Laughter among the ruins

Enver Hoxha’s bunkers

Enver Hoxha's pyramid - a monument to his political rule, circa 2011
Enver Hoxha's pyramid - a monument to his political rule, circa 2011
28 JUL 2016

Go anywhere in Albania and you will be confronted with one of the many derelict concrete bunkers that are scattered across the country’s bedraggled roadsides, reedy pastures and craggy mountainsides. Albania contains a baffling seven-hundred thousand of these shelters: an average of one for every four of its inhabitants. They were built as civil defenses during the Communist era, but now fulfill a variety of functions: from accommodation to giant rubbish bins; outdoor toilets to convenient chambers for furtive sexual liasons.

The domes were constructed on the orders of Albania’s Communist dictator of some forty years, Enver Hoxha [pronounced Hoe-cha]. Hoxha had daydreamed through philosophy classes at the Sorbonne, before returning to Albania and leading the Partisans in their guerrilla victory against the Italian fascist invasion. Hoxha’s rebellion was an unexpected triumph that made Albania the only nation to liberate itself in World War II without the aid of foreign troops. Once in power, Hoxha appointed the former tinsmith Koçi Xoxe to preside over the trial and execution of political opponents. Hoxha eviscerated the country’s tiny ruling and middling classes, slicing up landholding estates and scattering them among the peasantry, and discharging thousands of innocents to work-camps, jails or exile on miserable state farms built on reclaimed marshlands. He expelled the chain-smoking former monarch King Zog, leaving the royal to a lifetime of failed plotting in the lobbies of foreign hotels.

Hoxha was a man of fascinating contradictions. In some ways, he could be said to be ahead of his time: for instance, he oversaw a massive expansion of the female workforce, defying the country’s Code of Lekë, which decreed that ‘[a] woman is known as a sack, made to endure as long as she lives in her husband’s house’.[1] Instead Hoxha proclaimed that ‘[t]he entire party and country should hurl into the fire and break the neck of anyone who dared trample underfoot the sacred edict of the party on the defense of women’s rights’.[2] His career provides numerous instances of sometimes laudable ideals undone by the severity of their execution. Hoxha revered Stalin and, on the Russian leader’s death on 5 March 1953, the Albanian assembled the entire population in the capital’s largest square, compelling them to take a two-thousand word oath of ‘eternal fidelity’ to their ‘beloved father’. Hoxha’s sorrow only intensified as the new leader Nikolai Kruschev aired criticisms of Stalin’s style of leadership. Hoxha cut off the country from the rest of the world, banning travel abroad to all but those on official business and making almost a third of the population members of its defense forces. From 1967 until 1985, the concrete shelters sprouted like bevies of mushrooms, across Albania’s beaches, fields, hilltops, villages and towns.

Most of these guard-posts were barely large enough to accommodate a single person, although more capacious versions were constructed as hidey-holes for officials and bureaucrats in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. The curved shape was selected because it made them impervious to artillery fire and bombs, which simply bounced off them. For the most part, these shelters consist of a dome with a firing slit, a hollow coil that supported the dome, and an outer wall, each of which would be constructed in a factory and reassembled on site, with earth used to fill the gap between the dome and the outer wall. In order to demonstrate the domes’ durability, their architect Josif Zengalia, reputedly holed up in one at the same time that it was being shelled by a tank. In a familiar display of volatility, Hoxha promoted Zengali to the rank of colonel as a reward for his winning design, before changing his mind and imprisoning him for eight years on bogus charges of sabotage. In one sense, the bunkers were a ludicrous misuse of time, energy and resources. Albania had a serious shortage of decent housing and roads, and the money spent on building just one of these structures could have bought either a two-room apartment or fifty metres of road. They also took up valuable space that could have been used for farmland. More tragically, between seventy and one hundred people a year died constructing them. The monuments also had little, if any, strategic military benefit. It is hard to imagine any soldier located within one of them prevailing against an invading army when it was almost impossible for them even to communicate with other people or receive supplies. In 1974 the Defence Minister General Beqir Balluku made the risky decision to point out these considerations, adding that an invasion by the US or USSR was fairly implausible. Hoxha reacted by accusing Balluku of being an agent for the Chinese and having him and his associates arrested and executed.

Of course, the bunkers’ real purpose was not to repel outsiders but to bring the internal population under control. By presenting the country as a refuge from outside menaces, Hoxha wanted to give substance to Albania’s tenuous national identity. By constructing these portents of impending peril in every available area, Hoxha sought to persuade a parade of different peoples (the northern Ghegs and the southern Tosks, as well as Balkan Egyptians, Bulgarians, Gorani, Greeks, Jews, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Roma, Serbs and Vlachs) that they had more in common with each other than whatever lay in wait outside their borders. Yet, in their incongruous position, alongside Ancient Greek ampitheatres and Ottoman bazaars, the shelters suggested less that Hoxha was a radical break from the past, more that he was one of a line of overlords who had used architecture to brand their authority on the landscape.

Far from emancipating the Albanians, these shelters segregated them, thereby preventing them from banding together and rebelling against their leader. The bunkers encapsulated a world in which every individual was psychologically isolated in their own individual cell, watching the rest of their countrymen for any sign of suspicion or subversion. They also provided the basis for a Byzantine architecture of surveillance in which Hoxha sought to monitor, manage and militarise all aspects of everyday life. From age twelve, Albanians learned how to set up arms in the nearest bunker; teenagers were taught to fix spikes to treetops to impale foreign parachutists; and, twice a month, every citizen of military age had to participate in military drills. Moreover, the tremendous struggle constantly to build the domes provided a convenient distraction from the inequities of Hoxha’s rule, ensuring that ordinary Albanians were too exhausted to rebel against him.

In Hoxha’s own mind, he believed he was bringing modernity to a wild, feudal region, envisaging concrete and steel as utopian devices that allowed him to reconstruct unruly humanity into something more disciplined and rational. Yet, paradoxically, the bunkers also helped Hoxha to hold modernity at bay. By constructing these shelters, rather than building roads or railways, the leader prevented the Albanians from enjoying some of the benefits of the modern world, such as access to information and education, or the freedom to form independent political groups. For a population consisting primarily of peasants, accustomed to struggling constantly against resistant nature, Hoxha’s project could be said to have confirmed rather than challenged their world-view. And by coercing his countrymen towards a goal whose futility was obvious to everyone, Hoxha reaffirmed the serf’s intuition that life was a hopeless enterprise, full of thankless labour that inevitably ended in decay and destruction.

Hoxha’s ultimate goal was to build one bunker for every family of four, linking every able-bodied man as a manacle in his chain of command. Ironically, by re-arranging Albania into four-person units with the husband at the head, the famous feminist was both forcing everyone to form part of a nuclear family and extending radically the power of men over women. Each household would be expected to clean and maintain their bunker in the same way as they would their own home. Given the lack of new houses and the rapid deterioration of existing ones, it is possible to imagine a future in which the bunkers replaced conventional housing altogether. Perhaps by then home and bunker would be indistinguishable. But such a ruined situation was averted by fresh catastrophe. Between 1989 and 1992, in the final years of communism, Albania’s GDP halved and bunker-building halted. In 1997, the economic collapse caused by a number of failed pyramid schemes sparked an outbreak of violence in which over two thousand people were killed. In this void, organized crime flourished. And between 1989 and 2001, roughly eight-hundred thousand people fled, leaving only the skeletons of abandoned apartment blocks and the concrete domes.

Yet perhaps what is most atrocious about the bunkers is their very absurdity. Writers and thinkers from Mikhail Bakhtin to Milan Kundera have cast laughter as the enemy of totalitarianism. According to them, laughter allows us escape our mental confines and see the world afresh. Through laughter, the satirist can bring the high low and prick the tyrant’s conscience. But the Albanian bunkers add an important qualification to this edict. Although the numbers that Hoxha killed or persecuted are dwarfed by Stalin or Pol-Pot, Hoxha achieved something of unique mendacity. By committing the Albanian people to a project of such colossal waste and stupidity, Hoxha rendered their suffering ridiculous, and thereby deprived them of the possibility of dignity. Hoxha not only ruined Albania, he played it for laughs.

[1] Shtjefe¨n Gjeçov, Kanuni i Leke¨ Dakagjinit (The Code of Leke¨ Dukagjini), trans. Leonard Fox (New York: Gjonlekaj, 1989) p. 178.
[2] Anton Logoreci, The Albanians: Europe’s Forgotten Survivors (Boulder: Westview Press, 1977) p. 158.