Bunkers of Albania

Albania is the land of bunkers. At first, it might be hard to notice them – 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, in the middle of neighborhoods, playgrounds, cemeteries, farmlands, forests, beaches… They are the symbols of the 45-year long regime, one of the most severely totalitarian among all the Eastern-bloc Communist regimes.

During the Second World War, the resistance in Albania was driven by the Communists, who fought against both Italian and German invaders, as well as local collaborators. Finally, they liberated the country with minimal external military assistance in 1944. Only a few years later in 1946, the Communist state named People’s Socialist Republic of Albania was proclaimed 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, due to Tito’s rejection of Stalin and plans to integrate Albania into his country, the two countries grew apart from each other. From that point onward, Stalin was who showed the way for the Albanian leadership and supported their goal for the industrialization of the country. The relationship between Albania and the Soviet Union remained quite close until the death of Stalin. In his memoirs, hardliner Stalinist Hoxha recounts the apprehension he had about the post-Stalin leadership, just days after Stalin’s death:

“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 about the intentions of the new Soviet leadership were further raised when Nikita Khrushchev (then the Soviet Prime Minister) on 25 February 1956, at the 20th Party Congress delivered the ‘Secret Speech’, a shocking speech in its day, which denounced Stalin’s purges. The subsequent efforts of de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc as a whole, and reconciliation with Yugoslavia did not seat well with the Communist leadership of Albania.

During his visit to Albania in 1959, Khrushchev pressured Hoxha to improve his relationship with Tito and painted a new vision for the county – Albania could become the orchard and holiday destination of the Eastern Bloc rather than an industrialized wasteland. Disgusted by Khrushchev’s patronizing attitude, Hoxha’s defiance of Moscow became more pronounced and he turned to China for support. However, China’s open hostility towards Moscow’s foreign policy ended in China initiating a split between them. Which left Albania with no choice but to declare their allegiance on the side of Peking.

After Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in China in 1966, Hoxha developed his own Cultural and Ideological Revolution. The Albanian leader focused on reforming the economy, education system, government bureaucracy and army as well as reinforcing his repressive system. From this time, he not only suppressed religion but also declared Albania to be an atheist state. Meanwhile, the country became increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.

Soon after Mao’s death in 1976, Hoxha criticized the new leadership of China because they opened up toward the United States and Western Europe. The Asian country responded by withdrawing its support for Albania. The split between them became inevitable and the principle of self-reliance was announced in Albania as the underpinning of the country’s new strategy for economic development.

The communist regime, under the leadership of the increasingly paranoid Enver Hoxha, started a ‘bunkerization’ project in the early 1970s, which led to the building of some 750,000 bunkers of various sizes across the country. There are few 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), however, most of these bunkers were small dome-shaped structures, single-person machine gun posts. The idea behind the construction of such a ridiculous number of ubiquitous concrete bunkers was that if Albania would have ever been invaded the population itself could defend the country from these small defensive structures.

The bunkers were never used for their intended purpose while the cost of this bizarre undertaking was more than twice as much as France’s infamous Maginot Line (a concrete defensive barrier in northeast France constructed in the 1930s to obstruct the German invasion) and consumed over three times as much concrete. (For the sake of full truth, some bunkers on the border with Serbia proved to be useful during the Kosovo War of 1999.) The destruction of these bunkers is difficult and expensive. Small number of bunkers have since been destroyed, others repurposed as living or storage spaces, shops, cafes… or at least painted in vivid colors. However, 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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