19 November 2016

Enver Hoxha, leader of Albania. Enver who? Where?

My theory about dictators is that they grew up as ugly, poorly educ­at­ed, untravelled and impoverished men who grabbed power illegally and held on for the rest of their miserable lives. But Enver Hoxha (1908–1985) was none of those things. He grew up in Ottoman Albania, the handsome son of a succ­ess­ful Muslim merchant who travelled all over the world. Young Enver was well educ­ated locally in a French secondary school.

Enver Hoxha

Albania achieved statehood after WW1, but it was a miserable country in which no government lasted. Ahmed Bey Zogu had first served as Prime Minister of Albania (1922–1924), then as President (1925–1928), and finally as King and Field Marshal of the Royal Albanian Army (1928–1939). And throughout these years, Ottoman Albania had remained an unhappy poverty-stricken, largely illiterate country, with little ind­us­t­ry and no nation-wide railways, universities or large cities. The peasantry were under the control of their local medieval lords, and King Zog’s regime was largely reliant on Mussolini’s Italy.

Hoxha's parents particularly disliked King Zog I and wanted their beloved son out of the country; in 1930 they sent him to the French University of Mont­pel­lier. Then he participated in philosophy classes at the Sorbonne in Paris. Albania might have been an obscure province of the old Ottoman Empire, but the Hoxha family members were not insular at all.

Hoxha didn’t gain any degree in France but he obtained a good position as a secretary at the Albanian consulate in Brussels in the mid 1930s. A fluent French speaker, he returned to Albania in 1936 and taught grammar school in a French Lyceum.

Albania and its neighbours Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro

In 1939 Mussolini annexed Albania for Italy and exiled King Zog. Hoxha lost his teaching job and had to open a tobacconist’s shop in Tirana; the shop became the head­quarters of the newly formed Albanian Communist Party.

After Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, everything changed. Yug­o­s­l­av communists made Hoxha first secretary of the party’s Central Committee and political commissar of the Army of National Liberation. When German troops occupied Albania in 1943, the nation’s resistance groups of the left and the right fought the Germans and each other. Hostile Albanian groups sometimes collaborated with the Germ­ans against Hoxha and his people, whose superior ruth­lessness enabled them to dominate the Albanian National Liberation Army.

Late in 1944, with the Germans in retreat, an anti-Fascist congress declared Hoxha prime minister of Albania; he headed a victorious parade into Tirana. Prime minister Hoxha retained the prime minster­ship from the liberation of Albania in 1944 until 1954, quickly recognised by Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union. But then as first secretary of the Party of Labour’s Central Committee, Hoxha became de facto head of state for the rest of his life.

Was Hoxha a modernising supporter of the labouring classes or a ruthless and paranoid killer of any opponents, regardless of class, politics or religion? Clearly his politics shifted regularly. At first he was a close colleague of Marshall Tito; after all, Alban­ian partisan divisions had gone into German-occupied Yugoslavia where they fought with Tito's men and the Soviet Red Army in a joint campaign to destroy German resistance. But that didn’t last. Hoxha and Tito split in 1948.

On Red Square podium, Nov 1947, with Stalin & Molotov
Photo credit: The Espresso Stalinist 

After the break between Tito’s Yugoslavia and Moscow, Albania received massive aid from the Soviet Union. So Hoxha declared himself a communist and a huge admirer of Joseph Stalin. Hoxha and his government adopted pol­ic­ies that would denude the rural land­lords of their land and power, organise the peasants into collective farms, grow enough food to feed the entire population, establish a universal health care and nation­al­ise the banks etc. The Albanian language was resur­rected, mod­ern industries were developing and the oppression of women was to end. In a country that was 90% Islamic and 10% Christ­ian, the greatest pun­ish­ment for the locals was the closing of all mosques, churches and religious institutions. All education in schools had to be secular.

Hoxha began a ruthless modernisation policy that clearly worked, but alienated his political rivals, traditional Muslims and Christians, impoverished landowners and unhappy peasants. As a result, Hoxha became more and more paranoid about growing opposition to his rule. Any opponent, or potential opponent was tried for Crimes Against the people and sent to prison camps or executed.

How many Albanians became Hoxha’s paid informants and how many Alb­anians were executed by their leader? In a population of c2.5 million people, at least 5,500 were executed, 24,200 were sent to forced labour camps and 200,000 became internal spies for Hoxha’s govern­ment.

When Stalin died in 1953 and was seen as a mass murderer in his own right, Hoxha denounced Nikita Khrushchev and turned to his very long term ally, Communist China. This relationship lasted until Mao Zedong’s death in 1976.

From then on Albania was isolated and the older Hoxha grew, the more paranoid he became. “Greece wanted to expand north and take over Albania”. “Tito apparently intended to take over Albania and make it into the 7th republic of Yugoslavia”. “Tito held ethnic Alban­ians in Kosovo under a policy of extermination”. The country sank into a decade of paranoid isolation and economic stagnation, surrounded by 200,000-700,000 concrete bunkers along Albania’s land and maritime borders. Some of the bunkers were networked by 2 ks long tunnels, built to protect members of the Interior Ministry and the Sigurimi/secret police from nuclear attack. And thousands of kilometres of tunnels were built to house political, military and industrial assets. Today the empty bunkers can be used for cheap housing, restaurants, teenage hangout spots and museums.

Three of Albania's bunkers

 Hoxha supervised an overwhelming cult of personality and a totally centralised, authoritarian form of decision-making. He was widely portrayed as a genius who commented on a wide range of life issues from culture to economics to military matters. Statues were erected in cities across the country and portraits were painted on the front of buildings. Textbooks had to include quotations from him on the subjects being studied.

Why was Hoxha worried about outside treachery? He conducted yet another mil­itary coup in 1974 where half of his own Central Committee members were executed! And in old age, Hoxha apparently murdered the Mehmet Shehu, the prime minister and minister of the interior who had been Hoxha’s ally since WW2 ended. With Shehu gone, 76 year old Hoxha could die in peace in 1985. Hoxha’s newest close ally, Ramiz Alia, immediately became Communist leader of Albania and the country's head of state. From a primitive Ottoman province to a modern industrial­ised country in only 40 years – perhaps Hoxha believed mass political murder was a small price to pay.

The National Historical Museum in Tirana might be helpful. Opened in 1981, the Museum asks visitors to inspect the Pavilions of Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Independence, Iconography, National Liberation Anti-fascist War, Communist Terror and Mother Teresa. Above the entrance of the Museum is a large mural mosaic titled The Albanians that features citizens at various times in the country's history. Still, we must ask, how much was the museum itself a product of Hoxha’s regime?

heroic Communist artwork on the facade of
the National Historical Museum in Tirana

Hoxha portrait,
Palace of Culture in Scanderberg Square, Tirana

opened in 1963.


Train Man said...

I was backpacking in Greece in the 1960s and wanted to travel onwards, but my parents warned me to avoid Albania. What did they know way back then?

Joseph said...

There were many deadly dictators back then, often in smaller countries:
Enver Pasha of Turkey,
Kim Il Sung of North Korea
Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam
Yahya Khan of Pakistan
Pol Pot of Cambodia
François Duvalier of Haiti
Not to mention important countries like Germany, Spain, Italy, China and Russia.

Andrew said...

Idi Amin was not well educated, but generally I think most twentieth dictators were and are but of course you would have greater knowledge. I knew a little of Hoxha and as usual, I know a good bit more.

Hels said...

Train Man

even if our parents' generation did not know the details, they certainly knew that the Soviet Union finally broke diplomatic relations and withdrew all economic and military support from Albania. Communist China rushed into the vacuum, supplying all the foods and products that the Soviets used to supply. Once they saw all the churches and mosques violently closed, our parents certainly did not want their children exposed to Albanian paranoia about foreigners.

Hels said...


I think the dictatorships in important countries like Germany, Spain, Italy, China and Russia were so huge in their massacres and imprisonments, we tend to forget the small countries. For example after a terrible Ottoman defeat in WWI, Turkish foreign minister Enver Pasha blamed the failure on his own Armenian soldiers. It is very hard to know how many of the 2 million Armenian citizens of Turkey were later massacred or deported... perhaps 1.5 million.

To take just one other example, Pol Pot was prime minister of Cambodia from 1975-9. In that short time, about 1.5 million Cambodians were executed or were starved to death, 25% of his own citizens.

Hels said...


Thanks ..I forgot Idi Amin who was the brutal president-dictator of Uganda from 1971 to 1979. But there were important differences, I believe. Enver Hoxha might have murdered and imprisoned his political enemies and was paranoid about foreign army plans, but he did work hard for Albania's modernity and economic progress. Idi Amin was psychotic and took endless pleasure in killing innocent religious leaders, judges, lawyers, intellectuals and journalists.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I am not a fan of futuristic, dystopic novels, but it seems that this is indeed one area in which truth is always stranger than fiction. No author could make up things worse than those that actually happened, or are happening now under totalitarian dictatorships.

Hels said...


correct. Wherever there are totalitarian dictatorships in this century, then we learned absolutely zero from the 20th century. In 1972 President Marcos (1966-86) placed the Philippines under martial law, ended the nation's constitution, used violence against the media who might have tried to save civilians, and silently executed an unknown number of political opponents. Marcos and his wife became obscenely wealthy.

Since Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Philippines in June 2016, 3,000+ criminals, drug users and protesters have been extrajudicially machine gunned to death. Despite the country's endemic corruption and poverty, President Duterte has slashed the health and agriculture budgets, and poured money into three ministries: police, military and the presidential office.

Nothing has changed.

Annie ODyne said...

oh yes Ottoman - not so much seating but more of an empire, and in the 1960's a very fashionable fabric style for A-line party frocks.
Legendary funny guy John 'Blues Brother/SNL' Belushi was, of course, Albanian.

Hels said...


Albania was formally part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912, yet since 1906 the Young Turks and their Albanian supporters were already battling the old Ottoman power base. Of course that backfired on the Albanians, but it does say a great deal about permanent instability in that part of the world.

WoofWoof said...

I think The figure for religion is more like 70% Muslim, 30% Orthodox Christian. It used to boast that it was the world's first atheistic state (I think in other communist countries religion was heavily regulated, and adherents were oppressed and persecuted, but normally it wasn't completely banned. Albania was in those days (and they were bad days) regarded as top of the league for persecution of Christians. In my opinion the events of 1989 and the toppling of all those evil, oppressive regimes was nothing short of a miracle. (Communist dictatorships exterminated 100 million+ people in the 20th century). On a lighter note, I remember that episode of Steptoe and Son, the British sitcom. They rummaging through some rubbish and come across a newspaper. "Look dad, the headline: 'King Zog flees'". "I don't know about King Zog flees but King size flees here"!

Hels said...


The Ottoman Empire was enormous and during the centuries in which they ruled the Balkans, I believe the vast majority Albanians preferred to practise Islam. But for ALL the religious groups, the start of vigorous Albanian nationalism and and the end of official religions must have been intolerable. It meant that mosques, churches and religious schools were closed, clergy expelled and the Albanians believed they had created the first atheist nation in the world. This continued until 1990, just a few years after Hoxha's death.

Richard Hodges said...

Read "Enver Hoxha: The Iron Fist of Albania" by Blendi Fevziu. Albania’s best-known political journalist, Fevziu 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. 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.

Richard Hodges
History Today
August 2016