Bringing together two new publications from Oxford’s Signal Books in this review for my Substack newsletter, this lively discussion of one of Europe’s most historic and least-understood backwaters looks at the north of Albanian through the eyes of two very different, albeit both British men: a WWII covert operations agent, and a late 20th-century academic. While their books are very different – the first captures a short but intense period of conflict from 1943-44, while the later covers thousands of years of history – these two books are oddly complementary and will be of great interest to any lover of the Balkans.
The first, Somewhere Near to History: The Wartime Diaries of Reginald Hibbert, SOE Officer in Albania, 1943-44, is actually a very important primary source for the war in the Southeast Europe theatre. Churchill’s Special Operations Executive, meant to operate behind enemy lines and famously, ‘set Europe ablaze,’ had rules such as to not keep a diary. Thankfully, Hibbert broke this rule, and history today is all the better for it. The fact that the book is so well-edited and comes with historic images and footnotes makes it very useful for specialists. but it’s a fun and engaging read for any armchair historian, which really gives the feeling for what it was like to be there, as he never expected to publish it. The journal was just Hibbert’s companion through a period of perilous hardship fighting a shadow war in the mountainous Balkans.
The second book, Nobody’s Kingdom: A History of Northern Albania, is the creation of late university professor Tom Winnifrith, and complements his earlier works on southern Albania and the Vlachs of Greece. A Classicist by training, Winnifrith believed in getting off the beaten track and engaging with the locals during his long research career and he brings the best of both worlds to this book. As the first academic survey of northern Albania on its own, it posits the ungovernable and fractious place as a sort of state in its own right, but goes on to elegantly cut through historical myth and supposition at every turn, resulting in a readable yet erudite account.
The first of these books was originally reviewed, in a somewhat different format, for the RUSI Journal (see my Book Reviews page), whereas the second is reviewed for the first time on Substack.
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