The rise of national and patriotic ideas in Albania came late. Even in the second half of the 19th century Albanians were far from the ideal of a homogeneous nation. The growth of a unifying spirit was confronted in the first place with the traditional distinctions in the social and cultural organisation of the Gegs and Tosks. In addition, there were faith differences and the presence of a large Muslim community, which accounted for 70 per cent of the total population. In fact, this was not a typical religious division, for the Muslim community did not lose its feeling for regional (North and South) or clan and ethnic affiliation. The Muslim Albanian community, however, had the sense of affiliation to the ruling and propertied elite of a falling apart, but nevertheless glamorous and long-lived empire. Because of their strong presence in the military structures they felt committed to the Ottoman elite, or as an integral part of the official authority. Albanian Muslims held high positions in the Ottoman army, in the central and local administrations, even as high-ranking officers at the Ottoman court. In spite of their clear awareness of Albanians, of northerners or southerners, of members of a particular clan, the Albanian elite committed to the Ottoman power thought and behaved up to the large scale of the empire. They cared keenly about the self-government of the Albanian families and village communities, but underestimated Albania as a country, as well as the prospects for an independent statehood and the idea of national unity and emancipation. Albanian Muslim elite were educated in the Turkish language and felt associated with the Ottoman-Turkish statehood and culture.
The agitation and the ethnocultural mobilisation which kept all the other Balkan nations active and vital from the beginning of the 18th century onward, the striving for reestablishing their statehood, for an independent church and distinct cultural and educational identity, stayed immature or fragmentary among Albanians. This naturally made them an object of claims on the part of their neighbouring young nations – 20 per cent of the Albanian population were Orthodox and some of them studied at Greek schools, which they left well educated in the spirit of pan- Hellenism. Teaching in the Catholic schools was in Italian and Latin and their pupils were instructed into loyalty to the Papacy and to an Italian or generally pro-Western identity.
The question of the education of the Albanians in their own language was a problem posed many times in the reports of American religious missionaries in the Balkans. In June 1896 Reverend Lewis Bond reported that lessons at the Korça (Korcë) school were conducted in modern Greek, while the local people loved their own tongue which they spoke only at their homes. “Can we do anything for them”, asked Reverend Bond. His question obviously remained rhetorical, because three years later he sent another, much more extensive, statement on the issues of the language and education of the Albanians in Korça. He wrote that only at the girls’ school, set up by the Protestant community, the training was in Albanian and once more claimed there was no American who would not sympathise with the Albanians and their desire to use their own language .
It is assumed that the beginning of the Albanian Revival was set by Naum Veqilharxhi’s activity and his address to the Orthodox Albanians, which, along with his primer published in 1845, was the first programme document of the Albanian national movement. In it Veqilharxhi demanded Albanian schools and development of the Albanian language as a first step to the evolution of the Albanian people side by side with the other Balkan nations.
The Albanian resistance and national unification movement was directed almost entirely from abroad, mainly by the Albanian Diaspora in Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Of course, each of these Enlightenment groups strengthened the influence of either the Catholic or the Orthodox propaganda. Already in the 1880s, the Diaspora in Bulgaria drew in Albanian patriots who worked for and dreamt of an independent Albanian state, education and culture. Civil and publishing activities carried out by Yusuf Ali bey – the first Albanian political figure that raised the clarion call for independent Albania living in peace and understanding with its neighbours. Exactly twenty years before Sami Frashëri clearly and categorically recognised independence as Albania’s only way out of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, Yusuf Ali bey developed the thesis that only an independent Albanian principality would keep the territorial integrity of Albania.
On 10 June 1878, the Albanian League of Prizren was founded, on the analogy of the one-time League of Lezhë formed by Skanderbeg. It was the first to unite under its slogans various Albanian committees, regardless of faith and with a common aim – national unification and emancipation, its priority, however, being the defence of the Albanians’ national rights from the aspirations of the neighbouring states. This was prompted by the inclusion of territories with Albanian population within the boundaries of Montenegro under the treaties of San Stefano and Berlin.
Initially, the Sublime Porte was supportive of the Albanian movement trying to communicate an anti-Slav and anti-Russian leaning to it. The support offered by the Austro-Hungarian propaganda, as well as by the pan-Hellenistic circles in Greece, was of the same trend. At the time of the foundation of the League itself, the Ottoman-Muslim trend was prevalent in Prizren. The leadership of the League was in the hands of big landowners and Ottoman dignitaries. The League drew in also members of the Muslim population in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A military organisation, an Albanian army, was set up in order to counteract the claims by the neighbouring countries, at that time chiefly by Montenegro.82 The Sublime Porte, which officially declared that it would strictly abide by the clauses of the Treaty of Berlin (13 June 1878), in fact relied on the Albanian voluntary militias to resist the Austro-Hungarian claims to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The handful of Albanian patriots with incipient ideas of Albanian independence were frustrated and their hopes withered after a sharp statement by the chairman of the Berlin Congress, German Chancellor Bismarck, who declared that no Albanian nation existed at all and it was not possible to listen to any Albanian claims whatsoever.
At the outset of the 20th century a discussion began among the Albanian emigration on the need for the Albanians to mature in order to become a nation. In an article under the telling title of We are Dying Out, M. Frashëri reveals the disastrous consequences of alienation, hatred, religious division and disunion among the Albanians. Cultural backwardness, the lack of Albanian schools, and the studying of foreign languages at foreign schools, which “poison the minds of youth”, were defined as the basic reasons for the Albanians’ underdevelopment. M. Frashëri made a lot of attempts to define the concept of nation. Thus, for example, he wrote: “A nation, to claim to be living, should be united, should have its own language, should be civilised, because as it is – wild, with no civilisation and knowledge, it would not last long. In order to live, we have to get civilised.”
M. Frashëri’s idea was that if Albanians stayed what they were, uncivilised and underdeveloped, if they did not develop into a nation, if they did not cultivate in themselves an aspiration to their own statehood, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire they would perish, and nowhere else is this idea advanced so clearly as in his periodical Kalendari Kombiar (The National Calendar) published in 1900.
Sami Frashëri’s message declared in his book Albania – What it was, what it is, and what will become of it, published in 1899, became the manifesto of the Albanian revival (rilindja). Frashëri drew the prospects for a free and independent republic of Albania, composed of fifteen sancaks (Shkodra, Ipek (Pec), Prizren, Prishtina, Skopje, Bitola, Debar, Elbasan, Tirana, Berat, Korça, Kostur, Yanina, Argyrocastro, Preveza). In the name of this idea Frashëri appealed to the Albanians to unite, to work, and to fight against anything that would prevent its implementation. In this way, beginning with a demand for autonomy and struggle for their own alphabet and education, the Albanian national liberation movement arrived at the claim for independence, within broadest ethnic boundaries at that.
As a matter of fact, the personal and family background of Sami Frashëri himself was a salient embodiment of the drama of the Albanian identity. He was brought up in a Muslim environment, was a member of a rich (bey’s) Muslim family, had a place in the Ottoman literature as a talented author under the name of Shemsüddin Sami and contributed much to the Turkish language reforms. He and his family went through a painful metamorphosis from disappointment and giving up their loyalty to the Ottoman Empire and the sultan to full devotion to the idea of developing the Albanian national identity.
In the first decade of the 20th century there was a sequence of spontaneous and unorganised revolts and uprisings in reaction to the attempts by the Ottoman administration to increase the tithe, to levy new taxes on the population – a resistance which involved Albanians from different regions (Gjirokastër, Lushnja, Kruja, Elbasan, etc.) and different faiths, but was of a social nature alone and lacked a well-rationalised national cause.
A serious impetus to some degree of ideological rationalisation and maturity of the national idea was given by the involvement of the Albanians in the Young Turks’ revolution of 1908. Very soon, however, it became clear that the Young Turks’ revolution contributed in no way to the national causes of the non-Turk peoples, on the contrary, it implied “Ottomanisation” of the empire. With the consolidation of their power, the Young Turks developed their pan-Ottoman programme: control over the religious communities and the national schools of the non-Turkish peoples, settlement of Muslims from Bosnia and Herzegovina in Macedonia and the Edirne area of Thrace by, driving away non-Turkish population from the estates owned by the Ottoman pashas and beys, confiscation of the arms of the national organisations, etc.
In response, the Albanians formed their constitutional clubs (after the proclamation of the constitution by Abdul Hamid II in July 1908), which took the lead in the movements for opening Albanian schools, in defence of the Albanian alphabet from encroachments by the Young Turks’ regime. A cardinal question discussed at the clubs was: how to achieve Albania’s autonomy. Two trends took shape within the autonomist tendency: the Albanian feudal lords committed to the Ottoman Empire sought to impose a line of compromise and conciliation with the Porte, while the democratic trend called for struggle for autonomy as a way to achieve full independence. Actually, in that period, around 1910-1911, in the context of a sequence of rebellions, it became unmistakably clear that Albanians had matured for the foundation of their own state.
Parallel with armed insurrectionary action, Albanians defended their cause by parliamentary means. In December 1911, a group of Albanian members of the Ottoman parliament, guided by Ismail Qemal, started a parliamentary debate in order to make Constantinople grant the Albanians national rights in the cultural and administrative spheres. The aim of these claims raised by the deputies was, through acquiring cultural and administrative autonomy, to achieve a clear delineation of the ethnic and political boundaries of Albania. At a parliamentary session in January 1912, taking the floor during the parliamentary debate, Albanian deputy Hasan Prishtina warned that the reactionary policy of the Young Turks’ government was going to lead to a revolution in Albania. In the spring of the same year an uprising stirred up the whole of Kosovo, and in June – southern, central and northern Albania. Albanian officers and soldiers began deserting all branches of the of the Ottoman military service to join the insurgents. Towards the middle of June all of Albania was already at war and the Turkish government administration had actually ceased functioning.
The Albanian leaders and the Sublime Porte took the course of mutual concessions because of the pending war in the Balkans. By means of concessions, the ruling circles in Istanbul were trying to win over the Albanians to take their side in the looming war. On their part, Albanians feared a partitioning of the territories populated by Albanians among the countries of the Balkan Alliance. The Albanian national leaders believed it was better for Albania to remain within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire faced with the prospects of its division among Serbia, Greece and Montenegro. Thus, immediately before the outbreak of World War I, with the assistance of the Sublime Porte, steps were made in the Albanian territories to institute autonomy within the framework of the empire.
With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1912 there emerged an immediate danger of Albania’s being partitioned among Serbia, Greece and Montenegro. This was in conflict with the interests of Austria-Hungary and Italy, which had their own plans and supported the establishment of an independent state. The diplomacy of Vienna and Rome, as well as London, gave a signal to Ismail Qemal that the outright proclamation of the Albanian independence would not encounter resistance. At the same time, there were feverish preparations in Albania of calling together an all- Albanian congress. On 28 November 1912, delegates from all over the country gathered in Vlora and officially proclaimed Albania’s independence. Albania was not recognised in its ethnic boundaries, but as dictated by the international political conjuncture: Kosovo and Metohija were left outside the borders of the Albanian state, but Serbia’s claims to Northern Albania, and Montenegro’s to Shkodra, were rejected, Korça and Gjirokastër were given to Albania, while the region of Çameria was annexed to Greece. In July 1913, the Great Powers signed in London the Organic Statute of Albania which made its independence nominal. Albania acquired the status of an independent neutral state under the patronage of the Great Powers, and a commission of representatives of these powers, including an Albanian too, assumed control over the civil and financial administration.91 Dutch officers took charge of the Albanian gendarmerie, and the German prince Wilhelm de Wied was appointed prince of Albania by the Great Powers and was enthroned in the spring of 1914. Established was also the capital of the new principality – Durrës; thus the too familiar status witnessed in the Kosovo of today took its final shape – from a province of the Ottoman Empire Albania turned into a protectorate of Great Britain, France, Austria- Hungary, Germany, Italy, and Russia.
During that period the traditional, as well as some new, internal Albanian contradictions emerged again. On the one hand, pro-Ottoman big feudal lords like Esad Pasa Toptani, and Turhan Pasa Përmeti joined the government and practically held the whole country in their hands. At the same time, under the cover of defending Islam and the social interests of the Albanian petty owners, a kind of primitive Bolshevik ideas thrived in Albania, declaring a “holy war” on both Prince Wied and the big feudal lords in the government, enthralling the masses, and gaining control over all of Albania. This regime, which lasted for several months, was named after its leader – Haxhi Qamil, and compelled Esad Pasa to sign a contract with the Serbs and, in practice, betray the national Albanian interests .