Essad pasha Toptani: The Man, the War, the Power
Journalist-turned-writer Ilir Ikonomi presents a new biography of Essad Pasha, arguably the most controversial power broker in the initial decade of Albania’s existence as a state. After his critically acclaimed books on other Albanian standout figures, Ikonomi is stepping into a terrain where success is scarce, given the elusive and complex nature of the character he deals with.
Essad pasha Toptani, a deputy of the Turkish parliament during the Balkan Wars (1912-13), defended Shkodra from the Montenegrin and Serbian armies then was forced to turn it over when hunger and bombardment made any further resistance impossible. Essad was praised as a heroic defender but his detractors insist he was a sellout.
In the wake of Albania’s independence, Essad faced off with its founder Ismail Kemal and a power struggle of sorts followed. Essad set up a parallel government and was blamed with undermining Kemal’s effort of uniting the new nation. He fought back, belittling Kemal’s achievement and praising the efficiency of his own government.
Essad claimed Albania should be dominated by a strong and independent local leader like himself. He first rejected the Great Powers idea of imposing an International Control Commission and a German prince on Albania then welcomed the prince, promising cooperation.
In the Spring of 1914, barely two months after Prince Wied’s arrival, a rebellion gripped Albania and the monarch ordered the house of Essad shelled on suspicion of treason. A drama followed: Essad was arrested and deported to Italy.
As the First World War began and the country descended further into chaos the Powers lost interest in Albania and the Prince was forced to leave the troubled new nation in September of the same year.
A restless Essad returned to Durrës aided by Serbia but his government soon found itself besieged by an islamist uprising. Essad, who ruled with a strong hand, unsuccessfully fought back with the help of Italy which propped him up with money and other support.
In June 1915 Serbia intervened and crushed the Albanian rebellion on Essad’s behalf. When the Bulgarian and Austrian armies invaded Serbia in late 1915, Essad returned the favor saving the Serbian army from complete debacle and humiliation during its forced march through the northern Albanian mountains. What was left of the Serbian army was allowed free passage to Corfu.
Essad spent the war period fighting in Salonika for the Entente allies while most of his political foes supported the losing Austrian block. In 1919, when the war ended and a peace conference opened in Paris, Essad’s war contribution was not duly recognized by the Powers because Italy wanted to turn Albania into its own backyard and impose leaders of its choice, which excluded Essad.
In early 1920, while Essad remained in Paris, a new government with ties to Italy was formed in Albania. Essad’s armed groups on the ground fought against the government paving the way for an Essad takeover. The attempt failed because Essad was assassinated by an Albanian while exiting his Paris hotel on June 13, 1920.
The author gives a realistic and impartial account of the events mincing no words when it comes to the moral equivocations and other less-than-admirable qualities of Essad. He acknowledges however that Essad was a courageous personality and a fighter, who used shrewd diplomacy to dominate Albania free of any foreign influence.
What made Essad controversial was his close friendship with Serbia. This fueled anger among many Albanians who reminded Essad the atrocities by the Serbs against the Albanians during the Balkan Wars. Essad believed that Albania had no choice but to accept the borders established by the Great Powers in 1913, a notion which was contradicted by many of his contemporaries who aspired to liberate at least some of the Kosovo towns with a purely ethnic Albanian population.
Ilir Ikonomi takes no sides in evaluating Essad, a nearly impossible task for any Albanian history writer. Perhaps this is his strongest point in the face of his main character’s many critics.
The book has 571 pages and contains a sizeable collection of good quality photographs, a bibliography and a name index.
(Title in Albanian: Esat pashë Toptani: Njeriu, Lufta, Pushteti)
A biography by Ilir Ikonomi
UETPress, 571 pages, Tirana 2016