An Austrian in Albania

I WISH THAT I had taken a photograph of it when I was visiting Tirana, the capital of Albania, in 1984, the last year of the life of its long term dictator and admirer of Josef Stalin, Enver Hoxha (1908-1965). I managed to get at least one photograph of a statue of Stalin in Albania, the only European country that still displayed monuments to this by then mostly discredited Soviet dictator. However, in May 1984, I failed to take a picture of something I have never seen outside Albania or in Albania when I revisited it in 2016. What I failed to record on film was the sight of men walking along the streets with heads of flowers whose stems they were holding between their teeth. Their lips were hidden behind the blooms. I mentioned seeing this to several people who have visited Albania, and none recall seeing flowers being carried that way. So, I was beginning to wonder whether my memory was playing tricks as time passed.

A few days ago, I was browsing the bookshelves in an Oxfam charity shop when I noticed a travelogue that contained a few pages about the author’s experience of Albania, which he visited several decades before my first encounter with the country. I was thrilled and relieved that my memory had not failed me when I read the following words he wrote:

“The inhabitants of Tirana love music and flowers. You can see men going around with roses in their mouths. They seem to use them as an extra buttonhole.”

These words, translated from German, were published in the “Frankfurter Zeitung”, a German newspaper, on the 29th of June 1927. They were written by its journalist, the Austrian novelist Moses Joseph Roth (1894-1939), better known as ‘Joseph Roth’. The book in which I found his articles on Albania is “The Hotel Years”, edited and translated by Michael Hoffmann and published in 2015. The anthology of Roth’s writings covers countries, to mention a few of them, including Austria, Hungary the USSR, Germany, Yugoslavia, and Albania.

Roth visited Albania in 1927 and published six articles about it between May and July that year. He mentioned the love of music in Tirana. This observation relates to both the mandolins played mainly by Albanians who had unaccountably, in his opinion, returned to their country after having lived abroad, mainly in the USA, and to military bands.  During his sojourn in the capital, he notes the seemingly endless army exercises and parades that are carried out throughout the day.

By Cora Gordon, 1927

With regard to the Albanian army, it was his impression that they were poorly equipped:

“Now the army has Austrian rifles and Italian ammunition, bullets that jam, magazines that can’t be clicked in, British knapsacks that can’t be secured with Italian straps, covers for field-shovels and no field-shovels with which to dig trenches, Italian officers who don’t know commands in Albanian, …”

And, he asks:

“For whom do they exercise? Surely not for their country? Because half the country is unhappy with their government – for reasons of idealism.”

Reading this, made me wonder why Roth was sending reports from Albania between the end of May and the end of July in 1927.  Near the end of his largely unflattering description of the country and its people, he wrote:

“Albania is beautiful, unhappy, and for all its current topicality, boring.”

Although Albania is anything but boring for me, I was curious about its “current topicality” during those months in 1927. Roth’s readers probably knew, but that was long ago.

I looked at various issues of the “Times” newspaper of London and other sources to discover what might have interested the world’s press in Albania at the time that Roth wrote his articles. On Monday, the 6th of June, the Times noted that diplomatic relations between Albania and its neighbour Yugoslavia had broken down. On the 27th of May, Mr Juraskovitch, an interpreter at the Yugoslav legation in Tirana, was arrested and his house was burnt down (www.jstor.org/stable/25638310?seq=1). Naturally, the Yugoslav government objected. On the 31st, Tzena Beg, an Albanian representative in Belgrade, explained to the Yugoslavs that Juraskovitch was an Albanian citizen and that compromising documents had been found in his possession. Mr Sakovitch, the Yugoslav chargé d’affaires, disclaimed all knowledge of this and demanded the release of Juraskovitch. Hussein Beg Vrioni, the Albanian Minister for Foreign Affairs, said that his case was purely an internal matter. On the 4th of June, the Yugoslav legation was withdrawn from Tirana. The following day, the Albanian government declared that it was taking the case to the League of Nations.

On the 5th of June, the “Times” noted that many Albanians feared that this diplomatic incident would create anxiety and unrest in the country, and many felt that the flames were being fanned by a third party with a great interest in Albania, Italy. According to “The Annual Register, Vol. 169- for 1927” Italy had:

“…sent to Berlin, Paris, and London a Note calling attention to alleged preparations on the part of Yugoslavia for an immediate invasion of Albanian territory. The crisis had arisen as the result of the arrest by the Albanian police of a certain Jurascovich, charged with espionage on behalf of the Yugoslav Government. Refusal to release the alleged spy led to the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Minister from Tirana, and to the Italian Note. The matter was, however, satisfactorily settled between Italy and Yugoslavia.”

Eventually in November 1927 after much Italian antagonism to the French and their cordial relations with Yugoslavia:

“ … the Italian Government published the text of an Italo -Albanian Treaty of defensive alliance.”

This was not the first attempt to forge an alliance between Italy and Albania as is illustrated from the following quote from “The Annual Register”:

“Relations with Italy and Albania were disturbed at the end of 1926 by the first Tirana Treaty and became more strained in March, 1927, when the Italian Government addressed a Note to the Great Powers (Germany, Great Britain, and France) accusing Yugoslavia of military preparations against Albania.”

Thus, Albania was being dragged gradually into the strong influence that Italy held on it until the Second World War had begun.

Roth travelled to Albania around about, or just after the Juraskovitch affair had begun. This might have been one reason for his visit. Another thing that might have attracted his attention, which was reported in the “Times” of the 10th of June 1927, was the growing unrest of many Albanians, particularly in the north, resulting from dissatisfaction with the government of Ahmed Zogu. However, by mid-July, a couple of weeks before Roth’s last article about Albania, the two countries, Albania and Yugoslavia, had come to a more or less satisfactory settlement of the Juraskovitch affair.

My surmise is that Roth came to Albania not out of curiosity but in connection with the diplomatic incident and the strained relationship between Albania and its Slav neighbour. My impression is that the urbane Roth cared little for what he observed during his time in Albania. His description of his arrival sets the tone for much that appears in the anthology of his Albanian travel writings:

“ … the hut, like so many attractions these days, has a guest book; sitting over the book is a man in a black uniform, rolling himself a cigarette, and this is the Albanian border police. A master of the alphabet, but unused to writing, he sits there whiling away the time of new arrivals by painstaking scrutiny of their passports … I cut short his study by offering to set down my name for him … Workmen are repairing the road. There are always two hunched over together … they collect little scoops of sand on their tiny shovels or in their bare hands, pour it into scars and potholes, sprinkle a few stones on top … and stamp it down with their bare feet …”

Roth also remarks on the telegraph wires linking Durres with Tirana. They were:

“… strung not on masts, but on crooked trees, which have been lopped and cropped. They used to stand by the wayside, a home to birds … now they are redesignated as telegraph poles … equipped to transmit journalistic reports – the twitterings of political sparrows – to Europe…”

Whereas Roth’s descriptions of Albania in 1927 are hardly flattering to the country, some other travellers, who visited it that year, published a far more flattering account in the same year. The travellers were Jan Gordon (1882-1944) and Cora C Gordon (née Turner;1879-1950), who wrote and illustrated a book called “Two Vagabonds in Albania”. It is amongst the best books I have read about the country. Unlike the critical and disapproving Roth, they take a delight in what they observed and convey that beautifully in their text and the illustrations they created.

Roth would be amazed by the changes that have occurred in Albania since his visit in 1927. I was also staggered by the changes I saw between my first visit in 1984, when I saw men with flowers in their mouths and motorised vehicles were few and far between, and 2016 when Tirana had become a modern city with traffic congestion and tall buildings to rival those found in any of the world’s large cities.

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