When Enver Hoxha left for the northern Albanian town of Shkodra in November 1941, there were few indicators he would become the country’s most powerful man only three years later. For starters, he was on his way to the Italian-occupied city in order to partake in the establishment of the Communist Party of Albania. His country was the last one in the Balkans without a communist party, and this on its own already did not signal great chances for political success. Moreover, Enver was hardly a Marxist to begin with. He was only loosely associated with left-wing circles during his studies in Paris. So, before we comprehend how Hoxha became the party leader, we must first understand who he was and where he came from.
The Origins of Enver Hoxha
Enver Hoxha was born (by his own account), on October 16th, 1908, in the town of Gjirokastra in the South of Albania. He came from a relatively modest merchant family. However, merchants were still a significant social class in the 19th and early 20th century Balkans. Despite its small numbers, the merchant class played a crucial role in these impoverished and predominantly peasant countries in which capitalism was relatively late to develop. It was the class that took up the mantle of the movements for national and social liberation, aimed against the age-old feudal structures of the Ottoman and Austrian Empires and the stifling local traditionalisms. In the words of an American historian of Balkan origin, “they were the human catalyst which joined the Balkan peoples to Europe.” While Enver’s own family was not particularly well-off or even wealthy, they were perhaps the closest thing that Albania had to a domestic bourgeoisie, not including the odd foreign factory owners living in the country.
Despite this, the merchant class was often also elitist and hermetic, unlike the innovating and tradition-breaking capitalist class of the wealthier Western European countries. The Hoxha family could not boast of the centuries-old traditions that their neighbors had inherited. This in-betweenness, placed amid high society but nevertheless on its margins, made fertile ground for political radicalization. Enver Hoxha’s uncle, Hysen Hoxha, was one of the members of the Gjirokastra delegation at the proclamation of Albania’s independence in 1912 and later the town mayor. Hysen was a radical nationalist at the time when nationalism was still a progressive, emancipatory ideology, as well as a militant atheist. He left a profound impact on his nephew during his formative years.
Young Enver was among the privileged few in the peasant country who could afford a relatively thorough education. Having already learned Albanian, Turkish, and French, he moved to the nearby city of Korça at the age of nineteen in 1927. His talent was apparent enough that he had received several government scholarships, culminating in the one for his studies in Montpellier, France, in 1930. Hoxha began studying law but was not even remotely interested in it. He eventually lost his government scholarship and dropped out of the university, briefly moving to Paris and Brussels before returning to Albania. He would later claim that the true reason for losing the scholarship was his involvement with the French Communist Party and writing critical articles for the party newspaper, L’Humanité.
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While this assertion originating from Hoxha himself is repeated to this day even in reputable academic works, the truth is that he was not at all political during his time in Paris. The authoritative English-language biography of Hoxha, written by Blendi Fevziu and edited by Robert Elsie, shows that there are no traces whatsoever of Enver’s political activity or writing for communist newspapers, either under his own name or any of the pseudonyms. In fact, Enver only seems to have shown some interest in general anti-Zogist political activity, meaning the liberal circles opposed to the reign of King Zog I. There is only circumstantial evidence of his presence in communist circles in Paris.
In 1937, Hoxha returned to Korça and began teaching ethics and French at the same lyceum he had studied a decade earlier. He still showed no more than a passing interest in politics, and nothing indicated a future communist revolutionary let alone a stern autocrat. Yet, when the Albanian communists, under the tutelage of their more experienced Yugoslav comrades, began organizing a founding congress of the Communist Party of Albania, they invited Enver as one of the delegates for Korça. The seasoned Albanian communist Koço Tashko decided to take Enver with him, a decision which would, in hindsight, ruin Tashko’s life. But why did Tashko select Enver Hoxha in particular?
Communist “Affirmative Action”
Although it was foremost an internationalist ideology, communism, at least in its Leninist variant, paid a great deal of attention to nationality. This was because Lenin’s analysis of the crumbling capitalist chain on the periphery (in which Russia was the proverbial “weakest link”) was the place of the start of the world revolution. Lenin still believed in a revolution in the advanced capitalist countries, without which, he thought, socialism would be impossible, but thought the first cracks would actually begin on the sidelines, in countries that do not even have fully developed capitalism.
The apparent problem in such countries (and this included the colonies and the territories of the Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian Empires) was that they had peasant majorities. The industrial proletariat was very small in all of these places. The problem was how to attract the peasantry to an ideology that was urban, internationalist, and oriented towards the complete transformation of their world.
For Lenin, the answer lay in nationalism as a political expression of the peasants’ class dissatisfaction. As class relations were already very ethnicized during feudalism, many ethnic groups were majority peasants, and their demands for national independence coincided with the peasant demands for land. This was the case with most Balkan peoples, Ukrainians, the Baltic nations, and other ethnic groups living in Austria-Hungary, such as the Slovaks and the Romanians. This nationalism, according to Lenin, had to be channeled in a progressive direction through a triple alliance of workers, peasants, and national revolutionaries, joining forces against capitalism.
This triple alliance was the guiding force behind the Russian Revolution of 1917. Afterward, the communists went to great lengths to ensure the proper incorporation of national minorities into the new Soviet Union. This included ethnic minorities but also rights for religious minorities, as Islam, in particular, had a renaissance in the USSR in the 1920s. The great care with which the Bolsheviks approached ethnic and religious differences in the pre-Stalin period has resulted in the Soviet Union being dubbed the “Affirmative Action Empire.”
Of course, the phrase “affirmative action” is ahistorical, and it was not used at the time. Still, it captures succinctly what the communists set out to achieve in their effort to connect class with what they saw as the progressive aspects of nationhood and religion. This practice continued in communist parties outside the USSR, which sought to emulate the Bolshevik path to victory and apply it to their local conditions.
The Founding Congress
You might wonder, but what does all of this have to do with Enver Hoxha? Although Hoxha was a militant atheist, he came from a Muslim family. His surname means “master” and is an honorific given to Muslim religious leaders. Anyone in Albania, upon hearing the surname, would know that the person is of Muslim origins, regardless of their actual religious beliefs.
In 1941, this was important not only because of the attention the communists gave to equal representation but also because of the struggle against fascism. As already mentioned, Albania was occupied by Mussolini’s Italy, and the communists sought to gather a cross-class, international coalition in this fight. While most Albanians were Muslim, plenty in the north were Roman Catholics, and many in the south were Greek Orthodox. Unlike most national identities in the Balkans, the Albanian was never closely tied to a single church and religion. Nevertheless, the communists considered that “affirmative action” of all religious groups would be important for presenting the anti-fascist movement as truly representative of all the groups in the country.
The problems arose when the communist Korça delegation, led by Koço Tashko, understood that none of them were of Muslim origin. Although the city had both large Muslim and Orthodox populations, none of the few local communists happened to come from a Muslim family. How were they supposed to have a true popular front against fascism if they were all “Orthodox”? Therefore, they started looking for Muslim friends, colleagues, and neighbors to fill in the role.
Koço Tashko then suggested Enver. Although on the margins of the nascent movement, it appears that he was a communist sympathizer for at least the previous two years and had contacts with the local labor organizers. Hoxha was an outlier not just because of his Muslim origins but also because he and Tashko were the only two individuals in the Korça group that had anything resembling a higher education. It appears, however, that the key role in the decision-making process was played not by Tashko but by the Yugoslav communists. They oversaw the establishment of the Albanian party and had a rather paternalistic relationship with it to the chagrin of many Albanians.
The Yugoslavs insisted on bringing in an extra Muslim delegate from Korça and thus coopted Enver Hoxha into the Central Committee and the Politburo. They also made him the Political Secretary of the newly-founded Communist Party. Perhaps the Yugoslav representatives thought that such an inexperienced individual would be easy to manipulate – and the Albanians certainly saw their intrusion as manipulation of their new party. However, this proved to be a massive error in judgment, as Hoxha would hold the position of the First Secretary for forty-four years until his death on April 11, 1985.
Aside from becoming a dictator for life, Hoxha would become staunchly anti-Yugoslav. The figure that seemed to them so easy to control transformed into Stalin’s most loyal and most dogmatic student. When Stalin and the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito split in 1948, Hoxha took the Soviet side. When Nikita Khrushchev condemned Stalin in 1956, Hoxha decided that Khrushchev was wrong. Enver eventually sided with China but eventually accused them of “revisionism” as well. To Enver Hoxha, only himself and Stalin were correct when it came to Marxism.
Enver Hoxha in Power: The Epilogue
Although Hoxha’s interpretation of Marxism should be primarily seen through the lens of modernization of an underdeveloped country, like all Stalinist regimes, his brand of modernization was particularly brutal. His dogmatic interpretation of Marxism resulted in severe political repressions, and his anti-religious fervor led to Albania being declared the “first atheist state in the world.” While plenty of regimes inspired by Stalin followed his approach of physically eliminating friends and foes alike, Hoxha perhaps went the furthest.
The unfortunate and unwitting hero of Enver’s life, Koço Tashko, first rose to great heights as the Albanian ambassador in Moscow and the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. However, as a pioneer of communism in his country, he was a firm believer in the infallible correctness of the Russians, the pupils of Lenin (and Stalin). As Enver started drifting away from the USSR due to its criticisms of Stalin, Tashko fell out of favor. He spent twelve years in prison and twelve in exile until his death in 1984.
An even more tragic fate befell Mehmet Shehu. He would first become Enver’s right-hand man after 1945, serving as the Prime Minister and Minister of Interior and Defense in all of the Albanian governments. Yet one December day in 1981, he was found dead in his apartment in Tirana with a single bullet wound to the head. The death was officially ruled a suicide but was followed by official denunciations of Shehu by Enver Hoxha, who called him a traitor and a CIA agent.
By the time of his own death in 1985, Enver was all alone, surrounded only by a few bodyguards and his wife Nexhmije, who would go on to defend the righteousness of their cause until her death in February 2020, at the age of ninety-nine.