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.