History - a short overview

Albania's history very much resembles the history of the entire area - at least until the 19th century. Just some of the actors were different to those of neighbouring countries. Probably the first civilization to settle in the Balkan area including present-day Albania were the Illyrians. Additionally, Greeks later founded some colonies, for example Butrint or Appolonia, along the coastline. During the 3rd century B.C., the Roman-Illyrian wars started, resulting in Albania being incorporated by the Roman Empire. The Roman-Illyrian war started because of the existence of a strong Illyrian kingdom reigned by Queen Teuta. The kingdom mainly stretched around present-day →Shkodër. Together with neighbouring areas, Albania later formed the Roman province Illyria.

395 AD saw the division of the Roman Empire. The northern part of the Illyrian province fell the West Roman Empire, the South to the East Roman Empire. This division was about to have a great influence on the culture and religion of the area - even today: In the North, Catholics dominate, while the South is rather dominated by the Orthodox faith when it comes to Christianity. After the 6th century, some Slavic tribes settled in the area. However, they didn't have a long lasting influence on the area: the majority of present-day Albanians are not Slavic but rather offsprings of the ancient Illyrians (as opposed to the majority of Macedonians for example - see →History of Macedonia). However, some place names in Albania can be connected to Slavic tribes and settlements - for example the town of Pogradec.

Albanians were not to be spared from devastating crusades and migrations of peoples. In 1344, present-day Albania became part of the Serbian nation, but after the defeat of the Serbs in 1389 it changed hands and was integrated into the Ottoman empire. Shortly after that, the North was occupied by Venetia. The next century produced Albania's most famous national hero: Skenderbeu (auch: Skënderbeg) fought several battles against the Ottoman Empire during the 15th century - and he won all of them. It was not before 1478 that the Ottoman Empire could finally manage to break the resistance and take control over the entire area. However, especially the mountainous parts of Albania were impossible to control entirely. And so a certain Albanian identity and the Albanian language itself managed to develop gradually.

National Paranoia: One of countless mini bunkers built all over the place
National Paranoia: One of countless mini bunkers

Despite the resistance, the Ottoman Empire should stay in charge for more then 400 years. Many Albanians fled the country - even now, there are several Albanian villages left in present-day Italy. More then half of the remaining Albanian population converted to Islam. The Albanian League from →Prizren (therefore also known as the "League of Prizren") tried to gain independence for a united Albania at the end of the 19th century, but they couldn't succeed. Eventually, Albania could proclaim independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912 as a result of the First Balkan War. But only one year later, in 1913, super powers at that time decided to make the →Kosova (Kosovo) and the Northwest of →Macedonia (which is mainly inhabited by Albanians) part of →Serbia.

The German Prince Wilhem of Wied became the king of the principality of Albania, but he couldn't prevail, and so his reign ended after 6 months only in 1914 (technically it ended in 1925, but he fled the country in 1914). During the First World War, Albania was partially occupied by Austria-Hungarian, Italian, Greek and also French forces. In 1920, the Congress of Lushnjë took place - an event, that was about to influence Albania's fate for the next decades. As a result, Albania became independent again, but Italy wasn't very eager to withdraw its troops. Chaotic years followed. The North Albanian Ahmed Zogu became the leader of Albania in 1925 and eventually declared himself King of Albania three years later. However, in 1939, Italy under Mussolini occupied Albania again - followed by Germany in 1943. The occupants met fierce resistance all over the country (but there were also collaborationists - in North Albania, I talked to a former Wehrmacht interpreter). In 1944, Albania managed to liberate itself (!) from the occupation.

There were numerous partisan groups, but the communist branch under Enver Hoxha proved to be the most powerful one. The communists started to eliminate opposition, and several purges left many Albanians dead. In foreign policies, Albania first created strong ties with neighbouring Yugoslavia, then with the Soviet Union and after the death of Stalin with the →Mao's China. However, this changed after Mao's death as well. Albania therefore became more and more isolated. No one could enter the country and no one was allowed to leave it. Albania's secret service maintained an iron grip on all Albanians. Some 600,000 concrete bunkers were builtall over the country (see picture above), since Enver Hoxha feared a Yugoslavian invasion. Practising religion was strictly forbidden and churches and mosques were used in a different way or simply destroyed. Albania became a forgetten, somewhat mysterious but fearsome place in Europe.

Enver Hoxha died in 1985, he was followed by Ramiz Alia. In 1990, glasnost and perestroika reached Albania - the communist regime was toppled by the people, but things didn't get substantially better. Ten thousands of Albanians left the country - most of them as boat people. In 1992, democrats under the leadership of Sali Berisha took over. He wasn't very successful either, and so he later changed over to the opposition. In 1997, Albania suddenly hit worldwide news, which is a rarity. The reason was a large scale pyramid investment system, as a result of which almost every second Albanian lost his entire savings. This initiated the so-called Lottery Uprisings, which quickly spread over the entire country. Military facilities were looted and an estimated 750,000 rifles stolen - especially the South of Albania was in state of anarchy. Finally, the Albanian government together with the OSCE managed to end the crisis.

After the crisis was solved to a certain degree, things gradually started turning to the better. But progress was and is slow. In 2005, the alliance led by the democrats won the elections after a tough election rally - the winner was a familiar face: Sali Berisha. Many North Albanians do not seem to be very happy with him - they feel themselves discriminated by South Albanians. I was told about that many times when I traveled North Albania - and as a matter of fact, Northern towns such as →Shkodër for example do indeed look much poorer then other places in the country. Albania has still a long way to go, and the events in →Kosovo did definitely not help the situation.




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