Albanian Communism: Europe’s Last Stalinists

Albanian communism propelled Europe’s poorest country into the 20th century. It was also marked by repression, isolation, and paranoia.

Aug 29, 2022By Stefan Guzvica, MA Comparative History, BA Humanities, Society, and Culture
albanian communism socialist mural tirana

 

On November 29th, 1944, Albania was entirely liberated after six years of fascist occupation, and a new state called the Democratic Government of Albania was established. The country’s Prime Minister was Enver Hoxha, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Albania and leader of the communist partisans. Despite a neutral name for the state, Hoxha set out to establish a socialist state under the single-party rule of Albanian communism. He sought to put into action the official ideology of “Marxism-Leninism,” a term invented by Joseph Stalin to legitimize his own quest for power in the struggle that ensued after the death of Lenin.

 

Albanian Communism and Revolution

albanian communist partisans liberation tirana
Albanian communist partisans in liberated Tirana, November 17, 1944, via infonaut.org

 

Enver Hoxha was a firm believer in Stalin’s reading of Marxism. Although he personally did not know much about Marxism before the year 1940 and was hardly even a communist when the Communist Party of Albania was formed, Hoxha would go on to become Stalin’s most loyal disciple and would remain so until his death in 1985.

 

Stalin’s definition of Marxism signified an abandonment of earlier fundamental Marxist postulates, such as the abolition of wage labor and commodity production as preconditions for socialism or the belief that the revolution cannot succeed in one country alone. His reign resulted in a socially conservative turn and a crackdown on avant-garde art, culminating in “The Great Terror,” in which he killed off most of the Lenin-era revolutionaries, ultimately resulting in some 800,000 deaths. Enver Hoxha would try to put many of the same aspects of Stalin’s rule into practice.

 

The success of Enver Hoxha’s communist partisans was largely the consequence of their consistent anti-fascism, given that they established themselves as the primary fighters against both Italian and, after 1943, German occupation. The nationalist resistance, virulently anti-communist, responded to communist successes by collaborating with the fascists and fighting the communists instead of the occupiers. The situation was quite similar to what was happening in neighboring Yugoslavia, and the Albanian communist movement was, in fact, formed under the tutelage of the Yugoslav communists. In both cases, the British, rather than Stalin, decided to support communism, as they had the most detailed intelligence on communist anti-fascism and nationalist collaboration.

 

Albanian Communism as Modernization

albanian industrialization painting
Further by Shaban Hysa, 1969. A painting depicting the electrification of Albania, via The Art History Journal

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The success of Albanian communism, however, was not just due to anti-fascism. As historian Mark Mazower noted, there was widespread sympathy for the left during and after the Second World War and a prevalent belief that the postwar order would necessarily be far more egalitarian than the crisis-ridden capitalism of the 1930s. As Mazower put it:

 

“The basic point is that social justice and economic efficiency were for many higher priorities than a return to – or creation of – party or ‘bourgeois’ democracy. Communism, which had swept away the remnants of feudalism and held out the promise of Soviet industrialization to contrast with the capitalist stagnation of the inter-war years, offered a way forward, especially through the palatable compromise of People’s Democracy.”

 

It was precisely this offer of a “People’s Democracy” – through the “Democratic Government of Albania” – that appealed to the rural and impoverished population of the semi-feudal state. Before the fascist occupation, Albania was a profoundly unequal monarchy and is now considered by historians and political scientists to have been effectively an Italian colony even before Mussolini formally occupied it in 1938.

 

albanians socialist realist mosaic mural tirana
The Albanians, mosaic mural on the building of the National Museum of Albania in the center of Tirana, the country’s capital, finished in 1980.

 

Albania (and all other states that considered themselves socialist) was quite far from the Marxist definition of socialism, let alone their proclaimed goal of communism as a stateless and classless society. These historical formations should be seen primarily through the prism of modernization. The progress was impressive even in a country as poor as Albania, which remained one of Europe’s poorest throughout Hoxha’s rule.

 

During Hoxha’s reign, illiteracy was virtually eliminated in socialist Albania, and, by 1990, 73% of elementary school graduates went on to receive a secondary education. In 1957, the first university in the country’s history was established. The land reform of 1946 abolished remnants of feudalism and divided possessions among the peasantry. Industrialization and urbanization created unprecedented conditions for the individual and collective development of Albania’s citizens. The malaria-ridden swamps by the sea were turned into agricultural land, something of which the regime was particularly proud.

 

The Emancipation of Women

 

One particularly impressive aspect of Hoxha’s rule was the emancipation of women. Albania’s underdevelopment meant that it had remained a profoundly patriarchal society, and women in Albania, until the socialist revolution, were often treated slightly better than a man’s property, especially in rural areas. Urbanization and mass availability of education on their own dramatically improved the position of women, but there were other measures as well. Women joined ranks with Albanian communism and were allowed to fight alongside men. This would be extremely important for the socialist message that this liberation was not merely given to them by men from the Communist Party, but that they fought for it themselves, gun in hand.

 

liri gega communist woman
Liri Gega (1917–1956) with Enver Hoxha (right) and the Yugoslav partisan Miladin Popović (left), via koha.mk

 

During the war, and especially during the early postwar years, the communists organized grassroots campaigns to spread literacy, particularly among women. The party made conscious efforts to increase female participation in politics – albeit, of course, within the confines of the single-party system. To this end, state-sponsored childcare also became widespread, and more and more women also entered the workforce instead of being confined to the house and to child-rearing.

 

Nevertheless, some traditional gender roles remained, including a rather unusual decision to award state medals for women who would give birth to, raise, and educate ten or more children. Much like Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hoxha’s Albania was torn between radical modernization and conservative reaction.

 

Individual women also rose very high in the party hierarchy: Liri Gega became the first woman on the Politburo in 1943, just two years after the party was founded. Together with Naxhije Dume and Ollga Plumbi, she would be among the first three female members of parliament in Albanian history. This happened in 1945, but only four years later, none of these three women were in positions of power anymore. They were all sacked at one point or another at the whim of Enver Hoxha. Liri Gega was even executed in 1956 under false charges of being a Yugoslav spy. This, however, was just the tip of the iceberg. There was a dark side to Enver Hoxha’s modernization of Albania, which would haunt many of its citizens and destroy countless lives.

 

International Isolation

sino albanian friendship poster
The Sino-Albanian Friendship Poster, 1969, via Chinese Posters

 

Yugoslav tutelage over the Communist Party of Albania was never truly accepted by the Albanians; conflicts were plentiful even during the war. When the Soviet Union broke off relations with Yugoslavia in 1948, Hoxha quickly followed suit. He had plenty of grudges and was intent on cutting all ties with Yugoslavia.

 

The problems for Albanians began when it became obvious that such conflicts would not be confined to foreign policy. Rather, Hoxha’s regime became fixated on constantly finding new enemies, both outside and within its borders. Already in 1946, one of the few veterans of the communist movement, Sejfulla Malëshova, was expelled from the party and sentenced to prison. In 1948, the regime began seeking out “Titoists,” the real or imaginary supporters of Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. Koçi Xoxe, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, was falsely accused of being a Titoist and executed after a show trial.

 

At the time, Albania still retained close ties to the Soviet Union. However, from the mid-1950s, its international isolation would intensify. The new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956 and sought to normalize relations with Yugoslavia. It is hard to tell which of the two irritated Enver more. He eventually broke ties with the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies and began closely cooperating with Mao Zedong’s China. By 1972, as China sought closer ties to the United States in order to compete with the USSR, Enver Hoxha also began denouncing the Chinese as “revisionists” of Marxism. By the 1970s, Albania would be in complete international isolation, best epitomized by its infamous bunkers. Built in anticipation of a foreign invasion, 750,000 of them are scattered all over Albania to this day.

 

Political Repression

albania hoxha bunker sea
Photograph of abandoned bunkers in the Albanian seaside by Alessio Mamo, via National Geographic

 

The repression that followed international isolation was not limited to the rank-and-file communists. Hoxha was happy to terrorize many of his country’s citizens for a variety of reasons. An estimated one in three citizens had been arrested in Albania at some point between 1945 and 1991, and in the mid-1980s, there were still 32,000 people in labor camps in a country of only about 2.5 million people.

 

One particularly infamous form of repression was Hoxha’s introduction of state atheism. Inspired by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Hoxha made religion effectively illegal starting in 1967. By the end of the year, all churches, mosques, and other places of worship were forcibly shut down. Hoxha sought to replace religion with secular Albanian nationalism. In 1982, a dictionary of “approved” names was published, replacing names of religious origin with supposedly authentically Albanian names. Hundreds of clergymen were murdered by the regime between the late 1940s and early 1970s. In 1971, it was believed that only fourteen Catholic priests were left alive in the country: twelve in prisons and two in hiding.

 

The Stagnation & Fall of Albanian Communism

 

Hoxha had managed to violently repress and alienate so many people that in 1981, he had another purge, the purge of a man who had been by his side for almost forty years. Mehmet Shehu, the Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, and a hero of the anti-fascist resistance, was found dead in his Tirana flat on December 18, 1981, with a gunshot wound to the head. Officially, the death was ruled a suicide, but Hoxha quickly denounced Shehu as a traitor who had been preparing to murder Hoxha and stage a palace coup with Yugoslav support. This led to another violent purge of supposed traitors, which included Shehu’s family and close friends.

 

enver hoxha mehmet shehu
Enver Hoxha and Mehmet Shehu, taken when they were still running Albania together, via balkanweb.com

 

On the domestic front, the economy began to stagnate due to Albania’s international isolation. In what was still a predominantly peasant country, Hoxha attempted to solve the economic problems by nationalizing the ownership of domestic animals. The peasants responded with a mass slaughtering of animals, causing food shortages and malnutrition throughout the country. Economic stagnation and a drop in productivity in the final fifteen years of Hoxha’s rule affected all aspects of life, undermining much of the progress achieved in terms of industrialization and the availability of public services.

 

Everything from state healthcare to industries began to deteriorate. By Hoxha’s death in 1985, the impoverished country faced many structural obstacles. Lessons from the modernization drive of the late 1940s and 1950s were insufficient for adapting to the problems of the modern world.

 

The more reform-minded faction of Ramiz Alia managed to outmaneuver Hoxha’s conservative wife Nexhmije and seize power after Enver’s death. The reforms, however, were very slow and only accelerated in 1990 with the collapse of socialist states elsewhere in Europe. Albania transitioned to capitalism and multi-party democracy. The process, however, was tumultuous, including a complete breakdown of the public order, mass impoverishment of the population during privatization, and a drop in the quality of public services.

 

Enver Hoxha’s Albanian communism was a contradictory regime. It made great strides towards modernization in one of Europe’s poorest countries but also terrorized its citizens with frequent purges, affecting not only the politically active population. It was a mixture of modernity and conservatism, of heroic achievements and needless tragedies. In a lot of ways, Hoxha’s contradictions epitomized the entire century in which he lived. Albanian communism ultimately made lives better for many but left its subjects with the question: could progress have been achieved without such a high human cost?



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By Stefan GuzvicaMA Comparative History, BA Humanities, Society, and CultureStefan is a PhD student in history at the University of Regensburg, Germany. He is a researcher of communism and is currently finishing his dissertation on the Balkan communist parties in the interwar period. Aside from the history of communism, he is passionate about architecture and the avant-garde art of the 1920s. Stefan previously completed his MA at Central European University, Budapest, and his BA at the Anglo-American University in Prague. He is the author of Before Tito, a book on Yugoslav communism in the time of Stalin’s Terror.