No one is really sure how many bunkers were built by the communist regime in Albania. It is impossible to count them today as many have been removed and others recycled or reused. A commonly used figure is 500 000 and sometimes as many as 700 000. The true number is likely to be closer to 175 000.
When I first arrived in Albania back in 2001, the country was still in disarray from economic collapse caused by a mass pyramid scheme meltdown that occurred in 1997. In amongst the chaos of people's daily lives, one element stood as a constant reminder that things were once very different. They were once ruled by one of the most autocratic Marxist-Leninist communist dictatorships the world has ever seen. On street corners, in the fields, and by the roadsides, immovable concrete bunkers recalled the day when Albania was an isolated nation whose people had no knowledge of the outside world. All news was controlled by the state, which led the people to believe that the outside world wished to invade their communist ‘paradise'.
This small Balkan country that survived Roman, Ottoman and Italian invasions, was forced to toil with great sacrifice to build defences against the ‘Imperial' forces and communist revisionist countries who had altered the Marxist-Leninist doctrine. For this reason the bunkers were built en masse under the Albanian communist leadership. However, the bunkers were not built in a day, the process was gradual and the policy took a long time to formulate. After several years of false starts and fractional quarrelling, a unified Albanian Communist party was formed on 8 November 1941 in the capital Tiranë. Enver Hoxha was elected secretary and continued to control the party until his death in 1985.
In 1944 Albania liberated itself from German occupation and Hoxha seized power and established a government in Tiranë under Yugoslavian and Soviet tutelage. Relations were eventually broken with both of these important allies. The former in 1948 due to Hoxha's fear of Yugoslavia annexing Albania, and the Soviets in 1961 when Khrushchev adopted communist revisionism. With the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Albania withdrew from the Warsaw Pact. Left out in the cold during the Cold War, Hoxha was thrown a political and financial lifeline by the People's Republic of China (PRC) in need of a friendly seat in the United Nations (China's seat was held by The Republic of China or otherwise known as Taiwan, until replaced by the PRC in 1971) and an ally in Europe. However this friendship came to an end in 1978 after a gradual decline in relations, beginning with US President Nixon's visit to Beijing in 1972 and later an invitation extended to Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito in 1977. Hoxha believed that like the Soviets and Yugoslavs before them, the Chinese were adopting revisionism. Totally isolated, Hoxha's uncompromising approach to Marxist-Lennist doctrine left him with no option but to go it alone and attempt to create a fully self-supportive state.
By now Hoxha had created his own cult of personality and ruled Albania as if it were his own personal fiefdom. Aided by a network of spies and autocratic terror, he incarcerated and murdered political adversaries and citizens alike. With no contact with the ‘outside' world, the citizens were manipulated into believing that invasion was imminent. Concrete fabrication factories in every municipality began constructing bunkers 24 hours a day, every day of the year from 1976 until 1989. One labourer that I interviewed told me that the factory he worked in rotated in three shifts of eight hours each. Each shift made different parts so that no one person knew the exact constructional details of the bunkers they were building. Another, a field engineer responsible for erecting the bunkers, informed me that he worked 10 hours a day, every day for eight years. When asked if he ever questioned the perceived threat and the need for the bunkers, he replied that they were regularly given false air raid alarms to condition their thoughts. However, the threat of invasion was once a reality.
The British and the Americans had both undertaken serious covert operations in Albania in an attempt to remove the communists and also make a small retaliatory statement to Stalin for his annexation of Eastern Europe. Although Albania was seen as an easy target, the venture failed miserably mainly due to the double agent Harold ‘Kim' Philby. Yugoslavian annexation was also a possibility as Stalin had given a quiet nod to Marshal Tito. The country was completely surrounded by NATO powers and revisionist communists. However, by the time Hoxha commenced the full-scale bunkerfication of Albania in 1976, the threat had passed. The wealth and energy that was consumed in building these military defences was enormous.
No one knows exactly how much as there is no record of the expenditure in the public archives. However one fact is agreed, Albania today would be very different if the resources were used on civil projects such as housing. “One smaller infantry bunker contains enough concrete to build a two bedroom apartment” is a quote often heard from Albanians. The concrete is of the highest grade and only hardens with time. A farmer showed me an infantry bunker with a small section of its side removed to make way for a path. What looked like a small amount of labour had actually taken him and his brother three days to remove with a jackhammer. Higher up the hill was another bunker holding his TV antenna and housing his pigs. Like many Albanians, he has reclaimed the inherent wealth in the bunkers by reusing and recycling them to help build a better future. Today the bunkers belong to the people who use them in a variety of creative ways, such as, accommodation, cafes, storage, livestock barns, water tanks, road curbs, bridges, and swimming pools to mention just a few. Only once were the bunkers ever used for their intended purpose of protecting the occupants from artillery explosions. In March 2008, one of Europe's largest post war explosions occurred in Gërdec, a small town 14 kilometres from the capital Tiranë. Here a stockpile of cold war ammunitions were being decommissioned. Due to non-existent safety precautions, over 400 tonnes of propellant ignited creating a blast felt over 100 miles away. The citizens of this sleepy village took shelter in the bunkers. Rather ironic that Hoxha's bunkers protected the population from his weaponry 23 years after his death.
The majority of the Albanians view the bunkers as a hindrance and an obstacle, but rarely ever an eyesore. There are just so many that they have become accustomed to their presence, much the same as a Londoner with red telephone boxes or New Yorkers with yellow cabs. They have become a part of their lives woven into the fabric of their environment. The best example of the bunkers' place in Albanian society is shown by digressing slightly. In the interests of solidifying Hoxha's cult of personality, a large pyramid shaped museum was built to house his writings and memorabilia. When the Socialist Republic collapsed in 1991 all trace of its occupant were removed and erased. Today it is home to the largest private television. The museum failed in its intention to be a majestic monument to the Nation's Father. The real memorial to Hoxha is the half a million concrete bunkers that blanket the fields, dominate the cliff tops and barricade the beachheads. History has shown us that it is the victors who decide how the past is interpreted. In the case of Albania it is the people and not the Socialist Republic who triumphed and it is they who will decide how Hoxha's bunkers shall be portrayed.