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.


A Lifetime Of Wandering – King Zog & Queen Geraldine: Unrestored Royalty (Part Two)

King Zog and Queen Geraldine of Albania were forced into exile after the Italian invasion of Albania in the spring of 1939. There must have been a sense of déjà vu for the queen. Her childhood had been spent nation hopping around central and western Europe. Now as the one and only Queen of Albania she was sent on what was to become a lifelong odyssey. The royal couple’s first port of call was Greece, where they arrived with 115 members of the royal retinue in tow. Before long they were off to Turkey then Romania, Poland, the Baltic republics, Sweden, Belgium and France before landing in London. The latter city was where Zog, always a sucker for extravagant spending, rented an entire floor of the Ritz Carlton Hotel. He funded the family’s ostentatious lifestyle from funds he had stolen from Albania’s gold reserve. Even with an immense personal fortune, Zog’s spendthrift ways jeopardized the lavish lifestyle he and the queen felt was rightfully theirs. Something eventually had to give and one of the first things to go bad were the couple’s finances. They eventually settled on a manor house in the English countryside. The plan was to wait for the Italians, then later the Germans, to be thrown out of Albania so that Zog could regain the throne.

Queen Geraldine and King Zog in exile

Queen Geraldine and King Zog in exile

Beyond Control – Citizens of Everywhere & Nowhere
King Zog was never allowed the opportunity to return to Albania. The nation was captured by a totalitarian communist government led by a crazier than usual Stalinist dictator by the name of Enver Hoxha. Like Zog, Hoxha rose to power and then kept it by eliminating his enemies. Unlike Zog, Hoxha was much cannier at managing Albania’s foreign alliances. When the Yugoslavs grew too influential, Hoxha aligned Albania with the Soviet Union. When the Soviets wanted to build a naval base on Albania’s Adriatic coast, Hoxha threw in his lot with Maoist China. He was able to consolidate his control over the country by having his opponents murdered. This was exactly the same thing Zog had done when he was in power. The names and ideologies may have changed, but for Albania the turmoil continued. All the while, King Zog, Queen Geraldine and Crown Prince Leka languished in exile. The British were not about to involve themselves in the affairs of Albania, a distant, impoverished country with an odd sounding name. Zog did manage to impress at least one British politician during his stay in Great Britain. Conservative MP Julian Amery stated that Zog was the cleverest man he ever met. Compliments were nice, but they would do nothing to restore the royalty of Albania.

Zog and Geraldine moved to Egypt after the Second World War ended. The Egyptian royal family had its origins in Albania. Thus they were happy to host their distant kin. This arrangement lasted into the early 1950’s, when King Farouk was thrown out of power. After the coup, Zog and Geraldine visited the United States where they decided to purchase a sixty room mansion in Nassau County, New York. They then made the rather strange decision of choosing not to live there. What Geraldine thought of the royal family’s rootless existence is anyone’s guess. They were becoming world citizens rather than ruling family. Geraldine had lived in over a dozen countries. The rootlessness must have seemed  somewhat normal to her by this point in her life. As for Zog he longed to regain his throne. Such a prospect became more and more distant as the years passed. Finally, the couple settled on a long term residence in France.

Royal Family Without A Country - King Zog, Queen Geraldine, and Crown Prince Leka in exile

Royal Family Without A Country – King Zog, Queen Geraldine, and Crown Prince Leka in exile

The King Is Dead – Long Live The Queen
King Zog spent his final years with his wife and son in France. It was nothing short of a miracle that a man who had lived one of the most unhealthy lifestyles possible – smoking like a chimney and staying up all hours of the night – lived to the age of sixty-five. The cause of his death was not disclosed, but could have been summed up as too much hard living. At the time of his death, Albania was completely closed off to the outside world. There was no hope of returning his remains to the hermit nation he had once ruled over with absolute authority. He was laid to rest in a cemetery close to Paris. His death was not the end of the story for Albanian royalty. Geraldine kept hope alive by insisting that she be referred to as “Queen Mother of Albania” and that Crown Prince Leka was now the rightful heir to the throne. In a hotel room in Paris he was formally anointed King of Albania. Such actions made them little more than a footnote in world affairs at the time.

Nothing would change unless Albania came under a new form of government. In the meantime, the Queen and her son continued their movements abroad, relocating to South Africa. They never gave up the dream of returning to Albania, but the prospects of it happening looked bleaker than ever. That was until the Iron Curtain fell and a couple of years later communism in Albania collapsed. Leka tried going back to Albania in 1993 to reclaim the throne and was promptly tossed out of the country. He had better luck four years later when Queen Geraldine accompanied him. It was the first time she had been back since fleeing a couple of days after Leka’s birth in April 1939. A referendum was held at the time to see whether the monarchy should be restored to power.

A lifetime of wanderings - Queen Geraldine

A lifetime of wanderings – Queen Geraldine

Back To The Beginning – The End Of A Long & Twisted Tale
Despite the wretched governance and venal corruption shown by Albania’s post-Communist governments, monarchical rule was an anachronism to most Albanians. The majority of whom had not even been born when King Zog last ruled the country. Only 30% voted in favor of a restoration. This finally put an end to the long and twisted tale of the Albanian monarchy. That was except for Queen Geraldine. Once again, she took up residence in the country. She lived out the final years of her life in a modest home in the capital city of Tirana. She would die there in 2002.  A lifetime of wandering had finally come to an end for her.  The surreal fairy tale died out right where it began.

Click here for: A Twisted Fairy Tale – King Zog & Queen Geraldine: An Albanian Love Affair (Part One)


Gray Men in Gray Suits – The Long Lives of Communist Leaders

Think of Leonid Brezhnev, his tenure as head of the Soviet Union makes him the leader of what I shall call the “Gray Men.” These were the leaders of the Warsaw Pact nations whose most notable achievement was how long they stayed in power. Words such as rigid, stolid, and geriatric come to mind as their defining characteristics. Those terms pretty much sum up the popular persona of Brezhnev. He looked the very essence of frosty, remote and ossified. Incredibly, Brezhnev was not even close to being the longest serving Warsaw Pact head of state. He took over as leader of the Soviet Union when Nikita Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, staying in power until 1982 (18 years). In true communist fashion, during his final years, the Soviet state claimed the increasingly haggard Brezhnev was not suffering ill health, even though he was surrounded by a cadre of physicians. No one it seems ever got out of the Communist party alive.

Leonid Brezhnev in color

Leonid Brezhnev – One of the original Grey Men in color
(Credit: National Archives)

For the Soviets and their allies the ideas of progress and innovation, at least on a leadership level, were anathema. The lone time during the Cold War when the Soviets tried some new blood at the top resulted in the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev. And look how that turned out! It seems that the communists valued stability (read: status quo) above all else. Reform was a dirty word. Looking at the outcome of the Gorbachev era from a communist’s perspective, they certainly had a right to be fearful.  So they resisted reform, turn over at the top or anything else that might be construed as progressive. And as the Soviets went, so their satellites followed. That brings us to a group of men who can best be characterized by their long goodbyes, too long. These were leaders who wore out their welcome long ago and in some cases they never were welcomed.

The Gray Men
East Germany – The title “General Secretary” was a byword for being the leading dictator of a dictatorial government. The top leadership post in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party. Look out for any government that has democratic or people’s as part of its official name. That usually means they feel compelled to shoot their citizens. Walter Ulbricht held onto the top post in the GDR for over two decades 1950 – 1971 (20 years 10 months). Ulbricht survived the Stalin era, but not the Brezhnev one. He was retired “due to poor health.” In other words, he fell out of favor with the Soviets. Ironically, his inability to build a better relationship with West Germany did him in. Wasn’t the west supposed to be their enemies? Following his ouster, Ulbricht had scarcely two years of life left in him. We have to give Ulbricht some kudos though for his goatee. He looked rather suave in comparison to almost all of his fellow travelers in the Warsaw Pact. On the other hand, the powerful head of the Soviet Union’s NKVD (precursor to the KGB), Lavrenti Beria is reputed to have called Ulbricht “the greatest idiot he had ever seen.”

Poland –
Wladyslaw Gomulka was First Secretary of the Polish United Worker’s Party (note: United or Unity is another communist code word for we have shot or imprisoned all dissenters) from 1956 until 1970 (14 years and two months). This was the second time he had been put in charge of the country. The first was in the immediate aftermath of World War II from 1945 to 1948. He fell out of favor after that and spent his time like so many other communist leaders before and after him learning about life in prison. Riots and strikes brought Gomulka back to power and over a decade later would bring him down as well. In 1956 he took charge after a near revolution broke out in Poznan over economic conditions. Gomulka immediately raised wages, alleviated food shortages and instituted other popular measures which staved off unrest. Unfortunately what became known as “Gomulka’s thaw” suffered from a deep freeze in the 1960’s. An ill wind blew in from the east that caused him and his nation to chill out. He put into place increasingly repressive measures basically because the Soviet’s told him to do so. The man who had once been known for cultivating a “Polish Way of Socialism” was brought down when shipyard strikes turned bloody on the Baltic. This would not be the last time that shipyards played a prominent role in defying communism in Poland. Gomulka, in an ominous precursor to what would happen to Ulbricht less than six months later, was removed for “health reasons” in December 1971. The strange thing is that Gomulka lived another twelve years following his removal. Even stranger, he did have health problems. In 1970, it seems he had suffered a stroke.

Czechoslovakia – Gustav Hasek rose to the helm of Czechoslovakia following the Soviet Invasion of his country in 1968. He would rule for 14 years, 1969 – 1987 (18 years, 8 months).  He was put in charge of “Normalization.” Well if I am sure of one thing, it is that Hasek craved “Normalization.” You would to, if you had been imprisoned by both fascist and communist governments multiple times in the 1940’s and 50’s. This had included a sentence of life imprisonment for “bourgeouis nationalism.” The majority of the years Hasek spent in prison were decreed by his own party, the one he would come to lead. Of course, this being communism, where forwards was so often backwards and vice versa, Hasek was rehabilitated in 1963. This started his rise to power. Hasek’s greatest feat may well have been gaining his nation’s supreme position despite being a Slovak, in a nation dominated economically, politically and intellectually by Czechs. Then again with the post- communist breakup of the Czechoslovak state into two separate nations who’s going to remember that. For that matter who will remember Hasek. That’s what he gets for being so “normal.”

Hungary – Janos Kadar was installed by the Soviets in the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He willingly carried out Soviet orders to imprison or execute all dissenters. He did this over the next couple of years without a hint of remorse. He was the most hated man in Hungary. And yet Kadar would last a remarkable three decades in power, 1956 – 1988 (31 years, 7 months). By the time he was forced into retirement (those nebulous “health reasons” yet again) Kadar had rejigged the Hungarian state into a relatively liberal economy, where travel abroad was allowed. In 1989 the Hungarians were by far, the best suited of all the Warsaw Pact nations for a transition to capitalism. How did he do it? It is said that a Hungarian can enter a revolving door behind you and come out ahead without you even noticing. Kadar was a methodical magician who made haste slowly, a magician of incrementalism. He took the country one teeny, tiny step at a time, towards what became known as “Goulash Communism.” Hungary was an Eastern Bloc-oxymoron: state run socialism with western living standards.  Perhaps the best way of understanding Kadar, can be summed up by his most famous saying, “those who are not against us, are for us.”

Romania  – Nicolae Ceausescu was the opposite of Kadar. He started off relatively well regarded only to end up being one of the most reviled world leaders ever. Romania actually had a higher standard of living than Hungary during the early years of his reign. His initial moves relaxed strictures and boosted the people’s confidence in his leadership.  But then he went mad or maybe he was always mad, perhaps it just took years of absolute power surrounded by fawning acolytes to exacerbate his penchant for megalomania, stupidity and cruelty. Ceausescu was at the pinnacle of power from 1965 – 1989 (24 years, 9 months). His final decade of rule was among the worst for any developed country in European history. He obliterated several centuries worth of rich culture and architecture as an historic neighborhood was wiped away in central Bucharest to cleanse the capital for the building of his magnum opus, a sterile monstrosity known as the Palace of the Parliament. Still the world’s second largest building, it has hundreds of rooms the majority of which are of such a size that they can swallow several football pitches. Much of the country’s output went towards this and other grand projects that were fathomable only to a madman. What wasn’t expended on such “public works” went to paying off the nation’s large foreign debt. Every financial resource was marshaled towards an effort that would liberate Romania from its creditors. By 1989 the debt was down to zero. As a gift for all he had done, Ceausescu and his wife Elena were arrested for crimes against the people, given a show trial, then taken out and summarily executed on Christmas Day.

                                                                                          Leader of Bulgaria from 1954 - 1989
                         Todor Zhivkov – The Ultimate Gray Man
(Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0115-0010-066 / Schaar, Helmut / CC-BY-SA)

Bulgaria – Todor Zhivkov lasted longer than almost anyone and hardly anyone even knows his name. Then again, perhaps that’s the reason Todor Zhivkov lasted longer than anyone. Zhivkov was the ultimate gray man. He rose to power not long after Stalin’s death. From 1954 through 1989 (35 years, 8 months) Zhivkov ruled Bulgaria from the shadows not of his countrymen, but the Soviet Union. He made his nation a mere appendage of the Soviets. This brought the Bulgars oil, electricity and anonymity. Marching in lockstep with the Soviets, Zhivkov ended up creating a thirty-five year plan for his homeland, which consisted of mass industrialization and collectivization. Concrete blocks to house the rural flight sprouted all the way from the Balkan Range to the Black Sea. Zhivkov had staying power, but even he could not escape history. He lasted only one day longer after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His country was through with him, but Zhivkov was not through with life. He lived another eight years and even was acquitted for embezzling government funds. His funeral was said to be well attended, I wonder if many of them just came to see whether he was finally leaving.

Albania – Enver Hoxha we hardly knew you. Thank goodness for that, if only Albania could say the same. Hoxha created what has been termed a “hermit state.” He ruled from the next to last year of World War II up until the last decade of the Cold War, 1944 through 1985 (40 years, 6 months). During that time, he fell in and out of love with all of his allies, basically making the whole world an enemy.  His paranoia was all consuming. He pockmarked his country’s landscape with concrete bunkers that were supposed to protect his nation from a foreign invasion, but instead became love bunkers where scores of Albanians consummated their romance. The country averaged one bunker for every four of its citizens. Hoxha brings to mind one simple and brutally elusive question: Why? Perhaps it was just another form of communism, with an Albanian twist. Nobody deserves this much madness. His homeland could have hardly done worse and when his heart finally failed in 1985 that wasn’t nearly as surprising as the fact that he had a heart at all.

The regime of Enver Hoxha had 750,000 bunkers constructed in Albania to defend the country

Bunker in Albanian Alps – Hoxha’s Legacy (By Elian Stefa, Gyler Mydyti (Concrete Mushrooms Project)