The Tragedy of Good Friday, 1939
Tajar Zavalani (1903-1966) was born in the southeastern Albanian town of Korça and studied at the French secondary school in Thessalonika, in northern Greece. In 1922, he became a civil servant in the administration of his newly independent country and served together with political figure Sejfulla Malëshova (1901-1971) as secretary to Xhafer bey Vila (1889-1938). In June 1924, he took part in the Vlora uprising that brought Bishop Fan Noli (1882-1965) to power as prime minister and regent of Albania. After the fall of Noli's democratic administration at the end of 1924 and the rise of the dictatorship of Ahmet Zogu (1895-1961), later King Zog, Zavalani fled to Italy. There, Soviet agents recruited him and offered to let him study in Russia as a "victim of counter-revolution." After a year in Moscow, he attended the Marxist-Leninist school in Leningrad. In the summer of 1929, he returned to Moscow and worked at the Agrarian Institute, where he specialized in economics. In November 1930, he managed to leave Russia, about which he now had serious misgivings because of the repressive collectivization campaign there, and settled in Berlin, from where he went to Leysin near Montreux in Switzerland for treatment of tuberculosis.
Zavalani returned to Albania in January 1933, where he was active in the translation of literature, mostly Russian and French. He was also editor of the leading Albanian-language monthly "Minerva" which was published in Tirana from 1932 to 1936. After the Italian invasion of Albania in 1939, he was interned in northern Italy, from where he escaped with his wife Selma Zavalani (1915-1995), former lady-in-waiting to Queen Geraldine (1915-2002), via Switzerland to France and then in 1940, with King Zog's party, on to exile in England.
In November 1940, Zavalani was given a job in the BBC's new Albanian-language service, which he came to head and where he worked until his death in an accident on 19 August 1966. He was a well-known and active figure of the Albanian exile community in Britain. Among his other published works are "How Strong Is Russia," London 1951, and his two-volume Albanian-language "Histori i Shqipnis" (History of Albania), London 1957, 1963. The English-language manuscript of his "History of Albania" was composed for the most part between 1961 and 1963. From it, we have extracted Zavalani's account of the Italian invasion of 1939, which the author experienced at first hand.
The Tragedy of Good Friday, 1939
The diaries of Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law and foreign minister, give in full the inside story of the invasion of Albania. It was an act of aggression planned in cold blood and a long time in advance. It meant not only the deliberate violation of many international agreements, the breaking of a solemn pledge to protect a small nation which had already granted Italy all the concessions compatible with the status of an independent state: it meant something even more wicked. Ciano confided to his secret diary that the day of the invasion was chosen to coincide with the birth of the royal prince. That day also happened to be Good Friday.
The expansion of the fascist empire over the eastern shores of the Adriatic was Ciano's pet dream and his greatest ambition. He conceived it as a new advance in the steps of Ancient Rome. He used great powers of persuasion to make his hesitant father-in-law accept his plan and take measures to carry it out. When alone with himself he was cynical about it, however, calling it the 'Albanian coup'. He first mentions it in August 1937:
We must seize the opportunities which will present themselves ... This time we are not going to withdraw as in 1920. In the south [of Italy] we have absorbed several hundred thousand Albanians. Why should not the same thing happen on the other side of the Adriatic? (1)
Less than two years later the opportunity presented itself when Hitler, after signing the Pact of Steel with Mussolini, seized Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile Ciano worked diligently to ward off the reactions his 'Albanian coup' might provoke in the Balkans. He considered Greece a negligible quantity, and tried to bribe Yugoslavia by promising it slices of Albania as well as the port of Salonica. As Ciano puts it: "the line of advance drawn by destiny itself is Salonica for the Serbs, Tirana for us." (2) The Yugoslav prime minister Stoyadinovich (3) strongly sympathised with Mussolini's foreign policy as well as with fascist ideology. After his crucial meeting with him at Belje, during a state visit to Yugoslavia, Ciano notes in his diary: "He [Stoyadinovitch] spoke of partition [of Albania] as the best way out."
On the surface, life continued as if not even the shadow of a misunderstanding would mar relations between Albania and Italy. In April 1938 Ciano went to Tirana to act as witness at King Zog's wedding. He was received with lavish hospitality and even the crowds cheered him when he drove in an open car through the streets of Tirana. But as soon as he was back in Italy, he reported to Mussolini on the necessity of a radical solution in Albania, noting jubilantly in his diary that the Duce was prepared to go to war in order to get Albania. They agreed that a year's preparations were needed on the spot and in the international field. Accordingly, the coup was tentatively fixed for May 1939. Military preparations were ordered at once; Ciano hoped that with an adequate display of armed might the coup would be effected with comparative ease. An agreement with France on outstanding problems was to be signed on the eve of the occupation of Albania, so that "the blow may be struck in an atmosphere of general euphoria". (4)
Commendatore Giro, a fascist thug, was sent to Albania to disrupt it from inside. He boasted in a report to Ciano that he had considerable elements under his control and that public opinion was rising steadily against "the king and his brigands". The idea was to provoke internal disturbances so that Italian intervention would meet with no opposition. "We will give him [King Zog] a yacht with an Italian crew. That will guarantee the impossibility of his escaping in any eventuality." (5)
Ciano's foresight went so far as to prepare for the economic exploitation and the colonization of Albania after it had been annexed. He sent to Albania an agricultural expert who worked out a scheme for land reclamation which would yield a surplus of 200,000 tons of corn to be imported by Italy.
Nothing was left to chance. When the time came to strike the final blow by landing troops on the Albanian shores, King Zog was to be assassinated, (6) there were to be riots in the streets and, as Ciano puts it, "bands we can trust will descend from the mountains". Even the offer of the Albanian crown to the King Emperor Victor Emanuel III was planned as early as October 1938.
From the beginning of 1939 the pace of events accelerated. Jacomoni, (7) the Italian minister in Tirana, urged Ciano to act quickly as the atmosphere in Albania was tense. He assured him that "unquestionably all the [Albanian] chiefs are with us." (8)
When Hitler marched against Czechoslovakia, Mussolini decided that Albania was due to him as compensation. He gave instructions to Jacomoni to prepare local revolts and ordered the navy to hold the second squadron ready at Taranto. The handing to King Zog of the ultimatum by which he was either to accept the landing of Italian troops and ask for a protectorate or else be faced with open war was made to coincide with the birth of the royal child. At this point Ciano expresses his firm belief that "Zog will sacrifice his position for the sake of his family." He remarks with perfect callousness: "Frankly, I cannot imagine Geraldine running around fighting through the mountains of Albania in her ninth month of pregnancy." (9)
Ciano says bluntly that the agreement with Albania drafted by Mussolini himself "will mean the annexation of Albania by Italy". Zog must accept, or else there will be a "military seizure of the country".
"Four regiments of Bersaglieri concentrated in Puglia; and also one infantry division, air force detachments and all of the first naval squadron." This was noted down on 23 March 1939, two weeks before the fatal Good Friday.
Jacomoni was ordered to present the ultimatum to King Zog on 1 April. Ciano explains: "Disorders will break out all over Albania on Thursday, making armed intervention on our part an immediate necessity." (10)
In the first days of April 1939 alarming rumours began to circulate in Albania. People who had just returned from Italy spoke of troop concentrations at Bari and Brindisi preparatory to an invasion of Albania in the near future. Italy's aggressive intentions were so obvious that the chancelleries of Europe became worried. But Mussolini, following the policy of impudent double-dealing and perfidy which is the very essence of totalitarian regimes, did not hesitate to ask the king of Italy to read out an official statement from the Tribune of the Senate only a few days before the invasion, in which it was affirmed that friendly relations with Albania would be continued, as would indeed the material assistance accorded for the country's economic and social relief. Moreover, almost on the eve of Good Friday 1939, Count Ciano, replying to a demand for an explanation made by the British ambassador in Rome, stated that rumours of an Italian landing in Albania were without foundation, and that Italy had every intention of respecting the political and territorial status quo in the Mediterranean, of which the Adriatic was an integral part.
A wave of indignation roused the Albanian people against the treachery of those who had until then loudly proclaimed themselves their friends and "allies". A unanimous desire to defend the independence of the country sprang up spontaneously from the moment the first symptoms of Italy's aggressive intentions became evident. Quarrels, feuds, complaints accumulated during the past fifteen years were quickly forgotten. The union of hearts and souls, without distinction of class or creed, was accomplished without any preparations whatsoever, and even in opposition to the government, whose will to resist had been sapped by fifteen years of concessions and compromises. During that fateful Holy Week, the population in all the towns of Albania demonstrated its determination to defend the liberty of its native soil at any cost. Buoyed by its patriotic enthusiasm, the Albanian people gave proof of an unsuspected political maturity. In the course of numerous demonstrations staged throughout the country an admirable spirit of discipline was maintained. It was imperative, while expressing its devotion to liberty, that the country should avoid any incident which might have been exploited by Rome in its campaign of provocation. Not one cry hostile to Italy was raised, nor was one Italian molested in any way. Similarly, no one thought of wreaking personal vengeance during these days of supreme danger. The sole word of command was: a truce in political issues; no internal quarrels; all united round the king to defend the country in its hour of danger.
In the prevailing atmosphere of a police regime, the course of events might easily have taken a bad turn if it had not been for the almost providential birth of the royal prince. Its effect was to break down the barriers between the people and the government, and it also lent an air of legality to demonstrations which were in reality an outlet for the people's anger against fascist Italy.
At dawn on Wednesday 5 April the population of Tirana was thus awakened by the 101 salvoes fired in honour of the birth of Prince Leka. (11) The inhabitants of the capital even thought for a moment that an invasion was taking place. Crowds poured into the streets and a celebration was organized in the municipal square. Officials ranged themselves on the balcony of the municipal offices and the square rang with speeches. There was a touch of irony in hearing these official spokesmen proclaim in resounding tones, amplified by loudspeakers, that the perpetuity of the Zog dynasty was now assured. But such a feeling of bitterness and scepticism could only touch, and that lightly, the mind of a detached observer. As for the crowds, this rejoicing came at just the right moment to allow an outlet for their excitement. Never, perhaps, during the previous fifteen years, had an official ceremony provoked such sincere and unanimous enthusiasm. When the celebration in the square was over, the crowds formed into a procession and moved off to stage a demonstration in front of the palace. For the first time the iron gates were opened to the people, who rushed in, trampling over flowers and lawns. They came to a halt before the marble stairs. The grounds, the square beyond, the neighbouring streets were black with people. The frenzied crowd had one desire - to see the king, to affirm their loyalty to him, to place themselves under his direction for the defence of their native land in the trying times to come. At last the king appeared at a window, gave the national salute and smiled. The crowd waited for him to speak, but he remained silent. For several hours afterwards they paraded up and down beneath the palace windows. On the same day similar demonstrations took place in every town in Albania.
Early next morning public meetings were held again. The people demanded a government statement concerning the exact state of the negotiations with Italy, and the measures taken to meet the threat of invasion. Popular opinion considered that such an ending to the situation was inevitable. For this reason young and old clamoured to be enrolled as volunteers. Young schoolboys of 16 wept with rage at the government's hesitation to arm the people while the spectre of war grew hourly more menacing. Still the ministers deliberated, and it was impossible to get in touch with them. The demonstrators massed in front of the government buildings. One improvised delegation, of which the author was a member, broke through the police cordon and entered the building. The delegation was received by the premier in the presence of two other ministers. The head of the government gave an assurance that, in his opinion, the situation was not desperate. The discussions with Italy continued. King and government unanimously agreed that no condition must be accepted which might undermine the independence of the country. The calling-up of reservists continued as usual in preparation for the worst. The minister of the interior and the chief of police were charged with the enrolment of volunteers in case of need. Finally, an official declaration was to be published during the day to explain the exact situation.
The author objected that all these assurances and promises to arm the people did not represent the real attitude of the authorities. Patriots were in prison just because they had proclaimed their wish to defend the honour and liberty of the country. Everything was done to stifle the voice of the people, leading to the fear that the government might consent to a shameful capitulation. The prime minister immediately gave orders for the prisoners to be set free and for the demonstrators not to be interfered with in any way.
Reassured by these declarations, the crowd hastened to the prison, and five liberated young prisoners were carried triumphantly down the main street of the capital.
In the afternoon the procession formed again. A delegation went to see Mehdi Bey Frashëri, a former prime minister who was widely respected as being the most capable and trustworthy of Albanian statesmen. He reported that Italy had several days previously submitted a note setting out a certain number of requests, the acceptance of which would unquestionably mean the end of Albania's independence. The two most serious of these requests were, first, that Italy should be granted the right to a military occupation of the roads and strategic points along the frontier and the Albanian coast and, second, that Italians living in Albania should automatically acquire Albanian nationality and the right to own rural property (which was expressly forbidden by the constitution, in order not to open the way for a mass Italian colonization). Further demands were for a customs and monetary union; financial control; and the presence of an Italian adviser, backed by wide powers, in each of the Albanian ministries. The implications were clear: this would mean an end to everything that made up independent Albania. Mehdi Frashëri, consulted by the king from the start, had advised that these demands were unacceptable. He told the delegation that the king and government had judged likewise. In order to gain time, Frashëri went on to explain, the government had submitted counter-proposals. But Rome had insisted on the absolute acceptance of the 17 points set out in its note. On the morning of the previous day, Jacomoni had presented himself at the palace and, under cover of a congratulatory message on the birth of the heir apparent, had demanded a reply within 24 hours to the Italian note, which thus took the form of an ultimatum. All possibilities of a settlement by compromise were seemingly exhausted and war was now inevitable. An official declaration was to be published during the day, setting out the exact attitude of the Albanian government.
In spite of the depressing nature of Frashëri's words, the delegation felt as if a heavy load had been lifted. They had, in fact, received from a man in whom they had complete confidence the assurance that the shame of capitulation would be avoided, and that the invader would be met with armed resistance. Frashëri was begged to make a public declaration, to calm the agitation caused among the crowd by contradictory rumours and the absence of any official statement. He was to present himself at the palace and promised to make a declaration after he had seen the head of state.
The delegation went back to the square and reassured the crowd of what they had just been told. The official cars of the Italian legation, laden with travellers and luggage, had great difficulty in driving through the crowd on their way to the airport or to Durrës. The demonstrators clenched their fists in fury, but did not utter an insult, thus obeying the order to refrain from offering the slightest provocation.
That same evening the papers published a communiqué by the Press Bureau, stating that the Italian government had in the most unexpected manner formulated demands incompatible with the rights of a sovereign state. The communiqué affirmed that the king and government of Albania would never consent to the granting, to whatsoever foreign power, of rights which would endanger the country's political independence or territorial integrity.
The members of the delegation breathed freely again. Of course, none of them had the slightest illusion as to the possibility of stopping the Italian invasion. All they wanted was that the Italians should not be allowed to annex the country without a shot being fired, and thus give credence to the story that they had come with the freely expressed consent of the Albanian people. The communiqué just published gave reassurance on this point.
But the people's insistent demand to be given arms was never heeded. The authorities kept the crowds hoping with promises which they did not mean to fulfil. The veterans of Vlora sent a delegation to Tirana asking for arms which were denied them. The sense of frustration grew to a climax when silver-grey Caproni aircraft appeared in the blue sky. Late on the night of 6 April the minister of the interior agreed that the young students of the capital should be enrolled in an auxiliary service, while the regular army and the gendarmerie would fight the aggressor behind well-prepared defences.
At dawn on Good Friday, 7 April 1939, the inhabitants of the capital were once more awakened by the sound of gunfire. But this time it was no happy event as it had been two days before. It was the shelling of Durrës, a prelude to the invasion proper. Mussolini had decided to strike his cowardly blow on that holy day of mourning and prayer. No scruple, no respect for his pledged word, no regard for sworn friendship troubled his conscience.
The dull sound of distant guns brought the news that Albania was at war, and this provided a certain feeling of relief, after the extreme tension of the last two days. Huge greyish-green planes appeared in the sky and circled over the capital. Would they descend to the ignominy of bombing open cities? No. They were keeping their bombs as a last resort to break resistance if it should be prolonged.
Mehdi Frashëri had installed himself in the municipal offices, where the transmitting-station of Radio Tirana was housed, surrounded by a crowd of secretaries and hastily appointed translators. It was to be feared that, while the guns of the Italian warships were pouring their shells on Albanian towns, fascist propaganda would surpass itself in lies and falsity to convince the world outside that the Albanians were welcoming the fascist hordes with open arms. It was essential that the free world should hear the true voice of the Albanian people struggling for their freedom against overwhelming odds. It was not a mere coincidence that a man not belonging to the government undertook this vital task. Mehdi Frashëri, throwing aside all conventional titles and distinctions, took the initiative and carried it with splendid vigour and courage. In these tragic circumstances he emerged as the true leader of the Albanian people.
Mehdi Frashëri drafted his famous protest, defiantly addressed to Mussolini, in which he pointed out that the Albanians, who had fought against so many invasions throughout history, would do the same against the mechanized hordes of the twentieth century. On a previous occasion Mussolini had declared that a nation which was not ready to die for its freedom had no right to enjoy it. Mehdi Frashëri threw that in his face, and added that he could not expect the Albanians, who cherish their liberty above all in life, to receive his Blackshirts with flowers and cheers. This courageous protest, breathing an unshakeable faith in the destiny of the fatherland, was immediately translated into the chief European languages and read at the microphone by improvised speakers. (12)
The news from the front was good. The Italians, convinced that by their underground work for the past fifteen years they had paralysed Albania's power of resistance, expected to make an easy landing, and to parade, with flags flying, through the town of Durrës. The Albanians, led by Major of the Gendarmerie Abaz Kupi (13), who had taken up positions around the port, did not at once interfere with the landing, but when the quays were black with Italian soldiers the machine-guns opened fire. In frantic flight, the invaders were caught between the fire of the guns and the waves of the sea. The boats quickly filled up and made their way back to the vessels lying at anchor outside the harbour. Then the long-range batteries set up on one of the hills opened fire, and one of the boats capsized with its load of soldiers. Shells fell on the bridge of one of the ships, causing serious damage. The attempts to land were repeated six times, and six times they failed in face of the resistance of the heroic defenders of Durrës. The Italian naval guns came into action, and one by one the machine guns on the coast were silenced. When the enemy had gained a foothold on the port, fighting continued in the streets of the city. The defenders - troops, police and civil volunteers - were placed in private houses, and fired on the Italians as they advanced in close formation across the central avenue of the town. The streets were strewn with dead and flowing with blood.
Fierce fighting was also in progress at Lezha, the historic town which was the seat of the first National Congress, presided over by Scanderbeg. Half destroyed by bombs, it held out against the enemy, defended by only a handful of hastily armed men.
Violent fighting also took place on the Kakarriq heights, to the east of Shëngjin (San Giovanni di Medua). The mountain tribesmen, well sheltered in the wooded hills, brought down many Italians who were advancing in groups.
Vlora, which had been left disarmed by the authorities, could not be completely faithless to her tradition. Groups of volunteers had taken up positions on the Bestrova heights facing the sea. The Italians, surprised not to have met any resistance in the town itself, carelessly ventured towards the wooded hills of the countryside. When they came within convenient distance, Albanian patriots opened heavy rifle and machine-gun fire upon them. The Italians fled in disorder. The brave Blackshirts recovered their breath on board their ships at anchor. The ship's guns peppered the Albanian positions with shells.
The same scene was enacted at Saranda (Santi Quaranta). The defenders, some twenty men in all, had taken up their position behind a hill, with their rifles and one machine-gun. They allowed the Italians to disembark without disturbance and, when they had approached sufficiently, opened fire and went on until the last round of ammunition was spent. Casualties among the invaders were high. A senior officer was wounded. The Italians then attacked a second time with tanks, and captured those of the defenders who were still alive. The Italian officer in command asked where the army was. He was told that it was there, in front of him - seventeen men in all, counting the dead, wounded and living. The Italian officer exclaimed: "But it was madness to have dared to resist us!"
This remark is characteristic of the state of mind of the invaders. Mussolini had calculated that the use of formidable forces, comprising 180 ships, 400 planes and a mechanised army of 100,000 men, would suffice to terrorise the Albanians, and make futile any attempt to resist. Accordingly the Stefani Agency had from the morning of Good Friday sent out the news that the landing of Italian troops had been effected without incident, and that the Albanian population had welcomed them enthusiastically. Consequently, when Radio Tirana then announced to the world that Italy and Albania had been at war since dawn on Good Friday, fascist propaganda found itself in a very embarrassing situation.
The broadcast of Mehdi Frashëri's protest was followed immediately by the message of the king to the Albanian people. Here at last was the message awaited for the past three days. It came too late to serve its purpose, which was to mobilise the nation to resistance, but it was definite proof that neither the Albanian people nor their leaders ever consented willingly to the invasion of their country by fascist troops. The Head of State spoke of Italy's demands, the acceptance of which would have meant the loss of Albania's independence, and appealed to the nation to stand to arms and resist the invading troops.
On the afternoon of 7 April the atmosphere underwent a complete change. It was learnt that the king had left his palace and was installed at the prime minister's house. This was said to be as a precaution against air raids (for large formations of Italian planes, flying very low, ceaselessly swept the sky). It was also learnt that the rest of the royal family had left Tirana the evening before. The invalid queen had had to be moved in a car specially converted into an ambulance for the occasion. It was whispered that the king and his ministers were going to leave as well.
Then, like a train of powder, the rumour spread that a bombardment of the capital was to begin at five o'clock in the afternoon. Policemen on bicycles patrolled the streets and, stopping at little groups of people, asked them to leave the streets immediately. They said that they had orders from the prefect himself to disperse gatherings and to oblige civilians to keep to their houses.
The people were seized with panic, and the streets emptied as if by magic. Soon after, the exodus began. Women, children, old people laden with bundles snatched up at random were hastening to the outskirts of the town. Others, with mattresses, blankets, and wooden cradles piled on donkeys and horses, were making their way towards neighbouring villages.
In the streets, buzzing a few hours before with an unwonted activity, a deathly silence now reigned. Only the young men charged with keeping order remained at their posts, trying in vain to calm the anxiety of the population. It looked as though the king and government, preparing to abandon the city, wished to empty the streets for fear of an explosion of very legitimate anger. In fact, that same evening a string of official cars left the capital by back streets and almost without attracting attention. It was later learned that to provide for this hurried retreat, nearly all the Royal Guard and the greater part of the troops had been sent to protect the Elbasan road, in order to assure the safety of the convoy of officials.
Italian troops, led by armoured units, entered Tirana, a dead city, on the morning of 8 April 1939. It took the invaders forty days to complete the occupation of the country.
Public opinion in the free world condemned the seizure of Albania as an unjustifiable act of power-politics. Sir Harold Nicolson in the Spectator made a slashing retort to the "professional escapists" who tried to maintain that nothing had changed in Albania, as it was already an Italian protectorate or something worse.
One can point out, - he wrote, - that by his invasion of Albania Signore Mussolini has violated seven distinct international agreements and treaties, to four of which we were also parties.
The escapist is somewhat disconcerted by a recital of these seven broken undertakings. He falls back upon the most pitiable escape of all. Well, in any case, he says, it was a backward country, and King Zog was not by any democratic standards an enlightened ruler. Even so did the same escapists deride Benes in the hour of our betrayal. (14)
The Times, in its leader of 8 April 1939, after having referred to the more than specious arguments of Axis propaganda, asked the following question:
It remains even now to be discovered how the ingenuity of Nazi and fascist diplomacy will succeed in reconciling the invasion with the 1927 Treaty.
The hateful act of aggression of Mussolini, - The Times went on, - was not only irreconcilable with the Treaty of 1927, by which Italy pledged herself to come to the aid of Albania in case she would be attacked by another Power, but it also deliberately violated a series of promises freely undertaken - namely the decision taken by the Ambassadors on 9 November 1921, the Covenant of the League of Nations, and above all the Anglo-Italian Treaty of November 1938. Indeed, according to the so just expression of Mr. Attlee: "The rape of Albania is to the Anglo-Italian Agreement what the destruction of Czechoslovakia was to the Munich Agreement."
In Paris, Xavier de Courville, former headmaster of the French lycée at Korça, who left Albania after the invasion, gave a lecture describing what happened on that fateful Good Friday.
... And in the port of Durrës, - he said, - which had not been evacuated, the first concern of the victors (sic) was to drive groups of men, women and children from their cellars at the point of the bayonet, to take them to the mole, to arrange them in two ranks, and to order them to give a fascist salute suitable to serve as a foreground for snap-shots and films of the landing. On the very evening of the Good Friday, Albania did not possess a single voice to deny untruths and to proclaim her determination to live.
To justify Albania's right to lead an independent existence, - he went on, - it is sufficient that the King said 'No!' to the aggressor, and that the Albanian people fought long enough to underline his refusal to submit to foreign domination. For, since power politics is used again for the attainment of imperialistic aims, was it not Albania which was the first in Europe to dare say 'No' to the insistent demands of a powerful neighbour?
Alas, the chancelleries of Europe were not prepared to stand up for the principles of the League of Nations Covenant. A wave of defeatism had swept over the Continent. Appeasement was the order of the day, and this meant in practice making concessions to the aggressor at the expense of someone else.
Mr. Chamberlain, replying to a question in the House of Commons, stated that Albania was outside the sphere of British interests. The Albanian Legation in London was closed. In Paris, thanks to the firm stand of the Chargé d'Affaires, Milto Noçka, the Legation continued to function until the collapse of France. In Turkey, too, the Albanian Legation remained open, and the annexation of Albania was never recognised by the Ankara Government. As for Albania's Balkan neighbours, their attitude was meekly submissive. The Yugoslav Government was probably expecting its share of the spoils for having maintained a strict neutrality. On 11 April 1939, Greek Prime Minister Metaxas sent instructions to the Greek Minister in Rome to convey to the Italian Foreign Minister the following message:
I am firmly convinced that nothing will happen in the future to mar the traditional friendship existing between the two countries, and that a new era of cordiality and peaceful collaboration between us is about to begin.
A few months later General Metaxas assured Count Ciano, through the Minister in Rome, that "the Hellenic Government long ago recognised Italy's rôle as a factor of first-class importance in the Mediterranean, and have pursued the establishment of thoroughly cordial relations with Italy, who is now Greece's neighbour both by land and by sea." (15)
An Italian Province
No sooner was the military occupation completed than a series of political measures were carried out to reduce the status of Albania to that of an Italian province. This was nonetheless done in such a way as to maintain the fiction of an independent country.
Martial law was still in full force when some hundred honourable men were rounded up and brought to Tirana as though to a concentration camp. Within the precincts of the parliament building they were told that they had to play the rôle of people's delegates to a National Assembly. Xhafer Ypi, a former Court Inspector, was appointed by Jacomoni, the new supreme ruler of Albania, to convey to the delegates the purpose for which they had been brought there: "Gentlemen", he said in his opening speech, "I am about to read you the motion which you are asked to approve, just as I have received it from the Italian Legation where it was drawn up."
The motion proclaimed the dethronement of King Zog and the merging of the Crown of Albania with that of Italy in the person of Victor Emmanuel III. It was dated two days earlier and signed by Jacomoni, the Italian Minister in Tirana, and his secretary Babuscio-Rizzo. The text was published in an evening paper which was then hastily confiscated.
The new puppet government of Tirana had been constituted in that same Italian Legation whither the infamous Giro had returned in triumph armed with the most far-reaching powers. At the head of the government was placed Shefket Bey Vërlaci the wealthiest landlord in the country. There was a slight hitch in the appointment of ministers. Some of those selected beforehand to act as quislings were so shocked by the coup de force of 7 April that they refused to collaborate. Giro and Jacomoni had a hard time persuading them that Mussolini desired nothing so much as the well-being of the Albanian people; they had even to resort to veiled threats to force the hesitant to accept office.
Thereupon a series of conventions was passed between the Puppet Government and Jacomoni, who enjoyed the dual rôle of viceroy of Albania and Italian plenipotentiary. By these Conventions all the points of the famous ultimatum of 5 April, which the people and the rulers of free Albania had declared unacceptable by a sovereign State, were put into operation. This fact in itself disproves the allegation that nothing was changed in Albania after the Italian invasion, or that Albania had already been an Italian protectorate before 7 April. Here again the authoritative and impartial judgement of J. L. Garvin will sum up the situation in a few words: "To put it in one sentence, he (Mussolini) is now seizing what King Zog refused, a military control of Albania as complete as the German subjugation of Czechoslovakia." (16)
The first in date of these agreements instituted a customs union with Italy, thus putting an end to Albania's free trade. Next, the Albanian franc was made dependent upon the Italian lira, whereby the Albanian currency lost its independence, becoming a sort of local money. Finally, Italy obtained the exclusive right to exploit all natural resources and to carry out all public works in Albania. So much for the economic and financial aspects.
To leave no doubt that nothing was to remain of the independent Albanian State, the army, the police, the frontier guards and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were suppressed. All these organisations were "fused" with the corresponding institutions in Italy, all as a result of "voluntary agreement".
Then there came a one-article agreement which was decidedly the most fateful for Albania's future. It stipulated in effect that the nationals of one of the contracting parties who established themselves on the territory of the other automatically became citizens, and enjoyed the same rights and privileges, of their country of adoption. It was not long before the disastrous consequences for Albania of this convention became evident. An old Bari journalist was appointed Director-General of Culture and Propaganda. Similarly, the Italian councillors attached the various Ministries replaced the Ministers in the fulfilment of their functions. With alarming rapidity, officials of every degree in the administrative machine were doubled. Albanian officials were thus reduced to the rôle of middlemen between the Italian rulers and the Albanian people. But the long-term and most serious implication of this "Agreement" was that it paved the way for the mass colonization of Albania.
The hardest blows were struck at national education, with which went the freedom of culture. One of the first measures taken after the invasion was the closing down of the French lycée at Korça. Mussolini's henchmen, in their blind hatred of democracy and free culture, were brutal enough to close down the lycée only a few weeks before the end of the school year, and force the French staff to leave the country at very short notice. The pupils, defying the new oppressor, bade their teachers a moving farewell, and sang the Marseillaise in their honour. These students were later amongst the victims of the first wave of terror.
The Tirana Institute for Girls also showed an admirable spirit of resistance. When an attempt was made to get the pupils there, aged from 12 to 18 years, to show enthusiasm for the fascist yoke, they seized the opportunity to display their hostility towards the invader, with complete disregard for reprisals.
The excitement prevailing amongst school children of all classes was such that after the closing-down of the lycée at Korça the Italians ordered all schools, both elementary and secondary, to be closed down before the end of term. The excuse given was that the premises were needed to house the constant stream of Italian soldiers, until such time as barracks were built. In actual fact it was still May, the weather was perfect, and there was no reason why the Italian soldiers should not live under canvas. Indeed, very few schools were actually occupied by the military.
The ultimate aim of the Italians was to carry through an "educational reform" and to revise school-books so as to purge them of everything that might hinder the minds of future generations from being methodically poisoned by the hotch-potch of half-truths and empty verbiage which they had graced with the title of "fascist doctrine".
This policy of fascist indoctrination was completed by the banning of all foreign newspapers and books other than those from Italy and Germany. Albania itself was practically closed to foreigners. The French Archaeological Mission directed by Léon Rey, a tireless research-worker and a sincere friend of the country, was ordered to cease work immediately, without being able to wind up the affairs of the Mission. In the same way the Italians compelled the representatives of the Rockefeller Foundation, who for years had done the country an immense service in fighting malaria and had obtained splendid results in the areas most infested by this dreadful disease, to close down the Anti-malaria Institute and leave the country. Finally, the isolation of the country was completed by the abolition of the Albanian diplomatic and consular services abroad, and by the "transfer" of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Palazzo Chigi. The inevitable consequence of this was the closing of foreign legations and consulates in Albania, and, as a result, the disappearance of all sources of objective information.
The new regime imposed by the invader received its legal consecration in a constitution proclaimed by Victor Emanuel III as King of Albania. It stipulated that Albania's foreign policy was to be carried out by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. An Under-Secretary at the Palazzo Chigi in Rome was in charge of Albanian affairs. In the same way, the Albanian military forces were put under the command of Italian officers as part of Italy's own military establishment. The Albanian Fascist Party was directly subordinate to Mussolini, to whom all party members swore the oath of allegiance. "The new order of Albania", wrote a contemporary observer - "is a model for countries conquered by European dictatorships. The constitutional laws of the Kingdom reveal furthermore how modern fascist dictatorship can completely and effectively dominate a vassal state by means of a streamlined organisation." (17)
Parallel with the political integration of Albania into the fascist empire went the drive for the economic exploitation of the country. A team of experts was sent to investigate the mineral wealth buried in Albanian soil. In a report to their chief, which was made public a few months after the invasion, these fascist experts, headed by a certain Bennini, triumphantly announced that Italy would be able to draw from Albania a considerable amount of precious raw materials. A few quotations from this report are worth giving, not only for their informative value but also as a model of fascist style:
The iron-ore deposits ascertained by now in the vicinity of Lake Ohrid exceed 20 million tons. It can be stated that the Albanian deposits are of such an order as to exert a determining influence on the orientation and quality of steel production in Italy. The ore is constituted mainly of hematite, with a high percentage of metal, i.e. 60%. Exploitation can be started at once without any need for digging deep mines, as the ore is almost at the surface. It is proposed to plan the extraction of 1.5 million tons of iron in the first year (October 1940 to October 1941).
Deposits of chromite amounting to at least 500,000 tons have been discovered. This quantity can cover our national requirements for at least ten years. The potential annual extraction is greater than we can use, so that there will be a certain amount of chromium even for export.
In northern Albania important deposits of pyrites containing more than 10% of copper have been discovered. The total amount of this ore is estimated at 5 million tons. The industrial group Parodi-Delfino has been granted the right to build the necessary plant for a production of 6,000 tons of pure copper annually.
The A.I.P.A. (Italian Petroleum Society in Albania) has extended its explorations to the region of Patos (formerly held by the Anglo-Persian Co.), in which the prospects of oil extraction appear to be most interesting.
At Selenica (Vlora) the group Parodi-Delfino hopes to be able next year to assure the production of 20,000 tons of bitumen of the best quality.
In the Korça zone, - the report goes on - the presence of asbestos has been established. The Company 'Cave di San Vittorio' is to commence the appropriate works.
A great experiment in agricultural amelioration is to be carried out in the coastal region of Kavaja. On very fertile and fresh soil covering 10,000 hectares it is hoped that the cultivation of cotton and oil-grains will be very fruitful.
At Korça a sugar factory will be built to use the sugar-beets produced on this highly fertile plateau.
Finally, the road-system extending to more than 2,000 kms. will be entirely terminated within the time-limit set by you, Duce.
Thus in a few months Albania was to be transformed into a huge workshop. Her soil, which had been said to be poor, had now all at once revealed its riches. The authors of the above report forgot to mention only one thing: that the country would be exploited solely for Italy's benefit, and that Albania was to be deprived of those riches which would have enabled her to become a flourishing and prosperous industrial country.
|Ciano's Diary, 1937-1938, p. 4.
|Ciano, op. cit., p. 27.
|Milan Stoyadinovich (1888-1961), Serbian political figure and Yugoslav prime mnister, 1935-1939.
|Ciano, op. cit., p. 123.
|Ciano, op. cit., p. 127.
During his trial in Rome after the war, Jacomoni denied the projected assassination of King Zog.
|Francesco Jacomoni di San Savino (1893-1973), Italian diplomat and subsequently viceroy in Albania.
|Ciano, op. cit., p. 25.
|Ciano, op. cit., p. 55.
|Ciano, op. cit., p. 60.
|Prince Leka (Alexander) Zogu (b. 1939), son of King Zog and pretender to the Albanian throne.
|I had copies of all the documents mentioned in this narrative, but they were left behind in France during the exodus of 1940. Therefore I have to quote from memory.
|Abaz Kupi (1892-1976), Albanian political figure and resistance fighter.
|People and Things, The Spectator, 14 April 1939.
|Greek White Book, London 1942, Nos. 28, 89.
|The Observer, 9 April 1939.
|R.M. Kempnor in: Tulane Law Review, New Orleans, April 1941.
[extract from Tajar Zavalani: History of Albania, chapter 13, unpublished typescript, 1961-1963.]