Concrete Constructions – “Bunkerization” in Albania: Monuments To Megalomania

It is said that every country gets the leader it deserves. That is not quite true, because no country in the world deserved the leadership of Enver Hoxha. Hoxha’s forty-one year reign of staggering mismanagement and political malevolence in Albania was downright appalling. The regime he led was most notable for a backwardness not to be found anywhere else in Europe. The Hoxha regime provided a new definition to the phrase “regression to the mean.” The Albanian government was dishonest and depraved. The people were to be controlled rather than ruled, everything was done to keep power in the hands of one man, Enver Hoxha. For that, Albanians suffered grave injustices

Relief only came with Hoxha’s death in 1985 and the collapse of Albania’s communist government in 1990.  The nation finally had a chance to move on or at the very least to move forward. Unfortunately for Albania, a large proportion of its population, some 800,000 fled the country in the years since communism’s collapse. As for those Albanians left behind, there is always something left to remind them of the dreadful Hoxha years. Specifically, Albania is covered in concrete bunkers. These unsightly edifices pockmark the country’s otherwise beautiful landscape. To say that they are a constant reminder of the Hoxha regime is an understatement.

Bunker mentality - Concrete bunker on city street in Shkoder, Albania

Bunker mentality – Concrete bunker on city street in Shkoder, Albania (Credit: Jeroenverp)

Hunkering Down – War On Every Front
Some dictators secure their legacy by building monuments to themselves, Enver Hoxha built bunkers. At the midpoint of his long and terrifying tenure Hoxha became infatuated with bunker building. He ordered concrete bunkers constructed across every square kilometer of Albania. It was an infrastructure project of depressingly epic proportions informed by a dangerous combination of megalomania and stupidity. Meanwhile, Hoxha and his henchmen did not bother with building decent roads, because their construction efforts were consumed, quite literally, by a bunker mentality. The upshot was a profligate symbol of paranoia in almost every place imaginable. There are more concrete bunkers in Albania than the population of all but two of its cities.  From remote mountain passes to beaches, city streets to cemeteries, concrete bunkers grew like mushrooms. The policy that led to their construction was dubbed “bunkerization.” The kind of idea that a paranoid megalomaniac might find appealing.

The reasoning behind the bunkers was both ridiculous and predictable. Hoxha saw enemies everywhere, not only on the streets of Albania, but also casting covetous eyes on the nation’s territory. The Greeks were supposedly eyeing territory in the south. The Italians wanted to pounce on Albania’s Adriatic coastline. In the north stood Marshal Tito, a man who Albanians were told wanted to make their country another Yugoslav province. Hoxha’s vision of Albania’s future was the opposite of peace and prosperity. His dream would be most leader’s nightmare. It consisted of a multi-front war which would be led by NATO or Warsaw Pact forces looking to destroy Albanian independence. Thus, he needed to ensure his people’s preparedness at all costs. This was the reasoning behind the policy of bunkerization. Never mind that the policy made no sense.

The countries Hoxha claimed were potential invaders of Albania could never have afforded to occupy and rebuild a nation that by the standards of modern civilization was in a complete state of ruin. Members of Albania’s military and political apparatus who knew better did not dare voice their disapproval of Hoxha’s permanent state of war policy. Dissent was a virtual death sentence. Hoxha’s minions feared for their lives and marched in lockstep behind him as he led Albania into oblivion. It was an entirely emasculated nation. Hoxha’s diabolical leadership style was marked by regression rather than progression. Concrete bunkers were just the most recognizable symptom of a terrible illness that Albania contracted from Hoxha’s hard line brand of communism.

Getting defensive - Concrete bunker in an Albanian cemetery

Getting defensive – Concrete bunker in an Albanian cemetery (Credit: Elian Stefa & Gyler Mydyti)

Destructive Constructions – In Favor of The Imaginary
Building the bunkers was part of a decades long process to militarize the populace. Civil defense was taken with the utmost seriousness. Twice a month Albanians were required to take part in drills that often lasted for several days. They were even issued guns. Of course, the authorities kept the ammunition out of their hands. In Hoxha’s mind, Albania had to be ready for war at a moment’s notice and they were. Living under Hoxha’s regime required a wartime mentality, the only problem was that the real enemy was within. Albania’s government inflicted grievous wounds upon the citizenry. For instance, the spending on concrete bunkers came at the expense of nearly everything else in the economy.

Despite incessant professions of militarism during Hoxha’s campaign to keep Albania on a permanent wartime footing, the armed forces were badly equipped, poorly clothed and lacked modern weaponry. Meanwhile, the nation’s infrastructure fell further and further into disrepair. Every pound of concrete that went into the bunkers was a pound less that could be used to improve horrifically potholed roads. The concrete was also needed for building apartment blocks to alleviate a housing shortage. One bunker used enough material to build a two-room apartment. Unfortunately, the people had no say in the matter. Adding insult to injury, ordinary citizens were commandeered to keep the bunkers clean. Reality was ignored in favor of the imaginary.

The bunkers became hot spots for sex or other illicit activities kept from the prying eyes of state control. In truth, this was probably the sanest use of these structures. Scarcely any of Hoxha’s henchman cared to analyze their military efficacy. One Defense Minister who did publicly question their utility was promptly executed. The most common type of bunker was the pre-fabricated, dome shaped QZ Qender Zjarri (“firing position”) which could house one or two men at most who would fire out of a slit. Anyone trying to defend one of these bunkers in a shooting war would have been a sitting duck. The QZ was one of several types of bunkers Hoxha had installed across the country to fend off the invasions which were only imminent in his mind.

Scene stealer - Bunker in the Albanian Alps at Velbona

Scene stealer – Bunker in the Albanian Alps at Velbona (Credit: Elian Stefa & Gyler Mydyti)

Nowhere To Hide – Every Man Against Himself
In 1985 Enver Hoxha died and most of his worst ideas went with him to the grave. Bunker construction was halted not long after his death. In a tragic bit of irony, the bunkers were finally used in a shooting war during the early 1990’s as Albanians fought one another in a civil war to decide who would rule the country after communism collapsed. What no one seemed to notice is that Albanians had been fighting each other during the entirety of Hoxha’s reign. For forty-one years there was nowhere for Albanians to hide, not even in the concrete bunkers which covered their country.


An Empire State of Mind – The Albanian Grand Viziers of the Ottoman Empire

In the center of Tirana stands a monument to Albania’s greatest hero, Skanderbeg.
It is not surprising that Skanderbeg would be venerated in this small Balkan nation’s most sacred public space. He is universally revered as both a freedom fighter and symbol of resistance against the Ottoman Turkish onslaught during the 15th century. Following Skanderbeg’s death, the Turks occupied and administered Albania for over 500 years. Skanderbeg’s military and political skills were the only things keeping the Turks at bay. He was a unifier, bringing more Albanians under his leadership than anyone up to that time. This was as close as the notoriously fragmented Albanians would get to unification until the 20th century. Thus, the Skanderbeg Monument occupies the most prominent space (Skanderbeg Square) in the nation’s capital –- just as he occupies the most important place in Albanian hearts. There is also the fact that any man reduced to a single name in the Balkans (for example: Tito) is a historical figure of outsized importance. Skanderbeg was certainly that. His life, legacy and legend dwarfs that of all other Albanian historical figures.

An Albanian Original - Skanderbeg Monument in Tirana

An Albanian Original – Skanderbeg Monument in Tirana (Credit: Wolfgang Pehlemann)

Ottoman Albanians – Hard to Find Heroes
Skanderbeg is the essence of Albanian national heroism. This is in stark contrast with the most prominent national figures of modern Albania, King Zog and Enver Hoxha. They are viewed as either ridiculously corrupt or horrendously malevolent. Men who put their own self-interest over the national one. Ironically, their faults and foibles make Skanderbeg’s historical legacy shine that much brighter. Strangely enough, though Skanderbeg was a Christian fighting Muslim, Albania is now a majority Muslim nation venerating a Christian. Five centuries of Ottoman rule transformed Albania. Yet there were also many Albanians who transformed the Ottoman Empire. Consider that other than Skanderbeg, the most famous and powerful Albanians in history were the numerous Grand Viziers this small Balkan territory produced. The position of Grand Vizier in the Ottoman Empire was essentially a Prime Minister, conducting the most important imperial affairs.

By one calculation, there were 292 Ottoman Grand Viziers, 49 of these were of Albanian origin. This was second only to ethnic Turks in holding the empire’s second most powerful position. The position of Grand Vizier afforded a long list of Albanians the opportunity to exercise an unprecedented amount of influence over the empire. A Grand Vizier had power over all military and administrative appointments, as well as being the empire’s supreme judicial official. Grand Viziers could also command the army in battle. One Albanian family, the Koprulus, provided some of the most powerful Grand Viziers in Ottoman history, so much so that an entire era was named after them. The Koprulu era (1656-1683), saw several members of this powerful Albanian family reassert the empire’s dynamism through a series of reforms. These included anti-corruption measures. The empire was revived and expanded under their rule.

Survival of the Greatest - Koca Sinan Pasha served 5 terms as Ottoman Grand Vizier

Survival of the Greatest – Koca Sinan Pasha served 5 terms as Ottoman Grand Vizier

Grim Realities – The Grand Executions
Since Grand Viziers served at the Sultan’s pleasure, they could also be deposed at any time. This made their position precarious, if not downright dangerous. For instance, the aptly named Selim the Grim went through seven Grand Viziers during his eight years as Sultan. One of those was the Albanian, Dukakinoğlu Ahmed Pasha, who held the office for only two and a half months before Selim had him beheaded. While Grand Viziers executed affairs of state, they were also liable to end up the recipient of a very different execution. 44 Grand Viziers were executed and another 11 killed during rebellions. They were often sacrificed by the Sultan as scapegoats for campaigns or policies gone wrong. Albanian Grand Viziers were certainly not immune to this unkind fate. Take the example of Kemankes Kara Mustafa Pasha, who on multiple occasions attempted to save himself by resigning. After falling from favor due to lurid court politics, Kara Mustafa was executed on the orders of Sultan Ibrahim “the mad”.

One of the most intriguing Albanian Grand Viziers was Mere Huseyin Pasha. He was given the name Mere, which means “take it” in Albanian because he used this word when ordering his henchmen to behead enemies. Reputedly, Mere was the only Grand Vizier who did not speak Turkish. He served in the role twice with the second time proving fatal. No one knows if Sultan Mustafa I gave the order for his Grand Vizier’s execution by saying “Mere.” Not every Albanian Grand Vizier met a deadly end, one even managed to live a long life while holding down the job multiple times. Koca Sinan Pasha managed to survive all five of his terms as Grand Vizier from 1580 – 1596. The fact that he died in peace with a large fortune speaks to his talents as a politician and administrator.

Grand Viziers were not the only high-level Ottoman officials to come from Albania. There were also approximately one hundred Grand Masters of the elite janissary guard. They also dominated much of the upper ranks of the bureaucracy and military right up until the Empire’s waning days. To give but a couple of examples, two of the five Ottoman generals at the Battle of Gallipoli were Albanian. Two Ottoman Prime Ministers during World War I were also of Albanian descent. Some historians also believe the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk may have been an ethnic Albanian.

Ethnicities of all 292 Ottoman Grand Viziers - Albanian Grand Viziers are in lime green

Ethnicities of all 292 Ottoman Grand Viziers – Albanian Grand Viziers are in lime green

Ottomania – An Albanian State of Affairs
All these examples lead to one overarching question: Why were Albanians so prominent in the upper echelons of the Ottoman Empire? After all, Albania is not a very large place and its population base was smaller than many other areas of the Empire. One reason may be that Albanians were more willing to convert to Islam than other ethnic groups within the empire. This was a path to upward mobility that Albanians often followed. It was also a way to avoid extortionate levels of taxation that were imposed from the 17th century onward to religious minorities. Meanwhile, converts to Islam would not only pay lower taxes, but also receive land grants.

At a time when society and the economy were chiefly based around agriculture, free land was a major draw. Albanians took advantage of all these paths to gain an exalted place in imperial affairs. Yet five hundred years of Ottoman rule retarded economic and social growth in Albania as well as the development of a national consciousness. Paradoxically, since Albanians held many powerful positions within the Ottoman Empire they partly had themselves to blame. All the way to the end, they were as Ottoman as anyone in the empire.

A Pistol Beneath His Pillow – Leka of Albania: The Failed Restoration (Part Two)

One would think that life as an exiled heir to a royal throne would be rather relaxing. There is little to do all day except meet with fellow emigres who generally agree with everything you say. Answering correspondence and taking calls are your most taxing pursuits. Surrounded by sycophants while living in semi-posh circumstances, you stay on as the guest of a dictator who guarantees your perpetual safety. You play a waiting game, hoping that circumstances beyond your control finally take a turn for the better. The heady days of dodging revolutions, ordering enemies imprisoned or shot and fleeing from mass movements that threaten your well being are a thing of the past, as is your claim to a throne which has long since been abolished. This is unfortunate but compared to the alternative – life in prison or execution – it’s not bad work if you can get it. That is unless you were Crown Prince Leka, heir to the Albanian throne. Leka aspired to greater things than being a royal has been. Enjoying the good life in Spain as a guest of Generalissmo Francisco Franco was never going to be enough for Leka.

A Royal Family - Leka flanked by his wife Susan and mother Geraldine

A Royal Family – Leka flanked by his wife Susan and mother Geraldine

Armchair Warrior – Taking Target Practice
Crown Prince Leka was a man with the military on his mind, if not in his blood. The “Royal Minister of His Court” said from the time Leka was born, there had always been a pistol tucked beneath his pillow. He was being subconsciously and at other times not so subtly groomed for a militaristic upbringing. He was educated at the British Military Academy at Sandhurst. He then received a commission in the British Army as a Second Lieutenant or perhaps it was his imposing physical presence. At six feet, eight inches he certainly towered over everyone around him. Maybe his martial instincts stemmed from an effort to overcompensate for being heir to a throne not many in the western world took seriously. Whatever the case, Leka’s life was devoted to the martial arts. His main profession was as an armchair warrior and arms dealer, though publicly he claimed to be selling industrial and agricultural equipment to Middle Eastern nations.

Whatever his real line of work, it is indisputable that Leka was able to accumulate his own reserve of armaments. This in turn gave him credibility as president of the Military Council for the Liberation of Ethnic Albania. Leka always denied claims that he was an arms dealer, stating that such rumors were the product of Albanian communist propaganda that tried to undermine him. Later in life, he would sue and win two defamation lawsuits against French magazines that had referred to him as an arms dealer. As for his own collection of weapons, Leka needed these to protect himself from potential assassination. He feared throughout his life that the Albanian secret police were targeting him. There was certainly some truth to this story. Leka always professed a readiness to expel the communist government of Albania. Just how he might do this was open to question.

Keeping Up Appearances - Leka in suitable attire

Keeping Up Appearances – Leka in suitable attire

Armed To The Teeth – King For Less Than A Day
At his villa in Madrid, Leka trained or at least pretended to train liberation forces to free Albania from the communist yoke. This brought him attention from journalists and the Spanish government, which post-Franco did not need an Albanian pretender playing wargames on their soil or stating that he planned to overthrow the Albanian government. When a large arms cache was discovered in his home, the Spanish government forced Leka to leave the country. The next port of call for this pariah were pariah states, first Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) and then apartheid South Africa. The only question for Leka was whether he would make it to southern Africa. When his flight across Africa stopped to refuel in Gabon, government troops surrounded it. The soldiers were under orders to detain Leka and deliver him to Enver Hoxha’s Albanian government who preferred his head on a stick rather than wearing a crown. True to his martial form, Leka appeared at the aircraft’s door brandishing a bazooka. Soon he was on his way to South Africa, where he and his Australian wife Susan would live until communism collapsed in Albania.

The ridiculous notion that Leka could someday reign as king became a possibility during the 1990’s as post-communist Albania was riven by economic shocks and political chaos. Only a man with pretensions to greatness, a massive ego and a daunting lack of diplomatic ability would have been arrogant enough to believe he could stroll into Albania and lead such an unruly nation into the bright uplands of democratic freedom. Leka was that man. For Albania, he was to become a royal pain in the ass. His first attempt to assume what he felt was his rightful inheritance took place in 1992. While trying to enter his homeland for the first time in over half a century, Leka produced a passport that had been issued to him by his own Royal government in exile. It listed his occupation as “king”. The Albanian authorities failed to see the humor in this quasi-official document, nor did they honor it. Leka was told that he would need a real Albanian passport, not a made up on. He was dutifully turned away. This only stiffened his resolve to return.

A Family Affair - Leka with his Australian wife Susan

A Family Affair – Leka with his Australian wife SusanA Family Affair – Leka with his Australian wife Susan

Optimistic Opportunism – Grasping For Power
All Leka needed was another opportunity. That opportunity arrived sooner than he might have expected. After pyramid schemes collapsed, leading to a financial crisis that destroyed the savings of Albanians, anarchy consumed the country. The government had trouble keeping any semblance of order. Shots were fired, people died, riots ensued. Albania was in complete turmoil. As the crisis worsened, Leka became a potential savior for Albania. A referendum was soon organized to decide whether Albania would restore the monarchy. Leka had high hopes that he would be victorious. His confidence was not shared by the masses. Two-thirds of Albanians voted against a restoration of the monarchy.

Leka was infuriated by the result and refused to accept it. He claimed the government had organized a campaign of voter fraud to defeat the referendum. He took to the streets with his supporters. After shots were fired, Leka’s stay in the country was short lived. Meanwhile, the populace was more concerned with their own personal financial distress than Leka’s failed power grab. He was forced to flee the country once again. In truth, the failed referendum may have saved Leka from an even worse fate. Albania was no place for political novices or pretenders to an obsolete throne.

Click here for: Rolling Up The Red Carpet – Leka of Albania: The Comeback King (Part Three)

From Nothing More Than His Imagination – Leka of Albania: The Man Who Would Not Be King (Part One)

Back in my college days I had a friend who had grandiose ambitions of making deep, meaningful films. The kind of art house fare that is the preserve of pretentious pseudo-intellects, whose main attribute is a high opinion of themselves. This certainly explains the cinematic designs of my friend, who made possibly the worst films I have ever seen. Imagine a young man standing in front of a mirror with a zombie like expression plastered on his face. Then suddenly stock footage is shown of a freight train steaming down a track with its whistle blaring. This was a surprising take to say the least. My friend tried to attach himself to other misunderstood film directors who were shunned by the unenlightened public. He stated that his main influence was the German director Wim Wenders, who made the second worst films I have ever seen.

Not long thereafter, my friend became a former one, as he recoiled angrily at my questioning of his incomprehensible films. He grew increasingly haughty and arrogant, viewing anyone who could not understand his artistic endeavors for their greatness as little more than provincial fools. As a sort of laughable thought experiment, I used to imagine my former friend graduating to self-declared greatness. He was the kind of guy who would have awarded himself an Oscar, if that accolade had not been beneath him. My friend was akin to a self-declared monarch who had no throne to ascend. He would have made a great would king of Albania. If it did not already have one.

Like Father Like Son - King Zog & Leka

Like Father Like Son – King Zog & Leka

Setting A New Course – A Royal Mess
This friend came to mind while I was reading about Leka, Crown Prince of Albania. Here was a man who aspired to royal greatness, but whose efforts. whether by a perpetually unenlightened Albanian public or the vicissitudes of geopolitics were thwarted. His attempts to assume what he considered his rightful place among European royalty were not successful. That never stopped Leka from having a high opinion of himself, to the point where he saw Albania as his personal inheritance. This was stretching the limits of credulity. Leka spent almost none of his childhood in the country and never set foot on Albanian soil until he was 48 years old. Nevertheless, Leka was nothing if not ambitious, something he shared with his father, King Zog.

It was Zog who created a monarchy out of nothing more than his imagination and then proclaimed himself King of Albania. He single-handedly founded a European house of royalty just a decade after such exalted dynasties as the Habsburgs and Romanovs were ruined by revolution. An impressive accomplishment, even if some did not take Zog seriously. Leka had the same sort of delusional grandeur as his father. Being heir to the throne his father created only stimulated a need for recognition. He thought himself born of greatness, a man who might lead Albania out of the Stalinist wilderness in which it was lost. This was enough to set his life on one of the strangest courses any prospective monarch has ever followed.

Mothers Finest - Queen Geraldine with Leka I

Mothers Finest – Queen Geraldine with Leka I

At Home Abroad – The Albanian Globetrotters
The heir to the throne of Albania was born in the early morning hours on April 5th, 1939 in Tirana at the Royal Palace to King Zog and his wife Queen Geraldine. While the king was Albanian through and through, the mother’s background was a quixotic mixture of Hungarian aristocratic and American blue blood. The heir was given the name Leka, which is the Albanian form of Alexander. Unfortunately for the infant heir, only two days after his birth the royal family was forced to flee the country. The Italians were tired of propping up Zog’s profligate corruption. They invaded when Mussolini decided to invade in the hopes of recreating what he believed would be a new Roman Empire. Leka and his mother were put into an ambulance and transported through the mountains to Greece. Zog would soon follow with over a hundred members of his retinue in tow. Along with him came ten cases of valuables. These, along with the gold reserve of Albania’s treasury, which Zog had secretly been moving to England and Switzerland, would ensure he and his family would live comfortably on the proceeds of his theft.

Zog never returned to Albania. It would be over fifty years before Leka would return to the land that might have been his to rule. He would have no historical memory of Albania to base his future claims to the throne upon. That never stopped Leka from trying to get back to his royal roots. His lightning quick exile meant Leka would spend much of his life globetrotting. He and his parents would live in Great Britain at several addresses. The most notable of these was an entire floor of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in London. They then spent several of his formative years as the guest of another embattled monarch. King Farouk in Egypt. At an English school there, he became boyhood friends with the heir to Bulgaria’s throne. Leka was educated at a variety of highbrow institutions, including Sandhurst in England and the Sorbonne in France. His education at Sandhurst led to Leka receiving a military commission in the British Army.

The Man Who Would Not Be King - Leka I

The Man Who Would Not Be King – Leka I

The King & I – Would Be Monarch
After his father died in 1961, Leka was proclaimed King of Albania by the Albanian National Assembly in Exile at a hotel in Paris. This state of royal affairs fit the strange pattern of Leka’s life as a would-be monarch. He was the nominal choice to lead the country by Albanians abroad, but their support and his title meant next to nothing. Albania was a hermit nation locked in the iron grip of the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha. A hardline communist dictatorship that did not allow outsiders in or its citizens out. Leka had no military or political power with which he might attempt to overthrow the regime. All he could do was look on helplessly from abroad while tending to dubious business interests. Leka was said to trade in commodities. His definition of commodities would give new meaning to that word. Leka’s life was about to enter a much more bizarre phase.

Click here for: A Pistol Beneath His Pillow – Leka of Albania: The Failed Restoration (Part Two)