Somewhere Near to History
Somewhere Near to History:
The Wartime Diaries of Reginald Hibbert,
SOE Officer in Albania, 1943-1944
What a great title this book has, Somewhere Near to History. It comes from Hibbert’s very last thoughts at the end of his diary. The book is history and more than history. It adds important and unfiltered knowledge to the annals of Albania, especially the wartime years between 1943 and 1945. It contains primary-source memoirs of the politics and personalities around the struggle between the nationalists and communists as seen through the eyes of a young Englishman recently graduated from Oxford.
This History is the hand-written diary of Lieutenant Reginald Hibbert who was parachuted into Albania at the end of 1943 as part of the Special Executive Operations, SOE, whose task was to encourage and support armed opposition to the Nazi occupation. This Nazi occupation was in a country with a Quisling Government and weak, factionalised and shambolic resistance where it was only the Partisans who were really doing any fighting.
The book is of particular significance, because it is a record of the Albanian political scene in 1944-45. It gives a picture of the nature of resistance in that country and a perspective of the experiences of those days on the young Hibbert’s political views. It is a social history.
The names of such players as Abas Kupi, Gani Kryeziu, Muharrem Bajraktari, Enver Hoxha, Mehmet Shehu all appear in the book. Hibbert has one-to-one conversations with some of them and details them, e.g. “Muharrem ( …) has obviously seen more of the world than just Albania; but he would like to make Albania a world of his own.” Likewise, there are mentions and explicit comments about his fellow British SOE colleagues and team members.
Hibbert continually refers to the on-going hour-long conversations about Albanian politics, which were a real school for himself but also proof of the complexity and controversy of discussions around the future of independent Albania hardly 30 years old. It is a history of those vital months in the battle against the Nazi occupant, after the surrender of the Italians in 1943, and the struggles of the Partisans and the nationalists, their interactions with SOE and its British Liaison Officers, BLOs. In his notes written in the snow-covered mountains and under summer azure-blue skies, Hibbert presents a picture of all the political machinations and shifting allegiances, as well as the characters in the internal struggles for post-war Albania.
This is all compounded by his record of trying to influence the wisdom of the policy and air drops of his British masters based across the Adriatic sea, in Bari, Italy, through a wind-up radio. His objective was the need to focus their minds on backing Enver Hoxha and the Partisans. His feeling of impotence weaves through the pages of his diary: “On a minute scale our tragedy is like this. We observe rather than live this war: we are in the middle of it, yet we cannot fully share it, neither begin it or end it.”
In between all these activities we have a detailed and highly colourful descriptions of the life and daily human tribulations of these BLOs. It is an autobiography of one of those officers, a day-to-day record of his exploits. He was not just struggling with walks and marches through wild and deeply snow-covered mountain trails, often with no beaten track, wondering when the next meal might come, battling with radio contact with Bari, not just technically but politically, sleeping in an incredible range of accommodation with all the fleas, mites and lice as bed companions. He was dealing with the need to use and learn languages he had never really spoken before, in particular, Italian and Albanian. He records other tasks such as the shoeing of mules and horses, providing first aid to injured Partisan fighters, his having to amputate a soldier’s toe because of gangrene. He recalls the Italians, former POWs, who refused to surrender to the Germans, who acted as their cooks, blacksmiths, barbers and muleteers. His encounter with Jewish refugees sheltered in Albania is noted. There are interesting accounts of interactions between these BLOs, their teams and the local population.
The publication of Hibbert’s diary comes with a Foreword by James Pettifer, useful introductions and footnotes which provide good background information on the characters, military information, language and traditional issues. It has detailed description on the life and character of Hibbert himself. This is all the result of the dedicated work of the book’s editor, Hibbert’s daughter, Jane Nicolov. The pages written on the History of Albania in 1943 could have perhaps been more researched, as they fail to explain the real background to the concepts of the Old and New Albania during the war.
History apart, these pages are a chronicle of Hibbert’s own evolving political views and the impact those months had on them, as well as on his career. It is a conversation about the role of the individual in historical events and the sometimes disproportionate effect that experience has relative to the importance of those events as seen by others in the wider scheme of history. It is a graphic record of the attitude of the British to the plight and future of Albania at this time. This is a specific value of this journal written in those Korab mountains.
The diary is a story of an individual and history. It ends with the young, frustrated Hibbert saying that he feels he has been ‘somewhere near to history’ in the making but then seemingly has to close the door on it.
‘I have learned much from Albania about men and women and society and politics and history. It has contributed something to my character and mind and faculties. That something is all I carry away with me… I now become once more one of the millions of men who feel the results of history and never glimpse its shifts and their causes. Once more, in fact, an individual man’.
Somewhere Near to History: The Wartime Diaries of Reginald Hibbert is published by Signal Books and costs £19.99.