Early Military History
Albania's military heritage antedating World War II is highlighted by the exploits of its fifteenth-century national hero known as Skanderbeg, who gained a brief period of independence for the country during his opposition to the Ottoman Empire (see Glossary). In the seventeenth century, many ethnic Albanians, most notably members of the Köprülü family, served with great distinction in the Ottoman army and administration (see ch. 1, Albanians under Ottoman Rule). National feelings, aroused late in the nineteenth century, became more intense during the early twentieth century, and fairly sizable armed groups of Albanians rebelled against their Ottoman rulers. However, Albania achieved national independence in 1912 as a result of agreement among the Great Powers of Europe rather than through a major military victory or armed struggle.
Hardy Albanian mountaineers have had a reputation as excellent fighters for nearly 2,000 years. Nevertheless, they rarely fought in an organized manner for an objective beyond the defense of tribal areas against incursions by marauding neighbors. Occasions were few when Albanians rose up against occupying foreign powers. Conquerors generally left the people alone in their isolated mountain homelands, and, because a feudal tribal society persisted, little, if any, sense of national unity or loyalty to an Albanian nation developed.
The Romans recruited some of their best soldiers from the regions that later became Albania. The territory of modern Albania was part of the Byzantine Empire, and the Bulgars, Venetians, and Serbs took turns contesting their control of Albania between the tenth and the fourteenth centuries. As the power of the Byzantine Empire waned, the forerunners of modern Albania joined forces with the Serbs and other Balkan peoples to prevent the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire into southeastern Europe. The Ottoman victory over their combined forces at Kosovo Polje in 1389, however, ushered in an era of Ottoman control over the Balkans.
The Albanian hero Skanderbeg, born Gjergj Kastrioti and renamed Skanderbeg after Alexander the Great, was one of the janissaries (see Glossary) who became famous fighting for the Ottoman Turks in Serbia and Hungary. He was almost exclusively responsible for the one period of Albanian independence before 1912. Although it endured for twenty-four years, this brief period of independence ended about a decade after his death in 1468. In 1443 Skanderbeg rebelled against his erstwhile masters and established Albania's independence with the assistance of the Italian city-state of Venice. He repulsed several Ottoman attempts to reconquer Albania until his death. The Ottoman Turks soon recaptured most of Albania, seized the Venetian coastal ports in Albania, and even crossed the Italian Alps and raided Venice. The Ottomans retook the last Venetian garrison in Albania at Shkodër in 1479, but the Venetians continued to dispute Ottoman control of Albania and its contiguous waters for at least the next four centuries. Albanian soldiers continued to serve in the military forces of the Ottoman Empire around the Mediterranean into the nineteenth century.
In spite of their almost unbelievable isolation the Albanian shepherds and peasants were animated by a strong love for their in Albania, mountain home. In fact their country, together with the family and clan, largely filled their lives. So strong was the patriotic sentiment among them that it was impaired neither by the absence of political unity nor by the presence of ecclesiastical division. These religious differences were not the least curious feature in a highly idiomatic situation. Originally wholly Christian, though the north Albanians belonged to the Catholic and the south Albanians to the Orthodox fold, so many tribes, both north and south, had gradually gone over to Islam that by the time the nineteenth century made its appearance a considerable majority of the nation professed adherence to the Koran. Travelers, however, never failed to notice that the Albanian Moslems were no fanatics and that, Albanians first and Moslems afterwards, they vied with their Christian fellow-countrymen of both the Greek and Latin rite in devotion to the rugged country of their birth.
Wild, untamed, and not averse to a life of brigandage, the Albanians were excellent fighters of the guerrilla type and proved themselves in all personal relations to be singularly honest and reliable. No greater disgrace could befall a tribesman than to be guilty of breaking his word. Learning, on the other hand, enjoyed no following, and not only were the people universally illiterate, but they were without schools and books and did not till the end of the nineteenth century develop that prerequisite of even the simplest mental culture, an alphabet and a written language. Secluded and self-secure as the clans long were in their inaccessible mountains, nineteenth century Europe began to pound at their doors, informing them in no uncertain voice that they were no longer to be permitted to live unto themselves alone.
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