After completing their conquest of Serbia and Montenegro, the Austro-Hungarian army turns its attentions toward Albania, occupying the coastal city of Durazzo on the Adriatic Sea on February 27, 1916.
Durazzo, also known as Durres, had served as an important port in the region since the 5th century, when it was part of the Roman empire. After an invasion by the Ottomans at the end of the 14th century, many Albanians immigrated to Italy; a majority of those who stayed behind converted to Islam. The end of the 19th century saw an explosion of nationalist fervor in Albania and a number of revolts against Ottoman rule. The country’s neighbors, Serbia and Greece, were poised to divide up Albania between them after the withdrawal of the Turks. Not wanting this to happen, the Great Powers of Europe—Germany, Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary and Russia—appointed a special commission to set the boundaries of post-Ottoman Albania, in the process stripping the country of 40 percent of its population and more than half its territory, including Kosovo (which became part of Serbia) and Cameria (which went to Greece).
Despite having previously recognized Albanian independence, the Great Powers also appointed a German prince, Wilhelm of Wied, as the country’s ruler. Just months after Prince Wilhelm’s arrival, in March 1914, World War I broke out in Europe, and the prince was forced to flee Albania in the face of strong local opposition.
Albania soon became a battleground for the Allies and Central Powers in the Great War. In 1915, Durres was occupied by the Italians, who called it Durazzo. As the armies of the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, stormed through the Balkans, taking control of both Serbia and Montenegro, thousands of Serbs sought escape through Albania, where the Italians and other Allies helped them evacuate to the island of Corfu, in the Adriatic Sea, where the Serbian provisional government was established.
On the verge of the Austrian invasion of Durazzo, Italian forces killed some 900 mules and donkeys before evacuating the town; Durazzo’s Albanian inhabitants fled en masse as well. The leader of Albania, Essad Pasha, moved to Naples and set up a provisional Albanian government. Austria would occupy Durazzo until the end of the war, in late 1918.
At Versailles, the country’s fate was again in the hands of other European powers. Albania appealed to the victorious Allies, especially the United States, to preserve their independence in the face of claims from Serbia, Montenegro, Italy and Greece. After much haggling, Albania was admitted to the newly formed League of Nations in 1920 as an independent state, with its borders virtually the same as they had been before the war.