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Albania Triumphs over Hoxha’s Tyranny

Albania Triumphs over Hoxha’s Tyranny

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This year a popular US travel company organized an unusual trip to hike in the Albanian Alps, which are locally known by the forbidding name: The Accursed Mountains. These limestone mountains rise steeply from the lowlands, and the views from the alpine valleys are spectacular. It does not seem appropriate that this inherent beauty is in any way accursed. But the word aptly describes Albania’s pitiless, Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1943-1984.         

The reign of terror destroyed the intellectual class, demoralized a population that existed on the brink of starvation, and reduced Albania to the world’s third poorest country. Yet reputable academic sources minimize Hoxha’s excesses and laud him for transforming the country from a feudal to an industrial economy and improving literacy and medical care. How is it possible that these great strides translated into zero economic growth and quarantined the country into an open-air prison that has been compared to North Korea?

While in Albania last month, I interviewed our group’s bus driver and dinner companion, Reshat, who lived 22 years under Albanian Communist rule. Did he acknowledge that Hoxha’s exuberant methods were justified in order to bring progress to an underdeveloped nation? Were his experiences consistent with Blendi Fevziu’s scathing biography, Enver Hoxha: The Iron Fist of Albania, or more aligned with a 2016 Guardian book review that suggested that Fevziu’s hatred of Communism and Hoxha biased his commentary? 

According to Fevziu, people were drawn to Hoxha’s charismatic personality and physical attractiveness. He was a mediocre student with a poor work ethic, who preferred socializing and discussing politics. After the Italian invasion of Albania in 1939 and the German occupation in 1941, Hoxha joined the Albanian Party of Labor at its inception. Yugoslavian Communist Party officials recognized his ruthlessness and organizational abilities and propelled his career that resulted in securing the post of First Secretary of the party at age 34. 

Not known for his bravery or combat experience, Hoxha prioritized the elimination of his political enemies, while partisans and other Communist-affiliated groups fought and died resisting the Nazi occupation. With the departure of German forces in 1944, he was well-placed to fill the power vacuum and begin the mass executions of rivals.

Punishments for the “overthrown classes” that constituted the merchants, intellectuals, professionals, and landowners included exorbitant taxes that were impossible to pay, and delinquency resulted in long prison sentences with hard labor. All cars and personal property were appropriated and transferred to the state.  Initially, confiscated land was redistributed to the peasants but within a year these properties were collectivized and transferred to the government, patterned after the Soviet kolkhoz system.

At the time of Hoxha’s rise to power, Albania’s history was one of oppression. The Ottomans conquered it in 1478 and ruled for over four centuries until independence was granted in 1912 after the Balkan Wars. An influential politician proclaimed himself King Zog in 1928 and ruled until 1939, when the Italians invaded and then passed control to the Nazis in 1941. These events molded a country of 1.1 million inhabitants living in an area the size of Maryland into a hodgepodge of fiefdoms controlled by wealthy beys who dominated an illiterate, agrarian peasant class. 

Hoxha, a committed Stalinist, established a secret police force, the Sigurimi, consisting of 200,000 operatives whose mission was to ensure the safety of the regime. A system of surveillance and denunciation enabled an extensive network of informers to generate a personal file on every adult in the People’s Republic of Albania. Forced manual labor extracted under appalling conditions in remote locations bore similarity to the Soviet gulag. The Sigurimi oversaw 39 prisons where in some instances 20 inmates were housed in cells of 100 square feet. 

Collective punishment was used to discourage resistance to the party. Due process was non-existent, and anonymous accusations were the norm. Anyone suspected of hostility to the party expected a certain conviction, punished by execution or exile to the gulag for up to 30 years. The victim’s family members were uprooted and condemned to a lifetime of permanent exile in Albania’s malaria-plagued marshlands. The quality of life descended to the subsistence level, with no prospect for advancement or further education. In his book Me Stalinin, Hoxha described Stalin in grandiose terms, “Stalin was not a tyrant; he was not a despot. He was a principled, fair, unassuming, and kind man, who paid attention to people, cadres, and his associates.”

After Stalin’s death, Hoxha became disillusioned with Khrushchev’s USSR, and in 1961, while desperately in need of financial support, established relations with Mao’s Communist China. Albania introduced its own version of the Sino-Cultural Revolution, which further deepened the country’s isolation and Hoxha’s xenophobic paranoia. He saw a hostile world intent upon conquering the small Balkan kingdom by military means. The construction of 750,000 bunkers, air raid shelters, and military fortifications speaks to his delusion.

In 1968 Hoxha received disquieting news from the French ambassador that a nun, Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian, requested to visit her ailing 80-year-old mother, who lived in Albania, and accompany her to Rome for medical care. Mother Teresa’s request received international attention and support from Charles de Gaulle, Jackie Kennedy, and the Pope. Hoxha’s security services advised against consent, noting that the nun was a dangerous security threat to the republic. The request was denied, and although Mother Teresa continued her efforts, she learned of her mother’s death in Albania in 1972.

Hoxha, whose father was an imam, brutally oppressed religion, and in 1976 the country’s constitution enshrined Albania as an atheist state—the only country in the world to receive this designation. In 1971 Dom Kurti, a priest, was executed for baptizing a baby in a private home, which provoked universal international condemnation. Thousands of priests and imams were arrested and served lengthy prison terms. Albania’s Cultural Revolution enlisted young fanatics to persecute dervishes of the Bektashi sect by subjecting them to public humiliation. Over 2,000 mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and Bektashi tekkes were damaged or destroyed

From the outset of Hoxha’s rule as party leader only his designated successor, Hysni Kapo, was spared execution, prison, or suicide.  Kapo had the good fortune of dying from pancreatic cancer at a clinic in Paris in 1979, but Hoxha’s second choice to be heir apparent, Mehmet Shehu, a fiercely loyal acolyte and hardliner, suffered a fate typical of the dictator’s whimsical style of rule. In 1981 Shehu’s favorite son informed his father that he had fallen in love with an attractive young volleyball champion, whose father was a university professor and member of an anti-Communist family. Without consulting Hoxha, Shehu consented to the marriage. The indiscretion enraged Hoxha, and within a month Shehu was denounced and committed suicide rather than face the firing squad. 

By the late stages of Hoxha’s rule, the country descended into further isolation and destitution. All foreign radio and television signals were jammed, and the country’s borders were ringed with barbed wire and electric fences. Sentries were ordered to shoot to kill those attempting to escape. Those not shot were sentenced from 10 years to life in prison; only 6,000 escaped Albania during the Hoxha years.

Peasants lived on the equivalent of $15/month while receiving meager food allowances that authorized a family of four one kilogram of meat per month. In the countryside, malnutrition and its associated diseases ran rampant. Corn meal with a bit of salt, sugar, and olive oil prevented starvation. Private property and individual initiative were forbidden, and party officials denied peasants the right to own livestock. By 1982 owning chickens was forbidden.

In 1984 a penniless Albania, despite an abundance of public works projects and literacy programs designed to teach only material the government deemed suitable, entertained an economic relationship with West Germany for the sole purpose of receiving foreign aid. Franz Josef Strauss, the prime minister of Bavaria, was given permission to travel through Albania on his way to Greece. His son registered this observation, “We reached Tirana…The town was in total darkness. There were no cars… At an exhibition of Albanian technology, we saw an Enver Hoxha Tractor. A friend who worked for Mercedes-Benz said that we used to make these in the 1920s…” Albanian technology had stood still for over 60 years.

Hoxha died in 1984 and his successor Ramiz Alia ruled for another five years until the regime toppled. In these 46 years, nearly 5,500 men and women were executed and 24,000 were sentenced to prison terms up to 35 years that were often extended during incarceration. Internal exile programs used to enforce collective punishment sent 70,000 victims to internment camps where many died due to harsh conditions.

Reshat lived in Communist Albania from 1967 until its fall in 1989, a period when Hoxha’s paranoia reached its zenith and grinding poverty reduced the population to hopelessness. Through an interpreter and the hiking group’s lead guide, Mirjeta, he recounted his personal experiences. Born in 1967, he lived the first 22 years of his life under Hoxha and his successor Ramiz Alia. Hoxha instituted a Stalinist regime simultaneously with his ascension to power.

Brute force and intimidation overwhelmed a populace that had not recovered from three years of Nazi occupation. Most Albanians lived in the country and were dependent on livestock. Hoxha mandated that a family could own only one or two cows, and by the 1980s no private ownership was allowed. An extensive network of spies constantly monitored citizens to ensure compliance with the law. The inability to legally own farm animals was particularly onerous for Reshat’s father and mother, who raised seven children. They lived on a diet of salt, bread, and olive oil, and if it were not for cornmeal, the family would have starved.

Desperate people are resourceful, and Rashat stated that sheep and pigs were hidden in homes to avoid detection. In one instance, his mother-in-law hid a sheep in her bedroom. The authorities arrived for a routine inspection, and the women denied any knowledge of harboring illicit livestock.  Before the police left the premises, her 3-year-old grandson entered the room and remarked, “Grandma, there’s a sheep in your bedroom.” The policeman was humored by the boy’s innocence, and his grandmother received only a scolding. Peasants were known to feed a liter of raki, a 40% alcohol-fortified wine, to pigs before inspections to keep them quiet and undiscovered.

Teachers and professionals were forced to quit their jobs and work as menial laborers—a policy implemented in Maoist China and in Cambodia under Pol Pot. Those actively opposed to the regime were eliminated, and family members were secondarily punished.  Children of political criminals could not attend school, and families were relocated from their homes to remote areas where life was difficult.

The population was exposed to unremitting propaganda from cradle to grave. The country was completely isolated, and people were told that Albania was the world’s most desirable country. Other countries were consumed by jealousy and ever ready to attack and claim Albania’s treasure. Protecting the homeland required eternal vigilance and willingness to die for the People’s Republic and for the demigod, Hoxha.

Arbitrary rules pervaded society and applied to the finest details—personal appearance, the length of trousers, the prohibition of pockets; the list was endless. It was impossible to keep track of them, and the public was informed by word of mouth. Enforcement started with verbal public shaming, followed by written notices displayed in public locations. Violators were ostracized from the community for fear of guilt by association. Beria’s statement, “Show me the man, and I’ll show you the crime,” summarizes the Albanian criminal justice system.

Religion was strictly forbidden and rarely practiced privately for fear of reprisal. In a country where about 60% of the people were Muslims by tradition, citizens were forced to drink raki, eat pork, or violate daytime fasting during Ramadan to expose practicing Muslims who worshiped secretly.

Communist youth groups were present in all schools and upon reaching age 18, one could become a member of the Communist Party. Joining was not mandatory, but party members received preferential treatment—better jobs, fewer work hours, and the opportunity for their children to attend preferred schools. Despite the benefits, Reshat estimates only 30% of those eligible became party members, although the number of spies and informers makes this number difficult to determine.

Reshat and many Albanians like him are a testament to the resilience of the people, who experienced extraordinary hardship but adjusted successfully. Their country is developing and energized by the freedom to speak and the ability to live their lives free of oppression. Albanians are staunch anti-Communist and recoil at the suggestion that in any way Hoxha’s excesses were justified. It is their fervent wish that the world becomes aware of the enormous sacrifices of the Albanian people and the importance of resisting tyranny at all costs.



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Author

  • Scott Sturman

    Scott Sturman, MD, a former Air Force helicopter pilot, is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy Class of 1972, where he majored in aeronautical engineering. A member of Alpha Omega Alpha, he graduated from the University of Arizona School of Health Sciences Center and practiced medicine for 35 years until retirement. He now lives in Reno, Nevada.

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