World War I Centennial: Albania Declares Independence

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He’ll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 46th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

November 28, 1912: Albania Declares Independence

Wikimedia Commons

In the autumn of 1912, the Balkan League’s conquest of the Ottoman Empire’s European territories triggered an international crisis which threatened to provoke a general European war. The crisis resulted from Serbia’s desire to obtain access to the Adriatic Sea at Durazzo, and Austria-Hungary’s determination to prevent Serbia from gaining it. This put Austria-Hungary on a collision course with Serbia’s patron and protector, Russia, and thereby threatened to involve Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany and Russia’s ally France as well—outlining the dynamic that would lead to catastrophe in 1914. The situation reached its boiling point on November 21, 1912, when Austria-Hungary mobilized six army corps near Russia and Serbia, in a move clearly threatening war.

But Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister, Count Berchtold, had a plan to stop Serbia from gaining access to the sea while still avoiding a much bigger war: He would support independence for Albania, where Serbia had staked its claim to the sea. Greece and Montenegro would also lose chunks of Albanian territory that they had claimed; in Montenegro’s case, this included the important city of Scutari, where the Turkish garrison was still under siege by Serbian and Montenegrin forces.

This was a plausible strategy because the Albanians had already rebelled against the Turks earlier in the year, winning promises of greater autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. Now, threatened with even worse oppression by their Orthodox Christian neighbors, the mostly Muslim Albanians were ready to make the leap to full independence.

Balkan War Atrocities

Indeed, during the First Balkan War, the Serbs earned the lasting hatred of the Albanians with widespread atrocities (which the Serbs viewed as payback for earlier Turkish and Albanian atrocities against Serbs). According to an article published by the New York Times on December 31, 1912, “Thousands of men, women, and children [were] massacred” during the Serbs’ march to the sea, as part of a “deliberate policy to exterminate Moslems.” Thus, “Between Kumanova and Uskub [Skopje] some 3,000 persons were done to death. Near Pristina [Prishtina] 5,000, exclusively Arnauts [Albanians], fell beneath the hands of the Serbs, not in honorable fight, but by unjustifiable murder.” Some of the Serbian tactics foreshadowed other terrible events to come, including massacres of Jews by German Einsatzgruppen in the Second World War: “Near Kratovo Gen. Stefanovitch placed hundreds of prisoners in two rows and had them shot down with machine guns. Gen. Zivkovitch had 930 Albanian and Turkish notables killed near Sienitza because they opposed his progress.” Serbian atrocities were confirmed by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In November 1912, Ismail Qemali, a former Ottoman administrator who was the father of Albanian nationalism, returned from exile with assistance from Austria-Hungary, and quickly convened an Albanian national assembly at Vlorë. Although they didn’t control much Albanian territory besides the town of Vlorë itself, on November 28, 1912, the delegates declared Albanian independence from the Ottoman Empire, and on December 4, they formed a national government with representatives from all over Albania, who chose Qemali as president of the provisional government.

Of course, the Serbs and their allies continued to occupy most of Albania, and had no intention of giving up their hard-won access to the sea; in fact, on November 28 the Serbs captured Durazzo, and the Greek navy began a blockade of Vlorë on December 3. Meanwhile six Austro-Hungarian armies were still mobilized near Serbia and Russia, keeping the whole continent on edge. If Russia and Austria-Hungary went to war, the other Great Powers would almost certainly be sucked in. Also on November 28, 1912, German foreign secretary Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter assured the Bundesrat (the imperial council representing the princes of the German states, in effect the upper house of Parliament) that Germany was prepared to go to war in support of its ally Austria-Hungary. On December 2, 1912, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg repeated the message to the Reichstag (the lower house).

Big Questions

Now the peace of Europe depended on a couple of questions: would the other European Great Powers support Austria-Hungary by recognizing Albanian independence? And could Serbia be persuaded to withdraw from the area peacefully? In December 1912, diplomats from all the Great Powers—France, Britain, Russia, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary—hurried to the Conference of London to discuss these key issues.

See all installments of the World War I Centennial series here.

Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter

Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

Scott Barbour/Getty Images
7 of History’s Most Unusual Riots
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Some sociologists theorize that most rioters only join a crowd because the crowd is big enough to justify joining. But there’s always that one person who sparks the violence, and sometimes the reason for doing so can seem pretty baffling. Maybe a work of art scandalizes its audience, like the famous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or maybe it’s simply a notable act of disrespect, like history’s first recorded mooning (in Jerusalem in the first century CE). From balloonists to brown dogs to daylight saving time, here are seven weird reasons things just got out of hand.


The Darts Invitational Challenge, an international tournament held in Melbourne, attracted international gawking in January 2015 during the finals match between Michael "Mighty Mike" van Gerwen and Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock. The dart players weren’t making a scene, though: Rather, hundreds of spectators, many of them drunk and in costume, began throwing plastic chairs as they watched (pictured above). The reasons for the fight remain unclear; footage and photos show police trying to control adults dressed as Oompa-Loompas, numerous superheroes, and, in one instance, in a ghillie suit (heavy camouflage meant to resemble foliage).


In 1864, balloonists were the great daredevils of their time, and a major draw for eager audiences. That summer, Henry Coxwell, a famous professional aeronaut, was set to make an appearance for 50,000 paying ticketholders in Leicester, England. Unfortunately, a rumor spread that he hadn’t brought his biggest and best balloon to the event. After heckling from the crowd, Coxwell deflated his balloon, and attendees rushed it, ripping it to shreds, setting it on fire, and threatening to visit the same fate on Coxwell. Rioters even paraded the remains of the balloon through the streets of town, which briefly brought residents a new nickname: Balloonatics.


Toronto was still a pretty rough place in the 1850s, but not so rough that the circus wouldn’t come to town. As it turns out, circus entertainers were also a tough lot back then, so when a group of off-duty clowns spent an evening at a brothel popular with the city’s firefighters on July 12, 1855, tensions came to a head. Accounts differ as to who started the fight, but after one firefighter knocked the hat off a clown things escalated into a full-on rabble intent on chasing the circus out of town. Only the mayor calling in the militia put an end to the uproar, an incident Torontonians credit with kicking off much-needed local police reforms.


A painting by Charles Soubre of the Belgian Revolution
Charles Soubre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many nations can claim their independence started with an aria, but for 19th-century Belgians sick of living under Dutch rule, an opera was just the right fuse for a revolution. To honor the birthday of King William I of the Netherlands, a theater in Brussels put on La Muette de Portici, about an uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. One song, "Amour Sacre de la Patrie" ("Sacred Love of the Fatherland"), aroused nationalistic passions so much that after the opera ended, the crowd began destroying factories and occupying government buildings. That was August 25, 1830; Belgium declared independence on October 4.


Hamilton fans, take note: Everyone’s favorite Founding Father once tried to quiet a mob bent on burning corpses. For centuries, anatomists and medical students relied on gruesome means to learn about the human body. Cadavers for dissection class often came from grave robbers, since the corpses of executed criminals were the only legal source—and they were in limited supply. In New York in 1788, rumors abounded that medical students were digging up paupers’ graves and black cemeteries. When one mob came after the doctors responsible, Alexander Hamilton tried, and failed, to restore the peace. The crowd swelled to about 5000 before militiamen intervened, leading to up to about 20 deaths.


Photo of an anti-vivisection demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, to protest the removal from Battersea Park of the Brown Dog statue
The Anti-Vivisection Review, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riots against the dissection of dead human bodies were not rare in the United States at one time. But on December 10, 1907, a thousand Britons marched in support of vivisection, or surgery on live animals. At the center of the controversy was a small terrier allegedly vivisected without anesthetic in 1903 during a class at London’s University College. Animal rights activists erected a statue to the dog in 1906, which enraged area medical students, and protesters tried to destroy the statue using crowbars and hammers. For the 1907 march, 400 mounted police were deployed to contain marchers. The statue became such a flashpoint (and an expense to local authorities) that in 1910, it was removed and melted down.


Palingtrekken (eel-pulling) was once a popular contest in Amsterdam, in which a writhing eel was suspended over a canal and hopefuls on boats would leap to snatch it as they passed beneath (usually landing in the water instead). However, “eel-pulling” was also illegal—the government deemed it a “cruel popular entertainment”—and in July 1886, police intervened at a particularly large gathering in the city’s Jordaan district. Civilians threw stones and bricks at police, and when some nearby socialist protestors joined them, a riot broke out that lasted for several days. The army finally intervened and opened fire on the protestors. All in all, 26 people died and 136 were wounded, but somehow, the eel itself at the center of the riots was allegedly saved and auctioned off in 1913.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.


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