Albania’s Executioner Unmasked
Blendi Fevziu (trans. Majlinda Nisku, edited & introduced by Robert Elsie)
I.B.Tauris 312pp £25
Few leaders have published as much and eliminated more people than Enver Hoxha, Albania’s dictator from 1944 to 1985. Hoxha published on a Churchillian scale: 7,000 pages in 13 volumes of memoirs. Simultaneously, during his rule, of Albania’s population of two million, 5,037 men and 450 women were executed; 16,788 men and 7,367 women were convicted and sentenced to imprisonment; over 70,000 people were interned in the country’s 39 prisons and 70 camps. Further, Hoxha’s legacy was a country which, by a long margin, was Europe’s poorest.
Given these statistics, it is odd that no-one has written a modern as opposed to a hagiographic biography of Hoxha. Now, Blendi Fevziu, Albania’s best-known political journalist, has made a bold attempt to examine this monster. Besides mining the many memoirs written by Hoxha’s colleagues and associates, Fevziu makes use of interviews with survivors of the camps as well as the reorganised state archives. From Fevziu’s 21st-century viewpoint, the horrors of Hoxha’s dictatorship at times sound like the medieval inquisition, not the quotidian nightmare of a few decades ago for those who survived.
Hoxha was the son of an imam and spent five years studying in France. He failed his examinations and returned to Albania under Italian wartime occupation. He drifted into ownership of a tobacco shop in Tirana, just as the Yugoslav communist party, with Soviet support, introduced communism to Albania. Hoxha was anonymous in the birth of Albania’s own party, but in the face of factions being formed by older partisan communists, the Yugoslav ‘mid-wife’ Miladin Popović advanced the debonair Hoxha as a compromise at the party’s conference of 1943.
Within a year, with the German forces abandoning Albania, Hoxha’s rivals challenged him. Hoxha, in his self-criticism at the party conference, accepted some charges and delayed further discussion until he had assumed the prime ministership in Tirana a few days later. This manoeuvre left him time to begin purging the party. Forgotten by the Allies at the Yalta conference, Albania’s destiny was left to the Communist Party. An unstated assumption was that Albania might become part of the Yugoslav confederation, which Hoxha flirted with but then rejected in 1948.
As party Secretary, Hoxha removed almost all key founding party members as well as childhood companions, dissenters and opposition leaders. This culminated in the elimination of General Mehmet Shehu, his wartime comrade-in-arms and his prime minister from 1952, who committed suicide in 1981 after permitting his son to become engaged to a woman from a dissident’s family. The cruel treatment of Shehu’s family, Hoxha’s neighbours for most of his dictatorship, is breathtaking. Fezviu describes a leader who was focused upon vengeance, severing relations with his wartime supporters, the British, and forming serial partnerships with Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and China.
Hoxha had a quixotic attitude to celebrity. One episode in this macabre story involves the novelist, Ismael Kadare, who somehow managed to avoid elimination and to live between Paris and Tirana. The two met in 1971 and Hoxha was seduced by the idea of being a character in one of Kadare’s novels. Kadare dutifully featured Hoxha in his The Winter of Great Solitude, but the novel was panned in Albania. Improbably, Hoxha defended Kadare and encouraged him to re-work it. This he did, of course, and the novel was re-titled The Great Winter.
By the time of his death in 1985, Albania – allegedly a paradise on earth – was isolated and ruled by terror. We learn little in this biography about how Hoxha imitated his role model, Josef Stalin, in implementing five-year plans to create the country’s industrial and agricultural sectors. More significantly, Fevziu emphasises the importance of Yugoslavian agency on the creation of Hoxha as leader. He tacitly pursues the nationalist model championed by Hoxha himself in his books. Albania, following this thesis, had suffered countless invasions and resisted outsiders throughout its history, but in the end shaped its own destiny. Would any of Hoxha’s rivals in wartime Albania with or without outside support have been more successful in developing this impoverished country? Would any of his rivals been less repressive as leaders? These questions are left unasked. Hoxha’s ultimate achievement was his political gift to survive, holding together the disparate parts of a country forged only in 1912, a pitiless story which has left deep scars very evident in Albania today.
Richard Hodges is President of the American University of Rome and author of several books on the archaeology of Albania.