Last call. Italian troops reviewed before expedition to Albania.

It is worth to emphasize that Germany indirectly became a very significant factor, which stimulated the Italian decision to annex Albania. It was partly an answer to the entry of the hitlerite forces to Prague (15 March 1939) and occupation of the remaining, after the Munich conference, part of Czechoslovakia; on the other hand it was caused by the fear that Germany had similar plans towards Albania.

The report, which ambassador Bernardo Attolico sent to the minister Galeazzo Ciano, was not a phoney or an exaggerated worry. Indeed, in February 1939 in Berlin was discussed the idea of entering negotiations with Tirana concerning an oil agreement. Such an agreement would provide for supplies of Albanian oil to Germany, as well as consent to build there German refineries, which would be controlled by German capital and guarded by German troops. That that would be just the beginning of the German domination in Albania, it was very clear both in Berlin as well as in Rome. Ciano's conversation with Hans Georg von Mackensen on 11 February 1939 put an end to the German penetration of Albania. It never came to any Germano-Albanian talks concerning oil, and high-ranking officials from the German Foreign Office, first Ernst von Weizsäcker, and then minister Joachim Ribbentrop himself, in appropriate special notes had stated, that the III Reich fully recognized Italy's exclusive rights in Albania, and her domination in the Mediterranean region. The same position was reflected in Ribbentrop's special, extremely significant from the point of view of the Albanian question, instruction to the German diplomatic missions, which emphasized that in view of the axis Rome - Berlin in the political questions concerning the Mediterranean countries, and especially in the questions concerning nationalities and minorities in those countries, Italian opinions would decisively determine the German policy. On 5 April 1939 Berlin put the dot over "i" in the Albanian question: as the Albanian ambassador in Berlin inquired what would be the German position in case of an Italian troops' entry to his country, the answer was that the Third Reich had no own interests in the Adriatic. In this situation a German intervention against the Italians was out of question.

It is worth to mention that Ciano did not return the courtesy to his German colleague; after all he did not believe in the sincerity of the German intentions. In the secret messages wired to the Italian diplomatic missions he instructed them to disseminate discreetly, but anyhow the way that it would reach proper figures, the justification of the pending entry of the Italian troops to Albania as an Italian counter-measure against the German occupation of Czechoslovakia as well as closing the German way to the Balkans. This pseudo-anti-German accent in the decisions made by Benito Mussolini would appear not once again on many occasions through statements made by the Italian diplomats. Sir Anthony Robert Eden wrote in his memoirs of those events:

The Nazi entry into Prague on March 15th and the consequent Western disarray gave Mussolini the opportunity to practise some aggression on his own account. Ciano wrote in his diary a week later:

Chamberlain has sent a letter to the Duce. He expresses his concern over the international situation and asks the Duce's help in re-establishing mutual trust and ensuring the continuance of peace. Mussolini will answer after striking at Albania. This letter strengthens his decision to act because in it he finds another proof of the inertia of the democracies.

Mussolini chose Good Friday for his invasion of Albania, of which intention the British Government appear, surprisingly, to have had no advance warning from any source, for the Prime Minister was fishing in Scotland and the Fleet dispersed. The official reaction was a mild protest, while the Prime Minister lamented in a letter:

I am afraid that such faith as I ever had in the assurances of dictators is rapidly being whittled away.

Nevertheless, Lord Perth was instructed to hand in a memorandum of which Ciano wrote that it 'might have been composed in our own offices'. It was the nadir of the policy of appeasement.

Mussolini had not invaded Albania on its own account. His purpose was (...) to obtain a strategically dominating position in the area. In an attempt to counter the growing dangers, guarantees were now handed out by the French and British Governments to Greece and Roumania. [Eden A. (1965).]

As the Italian propaganda strove to convince the world's public opinion that the annexation of Albania by Italy was necessary in order to prevent swallowing her by someone else, it also did whatever was possible to portray the act of annexation as something desired by the Albanians themselves. At that time the Italians launched a flamboyant propaganda action in Albania through the sophisticated net of their organizations in that country, especially sport and cultural ones. Those activities had to demonstrate to the international public opinion, that there were actually numerous groups in the Albanian society, which welcomed fusion with Italy. Not without significance was the fact, that the Italians managed to hire a small but noisy group of followers in the subordinated country.

Yet contrary to Rome's hopes there were few people in Albania, apart from Giro's boys, who accepted as theirs the slogan that "it is better to be a part of a great empire than a little independent fly". Albanian voices for the fusion, or Anschluß as it was in fashion at that time, were not heard. Way more fuss about it was made in Rome where the media since some time tried to convince not only the world and the Albanians, but also the Italians, that there was nothing more proper and desirable than the incorporation of Albania to the duce's new Imperium Romanum being built. But even there, on the Italian ground, the question of incorporation of Albania sparked way less enthusiasm than the fascist cheerleaders expected. To the people, to whom the fascism was alien or just neutral, gradual entanglement of their country in the policy of permanent adventures and bullies was the path leading to a new war, and thus something bad and dangerous. Even to some duce's closest aides the question of Albania was not as simple and unequivocal as it might look at the first glance. They realised, that each aggressive step in the foreign policy (the conquest of Abyssinia, intervention in Spain, and finally the annexation of Albania) meant further drift towards the hitlerite Reich and its Führer to whom nobody sincerely trusted in Rome. It is worth to mention that to many Italian politicians the fact that the German troops entered Czechoslovakia was a reason to question the sincerity of Adolf Hitler's partnership. Of course, to Mussolini and his black-clad praetorians the issue was not - as it was naïvely perceived in London and Paris - that Hitler violated the agreement made in Munich, but that he did not please to inform his allies accordingly. This is mentioned in the work of a respectable Soviet historian Georgiy Filatov in his book The Fall of the Italian Fascism:

Events, which worried Mussolini and his environment, emerged from quite an unexpected side. On 13 March Ciano wrote in his diaries yet, that on that day nothing remarkable had happened, and that the Duce did not attach much importance to the developments in Slovakia. Yet soon the tone of Ciano's notes changed diametrically: to the Italian leadership the occupation of Bohemia and Prague was like a thunder from the sky. Mussolini was appalled by the lack of sincerity on the part of Hitler, who so recently assured everybody that he did not want "to annex one single Czech" to Germany. Mussolini thought about himself a co-constructor of the Munich system, which Hitler was now altering on his own. A particular Mussolini's berserk was caused by the fact that Hitler not only did not consult his on this matter, but even did not condescend to inform him. [Филатов Г. С. (1973).]

Prince Philip, an officer of the German army, son-in-law of the Italian king, and Hitler's envoy to Mussolini, as usually in such cases, had limited himself to a verbal message about the events to take place. His explanations were prepared in such a way, that Ciano noted in his diaries: Such pretexts may be good for Goebbels' propaganda, but they should not use them when talking to us. Mussolini felt so humiliated, that he forbade to inform the press about the way Hitler informed him about his decisions: The Italians will laugh, as every time Hitler conquers a country, he sends me a message. [Ciano G. (2001).]

In spite of Mussolini's outrage, the official note presented to Hitler was laconic. Attolico, the Italian ambassador in Berlin, expressed it in a conversation with the deputy foreign minister Weizsäcker. Although the Germans had assigned only the Mediterranean to Italy, he said, the adjoining states and the the Danube basin also were part of this area. The Germans, however, were moving much too quickly in this sector and it might be advisable for an eminent Italian economist, such as Guarneri, to come to Berlin to define Italo-German interests. Weizsäcker, who made a report of that conversation, wrote in his comments that Attolico had described his government as "deluded and discontented", and that in the interest of future collaboration, it would therefore be absolutely necessary to share the spoils with them. [Toscano M. (1968).]

The occupation of Czechoslovakia also shook the balance inside the "Axis". One needed to undertake counter-measures to live up to the situation. According to Ciano, the occupation of Albania could become such a measure: I am convinced that our going into Albania would have raised the morale of the country, would have been an effective result of the Axis, after which we could have re-examined our policy with regard to Germany, whose hegemony begins to take on a disturbing form. [Ciano G. (2001).]

Mussolini raised the concept of the "integral solution" of the Albanian question for the first time already when Hitler put the end to Austria's independence. In autumn 1938 Mussolini, among his closest aides, pointed at Albania as one of the most important objects of the "fascist dynamism". Towards the end of January 1939 this "dynamism" shaped very clearly: Ciano paid a visit to Yugoslavia to obtain consent for an action against Albania. (...)

The occupation of Czechoslovakia became without doubts an impulse to decide about the fate of Albania. When the news about the progress of the German troops reached Rome, Ciano renewed attempts to influence Mussolini to undertake bolder action. He expressed his conviction that at this time we shall find neither local obstacles nor serious international complications in the way of our advance. (...) On 24 March Ciano made a solemn note in his diaries, that the plan for action in Albania was finally agreed with the duce: (...) it is not advisable to send an ultimatum immediately, but rather to begin our negotiations with King Zog. If he tries to resist, or to outsmart us, we will use force. Hitler did not intend to oppose his ally's actions. [Филатов Г. С. (1973).]

When Mussolini made that decision, fateful to Italy and to himself, he renounced the last attributes of his independence and took a path without return. The operation of turning Albania into an Italian colony in the Balkans, dreamt of and prepared for years in Italy and by Italians, perceived solely as an Italian enterprise and in the name of Italian interests, in 1939 suddenly lost its Italian character. It transformed Italy into a III Reich's ally ready to march alongside its master towards the conquest of the world and the final abyss of the defeat. Mussolini himself probably did not realise yet, that his decision of 24 March 1939 had to bring more fateful decisions: declaration of war on France and Great Britain on 10 June 1940, assault on Greece on 28 October 1940, declaration of war on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, and finally the declaration of war on the United States on 14 December 1941. The very way Mussolini and his closest aides had essentially put the matter of annexation of Albania as closely related to the entry of Hitler's troops to Prague - no matter whether sincerely or not - caused, that fascist Italy became a culprit of the outbreak of the Second World War together with nazi Germany. This fact became reflected in a memorable speech Sir Winston Spencer Churchill held before the House of Commons, while condemning the capitulationist policy of Neville Chamberlain's government. He put the occupation of Czechoslovakia and annexation of Albania on the same plane:

Here let me say a word about the British Intelligence Service. After 25 years' experience in peace and war I believe it to be the finest service of its kind in the world. (...) Yet we have seen both in the case of the subjugation of Bohemia and in the case of the invasion of Albania that Ministers of the Crown had apparently no inkling or at any rate no conviction of what was coming. I cannot believe that this is the fault of the British Secret Service. (...) It seems to me that Ministers run the most tremendous risk if they allow the information collected by the Intelligence Department, and sent to them I am sure in good time, to be sifted and coloured and reduced in consequence and importance only to those pieces of information which accord with their earnest and honourable desire that the peace of the world shall remain unbroken. [Churchill W. S. L. (1951).]

Such was the truth. Annexation of Albania in April 1939 meant to Italy the prologue of a great war, in which it was bound to participate. But neither Mussolini, nor his foreign minister and son-in-law, count Galeazzo Ciano, were thinking about it at that time. The object of their worries was such preparation, political and military, of the planned and approved operation, and such its realization, that would guarantee a full and lightning success. The Italian Foreign Office was busy preparing the text of the ultimatum intended for Tirana; the text that would be impossible to accept to any self-respecting country. And meanwhile in the ports of southern Italy started the embarkation of thousands of Italian soldiers, which in a matter of hours had to land on the Albanian coast. Italian diplomats in Albania, as well as Italian military, financial and economical advisers, also received appropriate instructions. The latter had to do anything possible to support the landing of the duce's troops, and protect Albanian banks, factories, mines, and other important objects from possible destruction. They also had to secure important documents and provide lists of people, who had to be - as potential opponents of the occupation régime - simply killed. The Italian game for Albania, initiated in the beginning of the 1920's, was approaching its final, culminating phase.