Today in European history: the Albanian Revolt of 1912 ends

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, in part because the element of religion was removed from the equation. Albanians (an I’m including Kosovars here) were one of the two Balkan populations, along with the Bosniaks, who converted to Islam in large numbers during the Ottoman period and stuck with it into the present day, though there were also substantial conversions that took place in Macedonia (where a third of the population is Muslim today) and parts of Bulgaria and Greece. This is actually kind of a misleading equivalence, since the Bosniaks represent a minority of Muslim converts within the larger South Slavic population, while a genuine majority of Albanians (who are not Slavic) converted. Interestingly, the conversion process came later to Albania than to other parts of the Balkans, so it was still peaking in the 19th century when other populations in the region had long since stopped converting (if they ever did in any significant numbers) and started agitating for national autonomy and independence.

There’s no one reason that explains why the Albanians and the Bosniaks converted in significant numbers. Or maybe it would be better to say that it’s easy to understand why they converted (prolonged exposure to Islam as the dominant faith in society, successful proselytizing over time, erosion of faith in Christianity over time, a desire to improve socio-economic status and avoid extra taxes, etc.) but but harder to see why other Balkan peoples didn’t. The strength of the established churches in the region certainly played a role.

The Ottomans generally didn’t force conversions on their Christian populations (except those boys who were conscripted into slavery for the court) and allowed the Orthodox Church in particular to have pretty wide latitude in its conduct. In fact, they preferred local populations to remain Christian and pay those extra taxes I mentioned above, though the development of proselytizing Sufi orders like the Bektashis meant that there were Muslim missionaries converting Balkan peoples without imperial sanction. However, there are a handful of forced conversion incidents involving Albanians that you don’t see for, say, the Bosniaks. To be clear, though, forced conversion still doesn’t explain the vast majority of Albanian conversion.

This is not to say that Albanians were model Ottoman subjects; they revolted several times in the early 1800s over resistance to Ottoman centralizing reforms and the imposition of new taxes. The frequency of those revolts may have played a role in some of that forced conversion to which they were uniquely subjected. 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.

An Albanian League was formed to press the Ottomans to bring all Albanians 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 led armed resistance to the Ottomans’ actions. 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, and their emphasis on Islam as the official imperial religion threatened to splinter 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 an 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 Albanian soldiers 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).

Hasan Prishtina (d. 1933), an Albanian nationalist from Kosovo who drafted the rebels’ list of demands and later would serve (for all of five days) as Prime Minister of Albania (Wikimedia)

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.

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