A Brief History of Modern Albania

Of all the countries we visited on this trip in which we spent enough time for me to feel I can judge them properly, Albania was the one I liked the most.  This is probably because I’ve been obsessed with Albania for years on a level comparable only with Georgia, and for largely similar reasons.  I was therefore absolutely convinced that I would enjoy Albania, so enjoy it I did.

Albania’s recent past is one of the more absurd bits of European post-war history, so I’ll run you through it quickly.

After the Second World War, Yugoslavia’s head of state Marshal Tito was on a mission to expand his state even further than the borders with which it eventually ended up; Bulgaria only survived as an independent state because the agreement drawn up by Stalin to absorb the country into Yugoslavia was rejected by Tito as being insufficiently favourable to him, although how that’s possible is beyond imagining.  This expansionist policy, incidentally, was one of the causes of Tito’s break with Stalin which placed Yugoslavia between the two European blocs for most of the Cold War (which is why Yugoslavia was the only Communist nation to enter Eurovision).

Albania also drew Tito’s attention – after all, he had Albanians in Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro.  Why not unite them with those in Albania? This was a step too far for Stalin, so Albania remained independent under the control of the Albanian Party of Labour and Enver Hoxha (pronounced hodja).  But Tito’s claims on Albania led Hoxha, already unconvinced of the genuine nature of his neighbour’s socialist qualifications, to regard Yugoslavia with a deep and paranoid suspicion.  When Yugoslavia and Stalin fell out in 1948, Albania was the first Eastern Bloc nation to denounce Tito.

In 1953, Stalin died.  Khrushchev’s secret speech, in which he denounced Stalin, was met with relief through the Eastern Bloc, which had suffered increasingly vicious purges since the late 1940s.  Hoxha was the exception.  He regarded the changes in doctrine as dangerous revisionism which strayed from the true intentions of Marxist-Leninist thought.  Soviet attempts to draw Tito back into the Eastern Bloc in the same period convinced Hoxha that the USSR was preparing to conspire in an attempt on Albania’s independence, and that Khrushchev was planning his assassination.  Albania drew closer to China, and when the Chinese Communists fell away in 1961, Albania broke off relations with the USSR and placed itself firmly in the Maoist camp.

Hoxha’s paranoia grew.  His fear of invasion became so great that he commissioned a design for a rounded concrete bunker which could be constructed all over the country.  The man who produced the design was made to stand in one while it was attacked with tanks and rockets; he emerged unscathed (although Hoxha later had him purged from the army under accusations of being a foreign agent).  Hoxha directed that thousands should be built all over the country.  In the event of foreign invasion, the ordinary citizens could (and, in Hoxha’s mind, clearly would) run to the nearest bunker with guns and defend their local area.
Ten years later, with the Great Leap Forward over and the Cultural Revolution in full swing, China began to open up again, to Hoxha’s unceasing alarm.  The Albanians suppressed news of Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 and began preparing for economic autarky.  After Mao’s death in 1976, as the Cultural Revolution was winding down, it was clear that China would take a different path.  In 1977, Tito was invited to Beijing, and for Hoxha, it was the end.  Albania declared that even China was no longer properly Marxist, broke off relations with the PRC, and spent the next 15 years in total North Korea-style isolation and lockdown.

To Hoxha, Tito’s China visit meant only one thing: Tito, along with the revisionist Chinese leadership and in collusion with the Soviets (obviously), was planning to invade Albania.  The bunker plan went into overdrive: over 700,000 were built for a population of around 1.8 million.  They were built in rows along the tops of mountains, by rivers, on slopes, along beaches, and all around the Albanian shores of lakes Ohrid and Skadar, both of which faced Yugoslavia.

Hoxha died in 1985, and a year later the construction was halted.  In 1992, the Party of Labour lost power – the last Communist government to fall in Eastern Europe.  Among the many, many problems faced by the new government was the issue of the bunkers.  How the hell did you get rid of them?

The answer is: You didn’t.  The bunkers were designed to be indestructible, and so they were.  They are the most visible part of Hoxha’s legacy.  Most of the urban bunkers are gone, along with some of those built in more beautiful parts of the countryside.  But largely, they remain.  I saw 77 bunkers during my visit to Albania, all of them outside cities.

Although the bunkers never saw action during the Socialist Republic, there is an interesting and bleakly comic footnote.  In 1992, the Democratic Party came to power, led by the Prime Minister Sali Berisha.  The Albanian understanding of capitalism was somewhat different to that practiced elsewhere, and by Jan 1997 most of the national economy consisted of pyramid schemes.  When they collapsed, the economy disappeared overnight, the government fell, and central authority disappeared.

In the weeks that followed, there was a sort of minor civil war.  Large parts of the national army defected.  Italian, American, Greek, and German troops were sent to the country, along with NATO forces.  Many thousands of people died.  One of the reasons that the security situation became so dire, and why it took so long for the government to re-establish control, was that armed groups of angry civilians used their local bunkers to defend their streets and towns, in exactly the way that Hoxha intended.  Interestingly, although Sali Berisha had to resign as Prime Minister, he never had to resign as head of the Democratic Party and was subsequently re-elected as Prime Minister in 2005, a position he still occupies today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe bunkers are not the only physical legacy of totalitarian rule: the central Tirana’s wide, precisely-angled roads and government buildings were constructed during the Fascist period and the Italian occupation which preceded World War Two.  Off the communist period a fair amount remains, including the gold mural over the National Museum and the Martyrs’ Cemetery in the western suburbs.  In the southern town of Berat, Hoxha had his own name written onto the turrets of the ancient fort overlooking the town, as well as painted vastly across the hills in the west (it’s since been altered to say NEVER).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the jewel in Albania’s communist architectural crown is Enver Hoxha’s Pyramid.  The Pyramid, which was built in a park next to the river in the very centre of Tirana, was meant to serve as a museum of Hoxha’s life and the struggle against Fascism.  It was closed in 1992, then reopened as a conference centre.  After NATO used it as a base during the War in Kosovo, it was closed and reopened again, this time as a cultural centre.  However, the stench attached to Communism in general and Hoxha in particular is such that no-one visited it, and for some years now it has been closed.  There is talk of one day demolishing it and building a new parliament there; for now, it looms vast and unwieldy.

In no other Balkan country we visited does the Communist legacy have such a grim feeling to it, nor is it as suppressed as in Albania.  The Pyramid is almost never indicated on maps of Tirana (and if it is, it’s as a cultural centre).  Hoxha’s widow, Nexhmije, has been involved in a battle with the Albanian government for some years to have Enver recognised as a Partisan leader during the War; the government is demanding all manner of proof and evidence and generally stalling the process in the hope that Nexhmije, now 92, will die before they have to make a decision.

In part this is because, as I mentioned, that period’s physical legacy is so immovable and so omnipresent that many Albanians don’t need or want to talk about it.  Hoxha’s rule doesn’t have the nostalgia that Tito’s holds for Bosnia – it’s inadvisable even to mention his name.  But after 20 years, it’s becoming less of a taboo to talk about his government, even if only so the Albanians can tell themselves that things aren’t as bad now.

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