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Founding a Balkan state : Albania's experiment with democracy, 1920-1925

by Robert C Austin

  Book

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Albania's Struggles in the post-WWI period   (2014-02-12)

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by jtallon

This volume, a reworking of Robert Austin’s dissertation, is a welcome addition to the growing literature in English on the history of Albania. This work in particular deals with a neglected moment in the historiography of Albania, the “democratic” moment of June-December of 1924. The author contextualizes this “revolution”, frequently referred to as the June Revolution or the Democratic Revolution, of Theofan (Fan) Noli and his subsequent struggle to bring stability and legitimation to his seizure of power. Moreover, Austin provides the precursors to the events of June of 1924 as well as regional and international reaction after the events in question.

In part, this work tells the story of the struggle between Ahmed Zogu and Theofan Noli and their competing visions of what Albania should be. While the work focuses on Noli it does develop a picture of Zogu as well. In many ways, the first two chapters describe the interaction between the Zogu and Noli factions before the “revolution.” Even after Noli’s seizure of power, Zogu frequently appears as a challenge to his legitimacy.

Aside from simply developing a concrete narrative of events, Austin problematizes the idea of Fan Noli’s seizure of power as a true revolution. Instead, he categorizes it as a coup d’état and fleshes out the reasons for this assertion. Along with this, the author illuminates the internal politics of 1920’s Albania very effectively. Moreover, this work illustrates that what Albania was to become and how it would be governed was an ongoing process long after the declaration of independence and the end of the First World War.

After the antecedents of the “revolution” and Noli’s seizure of power are laid out, the struggle for international recognition and the unwillingness of Noli to call fresh elections are carefully described.  In the subsequent chapters, Austin describes Noli’s faith in the League of Nations and the British to maintain his hold on power and the struggle with Greece and Yugoslavia on border modifications. Latter, attempts to get recognition from the United States, Italy, and finally the Soviet Union are discussed in detail.

Along with the narrative and analysis of Noli’s regime and its relations with Albania and the region, this work also offers engaging subtexts. The scramble for oil concessions by the British and Americans as well as the negotiations on the part of the Noli regime with the Soviet Union offers an interesting backdrop to Noli’s drive for international recognition. 

As a final point, Austin illustrates the collapse of the “democratic experiment”. After Noli alienated Albanian and foreign allies, Zogu, Noli’s erstwhile adversary, returned in force with Albanian and Yugoslav assistance and an army of White Russian freebooters. Thus, the June Revolution was destroyed by the forces of reaction, i.e. Zogu and Muslim landowners, and foreign intervention, but also by Noli’s own intransigence, ineptitude, and lack of political acumen as well as the indifference of Noli’s Western “allies.”

A great strength of this work is that it offers a corrective to much of the Albanian nationalist literature on this topic from the communist and post-communist eras. Austin engages and references this literature directly and effectively proposes counter narratives. Several pre-existing assumptions are challenged and in some cases bluntly refuted. In order to buttress these arguments and the narrative, an impressive amount of sources were consulted. The National Archive of Albania in Tirana (A.Q.SH) and a significant amount of printed material from the League of Nations, the British Foreign Office, and the U.S. State Department as well as the personal papers of many contemporary Albanian politicians are utilized. Effective use is also made of periodical literature from the period

One critique of the work is that it provides only one map, which is rather small and doesn’t provide much detail. The author makes frequent reference to various cities within Albania as well as within the region. The specialist has a good sense of where the places are, but the general reader and the non-specialists may be confused.

Nonetheless, the strengths of this book are substantial. Austin advances a number of lively and compelling arguments about the nature of the “revolution” of 1924 and gives shape to the personality of Fan Noli. In addition, the political climate of 1920’s Albania is fleshed out in excellent detail. This work contributes significantly to the historiography of Albanian history in English, but it also succinctly sheds light on the history of the Balkans in the 1920’s as well as the impact of the League of Nations within Europe in the same period. 




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