313. A Brief Historical Overview of the Development of Albanian Nationalism

By
Bernd J. Fischer

Bernd J. Fischer is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Indiana University-Fort Wayne. He spoke at an EES noon discussion on March 23, 2005. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 313.

The most dangerous outcome of the destruction of command socialism in the Balkans has been the resurfacing of militant nationalism particularly, it seems, in the western part of the peninsula. These events have encouraged a reexamination of the various Balkan nationalisms in terms of origins and course. It is the purpose of this paper briefly to examine the Albanian variant and some aspects of nationalist formation during its various stages of development, followed by some thoughts on the future of nationalism in Albania.

Albania was the last of the Balkan nations to achieve independence, and the last to develop a modern national consciousness. Why was nationalist development in Albania delayed and, when it finally arrived, what form did it take? While these questions are complex, the former can be understood in terms of both conscious Ottoman policy and the nature of the Albanians themselves. The Ottomans, who ruled the Albanians for some four centuries, instituted policies that effectively inhibited the development of a national consciousness. Some of these policies were applied to the Balkan peoples in general while others were applied only to the Albanians. As an example of the former, the Ottomans divided their subjects into administrative units without regard to nationality, with Albanians being divided into four separate vilayets, or administrative regions. Religion was not associated with nationality in Albania, as it was in much of the rest of the Balkans. Instead, the Ottomans correctly concluded that language, education and culture were the critical elements in the development of Albanian nationalism. In response, severe restrictions were placed on teaching the Albanian language, which impeded the process of a common written language that could lead to a common literature, the subsequent discovery of a common past and the growth of modern nationalism.

But not all the obstacles that the Ottomans placed in the way of the development of Albanian nationalism were oppressive. Albanians found themselves in a favored position within the Ottoman Empire and therefore did not share the level of discontent with foreign rule felt by most of the other Balkan peoples. Quite the contrary, the Albanians often saw the Turks as protectors against the often hostile Greeks and Serbs. For many Albanians, the Ottoman Empire provided a career with the opportunity for advancement in the army or within the administration, where they served in disproportionate numbers.

Moreover, the Turks were not responsible for all of the obstacles in the way of the growth of Albanian nationalism. The nature of Albanian civilization and heritage provided important indigenous obstacles. The divisions and various levels of development within the Albanian community encouraged clanism and localism, and inhibited thinking in national terms. The existence of three or four (including Bektashi Muslims) religious groups prevented churches from playing the unifying role that they played in many other areas of Eastern Europe. Much more importantly, the nature of Albanian society provided a powerful block to unity. Apart from the religious differences, the Albanians were also divided linguistically, culturally, socially and economically. This disunity was fostered by the co-existence of three conflicting stages of civilization: the fiercely independent mountain clans in the North, the feudal Beys in the South (who ruled over a generally docile Muslim Tosk peasantry) and the more educated and urbanized population of the Hellenic and Catholic fringes. The Turks took advantage of the disunity and lack of development by instigating discord between these stages of civilization, often assuming the role of arbiter.

Albania, then, was at something of a disadvantage when it comes to the 19th century emergence of Balkan nationalism, since it lacked all of the necessary preconditions for its emergence. Albania had no state, it could not look back to a powerful medieval empire, it had no religious unity and no leadership offered by a self-conscious class. Albania had little foreign intellectual stimulus and lacked linguistic unity. It did not even have a population particularly discontented with foreign rule.

When modern nationalism did finally reach the Albanians, it was late, rather weak and certainly unique. Albanian nationalism was essentially an elite-driven 20th century phenomenon. While other Eastern European variants were imported—often from Europe through Germany—Albanian nationalism in its infancy was actually developed abroad, beyond the reach of Ottoman officials. The first real spark of Albanian nationalism as a cultural awakening took place among the Italo-Albanians of southern Italy in the 1860s. But since these intellectuals wrote in Italian and the illiteracy rate in Albania was in excess of 90 percent, naturally their influence was limited.

While there were several examples of what might be called political proto-nationalism among the Albanians in the last quarter of the 19th century, these movements tended to be limited and their adherents divided among themselves. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that Albanians, in significant numbers, began to participate in the growing national movement that sought the traditional goal of modern nationalists, the nation state. There are a number of possible explanations for this increased participation at the beginning of the 20th century. The aggressive policy of the Young Turks, whose efforts at centralization interfered with traditional Albanian freedoms, played a major role. The result was a revolt in Kosovo in 1909, the first of a series of sporadic revolts that, by 1912, engulfed all Albanian-inhabited lands.

The second significant factor that helps to explain the rise of Albanian national consciousness around the turn of the century was the increasing interest in Albanian matters by foreign powers, particularly Italy and Austria-Hungary. While the Albanians had no ‘benefactors' like others in the Balkans, they believed these two powers to be intent on preventing the expansion of Greece and Serbia at the expense of Albanian inhabited lands. Through the efforts of Italy and Austria-Hungary in shipping, trade and education, many Albanians were exposed to western ideas and western culture. By becoming aware of the world outside, Albanians also became more aware of their national interests and their individuality.

While these external factors were important, considerable credit for this first step toward the construction of an Albanian national consciousness must go to a handful of intellectuals (primarily from southern Albania and abroad) who often served as a link between the various parts of the country. Although very much divided in terms of goals, most, like Abdul Frasheri and his brothers, were involved in an unarmed struggle to achieve cultural autonomy which they perceived as the necessary first step toward the creation of a national sentiment. Most opposed armed struggle fearing foreign intervention and saw Albania's future as closely linked with a strengthened, more modern Ottoman Empire.

Ismail Kemal Bey, often described as the father of Albanian independence, can be counted among this group. The privileged son of a wealthy Muslim feudal lord from Vlore, Ismail Kemal had no illusions about the level of Albanian development. While he believed that the Albanians had maintained a certain autonomy and "the religion of patriotism," it is clear from his programs and policies that his comments were meant in a very general sense; he was describing nationalism in its infancy. His policy was simple and remained constant until just before the declaration of Albanian independence. Ismail Kemal, along with most educated Albanian patriots, supported the unification of the four vilayets inhabited by Albanians and the attainment of administrative autonomy—to be achieved not through armed insurrection but through collaboration between all the oppressed nationalities of the empire.

But the rapid defeat of Ottoman forces in the First Balkan War complicated the situation for the Albanians. Much Albanian territory was occupied by Serbs and Greeks, who saw the area as legitimate spoils. In the face of this crisis Ismail Kemal decided that independence—regardless of how unprepared the Albanians were—was the only way to save Albanian lands from dismemberment. And with the support of Austria-Hungary and Italy, success was at least possible. A hastily-called assembly proclaimed the independence of Albania on November 28, 1912. Ismail Kemal thus created Albania (although with only just over half of all Albanian speakers within its borders) in response to the threat of assimilation. His next goal was to create an Albanian national consciousness, but he was not given the time. Ismail Kemal saw his new fledgling state overwhelmed by events and, with the beginning of World War I, by the armies of six different powers. Following the war, the struggle to construct a national consciousness needed to be restarted, essentially from the beginning, as the war had contributed to the resurrection of clanism and localism.

Albania emerged from the First World War battered, with much of its territory occupied, and its marginal pre-war state infrastructure destroyed by the war. The war did, however, further Kemal's work in one sense: the extended foreign occupation helped reinforce Albanian identity. But the process of constructing a widespread national consciousness and the process of constructing a state apparatus, was by necessity begun anew by Ahmed Zog, who dominated Albania during the interwar years first as minister of the interior, then prime minister, then president and finally as king.

Zog began his political career as a minor Muslim Gheg chieftain from the northern district of Mati. Although he suffered from a somewhat truncated education, his cunning, energy, willingness to use violence and sheer audacity enabled him to seize control of the state in 1922 and take significant steps in the direction of the construction of national unity and a national consciousness that he saw as his principal task. Zog can be considered a non-traditional nationalist in the sense he was not an irredentist. Zog declared to a western reporter, in his usual paternalistic fashion, that "We are centuries behind the rest of Europe in civilization. The people can neither read nor write: there are few written laws which are obeyed, and blood feuds are still prevalent in many parts of the country. It is my determination to civilize my people and make them as far as possible adopt Western habits and customs." He was able to further this process through numerous means. Zog's first priority was the creation of a political structure that could prove strong enough to withstand the inevitable strains that centralization and modernization would entail. The system that Zog finally created was a reasonably stable, traditional, non-ideological, authoritarian government in which limited political and social reform was permitted, provided that Zog's own position was not threatened in the process.

Zog's religious and social policies also contributed to the growth of rudimentary nationalism. His initiatives here included attempting to foster unity through the improvement of Albania's rather primitive transportation and communication infrastructure. Some limited success was achieved here and by 1939 it was increasingly difficult for northern tribes to retreat into their mountain fastness and simply ignore the central government in Tirana. Zog's police and tax collectors were given access to areas of Albania hitherto isolated not only from the rest of Europe but from the rest of Albania as well. Zog also used the tiny Albanian army as a means not only to enforce government policy but as a sort of social and cultural melting pot, requiring recruits from different parts of the country to serve together in the same units.
Further, Zog recognized that adherence to three different religions whose clergy were answerable to hierarchies outside of Albania not only presented a block to unity but allowed for considerable foreign interference in Albanian affairs. Zog sought, therefore, through the construction of autocephalous churches, to bring as many indigenous church leaders as possible under his control. While his religious policies enjoyed some success, Zog understood that the key to both modernism and nationalism was an aggressive education policy—nationalism would have to be taught. Here he experienced some success. Those who succeeded him and furthered the construction of a modern nation state found their task somewhat less arduous as a result of the foundation of nationalism laid by Zog.

The experience of World War II served both to reinforce and to undermine the growing national consciousness. Once again, the ordeal of foreign occupation did much to reinforce Albanian distinctiveness. More importantly, the creation of a Greater Albania (including most of Kosovo and part of Macedonia) with the destruction of Yugoslavia did much to further the process as well. The enthusiasm with which Kosovar Albanians in particular greeted the creation by Italy of a "Greater Albania" speaks to the growth of negatively-reinforced nationalism. Still, the divisive effect of the war was more profound. Following the invasion and occupation, the Italians sought to integrate the traditional Albanian elite into Mussolini's new Roman Empire. Many elements of the pre-war political and social hierarchy compromised themselves by cooperating with the fascists and thereby contributing to what has been called the process of "de-nationalization." Fascist policy also fostered class division, since many in Albania's small middle class and an increasing number of peasants resented Italian and (after 1943) German occupation. The division between North and South was exacerbated by the formation of resistance groups with regional agendas. Even the limited stability for which Zog was responsible was jeopardized. As a result, much of the work done by Zog was undermined.

Following the German evacuation of Albania in November 1944 a fledgling communist movement under the leadership of Enver Hoxha came to power. Hoxha, a Muslim Tosk from the South, is best described as a Hoxhaist first—concerned with maintaining power, then as a non-traditional (i.e., non-irredentist) nationalist, and finally as a Stalinist communist. When Hoxha came to power, he was faced with the task of rebuilding Albania on the foundation—or what was left of it—laid by Zog. Like Zog, his main goal was predetermined and was, in the simplest sense, the creation of a viable independent nation state and what he colorfully described as the "monolithic unity . . . of the Albanian people." Although much of Albania's Ottoman tradition still remained, in a very short time Hoxha had succeeded in constructing a highly personal and reasonably stable regime that was as totalitarian as any regime in a developing area could be in 1946. Hoxha succeeded in using the legacy of fascism, the wartime experience and the fear of foreign intervention—in other words he appealed to nationalist sentiment and created the atmosphere of a state of siege—to pursue more quickly and effectively the political policies which Zog had attempted in the late 1920s. Despite the violent rhetoric of Stalinism, Hoxha really had no choice but to become as ardent a nationalist as Zog had been. Indeed, given the narrow base of support the communist movement had (in 1941 when the Albanian Communist Party was formed, it had a membership of perhaps 130) and given Hoxha's need to downplay the Kosovo issue, extreme nationalism was the best means (aided by the extensive use of the army and other security forces) by which Hoxha could remain in power and progress toward a modern socialist state.

Like Zog, Hoxha was uncomfortable with irredentism, that is, with the concept of a Greater Albania. Many of their reasons were similar, including their fear of Kosovar chieftains, their fear of increasing the Gheg population (the communist movement was primarily Tosk) with the added consideration that the very concept was tainted with fascism. Although Hoxha followed a general non-interventionist foreign policy then, nationalism (his extreme internal variant) still proved to be the principal element in all of his policies—religious and social policies in particular. The Albanian scholar Arshi Pipa summarized this trend by suggesting that "Hoxha was decisive in producing a cultural atmosphere totally dominated by a doctrinaire propaganda exalting nationalism. Linguistics, literature, history, geography, folklore, and ethnology have been cultivated, not only to give the people a sense of their own past, but also to spread and inculcate xenophobia, slavophobia, isolationism, ethnic compactness, and linguistic uniformity." Perhaps one of the most widely recognized lasting manifestations of Hoxha's policies are the hundreds of thousands of concrete bunkers and pillboxes that still scar the Albanian landscape.

The collapse of command socialism in the 1980s and 1990s further complicated the situation. Postcommunist Albania is very much dominated by Hoxha's legacy. Many observers have suggested that the Hoxha years witnessed important achievements in terms of structure, stability and unity. He is credited with reducing the impact of divisive factors on Albanian society, such as regional loyalties, the traditional North-South division and religious differences. These achievements were in part accomplished through the completion of the process of nation state construction, building on the achievements of King Zog. Hoxha is also credited with the development of a strong sense of nationalism fostered in part by his successful maintenance of Albania's territorial integrity.

While more study is needed on this question, from the perspective of 20 years after Hoxha's death, it would seem that most, if not all, of these achievements were offset by Hoxha's rigid ideological conformity, extreme isolation as well as the legacy of Hoxhaist terror. With the collapse of Communism in 1991, Albania was convulsed by a violent rejection of everything associated with Hoxha, making Albania's transition to its next, yet-to-be-determined phase much more difficult than that experienced by other Eastern European and Balkan states. Albanians have violently rejected the various aspects of Hoxha's ideology and the symbols thereof—beginning with the basic authority of the central government.

In rejecting Hoxha's state of siege nationalism, many Albanians seem to have replaced it with a return to regionalism (a certain revival of religion) and even a certain anti-nationalism that is inhibiting the construction of an Albanian version of civil society. The Albanians in Albania, then, entered the post command-socialist era with a weakened sense of nationalism and, unlike with Zog and Hoxha, traditional and non-traditional nationalist elites have been no longer able to completely direct the process. That they continue to make an effort is clear. This can be illustrated by, among other things, the controversial 1998 paper issued by the Albanian Academy of Sciences called "Platform for the Solution of the National Albanian Question," which argues that the "rightful aspiration of all Albanians is the unification of all ethnic Albanian lands in a single national state." While the academy has since repudiated that position, a nationalist litmus test seems to be an important part of survival tactics at both the university and the academy. A recent example involves two geography professors who, with Stability Pact funding, produced a new Albanian Atlas that suggested that minorities constituted approximately 11 percent of the population of Albania, a considerable increase from the oft-quoted 2 percent. Both professors were hounded and pressured by colleagues and others, until one resigned his chairmanship at the university and left the country and the other, who was head of department at the academy, was forced to declare to the media that he believed the percentage of minorities was 2 percent.

But despite evidence of its vitality, the task of traditional intellectual nationalists in Albania is more difficult because of resistance from colleagues as well as pervasive outside influences, particularly from the West, that have had enough of Balkan nationalism and continue to fear the notion of a Greater Albania. The West pressures Albanian politicians to develop a more positive, less aggressive, less chauvinistic and more ethnically inclusive non-traditional nationalism. Most political elites in Albania have accepted the West's vision—extolling the concept of making borders obsolete through social and cultural integration, and optimistically predicting Albania's rapid integration into the EU.

Whether Western pressure combined with the non-traditional nationalist elite support for this vision of nationalism can impact the average Albanian remains to be seen. So far, the type of virulent nationalism seen elsewhere in the Balkans has not developed among the overwhelming majority of Albanians. Irredentism—the key to traditional nationalism—seems to be the goal of only a few. As with everything else in the Balkans, however, this is not set in stone. If it is the aim of the West to help mitigate the development of strong traditional nationalism among Albanians, I believe there are strategies available that could facilitate this process. These strategies include the full implementation of the Ohrid accords in Macedonia, extending real autonomy to ethnic Albanians there and, perhaps more importantly, extending at least conditional independence to Kosovo. And finally, as we all learned from a study of the Balkans during the interwar period, attempting to solve the political problem with no attention to economics will likely be unsuccessful. My venerable Serbian mentor, Professor Dimitrije Djordjevic, was fond of repeating the old Balkan adage: "An empty belly burns a hole in the flag." This may likely be the ultimate key to effectively discouraging the development of virulent, traditional Albanian nationalism.

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