Post-War Albania - a Lesson from History

Albanian National Flag
Albanian National Flag

Europe's Third World Country

The story of post-war Albania, from 1945 to the present, is a tragedy. Largely, it is the story of one man, a dictator, who through misguidedness, megalomania and corruption, effectively reduced his country to the poorest and most backward in Europe, a condition from which it is still struggling to emerge.

Albania's story was played out in secrecy, behind sealed borders, with little or no outside interference. It is therefore a perfect example of the damage that can be done by corrupt and/or inept leadership that is allowed to reign unchecked. Albania can be seen as a control experiment for the world at large. What happened to Albania can happen even to Europe or America. Some would say it is happening now.

You'll forgive me if, to entertain myself, I tell Albania's story first as a verse parable, as a kind of Animal Farm, if you like. You'll probably recognise most of the main players, and I'll explain it at the end for anyone lucky enough to be too young to remember these days.

The Eagle & the Stag

War weary, they agreed, the three wise men,
to carve the aftermath of five grim years
between two ideologies. The Cheese,
victorious but broken, turned a palm
of supplication to the Rooster who,
to exorcise the guilt of tardiness,
gave alms, expected and received no thanks.
The Stag appointed henchmen to control
the South-West marches of his vast domain,
their brief, to quash all insurrection, more,
to regulate the people's thoughts and deeds.
The Titan tempered these extreme demands
with such humanity as might not goad
the Stag to intervene, and wisdom born
of understanding of his people's needs.
The Eagle took his mission to the heart.
He razed the holy places to the ground -
no man should harbour dreams beyond the State -
he burned the books and sealed the borders round
and in the nurseries had children sing
his praise, the only music he allowed.
He silenced or deported learned men
and turned the universities and schools
to propagandist mockeries. By these
and many other ploys he murdered hope,
destroyed imagination and laid waste
his trust, but caused no trouble to the Stag,
continuing thus for forty dismal years.
A model of beneficence, he bought
his people's gold with freshly printed notes
each worth its weight in paper, for the gold
was never seen again. The Stag received
the lion's share, while from some dark Swiss bank
the Eagle's family draws a pension still.

Here's what really happened

At the end of World War 2, the three wise men, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, (the Cheese, the Rooster and the Stag) carved up Europe into East and West, the East becoming Stalin's Soviet empire. The West was more or less bankrupt and was bailed out by US aid (the Marshall Plan).

Stalin placed Yugoslavia under the governance of Tito (the Titan) who held the disparate parts of his country together with a softly-softly approach. Provided only that his Christian and Muslim communities did not start fighting amongst themselves and thus attract unwanted attention from Stalin, Tito, as far as possible for a Soviet satellite state, allowed his people to get on with their lives.

Enver Hoxha (the Eagle) was given Albania to govern. Hoxha was a wholly different proposition from Tito. He was, if anything, more Stalinist than Stalin. He sealed and fortified the borders. Deported all foreigners. Destroyed all Mosques and Churches. Banned all expression of religion. Destroyed the universities, imprisoned, executed or deported all academics (dissidents). Totally controlled State Radio and later TV. He had all the school books rewritten (ghost written) with himself as author and his picture on the cover. This last was in emulation of Chairman Mao Tse Tung whose brand of revolutionary communism he latterly preferred to Stalin's own.

Having bankrupted the country culturally, he proceeded to bankrupt it financially, by buying up all the gold coinage with promisary notes (at an ostensible profit for the people, to make them sell). The gold, of course, went to Russia and Switzerland, the latter for his own personal use.Perhaps his greatest crime was to live long enough to bury his country for 40 miserable years.

Fortress Albania

Pill-box bunkers litter the countryside. In his paranoia, Hoxha believed the Italians were going to invade. Or so he told his people.
Pill-box bunkers litter the countryside. In his paranoia, Hoxha believed the Italians were going to invade. Or so he told his people.

Hoxha's Legacy - Modern Albania

When you fly into Tirana (Albania's capital), the first inkling you get that the country is not well is the chaos at the airport. Third world countries are characterised by incompetence caused by lack of training.Nobody seems to know what they're doing. Eventually you find the person you have to pay (dollars or euros please!) for your entry stamp. The road from the airport to Tirana is quite good and Tirana itself is not without attractive features. But you soon notice that behind the facade of the public areas, the roads and buildings are in dangerous disrepair. Also, a closer inspection of the shops reveals that there are hardly any quality goods available. This country is still very poor.

The real eye-opener is when you leave the city and head out into the rural areas. Albania is blessed with beautiful mountain scenery and a spectacular coastline (it is just across the Adriatic from the heel of Italy). But there are no proper roads. The little villages are linked by dirt tracks with boulders and potholes along the way. People travel by cars and pick-ups (mostly old and damaged), donkey carts, ox carts and motorbikes. But they don't travel far. Life is local. There is no physical or social infrastructure. Water comes from wells and diverted streams. Electricity from local generators.

Families build their own houses, with their own hands. They grow their own food and barter with neighbours. All the young men go abroad, legally or illegally, to work in Italy, Greece, France and UK to send money back to their parents, sisters and fiancees. There is nothing for them at home.

It wasn't until the break up of the Soviet empire that the extent of Albania's desolation started to become known. The country will climb back, eventually. It has to. But unlike, say, Hungary, which was poised and ready to take off, Albania as a country is like an abused child. Its problems are deep-rooted and will take a long time to heal. The abuser was Enver Hoxha.

What Hoxha did locally to Albania, is being re-enacted on a world scale by global capitalism. Have you tried redeeming your promisary notes for gold recently? Be very afraid.

Thank you for reading.

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Comments 23 comments

Chef Jeff profile image

Chef Jeff 8 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

I went to Spain just a few years after Franco's death and stayed for 5 years. Much of the scenery there was as you described - not as desolate, perhaps, but the nation was still paranoid, secretive and in chaos.

In time Spain crawled out of the Franco-imposed semi-isolation and allowed itself to modernize, but still, along the railways, those concrete bunkers can still be seen. Spain does not have the same rail width as France and trains must stop at the frontier, be lifted up and new trucks (wheels) be rolled beneath the coaches.

I saw this personally. Russia, curiously enough, had done the same thing. The railway guages, the distance between the two rails, was different, and during WWII slave labor was used by the Germans to standardize captured railroads to their usage.

Under Franco, Spain was never completely isolated, but it did guard its borders with great care. For a time after Franco died, and with the same people in charge in so many minor government offices, things took a while to change for the better.

Once when my wife and I went to the main post office in Mardid. We went to collect a package sent to me from the U.S. We went to booth "A" as instructed by the machine-gun armed military guard. From there we were sent, quite literally, to almost every other letter of the alphabet until finally instructed to go to boorh "A" once more.

I did something stupid and complained, and that almost got me arrested. Finally, when they learned I was an American, I was let go and my package handed to me. I left without further word.

Another time I was driving and got lost. My friend Frank Paesano was with me and we found ourselves on a dirt path much like you mentioned. We crossed a small creek and suddenly found ourselves in a remote village. Children came running out and shouted and laughed as we slowly drove through the place. I never before felt as much in a third world country as I did then.

On our honeymoon my wife and I picked up an old man who was hitchhiking on a very modern 4-lane superhighway in the south of Spain. He got in the car and after about 10 kilometers told me to turn off the road. I did, and we were on a dirt road, so I figured he would just walk from there. Instead he told us to follow the road, which wound between hills, cliffs and rather quickly there was no road at all.

We exited between two cliffs to a narrow cliff-sided valley with a creek. There he told us he lived in one of the cave-dwellings in the cliff. He shouted some words in Gitano, which is the Romani or Gypsy language, and no one touched our car or bothered us. He led us into the cave-home, fed us and we spent a long time learning a lot about this old man. He asked for nothing, and when we left, made sure we got out alright.

I have never been to Albania, but I did pass through the old Yugoslavia once as I headed up to Prague during the season of The Czech Spring. I have always been amazed that some of the third world lives in most countries, even here in America, where I have been to hidden clusters of folk who live "off the grid", so to speak.

In the hills above Santa Barbara there was a small community of "mountain folk", as they called themselves. They made their own fabric for clothing, had no electricity, and wanted none. They grew their own crops, carried water from the spring we had accidentally discovered, and that was how we met them, by offering to help carry the water buckets.

We were welcomed warmly, and when we left none of us ever mentioned their secret little hiding place until after they ere forced off their land. Indeed, this is the first time I have ever mentioned it, and I don't know where they went after that, but I did hear on NPR a story of how they had been discovered" and how they had been forced to move for some housing developement that was later burned in one of the many wildfires in that area. I guess when they lived ther the risk of fire was low, but when the expensive and fancy houses moved in, it upset the natural order of things and wildfires were rampant.

Great hub, as always, and thanks for the story of Albania!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Thanks Jeff - these are fascinating stories and great experiences. Spain (and Portugal too) have always had very rural 'undeveloped' areas. Former Yugoslavia and Albania have many similarities (terrain, cultures) but Yugoslavia was never isolated and deprived in quite the same way, and in Yugoslavia you could get an education. During the Biafran famine (the first widely televised famine, I believe) Albanian TV showed the pictures but said it was Italy and Greece, and was happening al over the world, except in Albania. It's barely credible, but my son-in-law is Albanian and lived through this as a youngster. They believed it, because they knew (were allowed to know) nothing else. Enver Hoxha did untold harm.

_darknights_ profile image

_darknights_ 8 years ago from Philippines

..nice guyz.....

pgrundy 8 years ago

Thank you for this hub, it is so instructive and disturbing. Definitely some strong parallels to what is happening in America right now. The gold business caught my attention--Here on television there are constant ads for companies that will buy old gold jewelry and turn it into cash. There is also a new phenomenon called the "gold party" which is like a Tupperware party for women. The women gather in a home and the guest is a jeweler from one of these companies who buys up gold jewelry. These parties have gotten very popular in some parts of the country since the women all leave with cash, but until very recently, you never heard of this sort of thing. Sure you could sell a gold ring to a pawn shop--that's always been an option, but on this scale, it's weird and creepy.

Also, our infrastructure is rotting. Maybe you've heard about the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed during rush hour recently? Our electrical grid is so outdated that even if we built wind turbines everywhere the grid couldn't handle the energy they would produce. The grid needs to be completely overhauled and there are no plans in the works to do this anytime soon. You don't hear about this enough, but it's a very, very seriously problem. Sometimes whole sections of the U.S. go dark for no apparent reason and it can take hours or days to fix it. Other times a brief storm will do it. We have a generator, an LP camping stove, and kerosense lamps and have had to use them four times in the past year and a half.

Well, I'm going on and on. I'm sorry. This was a great hub, Paraglider. Thank you!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Thanks Pam - I'd never heard of the gold parties. In complete contrast to that, Indian families here in the Gulf, instead of sending money home, buy gold. Mainly bracelets. It's what they believe in, as real. I've heard pundits on TV complain about the Indian women collecting gold. They say it damps the economy by taking the money out of circulation, because - wait for it - the gold doesn't wear out, doesn't need replaced! A poor sort of consumer product indeed! What they really resent about it is that if the Indian women turn their money into gold and keep it, they can't fleece them twice for the same money. In a small way, these women are genuinely getting richer. (And they look nicer with their bracelets than they would with broken laptops!)

Of course the reason that the promisary note scam ruined Albania is that Albanian currency is useless outside Albania. Nobody wants it. The same hasn't happened to the dollar. But it could.

Chef Jeff profile image

Chef Jeff 8 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

Our paper dollar came about during the U.S. Civil war, somewhere about 1863.  At that time states and banks could print money, and even companies had their own money, mostly to keep employees totally dependent upon the company store for everything they bought.

These state & bank currencies also were not good outside their very limited sphere of influence.  As for a U.S. dollar, faith is the only thing that gives it credence.  After all, it's only a piece of paper!  Once it was worth gold and silver, then only silver, and now it's just worth the paper it's printed on, the cost of the ink, etc.  It is by our indulgence alone that a paper dollar is worth anything at all.  If and when we lose faith in it, it becomes totally worthless.

If the U.S. decides to cancel the worth of the bills, they become worthless.  If the U.S. ever falls, the money becomes worthless.

Old Confederate States of America paper bills are only worth what collectors are willing to pay for them.  Apart from that, they are just interesting bits of paper.

In the South during the Civil War it was said that oak leaves had the same value as $1.00 CSA.  Hotels and inns would not take payment until after the night had passed lest the money lose yet more value over night.

Frankly, I do not believe there is enough money on the U.S. banks, Fort Knox, etc. to cover even 1% of the paper money put there.  And then we can talk about plastic as well.  Why does that have value?  One could argue that it's because of the earning power of the individuals who hold the plastic, but what happens when that earning power dries up, as it is doing now?

The women of India show greater financial wisdom than do the leaders of the nations of the G-8, and all the others who aspire to that exclusive, if not also snobbish, club.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Indeed. And also Indian money (rupees) is hard to change outside India (though that may be changing with the rise of the country). I was once caught out like that. Having worked a longish spell in Mumbai, I had to fly to Saudi, then to US, then UK. I had a sum of money in rupees which neither the Saudis nor the US banks would touch. I could change it in UK, but the rate was such that I decided to hold onto it until my next trip East. Since then, I've been more careful. Previously I'd thought all money was good and exchange rates were fixed, apart from commission. Not true.

By the way, in Albania, to get the local currency you don't go to banks. You go to the market square and look for black market money changers - locals with plastic shopping bags full of currency. You strike a deal for your dollars or Euros, and if you don't like the offer, you move on and look for the next changer. You don't argue! These guys look as though they are alone, but you can be sure their minders are not far away. In practice, you've got to find a friendly local to make the deal for you, because the minute they think 'rich Brit or American', the rate shoots up. And that's the World in miniature too, so you can't complain.

hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 8 years ago from Oregon, USA

I believe people like George Bush are pushing the USA toward the Albanian model. We will never cease to have some of the world's richest people, but the not rich ones are growing.

ColdWarBaby 8 years ago

I remember seeing, when I was a child, bills like some described at the link above, with the words "Will Pay to the Bearer on Demand".

They have long since disappeared.

The amerikan dollar is completely worthless and has been for some time.  This house of cards will be collapsing quite soon.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

HD & CWB - thanks for the read & comments. "I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of one pound sterling" signed by the head of the Bank of England. But the promise has been useless since dropping the gold standard. One golden sovereign (the old pound coin) will now fetch a lot of (paper) money.

The Albanian currency was useless from the day it was first printed, because eveyone knew Albania was not worth investing in. The US dollar is technically now worth nothing, but is still redeemable for as long as the myth continues. The house of cards is already collapsing.

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

To murder hope is the worst crime against humanity! Very powerful hub, Paraglider and an interesting look at Albania too. Here in the USA we may have our problems, but we have hope and the right to vote. George Bush may be an idiot but he is no dictator. He will be gone soon. We are the lucky ones--we have hope.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Thanks Robie! It took Hoxha 40 years to reduce Albania to its lowest state. George Bush could probably achieve just as much in the same time or less, dictator or not. We're relying on you guys not to put his clone into power. Please...

Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

After reading this Hub and its comments, I am struck with the thought that this small piece of Internet real estate ought to be visited by every teacher on the planet so that its lessons can be discussed and learned in the classroom. You made history come to life in a quite unforgettable way, and your readers drove home the point that history repeats itself. I would love to see a classroom full of young people speculate about the many future implications of your verse parable.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Sally - that's maybe the highest compliment I've ever received. Thank you. And thanks too for crediting previous commentators. Jeff's first contribution, for example, is worthy of a hub on its own. People here can be very generous.

prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 7 years ago from US

nice hub Dave, thanks for telling me about Albania, I remember Philippines in the hands of a dictator who was ousted. The kind of rulers who doesnt have even the right to rule because they have no compassion at all, greedy.

have a good day, Maita

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi Maita - It was a tragic episode for the country and its people. But even in the last couple of years, things are beginning to improve. Because Albania was a non-participant in the world economy, the collapse didn't affect it much, and they are unique in Europe for not going into recession. I have an Albanian interest, as one of their fine young men married my daughter :)

alexandriaruthk profile image

alexandriaruthk 7 years ago from US

hi nice hub

Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 5 years ago from UK

Hi Paraglider, this is the first time I've seen this hub, and it does make sobering reading. So much for wealth 'trickling down' In fact wealth spreads up, and the wealthier the people are at the bottom, the more there is for everyone to share. It's a shame the Albanians had to go through all this.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi Amanda - my son-in-law is from Albania which is why I've been there and know something about the history. It's kind of ironic that the country was hardly affected by the debt crisis that's hitting the rest of the West these days, because it was so poor it was effectively off the radar and of no interest at all to Big Money. Their only way back is for their young people to find work abroad and send money home. It's a slow process, but probably sounder than government borrowing.

SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 5 years ago from Southern California, USA

It is truly sad what can happen to a country because of one dictator. Despite all the Albania's problems, I have to say the fact people are growing their own vegetables and living more locally might not always be a bad thing. Sure, they do not have as cosmopolitan of an outlook as say someone from New York or London, but at least the rural Albanians are self-sufficient in that they do not have to worry about the store providing for their every need. I love to shop, but when you think about all the money you spend, sometimes it makes you want to garden more. I started growing vegetables this summer and love it.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi SweetiePie - I agree with you that self sufficiency and local living are good in themselves. But it's better if it is a genuine choice and not forced on people by deprivation. You can't beat home grown vegetables!

Ardit 5 years ago

I would happily turn back in communist albania now that I understood well what capitalism stands for. Now, that I saw american weapons I understand why Hoxha "the eagle" was paranoid. Maybe that one was not the best world to leave in. But now I think that, that one was better than this one. Salut!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi Ardit - are you from Albania youself? If you'd had another Tito instead of Enver Hoxha, it might have been very different today. The country is climbing back, slowly, but still needs time to sort its legacy issues.

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