The Albanian Nationality

By Constantine A. Chekrezi
[Formerly Secretary to the International Commission of Control for Albania]

[The New York Times/Current History, November 1918]

One of the vexatious Balkan questions which the coming peace conference or probably the Entente Allies alone will soon be called upon to settle in a definitive manner is that of Albania. The Albanian nationality is not very well known today, but in the course of history it has played an important role in the Balkan Peninsula, besides being the oldest nationality in Southeastern Europe.

History and legend afford no record of the arrival of the Albanian race in the Balkan Peninsula. None the less, it is now pretty well established that the Albanians are the direct descendants of the earliest Aryan immigrants, who were represented in historical times by the kindred Illyrians, Macedonians, and Epirots. The Albanian language, as spoken today, is the only surviving representative of the Thraco-Illyrian group of languages, which formed the primitive speech of the Balkan Peninsula. Its groundwork and grammar are distinctly Indo-European, but the language is entirely different from the neighboring tongues.

In ancient times the Albanians constituted the kindred kingdoms of Illyria, Epirus or Molossia, and Macedonia. Foremost among the Kings of those remote times stands the famous Pyrrhus of Epirus, and Teuta, the celebrated Queen of Illyria. Owing to her peculiar geographical situation, Albania has been successively invaded by various races, such as the Gauls, the Romans, the Goths, the Slavs, and finally the Turks, but the natives have either driven out or absorbed the invaders.

During the first half of the fifteenth century the kingdom of Albania stood as the main bulwark of Christianity in the Balkan Peninsula, under the celebrated national hero, George Castriota, or Scanderbeg, (Prince Alexander), as the Turks surnamed him for his military valor. After his death Albania succumbed to the repeated attacks of the Turks, in 1478, last among the Balkan nationalities. She remained under the Turkish domination for about 450 years, but the Albanians managed to live practically independent under the nominal sovereignty of the Sultan.

In 1910-12 the overzealous Young Turks tried to destroy that internal independence of Albania, but in the end they were forced to recognize it officially, thanks to the desperately determined resistance of the Albanians.


In the Fall of 1912 the Balkan Alliance, formed of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro, declared war against Turkey. The Albanians declared their independence in November of the same year; but, as a result of their unexpected triumphs over Turkey, the Balkan allies sought to partition even the territories of Albania among themselves. These plans were frustrated, however, by the intervention of Austria and Italy, who had interests of their own to protect in Albania. An acute international crisis ensued, and, but for the timely mediation of Great Britain, the European war would have broken out two years earlier than it did.

The question of Albania was then referred to the Ambassadorial Conference at London, which recognized the independence of Albania on Dec. 20, 1912. The conference undertook also the task of the delimitation of the frontiers of the new State, which it placed under the collective protection of the six great powers. But in order to satisfy the irreconcilable views and aspirations of the Balkan States, as well as those of the great powers, the territory of Albania was cut down to an absurd minimum, while the largest part of it was handed over to Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece. From the very day of the creation of the new State there have been a great many misgivings as to its ability of ever standing on its own feet, owing to the merciless treatment it had received at the hands of the conference.

In definitive fulfillment of their task, the powers assigned to Albania, on the proposal of Italy, the German Prince of Wied, who was to be the hereditary ruler of the young kingdom. But the acute rivalry of Austria and Italy, each striving to get the upper hand, with the customary intrigues and machinations of the Balkan States, the indifference of the other European powers, the total lack of any administrative organization, the empty coffers of the new-born State, the impairment of its physical faculties by the Conference of London, and, finally, the outbreak of the European war, rendered the position of the Prince untenable, and he was forced to retire to his estate in Prussia on Sept. 3, 1914, after a disheartening reign of only six months.


On leaving Albania the Prince of Wied handed over his authority to the International Commission of Control, a body consisting of one delegate from each of the six great powers, with an Albanian representative. This commission had been empowered by the London Conference to assist the Albanian Government in running public affairs and to control every action that exceeded the limits set by the Provisional Constitution. But the International Commission fared as badly as had the Prince, being without funds and without efficient means for the execution of its decrees. Moreover, it could not be rationally expected that the delegates of Austria and Germany would co-operate for the sake of Albania with the delegates of Great Britain and France while the two groups of Governments were at war.

As a consequence the International Commission soon dispersed, and the country was left without any government at a critical moment when international morals had relaxed after the violation of Belgian neutrality by Germany and when each State was watching its neighbor to discover any slackening in its power of resistance.


One month after the flight of the Prince, Essad Pasha, his former Minister of War, whom Prince William had condemned to perpetual exile for plotting against his sovereign authority, hastily returned to Durazzo, the late provisional capital. Essad Pasha came back to Albania with a medley of hirelings recruited from among the Albanians assigned to Serbia. This was done with the authorization of the Serbian Government, which even provided the funds for their equipment. Essad Pasha now set up a multi-colored Government, the so-called "Government of Central Albania or of Durazzo," made up of ignorant peasants and of some vagabond old Turks. His constant effort was to set up by any means available a Government under his Presidency, so as to figure later before the world as an unjustly dispossessed ruler or sovereign in the same class as King Peter of Serbia and King Nicholas of Montenegro.

The Government of Essad Pasha had hardly been formed when the rebels who had attacked Durazzo and besieged Prince William within its walls turned their arms against the alien Government of the Pasha. They attacked Durazzo, in the same old way, but the Pasha found shelter under the protecting fire of the Italian Navy, which rushed to his aid, and which alone was able to check the advance of the rebels and to save Essad Pasha and his capital. Thenceforth the dominion over which the "Government of Central Albania" was ruling was confined to the small peninsula of Durazzo. The rebels remained encamped at the gates of the besieged city, and the Italian squadron was constantly moored in the Bay of Durazzo ready for action against them. This curious situation lasted up to the day when the Serbian and Montenegrin troops came to the relief of Essad Pasha. Meanwhile Essad Pasha persisted in speaking and acting on behalf of Albania, which stood in arms against him and his alien Ministry.


In the meantime the troops of King Constantine of Greece had reoccupied the southern provinces of Albania, the Government of Athens having declared that the occupation was intended to be only provisional. On Dec. 25, 1914, Italian marines and soldiers landed at Valona, the chief seaport of Albania, and occupied the city, which is situated at the bottom of one of the best natural bays in Europe. The Government of Rome declared that the occupation of Valona by Italian troops was necessary in order to safeguard the interests of the Albanian State, which had been jeopardized by the Greek occupation of the territory adjoining Valona.

At the beginning of the following year, 1915, the Serbians and Montenegrins felt tempted by the action of the other neighbors of Albania. They, therefore, started the invasion of Northern and Central Albania, in spite of the angry protests of Italy and the remonstrances of the Entente Allies, who advised the Governments of Belgrade and Cettinje not to scatter their forces, as they were all sorely needed in the war against Austria-Hungary. But the Serbians and Montenegrins, taking no heed, overcame the Albanians in a series of bloody and desperate battles, and occupied Northern and Central Albania.

Essad Pasha was relieved for the moment, but in the Spring of 1916 the Teuton-Bulgarian armies entered on their decisive campaign against the Serbians and Montenegrins, and the latter were forced to withdraw their forces from Albania. Into this country, however, their decimated armies fell back, shortly afterward, in their retreat toward the Adriatic. The Austrians occupied Northern and Central Albania, and Essad Pasha, who in the meantime had declared war against the Central Powers, was forced to transfer his Government and his insignificant army to Saloniki, where he posed as a victim of the war, a dispossessed ruler. It is only lately that the Allies have begun to realize that his influence and authority in Albania do not extend beyond his immediate followers in Saloniki. Had the Allies realized this when it was yet time, the Albanians, who were struggling against Essad Pasha, would have been on their side against the Central Powers, and the Serbian retreat through the mountains of Albania would not have proved so disastrous.

During the late Summer of 1916 the Italian expeditionary forces in Albania began their southward march, and gradually drove the troops of King Constantine from Southern Albania. The process of the occupation of these southern provinces by the Italians was brought to an end in the month of December, 1916. During that same month a French detachment of the army of Saloniki expelled the Greek royalist troops from the district of Koritza, (or Korcha,) which has been raised into an independent Albanian Republic.


On Italy's entering the war the Government of Rome stated that one of the war aims of the Italian people was the re-establishment of the independence and integrity of the Albanian State. In pursuance of this policy the Italian Government declared the independence and unity of Albania. On June 3, 1917, General Ferrero, commander of the Italian expeditionary forces in Albania, issued an official proclamation to the Albanians by which he declared, in the name of his Government, the independence and unity of the whole of Albania "under the shield and protection of the Italian Kingdom."

The question of how far this protection goes has been raised and discussed many a time, but no definite answer has yet been given. This particular point, however, assumes great importance in view of the announced evacuation of Albania by the Austrians. On Oct. 3, 1918, the Vienna Government issued the following statement: "We have withdrawn our divisions from Albania. This was rendered necessary by events on the Bulgarian front." This means, of course, that very soon the whole of Albania will be under either wholly Italian or mixed allied occupation, and the phrase "under the shield and protection of the Italian Kingdom" calls for interpretation.


To understand exactly the position of this oldest people in the Balkans one must have a general idea of the conditions prevailing therein. As reliable statistics are wanting with regard to all countries under the Turkish domination, the population of the Albanian principality cannot be stated with exactness. Whitaker's Almanack places it at 2,000,000, but I think it would be reasonable to reduce this figure to 1,500,000. On the other hand, it is estimated that the whole Albanian race numbers 3,500,000, dispersed in Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Macedonia, and Italy. The Conference of London allotted to Serbia alone almost 1,000,000 Albanians. The area of the Albanian State as delimited by the London Conference is about 11,000 square miles, or about the same area as that of the State of Maryland.

Wild stories have long been current in regard to the conditions of the population. The phrases "semi-barbarous," "wild," "uncivilized," etc., have been used indiscriminately in fanciful narratives regarding Albania. While one cannot deny that Albania is backward in civilization owing to her incessant struggles against Turkish domination for 440 years, the average Albanian is not any worse than the average Balkanian, be he Greek or Bulgarian or Rumanian or Serbian.

Considering the fact that the Turkish Government has never allowed the establishment of Albanian schools, the wonder is that the Albanians have been able to maintain their standard of intellectual development, which is far above the level reserved for them by the Turks.

Brigandage, despite the prevailing myth on the subject, is practically unknown in Albania. The native is too proud and chivalrous and these are his two main national characteristics to lower himself to the condition of highwayman. Miss Helen Stanhope of Chelsea, Mass., was not harmed or interfered with in any way during her travels in Albania, but she was immediately captured and held for ransom by a band of Bulgarian highwaymen as soon as she stepped out of Albanian territory.

As to the reputed fanaticism of the Albanians and their constant religious strife, it may be said that religious toleration exists in Albania to a degree found nowhere else in the Balkans. Divided as the Albanians are into Moslems, Roman Catholics, and Greek Catholics, they have always managed to get along far better than Catholics and Protestants in Western Europe. In Albania there are today families in which one brother is a Moslem and another a Christian, yet they live in perfect harmony within the walls of the same home.

In general the people of Albania are characterized by an innate and irresistible love for liberty, by intelligence and practical spirit, and by great eagerness for progress and civilization. The country is very rich in natural resources, such as forests, mines, fisheries, but abnormal conditions thus far have rendered impossible their development and exploitation.

The Republic of Koritsa

The war has developed a curious historical episode in Albania in the form of the little Republic of Koritsa, or Korce, to use the official Albanian spelling. This impromptu republic originated in the late Autumn of 1916 in the brilliant brain of a French cavalry Colonel. The bulk of Albania was at that time occupied by the Austrians. In the south the Italians held Avlona, on the Adriatic, but between them and the allied Saloniki forces was a solid wedge of Austrians and King Constantine's unfriendly Greeks.

In the Autumn General Sarrail pushed forward in a northwesterly direction and occupied Koritsa and the region near Lake Malik. This was the first time that French troops from Saloniki had found themselves in Albanian territory, and the Colonel in command was faced with the problem of setting up a civil administration. Northeast lay Serbia and southeast lay Greece, but Koritsa was neither. According to the Treaty of Bucharest, the only legal instrument recognized by the Allies, it was part of Albania. The Colonel solved the difficulty by proclaiming Koritsa, and the caza, or administrative district of which it is the capital, to be an autonomous Albanian republic, under the protection of the Allies.

General Sarrail, confronted with a fait accompli, accepted the situation, and Koritsa has remained a republic. A council of twelve elders, mixed Musulman and Christian, was set up as the governing body, Essad Pasha uttered a blessing in Albanian, a flag was devised, a Post Office system instituted, and stamps issued.

All did not go without a hitch. The two-headed eagle, which flaunted so bravely on the flag and the first stamp issue, roused antagonism, and was said to be not the genuine Albanian bird beloved of Skanderbeg and all good Shkipetari, but a monstrous Austrian imperial creature.

Yet, on the whole, Koritsa greatly enjoyed its autonomy, even if it realized that the days were coming when it would be merged in some larger whole. Meantime, owing to various advances of the Allies, it gained several extensions of territory.

Allied arms made steady progress in Albania during the Autumn. Italian troops pushing northward entered Elbasan on Oct. 7, 1918, after crushing stubborn Austro-Hungarian resistance. At the same time Italian forces in the coastal region were approaching Durazzo, while the Austrian naval base at Durazzo was destroyed by Italian, British, and American warships on Oct. 2. The clearing of hostile forces out of Albania proceeded rapidly in the weeks that followed.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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