Albanian hatmakers in Shkodër, 1900-1920

Albanian Hatmakers

Hatmakers in Skhodër, Albania, 1900-1920. Photo by Kel or Pietro Marubi. Posted by /u/RMSEP at /r/historyporn.

Albania has a long, interesting and tortured history. I have a particular interest in the country, having visited there a number of times over the course of my career, and having gotten to know more than a few Albanians.

My interest in this small but intriguing Adriatic country was first piqued when I read “Albania, Alone Against the World,” an article in the October, 1980 issue of National Geographic. This was before the fall of the Iron Curtain (which, sadly, shows some signs of being raised again, given recent developments in Ukraine, but that’s another story) but Albania’s story seemed to stand out among that of other Communist countries – and at that time, North Korea was not as much in the news as it is today.

The article was written by Mehmet Biber, a Turkish photographer who was based in Istanbul, and is the product of his own visit and notes from that of a visit by Sami Kohen, another Istanbul resident. It contains some captivating photos of what life was like under the iron-fisted rule of Enver-Hoxha, the fiercely independent, brutal, and Stalinist leader of Albania from it’s liberation from the Nazis in 1944 until his death in 1985. From Wikipedia:

The 40-year period of Hoxha’s rule was politically characterized by the elimination of the opposition, prolific use of the death penalty or long prison terms of his political opponents and evictions from homes where their families lived and their internment in remote villages that were strictly controlled by police and the secret police (Sigurimi). His rule was also characterized by Stalinist methods to destroy his associates who threatened his own power.


This photo from Biber’s article shows the town of Shkodër in 1980. The banner says, “Let us fulfill all our obligations and smash the blockade.” Of course, there was no blockade, and no interest in punishing or otherwise invading Albania, but Hoxha’s paranoia knew no bounds. He wasted his country’s resources on numberless bunkers, supposedly to protect the fantastic wealth and ideology of his impoverished nation from the evil hordes, both Communist and Capitalist, who would overrun Albania like wolves.


Gjirokastër, the hometown of Hoxha. The banner encourages residents to “Study the Works of Comrade Enver Hoxha.” Photo: Mehmet Biber

Then came the fall of communism, and Albania was subject to changes that shook the nation to the core. A country that had almost nothing in the way of free enterprise and commerce (centrally-planned economy) was instantaneously and disastrously changed into a market economy. On the upside, goods and services that had never been available were suddenly popping up like mushrooms; on the downside, corruption and crime exploded.

Private car ownership was reinstated and businesses re-established. However poor city lighting and road quality became major problems as mud, potholes, street floods, and dust became permanent features on the streets. However, all buildings and apartments were denationalized, second-hand buses introduced, and modern water, telephone, and electrical systems built during 1992–1996 which form the backbone of modern Tirana. Enver Hoxha’s Museum (Pyramid) was dismantled in 1991 and renamed in honor of persecuted activist Pjeter Arbnori. (Wikipedia:Albania)


A bus in Tiranë, loaded almost past the breaking point, in 1992. Photo: Nicole Bengiveno, published in National Geographic, “Albania Opens the Door” by Dusko Doder, July 1992. This article gives a good overview of the change that hit Albania like a 16-ton weight.

As I visited Albania over the course of several years from 1993 to 2000, I watched Tirana’s central park area and the banks of the Lena river (among others) become choked with illegal and dangerously-constructed buildings. People simply squatted on public land, built what they want in whatever way seemed good, and regulation was nowhere to be seen. Grease the palms of officials and police to look the other way, and presto, a new business was born. In 2000, efforts were made by Edi Rama, a former Tirana mayor, to demolish illegal buildings to return the area to its pre-1990 state, but public land continues to be under pressure from illegal construction, and there is no clear outlook or direction for Tirana’s future at the current time.


Illegal construction on the Lana River in 2003


A similar scene, post-reconstruction

Devastatingly for much of the Albanian population, the financial shakeup of 1996-1997 included many Ponzi schemes, invested in by around 2/3 of the population; most of their investment was totally lost, and the resulting social upheaval was catastrophic. While things continue to improve slowly, it will take Albania generations to overcome residual problems in government and society.


The Pyramid of Tiranë, slated to be Hoxha’s mausoleum, then a museum, then a convention center, now a crumbling, defaced eyesore and the subject of debate – preserve or demolish?

I would love to be able to get back to Albania, which is now wide-open to tourism, although there are parts of the country where even the authorities don’t like to go, run by clans that would make the Hatfields and the McCoys look like the Sesame Street crowd. That said, the country has much to offer in the way of natural beauty and culture, and I wish them nothing but good as they shoulder their way into the future.


The beautiful town of Theth in Northern Albania – found at The Rom Rom.

The Old Wolf has spoken.




The Bunkers of Albania

I spent a good deal of time in Albania between 1993 and 2001, working on various translation projects. I posted about Albanian Currency before, but while musing on my travels there I remembered an interesting thing about that fascinating country – the bunkers.

Enver Hoxha was the iron-fisted despot of the country (official title: First Secretary of the Party of Labor), who started out allied with Russia, denounced them and allied himself with China, and then denounced them in turn to go it alone in a form of government characterized by his proclaimed firm adherence to anti-revisionist Marxism–Leninism. In addition to the suppression of all religion other than Albanian nationalism, “the 40-year period of Hoxha’s rule was politically characterized by the elimination of the opposition, prolific use of the death penalty or long prison “terms of his political opponents and evictions from homes where their families lived and their internment in remote villages that were strictly controlled by police and the secret police (Sigurimi).” (Wikipedia)

While Hoxha’s rule brought some industrialization and growth to a country that had been devastated by World War II, his own policies squandered the resources of the country, much of it in building 750,000 of these concrete abominations – the cost of which could have provided a paid-for apartment for an equal number of Albanian families.

Much as North Korea today, Hoxha (pronounced HO-ja) was terrified that the decadent west and the corrupt East would come pouring in to Albania to strip the country of its glory and riches, neither one of which it possessed in the slightest degree. Nobody gave a rat’s south-40 about Albania, and there was nothing there to take. But that didn’t stop the First Secretary from outfitting every border, municipality, city, village, and community with bunkers large and small to protect against what was publicized as a constant threat of imminent invasion.


Bunkers to protect the noble country from foreign invaders… which never came, or would have wanted to.

Now, Albania struggles still to come into the modern world. They’ve had their ups and downs – the fall of Communism opened the doors to the nation, and a people starved for contact with the outside world have had to deal with massive corruption both private and governmental, pyramid schemes that wiped out much of the nation’s savings, the rise of Islamism (the historical faith of Albania) and the echoes of decades of brutal oppression. Areas of the country remain untouchable by law and order, places where centuries of tradition and isolation have provided a more effective barrier to the encroachment of modernity far better than a concrete bunker would have done – but they are making progress, and as a nation they know the meaning of hard work. I love my Albanian friends and have hope for their country. Two outstanding articles in the National Geographic, “Albania Stands Alone” (October 1980) and “Albania Opens the Doors” (July 1992) give an intriguing historical glimpse of what the country was like during and after Hoxha’s rule. Despite setbacks, the country continues to work toward a democratic government based on the rule of law, and has become a member of NATO.


Some few bunkers have been repurposed as shops, barns, shelter for the desperate, or even hostels.


Small bunkers are still sold as souvenirs – here shown with a 1-Lek coin for scale.

As for the bunkers, destroying each one costs around €800, money that to many people would be better spent elsewhere, so the vast majority of them remain, and will probably be an ever-present reminder of the “bad old days” for generations to come.

You can read more about the bunkers at Slate and Atlas Obscura.

The Old Wolf has spoken.