a series of short-lived governments until Ahmed Zogu, the internal affairs minister, led the defense of the new capital Tirana against an anti-government uprising in early 1922. The rebels defeated, Zogu claimed the premiership for himself. For the next several years Zogu and the former foreign minister, Fan Noli, swapped control of the government back and forth. Noli, an idealist, hoped to make Albania into a modern, Western-style democracy while Zogu engaged in open corruption and maintained power by playing various clans and factions against one another.

Zogu’s cult of personality helped him sweep the 1924 parliamentary elections despite his refusal to press for union with Serb-oppressed Kosova or to speak up for the Albanian minorities in Greece and Yugoslavia. When Zogu had one of his opponents murdered, a peasant uprising took the capital and placed Noli back in power. An Albanian court tried Zogu and several supporters in abstentia and sentenced them to death.

Zogu responded by attempting to hire mercenaries to re-take power; when he could not attract enough men for the wages he offered, the Royal Yugoslav Army loaned him 1,000 regular soldiers plus stocks of arms and ammunition. He took Tirana, with Noli and his government fleeing into Italian exile, and abolished the principality. The Zogist members of parliament granted him dictatorial powers, which he used to abolish opposition parties, censor the press and cover up the murders of political opponents. But Ahmed Zogu had far grander ambitions.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his dog Leopold, who is a good dog.

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