To put it simply, the Balkans has a bad reputation. Much of this is due to the long shadow cast by the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. To outsiders, it is a region of ferocious blood feuds, historical grievances and xenophobic politicians ready to surface at any time. Those of us who have spent time in the Balkans find that it is a pleasant place to travel. The scenery is spectacular, the food magnificent, the people generally warm hearted and the history incredible. It is a shame that the Balkans has been tarred with the bad reputation brush, but it is easy to see why. The years following the Cold War were filled with ethnic cleansing, brutish warfare and a series of authoritarian leaders who whipped their countrymen into violent feeding frenzies.
Amid the crazed discourse and horrific warfare, it was easy to forget about another Balkan nation that had just finished experiencing its own dreadful dictatorship, Albania. In the early 1990’s, what had once been Europe’s hermit kingdom awoke from a long nightmare to find itself a half century behind the modern world. The bizarre stories that began to leak out of the country were obscured by the fractious fighting in the former Yugoslavia. Albania was such an anomaly that it was almost forgotten. This was just the way its long time Stalinism on steroids leader, Enver Hoxha, would have wanted it. Hoxha’s name hardly rings a death knell when it comes to communist leaders. He might as well be a ghost, but the lost decades under his rule still haunt hundreds of thousands of Albanians who suffered one of the most bizarre and vile dictatorships in the annals of modern Europe.
The Hermit Nation – Taking A Hard Line
To understand the bizarre nature of what Albania suffered during Enver Hoxha’s long and terrible reign a single word will suffice, beards or to be more precise, the lack of them. The Hoxha regime’s most enduring trait was paranoia on a scale that would even put Stalin’s obsessive suspiciousness to shame. Outside (i.e. western influences) were strictly prohibited. In 1967 the banning of beards was enshrined in the Albanian constitution. This meant that all men had to be clean shaven or else. The consequences for those who failed to obey were dire. Often the police would shave the offender than subject them to severe beatings, time in prison or even worse. To have a beard was tantamount to a capital offense. It meant you were non-conformist or religious (Muslim or Orthodox Christian, it did not matter). The puppet master in chief Hoxha and his ever-evolving retinue of marionettes would not tolerate either. The idea that facial hair was subversive could only have been the work of someone as paranoid as Hoxha.
Hoxha’s paranoia extended well beyond Albania’s borders. When the Khrushchev government proceeded to call out Stalin’s excesses and normalize Soviet relations with the free world, Hoxha ended the alliance that had first sustained his power. He did the same with China after Mao decided to restore relations with the United States. A hard line could not be hard enough for Hoxha. By the late 1970’s, Albania was by far the most insular state in Europe and one of the most isolated in the world. It was North Korea in the Balkans. Albania became as mysterious as Hoxha. The latter’s rise to power near the end of World War II still baffles historians. It is not the only thing. Documenting the life of Hoxha has been a difficult task. It took thirty years after Hoxha’s death for the first English language biography of him to appear in print. Unfortunately, the book was more an endless litany of Hoxha’s crimes rather than an incisive portrait of the man.
Equality of Tyranny – Arrested Development
Historians are still mystified as to many of the basic facts surrounding Hoxha’s life, including why he was chosen to lead Albania’s communist movement. Adding to this knowledge gap is the fact that anyone who helped Hoxha acquire power was later purged. Outside of his immediate family, Hoxha spared no one. This was a man who had his own brother-in-law put to death. Constant surveillance, mass arrests, party purges, labor camps and summary executions were the means by which Hoxha exercised power for 41 years. The repetitive nature of Hoxha’s terror regime meant that everyone was considered suspicious and no one was above arrest. Hoxha’s own paranoia was inculcated to an entire nation. Understanding the source of Hoxha’s paranoia remains elusive, but its horrific effect on Albanians was all too real.
The cliché, damned if you do and damned if you don’t, pertained to life in Albania for both outsiders and insiders. The average Albanian lived in austere conditions at best and abject poverty at worst. By the end of Hoxha’s life in 1985, Albania was one of the world’s poorest countries with famine prevalent in the countryside. Meanwhile, those in power were privileged in only the most superficial sense of the word. They lived in a special area of the capital Tirana, known as the Block. This heavily guarded zone was replete with all the fashionable goods from the West denied to the rest of Albania’s population.
On the other hand, living in the Block made one a prime target for the next purge which was always forthcoming. Family, friends and confidantes fell from favor, often ending up in a labor camp or worse.
A Land Ruled By Paranoia– Bunker Mentality
The capricious nature of Hoxha’s ruling style only made matters worse. He could strike at any moment, Adherence and adulation were never enough to avoid falling out with Hoxha. A cult of personality was cultivated by his henchman, but like many a dictator this did little to ameliorate the effects of Hoxha’s deep rooted insecurities which manifested themselves in state sponsored terror. Hoxha saw enemies everywhere, both near and far. The ultimate expression of his fear were the concrete bunkers he ordered built all over the country to defend against an invasion which was imminent only in his own mind. They also happened to be his greatest legacy. These were the harbingers of a doom and gloom mentality. The bunkers were supposed to keep Albania safe from external invaders, but who was going to keep Albanians safe from Hoxha.