Today in European history: the Albanian Revolt of 1912 ends

I want to be clear that today is not Albanian Independence Day. That’s November 28, 1912, when Albania formally declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire as part of the First Balkan War. But the outcome of the ~8 month long 1912 Albanian Revolt, which ended on September 4, 1912, with the Ottomans acceding to almost all of the the rebels’ demands, was the immediate cause of that First Balkan War and, thus, I suppose, of Albanian independence.

Nationalism came to the Albanians of the Ottoman Empire later than it did to other Ottoman subject peoples like the Greeks, Bulgarians, and Serbians. This may be partly due to the fact that Albanians converted to Islam in larger numbers than pretty much any other Balkan people. This is not to say that Albanians were model Ottoman subjects. They revolted several times, most famously in Skanderbeg’s 1443-1468 rebellion, and the frequency of revolts picked up in the early 1800s over resistance to Ottoman centralizing reforms and the imposition of new taxes. But the whole nationalism phenomenon kind of missed the Albanians until the 1870s, when an Albanian consciousness did finally begin to take hold.

Unlike, say, Greek or Serbian nationalism, which developed in emulation of nationalist movements elsewhere in Europe and in opposition to continued Ottoman rule, Albanian nationalism was probably more reactive than proactive. With Ottoman power obviously on the wane, Albanians began to fear that the provinces of the empire with large Albanian populations would be broken up among Greece and the strongest Balkan nations–Serbia, Bulgaria, and Montenegro. The 1878 Treaty of San Stefano (ending the 1877-1878 war between Russia and the Ottomans) did precisely that, in fact, and it was only because Great Britain and Serbia objected to the size of the Russian and Bulgarian (respectively) gains in that treaty that it was scrapped and done over as the Treaty of Berlin. Under the revised terms of the treaty, Albania remained mostly intact (at least, more than it had under the terms of San Stefano) and part of the Ottoman Empire, for the time being. But the fact that their homeland had come so close to being partitioned must have been kind of a wake-up call for the Albanian people.

Leading figures in the community formed an Albanian League to press the Ottomans to bring all Albanians in the empire under one province, and then give that province substantial autonomy. For a while the Ottomans actually used this movement (fairly cynically, it seems to me) to resist (with mixed results) Great Power efforts to chip away the empire’s Balkan territories. When the Ottomans were forced to implement terms of the Berlin treaty that gave some Albanian territory to other Balkan nations, though, the League resisted, violently. Consequently, imperial officials forced the League to disband in 1881. Fast-forward to the early 1900s, when Albanian politicians supported the so-called “Young Turks” movement, whose goal was the establishment of constitutional governance in the empire at the expense of arbitrary imperial authority. But while the Young Turks were happy for the assistance, they were not interested in any reforms that would increase provincial autonomy at the expense of the central government, and their emphasis on Islam as the official imperial religion threatened to divide the Albanian community’s large Christian minority from its Muslim majority.

Albanians resisted the Young Turks’ centralizing efforts just as they’d repeatedly resisted centralizing movements in the previous century. This resistance eventually led to open revolts–in 1910, 1911, and finally in January 1912. The first two revolts were suppressed, but when the 1912 revolt broke out there was an added wrinkle: the Ottomans were already at war with Italy at the time, over control of Libya and the Dodecanese Islands in the eastern Aegean. Albanian soldiers began deserting the Ottoman army to join the revolt, at a time when the empire couldn’t really afford any military disruption. It became impossible for the Ottomans to sustain both of these conflicts, and so on September 4 they agreed to a list of rebel demands, written by a Kosovar Albanian member of the Ottoman parliament and leader of the revolt named Hasan Prishtina, that included autonomy for the empire’s four largely Albanian provinces, the establishment of new Albanian-language schools in Albanian areas, a requirement that imperial soldiers of Albanian descent need not serve outside Albanian regions except in time of war, and a general amnesty for the rebels.

Pacifying the Albanian rebels didn’t do much to help the war effort against Italy, and only about 6 weeks later, the Ottomans surrendered in that war and gave up control of Libya (and the Dodecanese Islands, really, which were supposed to go back to Ottoman control but never did and are now part of Greece). The fact that both the revolt and the war with Italy went so badly for the Ottomans showed the whole world just how weak the empire was. As a result, the Balkan League (Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria) declared their own war against the Ottomans even before the war with Italy had officially ended, ostensibly to protect Balkan minorities (including the Albanians) but mostly to grab territory.

This First Balkan War short-circuited plans for yet another Albanian revolt, but it ended (in the middle of 1913) with Albania as an independent nation anyway. Bulgaria’s huge gains in that war led, in turn, to the Second Balkan War (later in 1913), between a Serbia-Greece alliance on one side and Bulgaria on the other. That war ended with Serbia as the dominant power in the Balkans and feeling good enough about its own strength to pick a fight–or a rivalry, at any rate–with a genuine Great Power, Austria-Hungary. That rivalry led to yet another war, one I’m assuming you’ve heard about.

Hasan Prishtina spent much of the rest of his life advocating for Kosovo’s union with Albania. He opposed the formation of Yugoslavia after World War I and served as one of the Albanian representatives at the Paris Peace Conference, but as we all know very well his efforts in this regard went nowhere. He did serve as Albanian prime minister…for about six days in the immediate aftermath of a coup in 1921. He went into exile in Greece in 1924 and was murdered on orders of the Yugoslav government in 1933.

Hasan Prishtina (Wikimedia)

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