Albanian Uprisings (1932–1937)PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: King Zog I vs. liberal and Marxist Albanian rebels
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Albania
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The fascist-backed autocratic Zog, who had seized power in the turmoil following World War I and the collapse of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, was opposed to Albanian reformers.
OUTCOME: Beginning as a pawn in the post–World War I diplomatic struggle between Italy and France, Zog ended as a victim of the rising fascist takeover of pre–World War II Europe. The weakness of his rule exposed by the uprisings, he was deposed and forced into exile by Benito Mussolini.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Unknown
In the 1920s, before the rise of Nazi Germany, Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy was the preeminent aggressive power on the European continent. Italian foreign policy was a mixture of bombast and caution, like its preening and touchy leader. At the Lausanne Conference in the summer of 1923, Il Duce had dramatically stopped his train at a distance to force French premier Raymond Poincaré and Britain’s Lord Curzon to come to him. Under Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), Italy was the first Great Power to offer a hand to the Bolsheviks with a trade agreement, and Mussolini was proud both of Italy’s role in the League of
Nations and as a guarantor of the Locarno Pact. Mussolini’s main sphere of activity, however, was the Balkans. When an Italian general surveying a border of one of Albania’s Greek-speaking provinces was killed in 1923, Mussolini ordered his navy to bomb the Greek island of Corfu—and the League of Nations awarded Italy, not Greece, an indemnity for the incident. Italy annexed Fiume in January 1924, even though Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) had insisted in 1919 at Versailles that Fiume be granted free-city status. Given these and other actions, Yugoslavia was suspicious of Italian ambitions, especially in Albania, despite Rome’s attempts to regularize diplomatic relations with Belgrade. Later in 1924 the Yugoslavs backed a coup d’état in Albania that elevated the Muslim Ahmed Bey Zogu (1895–1961) to power. Once in control,
however, Zogu turned to Italy for aid and protection. First Italy provided Albania economic relief in the Tirane Pact of 1927, then Mussolini and Zogu joined in a military alliance in 1927; ultimately, at a convention in July of 1928, Il Duce declared Albania a virtual protectorate, and Ahmed Zogu became King Zog I.
Thus, Zog came to power as part of the Italian diplomatic attempt to counter French influence in the successor states of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Mussolini was first beginning to flex his foreign policy muscle and place Italy in the center of the interwar turmoil that plagued Europe. Zog, a dictator who ruled as autocratically as any leader in Europe, proved himself worthy of his fascist sponsor, and by the early 1930s he was facing strong opposition from liberal reformers and Marxist-oriented Muslim radicals who appealed directly to the country’s Islamic majority. Insurrections occurred in 1932, 1935, and 1937, but they were relatively small, poorly planned affairs that Zog easily suppressed. Zog’s hold on power, however, remained tenuous enough that his punishment of the rebels was surprisingly lenient—he executed only a few
ringleaders—and he felt compelled to undertake minor social and administrative reforms as a show of good faith. Meanwhile, the diplomatic brinkmanship of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) had gained him control over much of Europe without a shot being fired by the Great Powers, who were bent on appeasement of the saber-rattling Nazis. Benito Mussolini had been closely and enviously following Hitler’s succession of brilliant diplomatic coups against what was quite evidently the enfeebled democracies of the West. In his rise from obscurity to absolute power in Germany, Hitler had admired Mussolini as a model fascist leader, and Mussolini liked to consider the German führer his younger protégé. Mussolini understood that Italy traditionally fared best when playing Germany off against France, and he feared Hitler’s expansion into the Danube River basin. Moreover, when the Nazis had arranged for the murder of Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss (1892–1934)—whom Mussolini had supported on condition he establish an Italian-style fascist regime—Mussolini responded with the threat of force. In London and Paris the appeasers were beginning to see Il Duce as the one leader with the will to stand up to Hitler. As Hitler placed pressure
on the coal- and iron-rich Saarland, Britain, France, and Italy met in the spring of 1935 at a conference in Stresa to reaffirm their joint opposition to German expansion. However, Mussolini then decided to imitate his protégé and simply take the independent African empire of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) from Haile Selassie (1892–1975). France and Britain felt they could not merely wink at Mussolini’s Ethiopian adventure, so they pushed mild economic sanctions against Italy through the League of Nations. However, the sanctions included neither an embargo on oil, which would have grounded Mussolini’s air force, nor closure of the Suez Canal, which would have cut his supply line. Germany, no longer in the league, ignored the sanctions, thus healing the rift between the two dictators. In May of 1936 Italian troops entered Addis Ababa and completed the conquest of Abyssinia, smashing the Stresa Front and transforming the League of Nations, according to historian A. J. P. Taylor, in a single day from a powerful body imposing sanctions, seemingly more effective
than ever before, to an empty sham. In June Mussolini appointed his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, foreign minister, and in July Ciano acquiesced in Germany’s annexation of Austria. In November came the announcement of a vague Rome-Berlin Axis, and a year later, in December of 1937, Italy, too, quit the League of Nations. By 1939, however, Hitler was clearly the leader of the Axis, and he sometimes treated the preening Il Duce as the junior partner he in fact had become in fascist Europe. Increasingly, Mussolini felt he had something to prove in the face of Hitler‘s aggressive foreign diplomacy. Thus, on April 7 Italy annexed Albania and removed its erstwhile client King Zog. Now Mussolini was again a figure worthy
of alliance with Hitler. It was ultimately Mussolini’s deposing of Zog and annexing of Albania that persuaded Hitler to sign the 1939 “Pact of Steel” with Italy, turning the Italian- German “axis” into a true military alliance. Tellingly, the treaty began by acknowledging Italy’s hegemony over Ethiopia and Albania, referring to Victor Emanuel III, titular head of the Italian government, as “King of Italy and Albania, Emperor of Ethiopia.” Meanwhile, the former “king” of Albania was forced to flee into exile.
Further reading: Kristo Frashëri, The History of Albania: A Brief Survey (Tirana, Albania: N. Pub., 1964).