Italy Invades and Annexes Albania

Italy’s successful invasion of Albania in 1939 emboldened dictator Benito Mussolini and brought about an annexation of Albania that lasted for four years.

Summary of Event

The forces of the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini attacked Albania, which had been a close ally, on April 7, 1939, and easily added that country to Italy’s growing empire. Albanian resistance gradually grew, however, and by 1943, when Italy left the war and Nazi troops showed up to hold Albania, three main resistance forces and the Yugoslav Partisans were all vying for control. The Italian invasion created the power vacuum that ultimately allowed the communist forces of the brutal Enver Hoxha to come to power in Albania. [kw]Italy Invades and Annexes Albania (Apr. 7, 1939)
[kw]Invades and Annexes Albania, Italy (Apr. 7, 1939)
[kw]Annexes Albania, Italy Invades and (Apr. 7, 1939)
[kw]Albania, Italy Invades and Annexes (Apr. 7, 1939)
Italy;annexation of Albania
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period
[g]Albania;Apr. 7, 1939: Italy Invades and Annexes Albania[09990]
[g]Balkans;Apr. 7, 1939: Italy Invades and Annexes Albania[09990]
[g]Italy;Apr. 7, 1939: Italy Invades and Annexes Albania[09990]
[c]Military history;Apr. 7, 1939: Italy Invades and Annexes Albania[09990]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Apr. 7, 1939: Italy Invades and Annexes Albania[09990]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Apr. 7, 1939: Italy Invades and Annexes Albania[09990]
Zog I
Mussolini, Benito
[p]Mussolini, Benito;Italian annexation of Albania
Hoxha, Enver
Ciano, Galeazzo

For more than a decade in interwar Europe, the young state of Albania had increasingly fallen under Italian influence. In 1924, when Zog I came to power for the second time, he did so with the backing of the Yugoslav government. When Zog had himself crowned king in 1928, relations with Yugoslavia rapidly soured. He courted Italian economic and military aid, especially after a spy scandal with the Yugoslavs. The poor relations between Belgrade and Rome left Yugoslavia suspicious that Albania would become Mussolini’s minion. Furthermore, in the face of Serbia’s blatant anti-Albanian measures in Kosovo, Zog took the title “king of the Albanians,” not simply “king of Albania.” This name promised future conflict over Kosovo.

Italy’s grab for Albania was conditioned by two trends. First was the well-known fascist desire to turn the Mediterranean into an “Italian sea,” a concept that invoked the grandeur of the Roman Empire. This impulse gave rise not only to the desire to conquer Albania, but also to engage in massive, and often brutal, adventurism in Libya, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Greece. Less well known but equally important to Italy’s immediate geopolitical strategy was mistrust of Hitler and the Nazis and the desire to expand Italian influence at a rate proportionate to that of the Third Reich. In the aggressive style of the day—which was not unique to fascism but was rooted in older, elitist practices of the major world powers—the Italians craved compensation for recent Nazi successes in taking over Austria and Czechoslovakia. Albania was to suffer the consequences for this rivalry between Rome and Berlin.

Over a week before the invasion, the Italians had presented King Zog with a capitulation agreement, which he delayed signing. Then, early in the morning of April 7, 1939, Italian forces landed at four cities on the Albanian coast. On paper, this major amphibious assault was a riotous success. It involved about twenty-two thousand soldiers, four hundred airplanes, three hundred tanks, and a large number of warships. The day before, as King Zog had appealed for succor to other countries, the Italians had evacuated their civilians and dropped leaflets by air into the Albanian capital, Tirana, explaining that they only intended to restore order and justice.

According to historian Bernd Fischer, the Albanian defense forces, which consisted of around four thousand effective soldiers and three thousand British-trained gendarmes, offered almost no resistance, but if they had, the poorly trained Italian forces, with their disorganized tactics and shoddy equipment, would probably have met with an embarrassing defeat. The Italians landed at Durrës, Vlorë, Shëngjin, and Sarandë. King Zog headed for exile in Greece with his wife, Queen Geraldine (née Apponyi) and two-day-old son, Leka, that same day. At midmorning the next day, Italian trooops were already in Tirana. Only at the coastal city of Durrës did the Italians meet significant resistance. Estimates of casualties are sketchy, but several hundred people probably died on each side during the takeover.

Although Italian control never really extended beyond the coast and the cities, Albania and Italy were united in a “personal union” headed by King Victor Emmanuel III in Rome. This amounted to an annexation: Albanians technically became Italian citizens, the populous and hotly disputed Kosovo region was attached to Albania, and a free trade zone made Albania’s economic situation somewhat better. Nonetheless, Albanians bristled at their loss of sovereignty and realized that their local government was nothing but a pawn of Mussolini. Galeazzo Ciano rewrote the Albanian constitution in 1939 and abolished Tirana’s foreign ministry, and Italy tried to cement its control further by founding a local Fascist Party, Italianizing the educational system, and absorbing Albania’s security forces into Italy’s.

The war heightened tensions between the Gegs of northern Albania and the southern Tosks, the country’s main two linguistic and cultural groups. Most of King Zog’s support had come from the north, and a monarchist resistance group called Legaliteti was formed by Abaz Kupi, hero of the defense of Durrës. A separate resistance movement known as the Balli Kombëtar also emerged with a strong nationalist platform. Both groups came into conflict with the Communist-dominated Partisan movement. This latter group, which was officially known as the National Liberation Front, was greatly influenced by the Yugoslav Communists and would ultimately triumph by mobilizing as many as seventy thousand men and women as fighters, especially in the Tosk areas. These sectional rivalries and disputes over Yugoslav influence and Kosovo continued to manifest themselves after the war.


With the Italian invasion of 1939, Albania was dragged into World War II. For Italy, the glory of adding another Mediterranean colony was soon overshadowed by the rash move that followed: the failed invasion of Greece in late 1940, which largely proceeded from bases in Albania and showed that the Italian military had not fixed its fatal flaws. World War II brought many changes. As the famous Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare said in testimony before the U.S. Congress in 1991, the war was ultimately responsible for bringing the long-lived Stalinist dictatorship to Albania, since Hoxha’s rule emerged from the mobilization and military success of the antifascist forces of national liberation. The fact that King Zog fled ignominiously into exile undercut his efforts to create a legitimate government in exile; this in turn aided the Communists in their eventual rise to power.

The destruction wrought by the war itself was light when compared to some European states such as Poland, Russia, and Yugoslavia. Approximately thirty thousand Albanians died, but the extensive losses of livestock, transportation infrastructure, and housing made postwar recovery difficult for Europe’s poorest state. The invasion of southern Albania by the Greek army at the end of the war added to existing resentments over border demarcation and minority rights on both sides of the frontier.

At first, the war induced cooperation between Yugoslav and Albanian Communists, and the former provided the latter with organizational and military support. Ultimately, however, the war’s legacy heightened the rivalry between the two states over the Kosovo region. The area was returned to Yugoslavia after the war, which for most Albanians meant that more than a million of their conationals were returned to Serbian domination. The Kosovar Albanians responded with a major rebellion against Yugoslav rule that lasted from November, 1944, to May, 1945. The promises of Yugoslav leader Tito (Josip Broz) to return the region to Albania once Serbian nationalism had been diluted within the new socialist Yugoslavia came to naught, in part because of the Tito-Stalin split of 1948 that left Albania vehemently pro-Moscow and anti-Belgrade. As the 1999 conflict and continuing United Nations occupation of the province demonstrates, the future of Kosovo remained very contested.

The long, harsh decades of Hoxha’s communism in Albania ensured that postwar relations with Italy would be cold. Through the media and through contacts with the five-hundred-year-old Italo-Albanian, or Arbëresh, populations of Calabria and Sicily, Italy gradually reemerged as the most accessible land of plenty; thousands of Albanians emigrated there in the 1990’s. Italy became Albania’s leading trading partner and leading donor of aid, and the Italian government sent armed forces—which were welcomed by the Albanian government—to help restore stability after the economic and governmental crisis of 1997. Italy;annexation of Albania
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period

Further Reading

  • Ciano, Count Galeazzo. Diary, 1937-1943. New York: Enigma Books, 2002. One of the most important political diaries of the twentieth century, smuggled out of Italy by Ciano’s widow after his execution by the forces of Mussolini and Hitler.
  • Elsie, Robert. Historical Dictionary of Albania. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2004. Entries on all key figures in the eras of Zog and Hoxha.
  • Fischer, Bernd. Albania at War, 1939-1945. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1999. One of the most extensive works available in English on this period, based on excellent archival sleuthing and interviews.
  • Kadare, Ismail. The General of the Dead Army. New York: New Amsterdam, 1991. Path-breaking novel by one of Europe’s greatest writers, recalling the resistance struggle and commenting on postwar Albanian-Italian relations.
  • Tomes, Jason. King Zog of Albania: Europe’s Self-Made Muslim Monarch. New York: New York University Press, 2004. Detailed study of the regime that came to depend very heavily on Mussolini even before the invasion of 1939.
  • Vickers, Miranda. The Albanians: A Modern History. London: I. B. Tauris, 1995. A balanced and erudite study that emphasizes both what is unique about Albania and how the country fits into the European context.

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