There are a handful of countries in the world (e.g. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Slovenia, Colombia, and Chile) that recognize two days during the year as the anniversaries of when they attained independence—and Albania is one of them.
The tiny country of Albania has a centuries-long and often painful history of being invaded by a myriad of foreign powers. But Albanians also have a reputation for their strong sense of national pride and a history of heroic acts of resistance.
At the end of November, over the course of two days, the country honors the patriotic acts of its ancestors that fought to release it from occupation by the Ottoman Empire and later from Nazi Germany.
November 28: Independence Day (also known as Flag Day)
Independence Day, also known as Flag Day, commemorates the day in 1912 Albania announced its independence from the Ottoman Empire, which dominated Albania and much of the Balkans for almost 500 years.
In the early 1400s, the Ottoman Empire expanded into southeastern Europe and controlled most of modern-day Albania by 1431, although tribal influences were still strong at the local level during this time.
Albania’s national hero Gjergj Kastriot Skanderbeg led a revolt in 1443 and is generally credited for preventing the Ottoman Empire from reaching into Western Europe. He was able to leverage the mountains and tough terrain that characterizes much of the country to launch a successful guerilla warfare campaign on highly trained Ottomans soldiers. Following Skanderbeg’s death, however, Albania again fell into the hands of the Ottoman Empire until the beginning of World War I.
In 1912, the Albanians successfully rose against the Ottomans. The revolt was spurred by tax increases, forced service in the Turkish army and arms being taken away from the general population. The leader of the nationalist movement and later Albania’s first Prime Minister, Ismail Qemali, raised the Albanian flag for the first time and proclaimed independence on November 28 in the seaside town of Vlore.
November 29: Liberation Day
In 1939, Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy grabbed control of Albania, seeing it as an historical part of the Roman Empire and part of his vision of creating an Italian Empire to compete with Nazi Germany. But when Italy was defeated by Allied forces, the Germans quickly moved in before Albanian freedom fighters could get organized.
The Germans attempted to establish a semi-autonomous, German-friendly government in Albania but there was growing resistance by the National Liberation Movement. As the Germans began losing the war, the partisans seized the opportunity and won control of Albania from the Albanian government set up by the Germans. Soon after, Stalinist leader Enver Hoxha stepped in and would rule Albania with an iron fist for the next half century.
Liberation Day was formally established in the early 1950s, although there is some lingering controversy. Some believe the date was purposefully chosen by the Albanian communist party to coincide with the date communists took over the anti-fascist resistance in Yugoslavia in 1943, and overthrew the last king in 1945, when communist leader Josip Broz Tito grabbed power and would remain in control for 35 years.
In fact, a few years ago, there was a heated debate in Albania about Liberation Day. The Democratic Party insisted that the Germans left Albania on November 28 and that Liberation Day should be merged with Independence Day, with both events celebrated on November 28. The Albanian Socialist Party (which is the successor party to the previous communist party) insisted that the Liberation Day remain on November 29.
During the communist era, Liberation Day was celebrated with military parades in the center of Tirana. Supporters of Enver Hoxha and some Albanian war veterans still regularly appear at celebrations carrying portraits of Hoxha, who is now recognized as a brutal isolationist.
How these days are celebrated, usually
Because the two days are so close on the calendar, these non-working national holidays are celebrated together. This year, the pandemic will most likely put a damper of Albanian Independence Day celebrations. It is usually a day of gatherings, fireworks, music, food, festivals, and cities donned in red and black.
Albanian Independence Day is also celebrated by ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo and North Macedonia. Kosovo also made November 28 a non-working holiday in 2017, much to the chagrin of Serbia. Even as far as New York City, Americans of Albanian descent would typically have a parade, often with the flag bearing the Albanian double-headed eagle prominently displayed.
But it can be celebrated any way. Last year, with a group of like-minded hikers and outdoorsy friends, we spent independence weekend in a cabin in the mountains of Kosovo. Unexpected snow canceled our plans to reach the top of a nearby peak, but it did not stop the singing of patriotic songs, camaraderie, cooking on the wood-burning stove, and sharing of local raki.
If you are a history buff, another idea is to head to Vlore – the birthplace of Albanian independence. Here, you can visit the 17-meter high Independence Monument at Flag Square. The monument was designed by Mumtaz Dhrami, an important 20th-century sculptor who completed a number of works around the country during communist times. The park is also the location of Qemali’s gravesite.
In the southern end of Vlore, near the port, is the Museum of National Independence. It was established in 1936 and said to be Albania’s first museum. It is also the building where Qemali set up Albania’s first government following the announcement of its independence from Ottoman rule.