This month marks the anniversary of the establishment of the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus. Though shortlived, this expression of the national aspirations of the Greeks of Northern Epirus was paid for in blood and then sacrificed by traitorous deceit. It is a tragic story that needs to be retold and remembered even though it has been forgotten in the mad rush to rewrite history and establish a "New" Europe. After the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913, Greek interests collided with Italian imperialistic aims in the region of Epirus. The capture of Jannina in the First Balkan War had put Greece in possession of an ancient seat of Greek culture, whose schools had done much to keep the flame of Hellenism burning during the Turkish occupation. It also added a large chunk of essentially Greek territory to the Kingdom of Greece. The justice of the Greek claims to annex Southern and Central Epirus was so obvious that they could not be disputed. On the other hand, Northern Epirus, or as the Italians called the district "Southern Albania", Greek claims were at odds with the Italian ambition to make the Adriatic an Italian Lake. Northern Epirus may be roughly described as the triangular tract of country of which the base is the stretch of coast between a point a few miles south of Valona and a point on the mainland opposite the town of Corfu, while the apex of the triangle is the southern extremity of Lake Ochrida. It was inhabited by Greeks and Albanians, partly Christians and partly converted Moslems, in about equal proportions; the Christians being probably slightly more numerous. Northern Epirus, however, was an integral part of Epirus to which historically it had always belonged. Its Greek character is attested to by the fact that Greek was the official language when it was ruled by Ali Pasha, early in the nineteenth century and it was practically independent of the control of the Sultan. The district remained predominantly Greek in spite of the influx of Albanians from the north and the emigration of Greeks to other countries. The intensely patriotic spirit of the Northern Epirotes was illustrated by the sizable contributions made to Greece by natives of this district, such as the brothers Zappa, who built the Exhibition Hall in Athens which bears their name, called the Zappeion. There were, moreover, 238 Greek schools in Northern Epirus besides numerous other public and religious institutions.
During the Balkan Wars, Venizelos, anxious to avoid any friction with
Italy, came to a private understanding with the Italian Government that
the Greek Army should not occupy Valona or Berat. The Italians in
return verbally agrees not to oppose the Greek annexation of Northern Epirus.
As a proof of good faith, the Greeks evacuated the small but
strategically important island of Sasseno at the entrance of the Gulf
of Valona, which had been ceded by Great Britain to Greece with the
Ionian Islands in 1864. At the conclusion of the Balkan Wars, the Great Powers
created an independent Albania; whereupon Italy and Austria demanded
the evacuation by Greece of Northern Epirus.
The Greek Government naturally appealed to the Powers, urging that the
question should be decided on the basis of self-determination by the
inhabitants, and won the support of the Triple Entente. Pressure from Italy and Austria however, led to a compromise by
which a commissioner was dispatched to the district to ascertain the
language of the inhabitants instead of taking a
plebiscite as to whether they wished to belong to Greece or Albania.
At the same time, the Albanians, under Ismail Kemal Vlore,
requested that the Great Powers grant them a state. To this purpose,
they held a national council at the port of Avlona (Vlore) and
proclaimed their independence on November 28, 1913. The result was that the Commission established by the Protocol of
Florence decided that Northern Epirus should form part of the Albanian State. On January 31, 1914, the Great Powers demanded that Greece withdraw her troops from Northern Epirus otherwise they would not recognise Lesbos, Chios and Samos (also liberated during the First Balkan War) as Greek. The Greek Government acquiesced in this decision and withdrew its
garrisons from the area which they had occupied during the Balkan Wars. During the Balkan Wars, Greek troops liberated all of historic Epirus including Koritsa, Argirokastro, Agios Saranda, Klisoura and Chimara. The Northern Epirotes reacted immediately and on February 16 by establishing a provisional government under Giorgios Christakis Zografos. The following day, independence was proclaimed in Argirokastro.
The Albanians reacted violently, committing atrocities against the
Greeks in the towns that were surrendered to them by the Greek Army ( Koritsa and Kolonia). The Northern Epirotes took up arms and were quickly reinforced by Greek volunteers from all over Greece. A war ensued between the Northern Epirotes and the Albanians, who were lead primarily by Italian officers. The following is a brief time-line of the campaign:
- March 2: The Greek Army leaves the Chimara area. The Albanians attack the village of Vouoni. They are quickly repulsed.
- March 7: The forces of Northern Epirus defeat the Albanian Army at Kodra.
- March 15: Northern Epirus forces attack the Albanian Army forcing them out of Klisoura.
- March 20: The local Greeks of Koritsa liberate their town from the Albanian occupiers.
- March 24: The Albanian Army recaptures Koritsa.
- April 9: Albanian troops are repelled at Piliouri.
- April 12: An Albanian unit is decimated by Cretan volunteers at Logara.
- April 18: The Albanian Army occupies Fort Busi on the Chimara-Agios Saranda road.
- April 25: The Northern Epirus Army, after a 3-day battle, routs the Albanian Army who flee leaving 500 dead on the battlefield. The government of Albania agrees to negotiate with the Northern Epirus government accepting all its interim demands.
- April 26: Negotiations begin at Corfu.
- May 5: The Protocol of Corfu is signed. As a result of the drubbing administered by the Greeks of Northern Epirus, Greece, Albania and the Great Powers recognize Northern Epirus' Greek character and accept its autonomy. The religious, linguistic and educational rights of its population are established, a clear recognition of the special interest of Greece in that region.
Unfortunately for the Greeks of Northern Epirus, the shortsighted policies of the King Constantine and the monarchist governments that replaced the architect of the Megali Idea, Eleftherios Venizelos, would relegate them to a permanent foreign occupation and destroy their dream of becoming part of Greece. King Constantine and his wife were very close to the German royal family. Their strong ties to Germany would subsequently cause them and their monarchist supporters to abandon the interests of Hellenism in lieu of a foreign policy that tilted in favor of Germany and her Bulgarian ally. They sabotaged the Allied efforts in Macedonia which were supported by Venizelos, including the surrender of a key defensiive position, the Rupel Fort, to German and Bulgarian forces. This action effectively gave up the hard won Greek sovereignty over Macedonia, but Greece was also deprived, as a result of this infamous treachery by her own Government, of control over Northern Epirus, which had been occupied by her with the consent of the Allied Powers at the beginning of the war. The Italians were only too ready to believe that the Greeks would betray Northern Epirus, just as they had abandoned Eastern Macedonia to the Bulgarians. The Italian Government, therefore, was able to make a case to the other Powers that it was essential that this region should be taken over by Italian troops. Italian occupation, which was based on Valona, was eventually extended until an Albanian front was created which linked up with the Allied Macedonian front. Thus, the distrust of Greece engendered by the Greek monarchist government gave Italy the opportunity of gaining a foothold, which she later refused to give up, upon territory which she had long coveted and thus a golden opportunity slipped through Greek fingers, to redeem the Greeks of Northern Epirus. Sad but true. Lest we forget.