"THE ALBANIAN PEOPLE have hacked their way through history, sword in hand," proclaims the preamble to Albania's 1976 Stalinist constitution. These words were penned by the most dominant figure in Albania's modern history, the Orwellian postwar despot, Enver Hoxha. The fact that Hoxha enshrined them in Albania's supreme law is indicative of how he--like his mentor, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin--exploited his people's collective memory to enhance the might of the communist system, which he manipulated for over four decades. Supported by a group of sycophantic intellectuals, Hoxha repeateded transformed friends into hated foes in his determination to shape events. Similarly, he rewrote Albania's history so national heroes were recast, sometimes overnight, as villains. Hoxha appealed to the Albanians' xenophobia and their defensive nationalism to parry criticism and threats to communist central control and his regime and justify its brutal, arbitrary rule and economic and social folly. Only Hoxha's death, the timely downfall of communism in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, and the collapse of the nation's economy were enough to break his spell and propel Albania fitfully toward change.
The Albanians are probably an ethnic outcropping of the Illyrians, an ancient Balkan people who intermingled and made war with the Greeks, Thracians, and Macedonians before succumbing to Roman rule around the time of Christ. Eastern and Western powers, secular and religious, battled for centuries after the fall of Rome to control the lands that constitute modern-day Albania. All the Illyrian tribes except the Albanians disappeared during the Dark Ages under the waves of migrating barbarians. A forbidding mountain homeland and resilient tribal society enabled the Albanians to survive into modern times with their identity their Indo-European language intact.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Ottoman Turks swept into the western Balkans. After a quixotic defense mounted by the Albanians' greatest hero, Skanderbeg, the Albanians succumbed to the Turkish sultan's forces. During five centuries of Ottoman rule, about two-thirds of the Albanian population, including its most powerful feudal landowners, converted to Islam. Many Albanians won fame and fortune as soldiers, administrators, and merchants in far-flung parts of the empire. As the centuries passed, however, Ottoman rulers lost the capacity to command the loyalty of local pashas, who governed districts on the empire's fringes. Soon pressures created by emerging national movements among the empire's farrago of peoples threatened to shatter the empire itself. The Ottoman rulers of the nineteenth century struggled in vain to shore up central authority, introducing reforms aimed at harnessing unruly pashas and checking the spread of nationalist ideas.
Albanian nationalism stirred for the first time in the late nineteenth century when it appeared that Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece would snatch up the Ottoman Empire's Albanian-populated lands. In 1878 Albanian leaders organized the Prizren League, which pressed for autonomy within the empire. After decades of unrest and the Ottoman Empire's defeat in the First Balkan War in 1912-13, Albanian leaders declared Albania an independent state, and Europe's Great Powers carved out an independent Albania after the Second Balkan War of 1913.
With the complete collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires after World War I, the Albanians looked to Italy for protection against predators. After 1925, however, Mussolini sought to dominate Albania. In 1928 Albania became a kingdom under Zog I, the conservative Muslim clan chief and former prime minister, but Zog failed to stave off Italian ascendancy in Albanian internal affairs. In 1939 Mussolini's troops occupied Albania, overthrew Zog, and annexed the country. Albanian communists and nationalists fought each other as well as the occupying Italian and German forces during World War II, and with Yugoslav and Allied assistance the communists triumphed.
After the war, communist strongmen Enver Hoxha and Mehmet Shehu eliminated their rivals inside the communist party and liquidated anticommunist opposition. Concentrating primarily on maintaining their grip on power, they reorganized the country's economy along strict Stalinist lines, turning first to Yugoslavia, then to the Soviet Union, and later to China for support. In pursuit of their goals, the communists repressed the Albanian people, subjecting them to isolation, propaganda, and brutal police measures. When China opened up to the West in the 1970s, Albania's rulers turned away from Beijing and implemented a policy of strict autarky, or self-sufficiency, that brought their nation economic ruin.
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