Owen Pearson, a former prep school master, is eighty-seven this year. One of the last of a small band of Britons whose active fascination with all things Albanian was born before the Second World War, he is also now the author of a remarkable modern history: a study of Albania in the twentieth century that draws on six decades of research.
Pearson’s curiosity in this remote and mountainous land was sparked by a March of Time newsreel in 1936. It was quickly cemented by reading Joseph Swire’s Albania: The Rise of a Kingdom, press reports in 1938 of the marriage of King Zog (the country’s rakish self-crowned monarch), and further coverage the following year of the unprovoked Italian invasion. Though the outbreak of wider war swept Pearson into the British Army, he maintained his interest, wrote to Zog after the latter fled the Italians to settle in Buckinghamshire, forged a lasting friendship with the king’s private secretary and, ultimately, met Zog himself. And from 1947, with a view to compiling a chronicle of recent Albanian events, Pearson began to gather every scrap of detail about the country he could find. Today his Albanian library runs to nearly a thousand books and articles. Press cuttings fill more than fifty scrapbooks.
With the help of the London-based Centre for Albanian Studies, Pearson has now shaped his research into a landmark three-volume history. It opens in 1908, with Albania emerging from five centuries of Ottoman rule, and closes ninety-one years later with the recent conflict in Kosovo. Albania in Occupation and War, the middle volume, covers the dark and turbulent years when the country was under Italian and German control, became a major battlefront between the Italian and Greek armies, and saw the occupying Axis forces harassed by bands of local guerrillas. It also saw Albania descend into the bitter civil conflict from which emerged Enver Hoxha’s ruthless Communist regime. Commander of Albania’s wartime partisan movement, Hoxha was to be entrenched as dictator for the next forty years.
As with the other volumes – the first was published in 2004, the last will be available shortly – this is a chronology of events, with material organised year by year and day by day. Sources range from published histories, diaries and memoirs to private correspondence in Pearson’s possession and a host of newspapers, from Albanian news-sheets to Sylvia Pankhurst’s The New Times and Ethiopia News. Pearson has taken an extraordinary amount of trouble over this, and the richness of the detail is superb. Many battles and skirmishes are recorded down to the numbers of killed and wounded; ambushed convoys to the last destroyed truck. Political plots, alliances, splits and assassinations are all charted carefully; so, too, are Britain’s tortuous attempts to decide which guerrillas to back: no outside power had been involved more heavily than Britain in working with the resistance. Indeed, the reports and experiences, woven into the text, of young British soldiers who went in to arm the guerrillas, blow bridges and mine the roads provide some of the book’s most fascinating passages. Given the time and energy required to seek out such reference material, and given that Albania is still trying to sift half a century of Communist-written history, one hopes to see a speedy translation.
Perhaps the plans and aspirations of the exiled Zog receive a little too much attention. Arguably, after fleeing, he fast became a spent force. Rivalled by a dynamic communist-led movement more willing to resist and risk enemy reprisals, the king’s supporters in the country, as Pearson shows, never commanded the same levels of youthful support and Allied sympathy. But this is a minor quibble. And though reference to Bernd Fischer’s study of wartime Albania and to Jason Tomes’s recent Zog biography might have made the chronicle stronger, Pearson can be forgiven for not keeping up with the latest research. His book is a substantial personal achievement that deserves to be at the elbow of everyone interested in the field.