Benito Mussolini, the son of a socialist blacksmith and a devoutly Catholic schoolteacher, born in 1883 in a small town in northern Italy, is inscribed in history as an opera buff archvillain shot dead and hung with his mistress upside-down from the roof of an Esso station in Milan in 1945.
Along the way, he did many cruel and unusual things, such as helping to invent fascism, having Ethiopians and Libyans killed to make room for Italian colonists and, in 1939, ordering an invasion of Albania, which had proclaimed its independence just 27 years before, and established the kingdom of Zog I, 11 years earlier; because Mussolini wanted Albania’s seaports and a base for his Balkan military operations.
On March 25, 1939, Rome gave Tirana an ultimatum across the Adriatic Sea: Consent to its occupation by Italy or be invaded. On April 6, Italian warplanes flew over Albania and dropped leaflets telling Albanians to submit. Albanians, infuriated, demanded arms to defend themselves and cried they were being sold out.
On April 7, 81 years ago, Italy attacked and occupied Albania. By the end of the first day, Zog fled to Greece. In five days, it was over. Puppets gave the crown of Albania to Italian King Victor Emmanuel III.
Albania followed Italy into war against France and Britain like a sidecar in 1940. Italy faced sporadic internal resistance from Albanian Communists, and then, after Italy’s virtual surrender to the Allies in 1943, Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha came to power, leading a Soviet satellite state until 1953 and Albania until his death in 1985. In 1984, his government published a 40-year anniversary commemoration of Albanian Communism’s illusory achievements, including having raised literacy to 98% and eliminating epidemics. Left unmentioned were the forced labor camps, the secret police and the murders of dissidents.
Albania, always poor, transitioned to capitalism in the early 1990s, which was followed by widespread corruption, protests and garden-variety anarchy. In 1997, Italy led a UN peacekeeping force that helped steer Albania onto a more stable footing. In 2009, Albania became a NATO member. It has been rebuilding under the stewardship of its Socialist Party since 2013. Late in 2019, after a devastating earthquake, Italy, among other countries, came to Albania’s aid, sending trained volunteers and search and rescue teams.
On March 28, Albania flew a team of doctors and nurses to Italy to help it deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ravaged Italy (it has spread to Albania but not yet stretched its resources as Italy’s have been). This came after Italy appealed to its fellow European Union members for help with the virus and got virtually no response.
A team of 30 medical workers from Albania – which is an EU candidate country – volunteered for the mission to the area of Bergamo, which had been hardest hit by the disease. Representatives of the Albanian government in Tirana said its contribution was meager but it could not pass up a chance to repay Italy, which it called “our precious neighbor.” Reading that nearly brought a tear to our eye.
There are good people in the world acting from pure motives, unencumbered even by history and all the grievances that could accumulate from the 20th century. We wish we could tell you the 21st will be a better one, for friendship, for Europe and the world, but that would be premature. Still, it is a fine time to be able to hail Albania, which feels so very good for a change, and to recognize the ways we can be bound together even as this horrible disease drives us apart.