Dreams about a "Greater Albania". Albanian puppet prime-minister Shefqet bej Vërlaci (left) and his master, the Italian lieutenant governor Francesco Jacomoni di San Savino (centre), visit Yugoslav territories incorporated into Italian-occupied Albania.

On 7 April 1939 Italy occupied Albania, a Balkan country of a population barely close to one million. The occupation was preceded by an ultimatum, in which the Italians demanded a right to deploy Italian troops in Albania, customs union between the two countries, introduction of Italian advisers in Albanian ministries, and so on. The Albanian king, Zogu I, abandoned his country and made for Greece. The Albanians locally undertook resistance, which was rather weak and chaotic, and easily overpowered by the invading Italian army and Italian agents. The methods of the occupation of Albania resembled those in case of Bohemia and Moravia three weeks earlier. The Italians did not fail to announce that the occupation was "bloodless" for it was executed without a war.

There were two levels of Italian control over Albania. In the Roman foreign office was created the State Undersecretariat for Albanian Affairs (Sottosegretario di Stato per gli Affari Albanesi - SSAA). The SSAA employed 300 officials and had five subdivisions: secretariat, political and military affairs, financial and economical affairs, culture and tourism, and technics. Half of the employees came from the foreign office and the ministry of public works. The head of the undersecretariat till August 1941 was Zenone Benini, later the minister for public works. After him the Albanian affairs were controlled by Alberto Corrias, but financial affairs remained to some degree under the authority of the ministry of corporations. Documentation concerning economical affairs, also from the years 1941-1942, as much archives are concerned, shows that those affairs were not handed over to the SSAA, at least not completely. There was also a separate office created to handle the property sequestrated or confiscated from the persons deemed hostile. SSAA was a staff cell, but it supervised activities of the Italian authorities in Albania, both party and military ones; the latter as far as it was politically plausible. It also had a budget to finance Italian needs in Albania.

The second level of the control comprised Italian representatives residing in Albania. The most important was the royal lieutenant governor (Luogotenente Generale di S.M. il Re Imperatore in Albania) attached to the government in Tirana. That position was given to the former envoy Francesco Jacomoni di San Savino, to whom reported a personnel of 120-140 persons. Albanian authorities were not allowed to issue legislative acts or make important decisions without his approval. The Albanian press was controlled by Piero Parini, who enjoyed a special status in the structures of the occupation apparatus.

The control over the occupied country was enforced by large Italian forces deployed in Albania in 1939-1943; in 1940-1942 they numbered as much as 100 to 150 thousand men. Till November 1940 they were under the command of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces in Albania, Gen. Sebastiano Visconti Prasca. There also temporarily resided the military mission of Gen. Manlio Gabrieli. Later in Albania was deployed the command of the forces invading Greece. In February 1942 in Tirana was created the Army Group East-Balkans, which in June 1943 was transformed into the Army Group East. Albanian armed forces were amalgamated with the Italian ones. Officers and NCO's were given the option to remain in service in the Italian army - in Albania, in Italy, or in the colonies. They also could join the Fascist Militia. Also the Albanian gendarmerie and border guards were included into the Italian military structures. But the overall effects of the fusion of the Albanian and Italian armies were not as impressive as those the Germans had achieved in Austria.

The main instrument of the Italian rule in the occupied Albania was the collaboration of the enemies of king Zog, fascist elements, as well as adherents of the old, semi-feudal social and economical system. Immediately after the occupation of the country the invaders created the Provisional administrative Committee with Xhafer bej Ypi, as well as a "constituent assembly" of 159 men, mostly chief landlords. On 12 April 1939 that assembly decided, without seeking a mandate from the people, to bind the fates of the nation with Italy. It was manifested by the personal union - the Italian king and emperor received the crown of Albania. Apart from the aforementioned fusion of the armed forces, was also executed the fusion of diplomatic, consular and customs services. Independent Albania ceased to exist. In the beginning of June king Victor Emmanuel III bestowed on that country a new constitution, which made himself its ruler, and gave all the executive powers to the government in Rome. Also in Rome was made the decision to withdraw Albania from the League of Nations.

The collaborationist government in Tirana was led by a feudal landowner and Zog's rival of many years, Shefqet bej Vërlaci. The secretary of the National Fascist Party (PNF), Achille Starace, characterized him as "a perfect gentleman" (un perfetto galantuomo). Apart from being the prime-minister he also controlled the offices of internal affairs, economy, finances, public works, agriculture and education - the ones where the decisive power was exercised by the Italian advisers. He enjoyed support of the landowners, merchants and public employees (among whom the Italians had perpetrated substantial purges), as well as highlanders' tribal chieftains (so-called bajraktars) from northern Albania. The Italians also were cunningly playing with the patriarchal social structures, and they were winning feudals' individual ambitions one against another. In place of the former parliament there was brought into being the Supreme Council of Fascist Corporations (30 members), as well as the Central Council of the Corporate Economy.

In the mid-1939 there was created the Albanian Fascist Party (Partia Fashiste Shqiptare - PFSh) as a branch of the PNF. It remained in personal union with the PNF: both had the same leader and the same ideology, and they had to pursue an integration of both nations (fusione dei popoli). The leader of the PFSh became Ciano's friend Tefik Mborja, but the actual power was held by the Italians, and in particular - Parini, who was the general inspector and the PFSh press representative. To him reported Giovanni Giro of the Dopolavoro, the Italian after-work organization, as well as regional inspectors. After Parini his duties went to M. Lugini, a medical doctor by profession. In May 1940 the leadership of the PFSh visited Benito Mussolini and Galeazzo Ciano; present were Benini, Jacomoni and Parini. In the autumn the PFSh numbered about 13.5 thousand men federated in 10 regional branches, and less than 2,000 women, also in ten regional groups. Moreover, the Albanian Dopolavoro numbered about 8.5 thousand members, and the youth organization numbered about 40 thousand members, whose membership was chiefly compulsory. These figures clearly testify to less than enthusiastic approach to the fascism.

Albania was subordinated to the invaders in every respect; not a single political, legal or economical institution was left to the sole Albanian authority. For example, Jacomoni had appointed his own wife and another Italian general as heads of the Albanian Red Cross. It seems that on the initial stage of the occupation the dependency of Albania on Rome was bigger than the dependency of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia on Berlin. In the economical plane there was established customs and currency union, and the Italian capital expanded aggressively in Albania. The most active in this respect were Banca di Napoli, active already during Zog's reign, as well as Banca di Lavoro. Frequent visits of their representatives at Benini's office raise justified assumptions that they were interested in Albanian economic questions. Albania was supposed to become a source of raw materials, as well as a transportation link with the rest of the Balkans, and that required investments of strategic nature. There was made a lot of publicity for the economic plan for Albania, focused on melioration works, exploitation of the riches of the country, and public works. The years 1939-1940 actually saw invigoration of the economic development, which is attributed in first place to the acting minister of finances Fejzi bej Alizoti. Also there was noted some progress in health care and technological development.

The mechanism of reprisals in Albania differed from that of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Italian police forces that came from Italy (Corpo armata di polizia per l'Albania) was strong, it numbered as many as 4 thousand men. It had incorporated the Albanian police, purged persons deemed uncertain and arrested persons deemed enemies of the new régime (some of them were sent to concentration camps). The judicial system was unified with the Italian one, with time martial laws and martial courts were also introduced. It happened after Italy declared war on France and Great Britain in June and invaded Greece in October 1940. To consolidate their conquest, the Italians encouraged colonization, which brought several tens of thousands immigrants. Also about 25 thousand workers, organized in labour battalions, were sent to Albania.

The mechanism of influencing the minds deserves a special attention, since a very important place in it took the indoctrination in the spirit of fascism. Indoctrinated were chiefly the youth and youth organizations. Also the cultural policy steered the cultural life in the coveted direction. The Italian language was introduced in schools, a free hand was given to the society Dante Alighieri that propagated the Italian language and culture, also a very important role here played the University of Bari. It brought to life the Centre of Albanian Studies, where more than half of the academic staff were Italian professors. They worked to prove that the Italians had a major civilizational influence on the inhabitants of Albania. They also accentuated the traditions of community and friendship; in the same spirit engaged also Italian writer and editor Virgilli Amadore. Executive tasks coming out of the policy of indoctrination were assigned to the authorities responsible for the press, propaganda and tourism. Religious tolerance was maintained; in 1940 there was created the General Council of the Islamic Community.

In October 1940 the puppet government in Tirana duly declared war on Greece and dragged Albania into war against the interests of the Albanian people. Although some circles in Tirana counted on a rebellion of the Albanian minority in north-west Greece, their hopes proved futile. There were some Albanian troops (battalions Tomorri, Gramozi, Taraboshi, Rozafa and Dajti) incorporated into the Italian army from the former royal Albanian army, and jiggling with the slogans of building a "Greater Albania" helped Vërlaci to muster some support for his policy, but that support soon whittled away as the war turned ugly to the Italians. The Greeks' counter-offensive and liberation of Albanian cities of Korca and Gjirokastra fostered growing anti-Italian feelings and resistance. Desertion among the Albanian soldiers, and even "black shirts", became common. In November 1940 it came to open clashes between the Albanians and Italians, after the latter used force in an attempt to stop Albanian units retreating from the vicinity of Korca. Eventually the Italian command was forced to issue orders to intern all the Albanian troops that did not yet defect or surrender. In the Italian rear took place first acts of sabotage on the Italian communications and armed clashes with the Italian troops, undertaken by fugitive soldiers and armed civilians. A member of the PFSh leadership, Professor Selaudin Toto, even proposed that all the Christians, among whom the Greeks constituted a substantial part, were removed from Albania to crush the grass-root support of the guerrilla. Probably due to the experience in the war with Greece there were no further attempts to recruit the Albanians for the fascist cause. At any rate the Italians did not value the Albanian canon meat very high.

After the invasion and occupation of Greece and Yugoslavia, perpetrated along the Germans, the Italians incorporated some occupied territories into Albania and announced creation of a "Greater Albania". Since then had increased the influence of the renegades from Kosovo and Metohia on the leadership of the puppet régime in Tirana, but the administration of the incorporated territories was exercised by the newly created ministry for acquired territories (December 1941 - February 1943). Acquiring territories at the expense of the neighbours increased Albania's population by one million and almost doubled her territory; Albania once again mattered in the Italian imperial plans.

The resistance to the occupation régime grew after the invasion of the German Reich on the Soviet Union, on which Vërlaci's government declared war. Also there was announced creation of an Albanian "legion" for the Eastern front - in fact a battalion in the Italian expeditionary corps. Since 8 November 1941 in Albania developed a communist movement. The partisan movement, developing vigorously since the beginning of 1942, as well as creation of the nationalistic resistance front (Balli Kombëtar), which however evaded confrontation with the Italians, induced the Allies to declare towards the end of 1942 the necessity to restore Albanian independence treacherously broken in 1939. During the Moscow Conference of the foreign ministers of the Allied powers, the Soviet people's commissar for foreign affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, made an appropriate statement:

The Soviet Union, which is watching with the utmost sympathy the valiant struggle for liberation by the Albanian patriots against the Italian occupying forces, does not recognize any Italian imperialist rights to Albanian territory and hopes to see Albania liberated from the yoke of the Fascist invaders and its independence restored. [Pollo S., & Puto A. (1981).]

In the same spirit spoke the British foreign minister, Sir Anthony Robert Eden, as he related the issues of the conference to the British parliament on 17 December:

His Majesty's government extends its sympathy towards the Albanian people who had the misfortune to be among the first victims of Fascist aggression. The British government hopes to bring liberty and independence to Albania and free her from Fascist oppression. [Pollo S., & Puto A. (1981).]

Also the American secretary of state, Cordell Hull, had expressed a good nature of the USA towards the Albanian liberty. After the Anglo-American landing in north Africa, Albanian collaborationist circles lost their confidence in the perspective of an "Axis" victory. Some Albanian politicians had even made it known to Jacomoni that in case of collapse of Italy they would seek a rapprochement with the Soviet Union. The Italians reacted with personal reshuffle of the collaborationist cabinet. After Vërlaci to the prime-minister was appointed Mustafa Merlika (Kruja), a fascist and pro-Italian leader of anti-Zoguist opposition in exile. Kristo Frashëri maintains that Merlika was an Italian agent already before the war. Since the end of 1942 he strove to create an appearance of Albanian independence, especially since it was the thirtieth anniversary of the actual independence of Albania. Merlika's propaganda put bigger emphasis on nationalistic issues, fascist symbols were removed from the Albanian flags, and in place of the PFSh there was created a new organization - the Guard of Great Albania. Albanian gendarmerie took over the law enforcement tasks from the Italian carabinieri. On the Italian side there were promises to broaden autonomy: economic agreements, especially the agreement on the economic union, were revised as too discriminatory to Albania. A new Albanian representative, Ernest Koliqi, was sent to Rome. Yet all those gestures did not improve either the economical or political situation, and they only brought further nervous personal reshuffling. In January 1943 the government got a new prime-minister - Eqerem bej Libohova, a highlander from the south, a nationalist, and a person with close ties to the Italians. In the next months, as Ciano recorded in his diaries first concerns about the development of the situation in Albania, Libohova was replaced by Maliq bej Bushati, a former member of the PFSh leadership and the actual creator of the Guard of Great Albania. He continued efforts to remove the troops and police from the Italian control. But in May Libohova made his come-back to the post of the prime-minister.

All those changes, as well as the growth of the feeling of strategic menace of Albania, came together with the change, in March 1943, of the lieutenant governor. Jacomoni was replaced by a career officer, Gen. Alberto Pariani, the former chief of the Italian military mission in Albania, and an undersecretary of state in the ministry of war. He already faced a full-scale partisan war, which he was not able to contain with sole Italian forces; in the beginning of 1943 the first German division was brought to Albania to fight the partisans. During the anti-partisan offensive in the mid-1943 took place massive reprisals, which brought some spectacular success - the partisans were forced to retreat into the mountains. Yet simultaneously, in the mountains, more refugees (approx. 3,000) reinforced the partisan forces. The Italians had then burnt dozens of Albanian villages and deported thousands of villagers to the islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea. However, the success was short-lived.

On 27 July 1943, namely the day after Marshal Pietro Badoglio replaced Mussolini, king Victor Emmanuel declared the whole territory of Albania an operational zone, which meant that all executive powers went to the military, namely the commander-in-chief, Gen. Renzo Dalmazzo. At that moment the invaders controlled only the plains and some strategic motorways. After the capitulation of Italy the Italians were replaced by the Germans.