Mountainous Albania has most often been part of other people’s empires: the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines all held some or all of Albania under their sway, as did the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century until 1913. Many Albanians converted to Islam as they adjusted to life as an Ottoman province. Albania became an independent principality in 1913 as a result of the First and Second Balkan Wars. It sank into anarchy during World War I, but its precarious sovereignty was widely recognized after the war and confirmed in 1921 by agreement among Italy, Greece, and Yugoslavia. All those states coveted some Albanian territory, but they could not agree on how to partition the country. Albania was proclaimed a republic in 1925, but then turned back to monarchy under King Zog I. It was invaded by Italy on April 7, 1939, in a long-contemplated but still impulsive act of aggression ordered by Benito Mussolini. Minor resistance delayed even the poorly prepared Italians only long enough for the royal family to flee into exile. Ethnic Albanian resistance began in neighboring Kosovo. Matériel aid was provided by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), but nationalist resistance flagged with German occupation of Kosovo and much of Yugoslavia from April 1941.
Albanian Communists launched a small-scale guerrilla campaign in the mountains following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Led by Enver Hoxha, they were also assisted by Tito’s Communist partisan movement operating in Yugoslavia. A few nationalists and other non-Communists, mainly organized around family and clan associations, began a separate resistance in the south of Albania. Tribal-based resistance was organized in the center of the country. British agents coordinated only minimal supplies to the Albanian resistance and so exercised little real influence. Instead, ancient internal rivalries and a fast-moving military situation drove events in 1943–1944. The overthrow of Mussolini and looming surrender of Italy was critical, provoking uprisings across Albania. Two Italian divisions surrendered to Albanian partisans and were disarmed. Others simply fled. Some Italian Communists and antifascists joined the Albanian partisans. Other Italian troops continued to fight alongside German units, which poured into Albania in September to secure the country for the Axis and keep open supply and communications routes to German forces in Greece. Typical Nazi techniques of mass reprisal for the smallest act of resistance soon cowed most of the population. A Nazi-puppet regime was set up in Tirana. It had a presence in a few other towns, but most of the countryside remained no-go territory for Axis troops. The resistance split and a multisided civil war ensued when Hoxha and the Communists turned against all other Albanian resisters as German defeat approached outside the country. This confused situation allowed German forces retreating from Greece to pass through Albania with minimal interference during September 1944. Hoxha’s partisans took control of Albania, with Yugoslav support, as the Germans departed. A quixotic Stalinist regime was established in which Hoxha ruled as absolute dictator until his death in 1985.