The Struggle for Independence
- After 400 years of power, Turkey faced widespread rebellion as many of its Balkan subjects sought independence in the late 1800's. In the early 1900's the Albanian people began to formalize their national identity. Turkey was unsuccessful in suppressing the "Albanian League" of 1881. In 1908 the league officially adopted an Albanian alphabet. When Turkey failed to institute promised democratic reforms Albania began a three year armed struggle against Istanbul. On November 28, 1912 a congress in Vlorë declared Albanian independence. During this same period a Balkan alliance successfully defeated Turkey. A delegation of European ambassadors from Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary met in London in December 1912 to settle the outstanding issues resulting from the recent conflict. The conference agreed to recognize an independent Albania. However, strong pressure from Albania's neighbors led to the drawing of new borders that did not fall on ethnic lines. Nearly half of the population and lands were given to their neighbors. They ceded the northern region of Kosovo to Serbia, and the southern region to Greece, depriving Albania of its richest agricultural regions. In addition, the conference appointed a German prince, Wilhelm of Wied as ruler.
Prince Wilhelm arrived in March 1914 but stayed only six months, when he fled the country at the outbreak of World War I. The war led to occupation by the armies of France, Italy, Greece, Serbia, and Austria-Hungary. These invasions left Albania without any political stability, and the country was nearly absorbed by its neighbors after the war. Fortunately, President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the plans of Britain, France, and Italy at the Paris Peace Conference to divide Albania amongst its neighbors.
In January 1920 a national congress in Lushnje laid the foundations of a new government. The following December, with the assistance of Britain, Albania was granted admission into the League of Nations. The young democracy, however, still suffered conflicts. Albanian society split into two major forces. Ahmed Bey Zogu, a chieftain, led the land owners and other chieftains who retained the feudal paradigm of their Ottoman past. The other faction, led by the American-educated Bishop Fan S. Noli, embraced the progressive and democratic west.
In March of 1924 Zogu's party won the elections, but he stepped down after a financial scandal and an assassination attempt. By July the western faction gathered enough strength and a popular revolt resulted. Zogu fled to Yugoslavia while Noli was installed as prime minister. Noli began to build a western style democracy and he announced a radical program of land reform and modernization.
Unfortunately, Noli failed to carry through on his plans on several fronts. He vacillated on the implementation of his program, failed to garner international support of his slightly leftist government, and had a depleted state treasury. By December, a lack of support allowed Zogu, with Yugoslavian backing, to overthrow the government in an armed assault.
At first Zogu began his 1925 reign as president. But, by 1928 he amassed enough power to have himself enthroned as King Zog I. Although officially a constitutional monarchy, he ruled as a dictator; denying his citizens any democratic freedoms. His feudal mindset left the peasantry impoverished and famine would have resulted if not for his annual importation of food. Many left the country in search of a better life. He alienated the educated class and his regime spawned periodic revolts. It was his oppressive reign that planted the seeds of communism.
In the face of political and social instability, he signed accords with Italy. Zog was able to bring a fragile stability to the country through Italian financial aid, a coalition of chieftain supporters, and an efficient police force. To his credit, he did reduce the robber gangs that had plagued the country and laid the foundations of a modern educational system. The economic conditions, however, did not improve (especially with the coming of the Great Depression). Fascist Italy took advantage of Albania's weakened condition and used it as their springboard for military expansion into the Balkans. On April 7, 1939 Italy invaded and soon occupied the country, while King Zog was forced to flee to Greece.