Lodewijk Thomson: Marking 105 Years of Albanian-Dutch Relations

On 20 December 2018 it is exactly 105 years ago that the Dutch military commander Lodewijk Thomson came to lead the International Control Commission (ICC) in order to bring stability to the newly established country of Albania.

Albania proclaimed its independence on 28 November 1912 after it had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. Albania is therefore one of the youngest States in Europe, but also one with a long history. Its language stands on its own and the Albanian people trace their heritage to the Ilyrian tribes who played an important role in the Eastern Mediterranean in Antiquity.

Selfdetermination in the Balkan

Poster of the Balkan League members (1912)

The Ottoman Empire ruled southeastern Europe from the 1300s until its defeat in the Balkan wars of 1912-13. Long before this final defeat, many Peoples in the Balkan were able to gain freedom and selfdetermination from their Ottoman rulers. Serbia, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Montenegro and Bulgaria all gained their independence from the Ottomans through revolutions and wars of independence during the 19th century. Despite gaining their independence, these nations still had large populations of their ethnic nationality under Ottoman rule which they tried to bring under their control. In 1912, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Montenegro created the Balkan League in order to take advantage of the accelarating decline of the Ottoman Empire and to carve up the remaining parts of its territory in southeastern Europe, including the territories inhabited by Albanian populations. On 8 October 1912, the First Balkan war broke out, which brought about the end of the Ottomans in Europe. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the advance of the Balkan League States presented an existential threat to the Albanians who were still part of the Empire. Many territories inhabited by Albanians were being occupied by Serbia, Macedonia and Greece. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire therefore threatened the existence of an Albanian independent political entity, but it also provided an opportunity to finally gain selfdetermination for the Albanian people.

League of Prizren

Albania as proposed by the League of Prizren

Already in 1878 a group of Albanian leaders came together to plan for better cooperation of the Albanian people in the Ottoman Empire and to prepare for a future where a(n) (semi)autonomous political unit would come to represent the entire Albanian nation. On 10 June 1878, 47 Albanian chiefs (Ottoman Beys) established the League for the Defense of the Rights of the Albanian Nation; better known as the League of Prizren, after the Kosovar town in which the meeting was held. In their founding declaration they stated that their intention was to preserve the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire on the one hand and to struggle for the unity of the territories of Albania on the other hand. The establishment of the League of Prizren was a direct result of the defeat of the Ottomans in the Ottoman-Russian war of 1877-1878 and the threat of imminent collapse.

Albanian Revolts against Ottoman rule

In order to stop the decline of the Ottoman Empire and modernise the State a reform movement called ‘the Young Turks’ tried to reorganise the Empire along European lines. However, the reformers’ activities to centralise the State, increase taxes and deny the Albanians and other Peoples under their control the ability to have a meaningful selfrule and recognition of their language and identity, meant that many opposed the new rulers in Istanbul. During the first Albanian revolt in 1910 the Albanians were at first successfull. Alarmed, the Ottomans sent a force of over 50-thousand soldiers to squash the rebellion. This expeditionary force was successfull in regaining control of the territory and the Ottomans subsequently outlawed Albanian language schools and books. Despite the military success of the Ottomans the new situation lead to further resentment and ultimately to the second Albanian revolt which took place between January and August 1912. This second revolt proved more successfull for the Albanian forces and the rebellion only ended because the Ottomans granted all of the rebels’ demands including the establishment of Albanian schools, suspension of conscription and taxes, as well the appointment of Albanian government officials.

Albanian independence

The success of the Albanian revolt and the defeat of the Ottomans in the First Balkan wars provided the Albanian leaders an ideal opportunity to gain freedom and selfdetermination. On 28 November 1912, Albanian leaders declared the independence of (Greater-)Albania. The declaration was done in the city of Vlorë, which was the only city that was physically controlled by the delegates who declared the independence. The States of the Balkan League opposed the establishment of an independent Albanian State, because their aim was to carve up the remainder of the Ottoman Empire and divide it among themselves. Despite this opposition, the independence of Albania was recognised defacto by the international community at the London Conference of Ambassadors on 17 December 1912 and officially on 29 July 1913 after the end of the second Balkan war. Albania was now an internationally recognised political entity, but with many major problems. Firstly, many territories which were inhabited by Albanians were not part of the newly formed State of Albania, but instead became part of Serbia, Macedonia and Greece. Furthermore, the neighbours tried to annex parts of Albania which they defacto occupied. Another problem was the fact that the Albanian government as it was internationally recognised, only controlled a small area around the city of Vlorë. The other parts of Albania were under the control of Serbia, Greece and rival Albanian leaders who each had diverging objectives.

International Control Commission (ICC) and the International Gendarmerie

Forces of the International Gendarmerie in Southern Albania (1913)

On 15 October 1913, the International Commission of Control (ICC) was established by the six Great Powers in Europe (France, United Kingdom, Italy, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany). It was tasked with the set-up and management of the political institutions of Albania until the new State would be established enough to be able to administer it themselves. The ICC headquarters was in Vlorë. The ICC had the authority to administer the country. The official military forces of the ICC, the International Gendarmerie, were lead by Dutch officers. The reason for the involvement of the Netherlands in the conflict was the desire of the Great Powers to have a neutral country be in charge of the military security on the ground and since the Netherlands had a lot of military experience due to its colonial possessions, it was only reasonable for the ICC to officially request the Netherlands to take up the challenge of delivering military stability to Albania. On Monday 10 November 1913, Lodewijk Thomson and other Dutch officers arrived in Vlorë and started their mission to establish a military force that would be able to stabilise the country. They subsequently travelled through the region in order to create a plan on how to implement military control of Albania. On 20 December 1913, Lodewijk Thomson and a dozen other Dutch officers officially became the military commanders of the International Gendarmerie under the control of the ICC. The role of the ICC was however shortlived, due to the onset of World War I in which the Great Powers went to war against each other. On 6 Septemebr 1914 the ICC officially disbanded.

Lodewijk Thomson

In the months in which the International Gendarmerie military commander Lodewijk Thomson tried to pacify Albania he was confronted with mounting pressures and escalating violence. His diplomatic skills were put to the test in the negotiations with the many factions who vied for control over parts of Albania and who had relations with different countries who tried to increase their influence in the Balkan. Furthermore, since the Balkan wars the northern part of Albania was occupied by Serbia and Greece had occupied the southern part of Albania. Both were reluctant to retreat their forces. When the Greek forces eventually withdrew in 1914 they armed local Greek groups and supported a temporary regional government, both of which tried to destabelise the region with the intent to claim it for Greece. Lodewijk Thomson had numerous diplomatic meetings with Greek nationalists. The forces of the International Gendarmerie also fought many skirmishes with Greek roving bands who terrorised the local Albanian population. The International Gendarmerie forces were ultimately unable to pacify southern Albania. The situation in Central Albania was even less secure with local war-lords holding sway over small pieces of territory. Despite the efforts of Lodewijk Thomson and the soldiers under his command, Albania slipped further into a civil war.

The monument for Lodewijk Thomson in The Hague, the Netherlands

On 15 June 1914, Lodewijk Thomson was shot and killed when rebels attacked the city of Dürres. It is unclear if he was killed by the rebels or by the Italians who saw in Lodewijk Thomson a problem for their ambitions in Albania. He was buried in Dürres the next day with most of the people of the city attending his funeral. One month later his body was taken to the Netherlands by ship and reburied there. At present there are two monuments of Lodewijk Thomson in the Netherlands; one in The Hague and one in Groningen, as well as one monument in Dürres to commemorate the actions of the Dutch mlitary commander of the International Gendarmerie who tried his best to help build the new State of Albania when it was in its infancy and when it was unclear if it would survive.

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