Bunkers of Albania

Albania is the land of bunkers. At first glance, it can be difficult to spot them – they are in derelict state, overgrown by vegetation, assimilated by the grey fabric of the city… However, once you get a hang of it, you will notice them. They are literally everywhere – situated in the middle of neighborhoods, playgrounds, cemeteries, farmlands, forests, beaches… They are the symbols of Albania’s 45-year totalitarian regime, which was one of the most oppressive among all the Communist regimes in the Eastern-bloc.

The Communists led the resistance during the Second World War in Albania, fighting against Italian and German invaders, as well as local collaborators. Eventually, in 1944, they managed to liberate the country with minimal external military assistance. Just two years later, in 1946, the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania was declared as a Communist state under the leadership of First Secretary Enver Hoxha and the Party of Labor.

The rebuilding of the country began with the support of Josip Broz Tito, the President of Yugoslavia. However, Tito’s rejection of Stalin and plans to integrate Albania into Yugoslavia caused the two countries to drift apart. As a result, the Albanian leadership looked to Stalin for guidance and support in their goal to industrialize the country. The relationship between Albania and the Soviet Union remained close until Stalin’s death. In his memoirs, Enver Hoxha, a hardliner Stalinist, recalls his apprehension about the post-Stalin leadership just days after Stalin’s passing:

“The way in which the death of Stalin was announced and his funeral ceremony was organized created the impression amongst us, the Albanian communists and people, and others like us, that many members of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had been awaiting his death impatiently.”

His suspicions regarding the new Soviet leadership’s intentions were heightened when, on 25 February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev (then the Soviet Prime Minister) delivered the ‘Secret Speech’ at the 20th Party Congress, denouncing Stalin’s purges. This speech was considered shocking at the time. The subsequent Soviet de-Stalinization efforts in the Eastern Bloc and the reconciliation with Yugoslavia were not well-received by the Communist leadership of Albania.

In 1959, during his visit to Albania, Khrushchev urged Hoxha to improve his relationship with Tito and proposed a new vision for the county, suggesting that Albania could become the Eastern Bloc’s orchard and holiday destination instead of an industrialized wasteland. Hoxha, outraged by Khrushchev’s condescending behavior, became more defiant towards Moscow and turned to China for support. However, China’s antagonism towards Moscow’s foreign policy eventually led to a split between the two countries, leaving Albania with no option but to declare its allegiance to Beijing’s side.

After the Cultural Revolution was launched in China by Mao Zedong in 1966, Hoxha developed his own version of a Cultural and Ideological Revolution in Albania. The Albanian leader’s focus was on reforming the economy, education system, government bureaucracy and army, as well as reinforcing his repressive system. During this period, he not only suppressed religion but also declared Albania to be an atheist state. As time passed, the country became more and more isolated from the rest of the world.

After Mao’s death in 1976, Hoxha became critical of the new leadership in China for their opening up towards the United States and Western Europe. China responded by withdrawing its support for Albania, leading to an inevitable split between the two countries. As a result, Albania announced the principle of self-reliance as the basis for its new strategy for economic development.

The communist regime, led by the increasingly paranoid Enver Hoxha, initiated a ‘bunkerization’ project in the early 1970s, resulting in the construction of around 750,000 bunkers of various sizes across the country. While there are some large command and artillery posts, such as the commander center on the outskirts of Tiranë (now Bunk’Art 1 museum) and the Cold War transportation tunnel in Gjirokastër (now Cold War Tunnel museum), most of these bunkers were small dome-shaped structures, single-person machine gun posts. The idea behind building this excessive number of ubiquitous concrete bunkers was to enable the population defend the country from these small defensive structures if Albania were ever invaded.

Despite their massive number, the bunkers were never used for their intended purpose, and the cost of their construction was exorbitant. This bizarre project ended up costing more than twice as much as France’s Maginot Line, a famous concrete defensive barrier constructed in northeast France in the 1930s to impede a potential German invasion, and it consumed over three times as much concrete. While some bunkers on the border with Serbia proved useful during the Kosovo War of 1999, the destruction of these structures is both difficult and expensive. Some have been repurposed as living or storage spaces, shops or cafes, while others have been at least painted in vivid colors, but most of them are just crumbling away in silence as a reminder of Hoxha’s obsession with a potential foreign invasion.

Enver Hoxha (1984) The Khrushchevites: Memoirs
Miranda Vickers (1999) The Albanians: A Modern History

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