On April 7, 1939, Fascist Italy invaded Albania. Resistance in the tiny European country was brief. King Zog I, Queen Geraldine, and their newborn son were forced into exile.
“The b*** has escaped,” said the Italian foreign minister, Count Ciano, as he walked through the bedchamber, where the queen had given birth to the crown prince three days ago. Though he had been King Zog’s best man at the royal wedding the year before, Ciano despised the monarch’s consort due to her Hungarian origin.
Queen Geraldine, who was also part-American, was called the White Rose in her youth. But that start of April was too early for roses in Albania. Flowers came with the invaders and were distributed to locals, who were dragged onto the streets for a staged “warm welcoming” of the Italian troops. The invaders insisted on a victorious march, as if to mark the prelude to World War II.
For all practical purposes, the global conflict had already begun. The last Albanian soldiers surrendered on April 12, only five days after the first gunshot. But they fought to their last bullet, and were applauded for their courage as they handed over the Rozafa Castle in the ancient town of Shkodër.
Within a week, Italian monarch Victor Emmanuel III—some two feet shorter than Zog—usurped the Albanian throne. While dictator Benito Mussolini was the head of government, the king remained the nominal head of state in Italy. He would continue to reside in Rome, sending a viceroy to Albania as a token of his kingship.
The Italians formally preserved Albania’s independence, and the two countries were said to be in personal union. But unlike the once British ruler who became James I of England and James VI of Scotland, Victor Emmanuel was the “terzo” in both nations. The Albanian diplomat and writer, Faik Konitza, called the naming mismatch a lesser of the violations against his country.
As ambassador in Washington, D.C., Konitza decried the Italian occupation, defending the legitimacy of King Zog, his former political opponent. The diplomat personally scorned the monarch, but publicly praised him for building a Western state out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
Zog was a former hereditary ruler of an Albanian province who rose to prominence at troubling times after World War I, when the country’s very existence was at stake. As minister of internal affairs, then 25-year-old future king helped restore law and order in Albania.
Yet the consolidation of the small European state sent unpleasant vibes to its neighbor in the Apennine Peninsula. An Italian plan to colonize Albania failed in 1920, as native fighters pushed the foreign army into the sea. Within two years of the country’s defeat, the nascent fascist movement grabbed the reins of power in Italy.
While Italy made great economic strides under his leadership, the fascist dictator never forgot the shameful defeat of some twenty years ago. Mussolini, as the Duce of Fascism, sought to redeem the nation’s face by invading Albania. He had long spoken of a new Roman empire, and he was now to make good on his word.
But the Italians, as the stereotypical romancers and “turtle eaters,” were imperial buffoons. The invasion took a toll on Albania. And it was neither the Italian newcomers nor the oppression of natives that caused the harm. It was rather the illusion of stability the fascists created and the mess in which they left the country soon afterwards.
Italy capitulated in 1943. The plan to turn Albania into an Italian province, with newcomers outnumbering natives, had failed. In four years, though, the regime undertook ambitious construction projects, sponsored national education, and even expanded the territory of the country.
In 1941, Italy extended its presence into parts of Kosova, which was then under Yugoslav rule, and temporarily annexed the area to the Albanian state. The first Albanian-language schools in decades opened in Kosova during the Italian occupation. Until then, the Yugoslav regime had been too hostile allow education in Albanian.
Italy portrayed itself as the savior and redeemer of Albania. When the Great Powers of Europe had drawn the borders of Albania in 1913, they had decided to give over half of the Albanian-inhabited lands to neighboring countries. Fascist Italy was determined to “right” that wrong. But things did not go accordingly to plan; the fascists created a wound that would not heal for decades to come.
In 1940, Italy invaded Greece through Albanian territory. Many Albanian soldiers in the Italian ranks deserted the operation, turning it into a catastrophe.
Yet Greece showed its “gratitude” by occupying southern Albania and terrorizing the local population. Ethnic Albanians native to the Chameria region were also driven out of their homes to never return again. To this day, the declaration of war that Athens made on its northern neighbor remains in effect: Greece is formally at war with Albania.
After World War II, Kosova and other Albanian-inhabited areas were once again given to Yugoslavia. For most of the half-century history, Serb nationalists that held power in Yugoslavia sought to further a long-established project of exterminating the Albanian people. In Albania, a foreign-installed communist dictator ruled for over four decades, while the country plunged into poverty and backwardness.
It was not until 1991 for Albania and 1999 for Kosova that they achieved their freedom, for which the Albanian people fought during World War II and after. This time, they had the support of the Allies.
Today, Yugoslavia no longer exists, having been dissolved by the very peoples that once created it. In 2008, Kosova became an independent state and Albania joined NATO. Just this month, Kosova was invited as observer to the North Atlantic alliance, where free and democratic Italy is a member, too.
While King Zog died in France in 1961, the rest of the royal family returned home after decades in exile in 2002. Queen Geraldine, Queen Susan, and King Leka I passed away since then in Tirana.
Zog was finally given a state funeral and reburied in his homeland in November 2012, on the 100th anniversary of Albania’s independence. His grandson, Crown Prince Leka II, is a proponent of restoring the monarchy with popular support.
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