Italy’s relations with Albania have been marked by imperial ambitions, hostility and reciprocal claims over territory. There are also a number of historical settlements of Albanians in southern Italy. In 1901 there were at least 200,000 people of Albanian origin in Italy and a 1921 inquiry found 80,000 Albanian-speakers in Italy. During World War I Albania was put on the negotiating table by both Italy and Austria. Italy occupied Valona in December 1914, imposing Italian schools and legal codes. In December 1915, Italian troops landed in Durazzo, where they were attacked by Austrian troops in February 1916. Towards the end of the war, 70,000 Italian troops occupied Albania, where they came into conflict with a strong independence movement. Heavy fighting took place around Valona in June 1920, and the Left in Italy called for an Italian withdrawal. In June 1920 a mutiny amongst soldiers in Ancona, who refused to go to Albania, sparked off rioting and strikes. Giolitti announced an end to new troop deployments in Albania in the same month. In August the Italians left.
In 1926 King Zog of Albania signed an agreement with Italy which provided financial aid and set up military alliances against Yugoslavia. During the 1930s, this relationship began to look increasingly like colonialism. In 1933 the Italian language was made obligatory in Albanian schools. In 1939, before Italy’s entry into the World War II, Mussolini invaded Albania, following the refusal of the Albanian authorities to accept more control over their affairs and territory. King Zog escaped to Greece and the King of Italy was crowned King of Albania. In October 1940 Mussolini’s ill-fated attack on Greece began from within Albania, as did the invasion of March 1941, this time with German help. In the same month, the invasion of Yugoslavia also began from Albanian positions. After 1945 Albania became an independent state within the communist bloc. Little population movement or cultural exchange took place between the two countries for the next forty years.
The collapse of the communist bloc in 1989 thrust Albania dramatically back into the Adriatic world. Thousands of impoverished Albanians crowded onto makeshift craft and headed for Italy, in a dramatic exodus towards the wealth they had seen only on their TV screens. Almost 25,000 Albanians arrived in Italy in March, to be followed by another 20,000 in August 1991. The first arrivals were given jobs and refugee status. Yet, the Italian government soon began to repel craft and send back Albanians. The Albanians themselves began to be seen as ‘white–blacks’, the lowest immigrants on a long social and cultural scale. Very few accounts understood this historical legacy of imperialism, invasions and exploitation and real debate was only provoked by Gianni Amelio’s extraordinary film Lamerica (1994).