Bernd J. Fischer. Albania at War, 1939-1945. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1999. xix + 338 pp. $15 (paper), ISBN 978-1-55753-141-4.
Reviewed by Tim Kirk (University of Northumbria at Newcastle)
Published on HABSBURG (April, 2000)
Albania and the Axis
Albania is a country that has been relatively neglected by historians of Europe. There are very few books in English on any aspect or period of the country's history; and general histories of south-eastern Europe scarcely dwell on the experience of a state that has stood largely aside even from the politics and diplomacy of the Balkans. There are some very obvious reasons for this: the language is difficult, and the country itself has been virtually inaccessible for much of the post-war period. Moreover, most actors on the Albanian historical stage are unknown abroad -- with two important exceptions, of course: King Zog, the rather charismatic pre-war dictator, and Enver Hoxha, the more-Stalinist-than-thou post-war dictator.
Bernd J. Fischer's thoughtful and scholarly study of Albania at war is effectively the first thorough treatment of the occupation of Albania in English. It begins with the demise of King Zog, and ends with the rise of Enver Hoxha. It deals with a period of Albanian history when the country was occupied by foreign powers, so the deeds -- and especially the words -- of Italians, Germans and Austrians loom largest here. Fischer's study brings to an English-speaking readership the insights of a far more extensive German secondary literature, supplemented by his own research in British, German and American archives that included the large collection of captured German and Italian records held on microfilm at the US National Archives in Washington DC. An Albanian perspective is afforded by the official histories published after the war, which Fischer refers to collectively as 'Albanian Socialist historiography,' and one with which he takes issue on many points. It is also a perspective that tells us more about post-war politics than about the war itself; but then that is true to a greater or lesser extent of all our histories of occupation, resistance and collaboration.
At one level Albania's story is a straightforward one. It was a weak minor state that was unable to resist the major powers of the day. Fascist Italy needed a foreign colony -- for reasons of prestige as much as pragmatism, and had long had an active interest in the country anyway. Italian forces had already occupied Albanian territory during World War I; and although they withdrew at the end of the war, the country was to become economically dependent on Mussolini's regime during the 1930s. King Zog resisted Italian political interference, however, and one of the first tasks of Count Ciano on becoming foreign minister in 1936 was to deal with the 'Albanian problem.' Ciano advised Mussolini that the annexation of Albania was both possible and desirable and the Italians invaded in April 1939. The invasion itself, Fischer tells us, was a shambles, and succeeded only because there was virtually no real resistance, apart from the actions of a few individuals. Nevertheless most Albanians resented the invasion, not least because the belief was widespread that Albania had ejected the Italians after the First World War. Albanians, the author suggests, were rather proud of this supposed victory, and therefore were bound to consider the Italians unworthy masters.
As in every country occupied by the Axis, there were enough collaborators among the ruling class to enable Ciano to establish a provisional puppet government, and the annexation was cemented with a personal union of the two countries under Victor Emmanuel III. A new constitution was promulgated, the Statuto Fondamentale, which effectively made the government of Albania the business of a department of the Italian foreign office; and an Albanian Fascist Party was founded, through whose subsidiary organisations the Italian parent party sought to exercise control over Albanian society. At the same time, the Italians sought to avoid too oppressive a presence in Albania, and conciliatory, if ultimately empty, gestures were made. Support was elicited from the country's religious leaders; local political leaders were bribed with honorary titles and, when that failed, with hard cash.
The Italians also sought to persuade the Albanians they were materially better off after the invasion. It seems that construction projects and grandiose fascist buildings in Tirana brought some economic benefit. In addition, prices were fixed and utility charges regulated. Whether Albanians were better off or not is a different matter, but it seems unlikely. Fischer's analysis of the Italians' initial economic measures appears inconclusive: Albanians apparently paid $3.7 a year per capita in tax (compared with 107.5 in the United States and 107.8 in Britain) but presumably they earned a correspondingly paltry amount. In any case, it is worth wondering how efficiently taxes were collected at all in Albania during the 1930s.
Unsurprisingly, Ciano also sought to win Albanians over by encouraging and then gratifying nationalistic chauvinism, and in particular 'claims' to Kosova and other irredenta in Montenegro, Macedonia and Greece. When the Italians actually invaded Greece, of course, they were not only repulsed but actually lost Albanian territory to the enemy as well. It was only after the German invasion of the Balkans that a sort of 'greater Albania' become a possibility. Both fascist regimes sought to woo the Albanians and distract them from the woes of foreign occupation by offering them glory through aggressive expansion and 'ethnic cleansing.' But Fischer suggests that the Albanians themselves had hitherto scarcely been interested in expansion, and that the country's political leaders had recognised the dangers of antagonising their more powerful neighbours. King Zog, at least, had foreseen the additional problems irredentism would bring to a troubled country. Although the acquisition of Kosova after the German invasion of Yugoslavia was popular both in Kosova itself and in old Albania, it did little to increase support for the Italians.
The Italians were increasingly unpopular and opposition was growing, albeit an opposition bedevilled by the internecine struggles characteristic of the European resistance to fascism. Albania's ostensible struggle for liberation was also a civil war between the nationalist right and a partisan movement dominated by Hoxha's Communists. As in most European countries there was no coherent 'national' resistance, so much as a struggle between right and left to prevail within the resistance movement, in the hope of imposing one's own political system after the war. And in Albania, as elsewhere in the Balkans, the Communists had the edge, not least because when the Germans occupied Albania in 1943 some of the nationalist 'resistance' groups collaborated readily with the Nazis both politically and militarily.
Germany was not particularly interested in Albania, and had been content to see the country occupied by Italy. The aim of the 1943 invasion was primarily defensive: they wanted to prevent the landing of Allied troops in the region, and took advantage of the vacuum left by the fall of Mussolini. Moreover, the Germans themselves knew little about Albania, and it was Austrian Nazis, rather than their comrades from the Altreich (Germany within the boundaries of 1937), who were prominent during the occupation -- as indeed they were elsewhere in the Balkans. For example, Ribbentrop's special representative in south-eastern Europe, and one of the most important political figures in the German occupation of Albania, was Hermann Neubacher, formerly the Nazi puppet mayor of Vienna. Similarly, many of the Albanian collaborators had Austrian connections, and several ministers in the Albanian puppet government set up by the Nazis had been educated in Austria. The objectives of the German occupation were not only defensive and strategic, but also short-term. Where Italy had invested in a colony for the future, Germany plundered the country's resources for the war effort. Although Albania seems to have escaped the genocidal policies of the Nazis more than other parts of eastern Europe, the famine conditions the Germans had brought to Greece were very quickly felt in Albania as well.
Fischer's assessment of the German occupation is punctuated by strikingly positive observations. The country was occupied 'with considerable efficiency' (p. 161), while the Italian retreat was characterised by demoralization, panic and treachery (pp. 162-3). The Germans' behaviour in Albania was 'generally good' and they made fewer mistakes than other foreigners (pp. 166-7), while they were even 'quite thorough and sensitive' in constructing a four-man regency with a representative from each of Albania's major religious communities. As a result, Fischer argues, the Germans and their puppet government were 'received favourably by 25 to 30 percent of the population, leaving 30 to 45 percent neutral' and 35 to 45 percent in opposition' (p.188). The estimates are taken from one of the author's secondary sources, and it would be interesting to know how such an assessment was made of political attitudes in a pre-democratic society in the throes of war.
Yet it does not seem unlikely that a quarter of Albanians were well disposed to the Germans. The form of occupation established in Albania was less brutal than in other parts of eastern Europe and certainly, Fischer argues, less harsh than in neighbouring Greece and Serbia. Moreover, the Germans had pulled off a propaganda coup by persuading men to join their puppet government who were known not to be Axis stooges. Unsurprisingly, though, enthusiasm was greatest in the newly acquired territories of Kosova and Cameria. Kosova was apparently staunchly pro-Axis to the bitter end. The Serbs were driven out by Albanian nationalists (thereby undermining the usefulness of the local economy to the German occupation authorities); an indigenous SS division was formed in the province; and Kosovars provided hundreds of volunteers for militia units in a 'national mobilisation against the Communists.' But in Albania, as in Yugoslavia, the resistance to the Nazis was now in the hands of Communist partisans, who were encouraged by the advance of the Red Army into Romania and Bulgaria.
Albania's unique experience of occupation by both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany makes it a particularly interesting case study of the Nazi 'new order' in Europe. There was perhaps less of the sheer brutality here that was typical of the German occupation of other parts of Europe. But apart from the rather different case of Greece, Albania was the only country to experience occupation by both fascist powers. For all the discussion of 'generic' fascism that has taken place over the decades, there have been very few studies where Italian and German policies in the same field have been compared directly. Thus this book is also a rare and useful comparative study of fascist policy, although the author rarely interprets the occupation regimes explicitly as acts undertaken by fascist regimes qua fascist regimes. Indeed, he finds continuities between Mussolini's (or Ciano's) policies in Albania and those of their Liberal predecessors, between the presence of Austrians in Albania (and Albanians in Austria) before 1918 and their return after 1943. The 'new order,' after all, was not a project hatched only by fanatical ideologues and implemented by SS men alone. The attempt to impose or re-impose an authoritarian order on Europe is one that preceded the coming to power of Mussolini and Hitler, was shared by many nominal 'non-Fascists' and 'non-Nazis,' and indeed has survived in many parts of Europe, albeit as the aspiration of a marginalised minority.
Bernd Fischer's achievement is to bring us a thorough and detailed narrative of Albania's political history between 1939 and 1945. It is clearly structured, very readable, and based on as wide a range of sources as is reasonably possible or useful. The flow is spoiled occasionally by frequent, sometimes crass, spelling and typographical errors, which should have been eliminated by copy editors and proof readers. But they are a minor irritation. This is a good book, which fills a yawning gap in the history of wartime Europe. It deserves a very wide readership.
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Tim Kirk. Review of Fischer, Bernd J., Albania at War, 1939-1945.
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