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The Development of Albanian Nationalism

Bernd Fisher, Professor and Chair, Department of History, Indiana University-Fort Wayne

Date & Time

Mar. 23, 2005
11:00am – 12:00pm ET


The Development of Albanian Nationalism
March 23, 2005
Staff-edited summary of the EES discussion with Bernd Fischer, Professor and Chair, Department of History, Indiana University-Fort Wayne

Albania was the last of the Balkan nations to achieve independence, and the last to develop a modern national consciousness. Bernd Fischer addressed the questions: why was nationalist development in Albania delayed and, when it finally arrived, what form or forms 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. As an example of the latter, since religion was not associated with nationality in Albania, as it was in much of the rest of the Balkans, the Ottomans correctly concluded that language, education, and culture were the critical elements in the development of Albanian nationalism. Severe restrictions were placed on teaching the Albanian language since a common written language could lead to a common literature, the 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. The 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 to 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 and the opportunity for advancement in the army or in the administration, where they served in disproportionate numbers.
The nature of Albanian civilization and heritage provided other important indigenous obstacles Albanian nationalism. The divisions and various levels of development within the Albanian community encouraged clanism and localism and inhibited thinking in national terms. 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.
Albania, then, was at something of a disadvantage when it comes to the nineteenth century emergence of Balkan nationalism. Albania lacked all of the necessary preconditions for the growth of Balkan nationalism. It had no state, it could not look back to a powerful medieval empire, it had no religious unity, no leadership offered by a self-conscious class. When modern nationalism did finally reach the Albanians, it was late, rather weak and certainly unique. It was essentially an elite initiated and driven, 20th century phenomenon.
The first real spark of Albanian nationalism, a cultural awakening, took place among the Italo-Albanians of southern Italy in the 1860s. It was not until the beginning of the twentieth 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. 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 on the part of foreign powers, particularly Italy and Austria-Hungary. While the Albanians had no "benefactors" like others in the Balkans, they found these two powers intent on preventing the expansion of Greece and Serbia at the expense of Albanian inhabited lands.
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 in southern Albania and abroad) who often served as a link between the various parts of the country. Ismail Kemal Bey, often described as the father of Albanian independence, can be counted among this group. He, 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.
The rapid defeat of Ottoman forces in the First Balkan War complicated the situation for the Albanians. Serbs and Greeks, who saw the area as legitimate spoils, occupied much Albanian territory. 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 28 November 1912. Thus, Ismail Kemal had created Albania, although with only just over half of all Albanian speakers within its borders, in response to the threat of assimilation. Next, he hoped to create Albanians conscious of their nationality, but he was not given the time. Ismail Kemal saw his fledgling nation overwhelmed by events and, with the beginning of World War I, by the armies of six different powers.
Albania emerged from the First World War battered, with much of its territory occupied, and its marginal pre-war state infrastructure destroyed. The war did, however, further Kemal's work in one sense: the extended foreign occupation helped reinforce Albanian identity. 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 as prime minister, 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 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. His first priority was the creation of a political structure that could 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.
Furthermore, Zog recognized that adherence to three different religions whose clergy were answerable to hierarchies outside Albania not only presented a barrier to unity but allowed for considerable foreign interference in Albanian affairs. Through the construction of autocephalous churches, Zog sought 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. In this regard, he experienced some success as well.
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 of this Italian 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." The division between North and South was exacerbated by the formation of resistance groups with regional agendas. 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. 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 as totalitarian as any regime in a developing area could be in 1946. Hoxha had 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, added of course to the extensive use of the army and other security forces, by which he could remain in power and progress toward a modern socialist state. Like Zog, Hoxha was uncomfortable with irredentism—with the concept of a Greater Albania—and the reasons behind their discomfort were similar as well: fear of Kosovar chieftains; fear of increasing the Gheg population (the communist movement was primarily Tosk); and because the very concept of nationalism was tainted by fascism.
The collapse of command socialism in the 1990s further complicated the situation. Postcommunist Albania is very much dominated by Hoxha's legacy. He is credited with reducting the impact of divisive factors within Albanian society, such as regional loyalties, the traditional North-South division and religious differences. 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. Twenty 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 much more difficult than that experienced by other Eastern European and Balkan states.
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. Albanians, then, entered the postsocialist era with a weakened sense of nationalism and, unlike with Zog and Hoxha, traditional and non-traditional nationalist elites were no longer able to completely direct the process. That they continue to make an effort is clear. This is illustrated by the controversial 1998 paper issued by the Albanian Academy of Sciences called "Platform for the Solution of the National Albanian Question," which argued 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.
The West has pressured 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. Yet, despite continuing pressure from some traditional Albanian nationalist elites, aided by repressive policies carried out by some of Albania's neighbors, the type of virulent nationalism we see 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. If it is the aim of the West to help mitigate the development of strong traditional nationalism among Albanians, Fischer believes 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. Moreover, attempting to solve the political problem with no attention to economics will likely be unsuccessful.


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