Today in European history: the Albanian Revolt of 1912 ends

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Albania finally declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire on November 28, 1912, during 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 (and I’m including Kosovars here) were one of the two Balkan peoples, 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. Interestingly, the idea of conversion also 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 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 subjects (except those boys who were enslaved under the devshirme system) 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. However, the development of proselytizing Sufi orders like the Bektashis meant that there were Muslim missionaries roaming the empire converting people without imperial sanction. There are a handful of relatively minor 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 the Albanian shift to Islam.

That many of them converted to Islam did not make the Albanians model Ottoman subjects. Albanian militants revolted several times in the early 1800s over resistance to imperial centralizing reforms and the imposition of new taxes. The frequency of those revolts may have played a role in some of that forced conversion I noted above. But the 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. This may be another reason why the concept spread relatively late among the empire’s Albanian subjects. 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—as those places won their own independence. 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.

A group of Albanian intellectuals formed the League of Prizren (named for the city where they founded it, which is today in Kosovo) in 1878 to press the Ottomans on a number of issues, like bringing all Albanians in the empire under one province and then give that province substantial autonomy. When Ottoman officials began to implement provisions of the Treaty of Berlin that parceled out pieces of predominantly Albanian territory, the League led an armed resistance to those actions. Consequently, imperial officials forced it to disband in 1881, but still the idea of independence doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction among Albanian leaders.

In the early 1900s, some 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 once in power it became clear that, while the Young Turks were happy for the assistance, they were not interested in any reforms that would increase provincial autonomy. Moreover, their emphasis on Islam as the official imperial religion threatened to splinter the Albanian community’s still-large Christian minority from its Muslim majority.

Albanians resisted the Young Turks’ centralizing efforts. This resistance eventually led to several 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 to lose them. 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 rebel leader named Hasan Prishtina, that included autonomy for the empire’s four largely Albanian provinces, the establishment of new Albanian-language schools in predominantly 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 as well and gave up control of Libya and the Dodecanese Islands, which 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 Commons)

The one-two punch of the revolt and the war with Italy made it pretty clear that the Ottoman Empire was struggling. 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 when it ended (in the middle of 1913) Albania was an independent nation. It also set the Balkans careening toward World War I, but that’s another story.