ALBANIA: Italy Still Views Albania Through a Colonial Lens
Fabio Bego * Tirana * BIRN * July 17, 2023 * 07:26
Italy once conquered Albania, claiming it was bringing civilisation to a barbarous people; judging from the language of its current diplomats, its mindset hasn’t changed.
Courtesy of BIRN [website: https://balkaninsight.com]
On the night of June 5, 1920, Albanian voluntary troops attacked Italian forces in Vlore and other areas in southern Albania that Italy had refused to relinquish to the Tirana government. After two months of fighting, under an agreement reached on August 2, 1920, Italy withdrew from the coastal town.
Italy’s ambitions toward Albanian-inhabited territories started in the late-19th century when the region belonged to the Ottoman Empire. They culminated with the occupation of Albania on April 7, 1939. Eighty years have passed since the end of Italy’s imperialist dreams in the Balkans, but their legacy still haunts Italian-Albanian relations.
A common trope of the Italian imperial imagination
In his 1872 book L’Epiro, the Italian diplomat Enrico de Gubernatis compared Albanian-inhabited territories to a dead man. According to de Gubernatis it was up to Italians to bring civilization to “these derelict lands”.
Italian interest in these territories increased in the late-1880s and early-1890s, when Francesco Crispi, an exponent of the Italian-Albanian (Arbëresh) community of Southern Italy, became prime minister. Italian journalists, scholars and priest who visited Albanian-inhabited territories described them as unexplored and primitive. Vincenzo Vannutelli, a Catholic priest, asserted that Albania was probably the most barbaric region in Europe; He was terrorised by “those savage faces with sinister eyes … heavily armed” (L’Albania, 1892). Antonio Baldacci, whose imperialist gaze paid special attention to natural resources, claimed that the virginity of Albania was being unveiled by the curious hand of the scientists. He described Kanine, in the surroundings of Vlore, as a “filthy” place and a “nest of thieves”.
Italians were especially drawn to the coastal town of Vlore, which was considered important for the control of the Adriatic. To legitimise their claims, colonial agents emphasized the historical legacy of the Roman Empire and Venetian Republic in the region. Baldacci was moved by the sight of the Italian flag waving on a ship in the harbour of Vlore because it made him think of the past, when Venice was respected by the Turks. Since Vlore was ruled by “wretched [pezzenti] employees” and “feudal administrators” who did not appreciate the civilisation that “we” brought through the centuries, the government of Rome should have taken direct action (Nell’Albania centrale: primo viaggio del 1892, in A. Baldacci, Itinerari Albanesi, 1917).
The Italian politician Antonino di San Giuliano who visited “Albania” at the beginning of the 20th century considered the country a continuity of Italian territories. Only a few kilometers separated Brindisi from Vlore and the extremity of the Via Appia in Italy was the beginning of the Via Egnatia in Albania (Lettere sull’Albania, 1903). He suggested that Italian peasants could colonise the region of Vlore to increase Rome’s influence. Italian imperialist accounts described Albanians as naturally inclined to be assimilated by their neighbours. San Giuliano was pervaded by patriotic feelings when he heard Albanian kindergarten children sing in Italian “Long live Italy and long live the King!”
At the turn of the 20th century, Albania had become a common trope of the Italian imperial imagination. An 1899 tourist guide published by Giuseppe Marcotti, L’Adriatico orientale da Venezia a Corfù, said the Italian language was the only foreign idiom known by Albanians. The acquisition of Vlore was also considered useful to expand Italian influence in the Ottoman Balkans. The Italian military figure Eugenio Barbarich affirmed that Italy needed to enhance communications between Albania and the “Levantine seas” to regain part of the hegemony that Venice had once enjoyed in the region (Albania, 1905). Italy became an advocate for the construction of railways that would link the Albanian coast to the Balkan hinterlands and the Aegean Sea.
Albanians were often considered to be part of the “white” race (Arturo Galanti, Albania: notizia geografiche, etnografiche e storiche, 1901). This feature virtually put them in a privileged position vis-à-vis other colonised peoples. However, it did not alter their inferior status vis-à-vis Italians since they allegedly lived according to tribal customs which made them comparable to societies of the early middle ages or African colonies. The journalist Vico Mantegazza, in L’Albania, 1912, affirmed that Albanians were lazy and that this was a common feature in Muslim countries. After the recognition of Albania’s independence in 1913, Eugenio Vaina (Albania che nasce, 1914) affirmed that Italy should take charge of the new country’s modernization. He suggested that the Albanian-Italian Arbëresh community colonise the country. According to Vaina, the emigration of 200,000 inhabitants would have had a minor impact in Italy but very positive outcomes for Albania.
Italy occupied Vlore in December 1914. The secret London Treaty of April 1915 predisposed the repartition of Albanian territories between Italy, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro. However, the constitution the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes at the end of World War I altered the strategical situation of the Balkans and at the Paris Peace Conference, the Great Powers were not disposed to support all Italian claims in the Adriatic region. Grassroots opposition to the Italian presence in Vlore also led Rome to withdraw its troops from the city. In the early 1920s, Albanians regained their independence, but Italy’s ambitions in the neighbouring state gained further momentum with Mussolini coming into power.
Thanks to the accommodating policy of President Ahmet Zogolli, later King Zog, Mussolini’s fascist government obtained control of key Albanian assets with the Society for the Economic Development of Albania SVEA and the Albanian Bank that were founded in 1925. Albania became a “semi-colony” and was eventually swallowed by its neighbour in April 1939. The first Italian colonists arrived in Albania in the early 1930s, after the foundation of the Italian Agency of Agriculture in Albania (EIAA) in 1926. With the annexation of 1939, over 100,000 Italian troops and over 30,000 civilians moved to Albania.
In order to give the impression that Albania was still independent, the annexation was presented as a “voluntary union” or, in a more fascist tone, as a “union of destinies”. According to fascist propagandists the union “showed the accordance of interests and sentiments of both peoples”. (Gaspare Ambrosini L’Albania Nella Comunità Imperiale di Roma, 1940) Other Italians looked at the event from a less apologetic perspective. According to Pio Biondoli (Albania Quinta Sponda d’Italia, 1939), the union had become necessary because history had proven that Albania could not reach the level of European civilization by itself. He also justified the annexation on account of Italian World War I victims.
Michele Craveri (L’Albania e le se sue genti, 1939), underlined Albanian indebtedness toward Italy by mentioning the works that the government of Rome had carried out in the country with the contribution of Italian taxpayers. Fascist propaganda described Italians as a generous people who had helped Albanians improve their miserable living conditions and defend themselves from aggressive neighbours and kleptomaniac local aristocracies. Despite the propagandistic slogans, Albanians occupied a subaltern position vis-à-vis Italians and became targets of racist and ethnic discrimination. A person who was deported with other Albanians to Italy in 1942, remembers being called “Albanian Bedouins” by fascists in Bari.
Italian colonial agents spread the idea that Albanians were primitive and naturally inclined to crime in order to justify their own enterprise of thievery. By occupying Albania, Italy had full control on the country’s natural resources such as oil, bitumen, and chrome, which it needed to aliment its war machine (Albania fascista, 1940). Albania was considered the first step for further enlargement in the Balkans. To achieve this goal, Italy attacked Greece from Albanian-occupied territories in October 1940. The campaign was a disaster and marked the beginning of the end of Italian imperialism in the region. Anti-Italian sentiments boosted sympathy for the Albanian Communist Party which was founded in November 1941. Many young women and men contested Italian rule with both peaceful and violent means. With their actions, they contributed to the failure of the Italian imperialist project in Albania, which officially ended after the armistice of September 8, 1943.
Albania still seen as an ‘Italian region’
Over half-a-century of Italian colonial politics in Albania cost thousands of lives, impoverished the country, paved the way for domestic autocrats and dictators, and had long-term consequences for the way in which Albanians are perceived abroad. While many Western European countries have formally started to reconsider the long-term legacy of colonialism, Italy refuses to deal with its past. Colonial ideology continues to shape the worldviews of Italian citizens and state officials.
The terms and logic used by Italy’s Ambassador in Tirana Fabrizio Bucci are an example of the resurgence of colonial discourse. His statements are strikingly similar to those of Italian liberal and fascist imperialist agents. In an interview with Trieste’s newspaper Il Piccolo, Bucci stated that “Albania truly is an ‘Italian region’ where everyone loves our country and speaks our language”. More recently he praised Italy’s “dominance” in Albanian foreign trade saying that the Albanian economy is “strongly integrated to the Italian economy”. Speaking of Italy’s role in EU accession talks, he affirmed that Rome supports this objective because “substantially Albania is a region of Italy …”
In another interview, Bucci stated that “Albania is for me the 21st region of Italy. And when it will be part of the European Union it will be a bridgehead (testa di ponte) for Italy towards the Western Balkans. That is, a market with over 30 million inhabitants.” The ambassador sees the financial assets that the Commission is giving for the accession of the Western Balkans in the EU as a way for Italy to increase its own influence in the region. Having a base in Albania would give Italy the opportunity to export in all the Western Balkan states. In an imperialistic fashion, the Italian Ambassador traces the connection between Albania and Italy back to the Roman Empire. Bucci also claims that Italy has fed/saved Albanians from hunger (sfamato) in the early 1990s.
Imperialist language passes without criticism
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left), EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, EU envoy for Serbia-Kosovo dialogue Miroslav Lajcak and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti (right) at the meeting in Brussels, Belgium, February 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ
The paternalistic and pompous tone that Bucci uses to describe Italian activities in Albania mirrors the 19th and 20th-century colonial narratives that portrayed the country as an extension of Italian territory and a first step for Italy’s expansion in the East. Bucci tries to normalise the idea that Albania is “an Italian region”, without considering the suffering that Italian endeavours to annex the neighbouring state have brought on many generations. As an Albanian-Italian citizen, I find his declarations dangerous because they give the impression that Albania falls into Italy’s area of influence.
Bucci’s statements should have generated criticism from the Albanian or Italian press or politicians. However, apart from private conversations with friends, I have so far not come across any adverse reaction to his words. In Italy, colonial conceptions are seldom problematized. The current right-wing government shares Bucci’s old school imperialist vision. Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, for instance, promotes an expansionist trope in Italy’s involvement in the Western Balkans. A curious series of videos has recently been published on YouTube by Confindustria Albania to promote historical knowledge of the country and draw more Italian investors in Albania.
Since Bucci presents the EU accession as a Trojan horse for Italian interests, the EU should have addressed the declarations of the Ambassador. But the EU is itself in a conflict of interest with de-colonising politics. The “Europeanization” of Balkan countries, was one of the professed objectives of 19th and 20th-century imperialist politics. The EU has inherited this burden and often reproduces the colonial dynamics that have historically characterised the relations between Western Europe and the Balkans.
Colonial ideology has generated several contradictory effects on Albanian nation-building. Myths of whiteness, have instilled pride which tends to emerge especially in the way Albanians try to position towards Balkan neighbours and other (post)colonial subjects. On the other hand, it has created a sense of shame toward Western Europeans and their North American descendants who according to the colonial civilization gauge will always be stronger, smarter and whiter than Albanians. This could be a reason why Albanian politicians passively accept the subaltern position in which Bucci relegates their country in his imaginary map of Italy.
Fabio Bego is a scholar and researcher of nationalism and the far right.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.
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