With the start of World War I, emerged thecontradictions between the nation’s discrepant internal interests, which had taken shape depending rather on the sympathy and support for various external factors than on proper Albanian interests and unification prospects. Central Albania was stirred by mutinies against Prince Wied and his government consisting of big lords; Southern Albania, with Gjirokastër as its centre, was entirely under Greek influence and the illegitimate government of Northern Epirus established its power there. From the north and the east the territories were threatened by Serbian and Montenegrin occupation. In late October, Italy occupied Vlora and annexed it, together with the island of Saseno. Serbia and Greece were given the opportunity to annex the northern and southern parts in 1915. In early 1916, Albania was occupied by Austro-Hungarian, Italian, and French troops and this lasted till the end of the war. Immediately after World War I, the Entante member countries proceeded to settling the outstanding questions through signing a series of peace treaties with the defeated states. The larger part of these arrangements concerned the Balkans and drew up a new geopolitical map, which charged the region with fresh tensions, mutual claims, suppressed revenge-seeking and latent irredentism.
Albania came out of World War I as an independent Balkan state with a surface of 27 thousand square kilometres and a population of 800,000. Its problem, however, remained the practical assertion and defence of the independence and sovereignty, for under the Secret Treaty of 1915 signed in London Italy was promised to receive Albanian territories, there were also many other external claims and internal splits in the identity and orientation of the Albanian society.
The period between the two wars was maybe the only one ephemeral time of endeavours by the Albanians to build up an independent state and lay the foundations of their nation-integrative philosophy and practice. In December 1920, Albania was admitted to UN membership, which was in fact international recognition of the Albanian independence.
The model of state organisation was quite naturally borrowed almost entirely from Turkey, since the century-long enjoyment of a more autonomous status (as compared to the other Balkan provinces) within the framework of the Ottoman Empire made it possible for Albania to assimilate the administrative system and have available a certain number of trained Albanians. A new electoral system, which was a copy of the Turkish one, was introduced. The administrative division, too, followed more or less the Ottoman practice. According to the observers and diplomats of the 1920s, the Albanian governors of counties and districts, the müdürs and the police officers were comparatively well trained, because they were the old and experienced former administrators of the Ottoman Empire. It is a curious fact that the reports from this period described the Albanian judicial system as effective and were impressed by the fact that it functioned irrespective of the huge influence of traditional law.92 The truth, however, is that both the administrative officers and the Albanian judges most often came from authoritative bajraktar (standard bearer) families who, by tradition, had taken care of order, government, and law enforcement for generations. In a word, as in the period of the Empire, the more or less normal functioning of the state was due to a visible or invisible symbiosis between traditional ways and modern constitutional state government.
This achievement, was not a minor one, of course, but it was far from being a victory for the Albanian national movement. The unification of the entire Albanian ethnos in a single state had not been achieved, and it did not look like as if something would happen before long. After 1925 the government of Ahmed Zogu adopted a course of maintaining alliance with Italy which, in the long run, led to the liquidation of the Albanian independence in 1939.
Soon after the occupation of Albania in the spring of 1939, its territories were annexed to the lands under the Italian crown, and Victor Emmanuel III became also the king of Albania. All international functions of the Albanian state were assumed by Mussolini’s government, and Albania’s administration was moved to Rome. This did not alleviate the occupation regime at all and a 100,000-strong army was deployed in this country, while the actual governor of Albania was the royal deputy Francesco Jakomini. The population was given a thirty-day term to surrender all arms, a fact which betrays some naiveté on the part of the occupation authorities, for traditionally Albanians would not give up their weapon.
Today Albanians do not hold a bad memory of the Italian occupation, since for about four years more than 350 Italian enterprises were opened in this economically underdeveloped country, roads were built and administrative buildings were erected. That was also the short period of time when the debacle of Yugoslavia and Greece led to a redrawing of the Balkan frontiers, and the Albanians came closer to the ideal of national union and the dreams of Great Albania – Western Macedonia and the larger part of Kosovo were annexed to Albania. P. Chaulev characteristises the Albanian attitude to Italy in the following way: “In Albania there are Serbophobes, there are Hellenophobes, but there are no Italophobes. Albanians know the Italian people better than Italians know Albanians. They know that the Italian people, in spite of the new doctrine, cannot become imperialist and, therefore, no matter what the foreign policy of Italy to Albania may be, it does not scare them. Still, Albanians fear the Italian peaceful invasion”.
A key point in the Albanian resistance to the occupation, which had long-lasting historical consequences, was the formation of the Communist Party in November 1941. ACP put effort to take the lead of the independently acting detachments, a joint platform was worked out and the National Liberation Front was founded. Among the members of the general National Council was Enver Hoxha. Indeed, the fact that the Communist Party was established by people who came predominantly from the Albanian South, that is were of Tosk origin, as well as that Enver Hoxha himself was born in Gjirokastër, was not of least importance for the Albanian traditions.
On the other hand, at the end of 1942 all Albanians who did not trust the ACP and called themselves “nationalists”, founded another resistance organisation named Balli Kombëtar (National Front), at the head of which stood Midhad Frashëri, minister in the first Albanian government of Ismail Qemal and son of Abdyl Frashëri.
The main dividing line between the two resistance formations was the idea of “ethnic Albania” which was on the agenda of the Ballists – free and democratic, modernly constituted ethnic Albania… This was a Maximalist claim in the complex situation witnessed at that time and in the Balkans as a whole. On the other hand, Albanian Communists acted in close cooperation with the Yugoslavian resistance and, under the influence of the YCP, preferred to discuss the issue when the war would already be over. Ultimately, ACP’s aspiration to gain an independent control on power took the upper hand and the most convenient moment for joint action of the resistance was missed, namely the time of the capitulation of Italy and the Wehrmacht’s decision to occupy Albania.
The deployment of the German army brought to light once again the Albano-Italian sympathies. To this day historians and anthropologists who collect the oral history of the Albanians from the periods of the occupation, are surprised to hear that most of the families remember that they hid Italian soldiers and officers persecuted by the Wehrmacht. Some circles of the Albanian society supported the Germans and collaborated with them. A transitional Executive Committee was formed, then a National Assembly was called together, its membership collaborating with the Germans, and in November a government was appointed, all these bodies being an appendage to the German general administrator Neubacher. In this period the Ballists joined forces with the monarchist Zogist organisation Legalitet and sought partnership with ACP. In a special directive Enver Hoxha not only rejected collaboration, but also ordered the persecution of the Ballists, and later of the members of Legalitet party. In practice, this directive set the beginning of a real civil war in Albania the methods of which were terrorism, mass killings and revival of the traditional regional, clan and religious-cultural division of the country by new – political – means.
Anti-fascist resistance in Kosovo was put under full control by the YCP and Tito. The Albanian population joined Tito’s forces, gave a heavy toll of hundreds of lives, but, at the same time, was indignant at ACP’s position – in the name of Moscow-dictated internationalism it refused to discuss the strategic issues of the national problem of Albanians. In the second half of 1943, an Albanian League was again set up in Prizren proclaiming its intention to fight for the unification of all territories populated by Albanians. Moreover, the leaders of the Albanian League posed the question of putting Kosovo on equal administrative standing with the other provinces in Yugoslavia. Their endeavours encountered a redoubled opposition, because their right to self- determination was rejected not only by the YCP, but also by the Albanian Communists, and this predetermined the future of hundreds of thousands of Albanians living within the borders of post- war Yugoslavia.