The Myth of Great Albania
Part II - More History
By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.
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Written: October, 1999
From the Ottomans to the Americans
The Ottoman occupation was an unmitigated misfortune. Albania - culturally, a veritable part of Italy in the past - was cut off from it and from the Renaissance it spawned. The Turks brought with them their venal type of devastation, not only economic, not only physical, not only in human lives - but also cultural. A gangrenous paralysis ensued. The lucky quarter of the population escaped to Italy. The others were left to fight it out through civil disobedience (refusal to pay taxes, to serve in the army, to surrender their weapons) and in open rebellion, time and again, indefatigably and resourcefully, often in the name of the Christian faith. To put an end to the nuisance, the Turks Islamized the lot (at any rate, two thirds of the lot) during the 16th and 17th centuries. To ensure conversion, the Turks tortured, killed, raped and taxed the Christians. It worked and people crossed to the other side in droves. Now there were Catholic Albanians and Muslim Albanians. It was a replay of the old, 11th century, religious fragmentation. Albanian political leaders in the 19th century - aware of the potential of these fractures to denationalize - insisted on "Albanianism" - a substitute, unifying political "religion". The rallying cry was: "The religion of Albanians is Albanianism."
Nothing much changed in Albania since the time of feudalism. The Turks awarded local warlords with land estates to administer (timars). These warlords - the centres of real power both political and military - subverted the authority and dominion of the empire. The more the latter tried to appease them with endowments - the more potent and ambitious they became. The Bushati family, the eccentric Ali Pasa Tepelene (who also ruled Northern Greece) and others. In convulsive feats of reassertion of authority, some sultans deposed of these pashas - but this did not nothing to diminish the autonomy of their estates. In 1831, Turkey abolished the timar system altogether. This bold reform backfired as the old estates fragmented even further and power devolved to even lower levels of communal organizations run by beys (in the north) and bajraktars (everywhere) - bloodthirsty, rigidly patriarchal and primitive mini rulers. Paradoxically, Albanians who emigrated (mainly to Turkey itself) rose to prominence. Turkey had 27 (!) grand viziers (=prime ministers) of Albanian extract.
It was in Kosovo that discontent, unrest and revolt coagulated into the League of Prizren in 1878. Originally, a narrow local interest northern group, it fast adopted an expansive agenda, seeking to unify the four parts of Albania in the four vilayets (Kosovo, Shkoder, Monastir, Janina) into one political unit. But it wrong to attribute to it the birth of the delirium of a Great Albania. The League sought an administrative solution - not a political one. All they wanted was to create an Albanian zone - but WITHIN the Ottoman empire. They were more focussed on benign, less threatening things like culture, art, literature and education. In short, it was a cultural movement with administrative aspirations - not the beast of untethered expansionism it was made out to be by latter day (and rather interested) historians. It was in Monastir (today's Bitola in Macedonia) that a national, latin, alphabet was adopted in 1908. More convenient than Greek or Arabic - used until then - it triumphed.
History moves in quirkily agonizing twists and turns. It was the League's involvement with the Albanian language and the strong opposition by the Turks to its use (the League's activities in this respect were banned in 1881) that transformed the League from a rather local affair to a modern national movement along the Italian or German lines. The Albanian language was indeed suffused by nationalism, immersed in dreams and aspirations unfulfilled. Its reawakening signalled the reawakening of Albanianism.
When the last great hope, sealed by Young Turk (broken) promises of autonomy and democracy, was lost - the Albanians rebelled and forced the Sick Man of Europe to swallow yet another dose of medicine. In 1912 Turkey granted the Albanians their wishes only to face the Greek, Serb and Montenegrin armies, which conquered Albania and divided it among them.
This trauma of division is a recurring trauma in the Albanian psyche. How ironic that the only people who can empathize with them are the Macedonians who share the same fear of being quartered. Faced with the annihilation of Albania so soon after its birth, Albanian leaders met in Vlore, led by Ismail Kemal, a former high ranking Ottoman official of Albanian origin. With nothing much to lose, they decelerated independence (the Vlore Proclamation) on November 28, 1912.
In December 1912, the Great Powers (the forerunners of NATO) - Britain, Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungary, Italy and France - met in London to divide the unexpected spoils. The conference handed an independent Albanian state to Austro-Hungary and Italy. But the price was a great diminishment in its geographical scope. Kosovo was given to Serbia, Cameria to Greece, the most luscious and productive lands and more than half of all Albanians were left out of the new independent homeland. Such was the nature of territorial comprises at that time that it created more problems than it solved. Two news ones were born that day and hour: a Yugoslav-Albanian flaring animosity and a Greek-Albanian mutual denial. The unfortunate and tragicomic German who was appointed to administer Albania (Wilhelm zu Wied) departed soon thereafter with the outbreak of the first World War.
This first European bloodbath provoked all of Albania's neighbours into an uncontrolled binge of invasions. Austro-Hungary, France, Italy, Greece, Montenegro, Serbia - they all marched in with no plan in mind but to occupy and plunder. The country turned chaotic and it took a Woodrow Wilson in the Paris Peace Conference to avert an abolition of the Albanian independent state. It was not the first time Albania descended into chaos - nor was this to be the last time the Americans would come to the help of the Albanians. Britain, France and Italy planned to partition it, Wilson vetoed it and that was the end of the plan and the beginning of Albania.
In Lushnje, in 1920, the Albanians convened a national congress and established a government. That year, Albania was admitted to the League of Nation, sponsored by the very Britain that sought its partition only the year before. Secure in its sovereignty and international recognition, Albania inverted its attention. Society was polarized between land-owning fatcats, the beys and militant archconservative bajraktars led by Ahmed Bey Zogu from Mat in the north. These reactionaries were opposed by an uncomfortable coalition of merchants, intellectuals, progressive politicians and assorted democrats led by an improbable American-educated bishop of the Orthodox(!) church, one Fan S. Noli, middle initial and all. The conflict ended 4 years later when, in 1924 Zogu fled to Yugoslavia. But the entrenched power of the land gentry was not to be discounted so easily. Noli, now a prime minister, ruled over the Albanian equivalent of the Republic of Weimar. Radical land reform, modernization, westernization. But he was personally unstable, he won no international recognition (he was considered a revolutionary leftist) and he had no money to buy his way with. Zogu came back, this time with a Yugoslav-backed army. He won.
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