Did Bismarck support “greater Albania”?

(Excerpt from Jusuf Buxhovi’s Kosova history series)

Lexoje shqip • Read in Albanian

Overdue by a year, the Albanian League assigned Abdyl Frashëri and Mehmet Ali Vrioni to travel to European capitals to present the Albanian issue as key to peace and stability in the Balkans. The representatives delivered memoranda demurring at the planned incorporation of Albanian lands into Greece. Meanwhile, the League’s delegates also addressed the autonomy issue in meetings with officials in Rome, Paris, London, and Vienna. But no such meeting was conducted in Berlin, where the German authorities refused to pay heed to the Albanian diplomats.

Had Bismarck received the Albanian delegates, they would have likely proposed a compromise solution. Despite the position expressed in their Memorandum, they were willing to suggest that the border issue be suspended temporarily until such time when the people would be on an equal footing to resolve the matter on their own (implying therefore Albania’s independence).

This plan was revealed on May 15, 1879, by the Kölnische Zeitung in a lengthy article about Frashëri and Vrioni, whom the newspaper commended as fine Westerners with a proper intellectual and political background. The Cologne-based daily appealed to Bismarck to meet the two diplomats and discuss with them thoroughly so that the Ambassadors’ Commission supervising the drawing of the new southern border could consider the Albanian proposals. Moreover, the article insisted that dialogue could help prevent a conflict between the two peoples, which had no reason to go to war with each other. Kölnische Zeitung backed its anti-war position with references to common ancient roots of the Albanians and Greeks and the joint war the two peoples waged on the Ottomans. Arvanites of Beotia, Suli, and Athens had participated in the Greek War of Independence and many of them had become heroes of the new Hellenic state, which would not have enjoyed its freedom without the sacrifices and the contribution of Albanians.

Perhaps, the newspaper’s announcement of an Albanian package “with interesting and tolerant proposals to resolve the southern crisis” prompted German officials to ignore Frashëri and Vrioni. They, too, expected the same scenario. They arrived in Berlin on May 15, 1879, and checked in at the luxury Roma hotel, from where they mailed their Memorandum to the German government. Instead of delivering the document in person, the two diplomats sent the ten-page letter through the mail and enclosed a request for a conference with Bismarck. However, in lieu of an appointment with the chancellor, then-Foreign Secretary (and future chancellor) Bernhard Von Bülow wrote:

Gentlemen, I had the honor of receiving your letter, dated May 19, 1879, sent from Roma Hotel along with the Memorandum and an appendix. I thank you cordially for the notice and express my regards.

Since Frashëri and Vrioni had already left Berlin, they never received Bülow’s response. The letter was returned to the German Foreign Ministry with a note from the hotel management that “the two gentlemen have departed as of two days ago to Vienna via Dresden.”

As one may infer from the documents, neither Bismarck nor another senior official of the Reich received the Albanian delegation. Frashëri and Vrioni stayed in Berlin for two days and sent their Memorandum through the postal service. Such a flow of events rejects Hađi-Vasiljević’s contention that “Bismarck welcomed the League’s delegation in Berlin.” The Serbian scholar has also influenced some Albanian historians to relay the mistake, saying that Bismarck “unofficially” met with the Albanian representatives. Such an event is not supported by any meritorious German document, and it is unlikely that the meeting could possibly take place.

The Albanians were unable to meet with the foreign secretary, Von Bülow, who was responsible for the Balkans, or even another lower ranking official of the department. That this was to occur is foretold by a letter the Ottoman ambassador in Berlin, Abdullah Bey, sent to the German foreign ministry. On behalf of his foreign minister Karatheodori Pasha, Abdullah requested the German officials to not accept any Albanian representatives with the pretext that the Ottoman Empire alone was responsible for the matters the Albanians wished to raise.

Hađi-Vasiljević’s assertion, nevertheless, is likely intentional. When Germany and Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia in 1914, the propaganda apparatus of the Balkan state accused its enemies of being pro-Albanian. Hađi-Vasiljević alluded to Germany’s ostensibly secret friendship with Albania as early as the Congress of Berlin, but in doing so legitimized an inaccurate theory, which—while the original documents were unknown—earned wide support among scholars. The group of misled writers also includes the German historian, Schanderl, who cites the Serbian author.

The Memorandum encompasses a distinct chapter of the national movement’s history. Likewise, the content of the document differs from the usual communications that Albanians sent to the European powers. Yet, despite the numerous citations to it, the Memorandum remains largely unknown, hence warranting a presentation and an analysis of the integral text.

Bearing the date May 19, 1879, and handwritten in French, the ten-page original is found in the Political Archive of the German Foreign Ministry in Bonn. In recent years, German archivists have included the document in the pile of “same materials secured from different sources,” a classification indicating that Albanians sent the same content in multiple letters to the several delegations in Berlin, although quite frequently the text would vary according to the addressee. The content is important in revealing the circumstances under which the documents were written, while the lack of coordination that is evident in some of the letters may as well be the product of foreign hands seeking to distract the Albanian movement. Thus, in the Bonn archive, there are three to four versions of the same letter, causing confusion as to their classification. In the meantime, the text of the Memorandum that Frashëri and Vrioni delivered to Bismarck is not entirely identical with the Austro-Hungarian version stored in Vienna archives, making it worthy of providing the German version in the notes.

If the unique document is to be considered as truly representative of the League, it follows that, by May 1879, the strategic focus of the Albanian organization had largely shifted to the south:

Even though Serbia and Montenegro were given entire districts, such as Shpuza, Podgorica, and Vranje, we, the Albanians, believe that we ought to refrain from action for that would endanger the respect of the Congress of Berlin, which we value so highly. The loss of those territories is not of the same gravity and value as the present Greek claims. These would be catastrophic for us.

[ . . . ]

The letter describes the endangered districts, including Janina, Parga and Preveza, as the heart of Albania:

The value of Epirus cannot be compared to the territories lost in the north. The importance of Epirus is much greater since key Albanian ports, including Preveza, Narta, and Parga, are situated there. Albania has no other harbors that could rival [those of Epirus]. Moreover, the areas are of vital strategic importance, among the most valuable in Albania.

[ . . . ]

This rightly raises the question as to why the League braced for a diplomatic campaign for the south when activists had vowed to defend all Albanian lands. Concurrently, the discussion necessitates a comparison of the northern territories ceded to Serbia and Montenegro with the southern districts, questioning whether the latter were indeed of a greater importance. Ultimately, would wisdom require that the Albanians give up a part of the homeland, arguing they had to defend another more significant piece of their territory? Did the imbalanced focus come as a sign of deference to the decisions of the Congress or because the Albanians hoped to concentrate on a battle they had not yet lost?

Of course, the Albanians had not given up from a part of their country to defend another and neither had the League of Prizren officially proclaimed such a policy. However, under particular circumstances, the Albanian organization was forced to defend that which could be defended. Although this standpoint remains debatable, the League redefined its approach in accordance with the situation. The Albanians pursued an armed resistance in the north, where their military victories compelled the Great Powers to revise their decisions, and the Ottomans had to attack by land, while the Europeans threatened at sea, to force the League to back down on its positions. To defend the southern border, in the meantime, the League decided to exhaust the diplomatic resources.

For the Albanians to change their way was a natural choice since the Berlin decisions on the borders were not uniform. The northern line was final; the protocols set the Montenegrin border and defined the status of Yeni Pazar (Alb.: Jenipazar or Tregu i Ri; Srb.: Novi Pazar) in detail, leaving no room for dilemma, for the Great Powers expected the Ottoman Empire to fully comply with the decisions and the Porte could not dodge the territorial losses. However, the matter stood differently for the south as the Congress permitted Greece and the Ottoman state to determine the border on their own and only prescribed Hellenic gains in Thessaly and Epirus. Although the Berlin decisions did not name the lands that Greece was to annex, the protocol of the 13th séance provided for an international commission to resolve disputes regarding the territorial conveyances between the two countries.

Based on the foregoing, the League could have well chosen to fight against the final border in the north, but opted instead for diplomacy in the negotiable southern matter. Albanians hoped to influence the final solution or to prevent unfavorable irreversible decisions that could make diplomacy defunct, recognizing that if arms had to be substituted, they would open a front against a significantly better prepared opponent than Montenegro.

Lexoje shqip • Read in Albanian

Jusuf Buxhovi, Kosova, vol. 2 (The Ottoman Empire), transl. Getoar Mjeku (Houston: Jalifat, 2013) 215–22. Footnotes omitted. Minor edits unmarked. Title by translator.

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