Is communism good for every country?

Albania and its communist past : One country, one warehouse

Skanderbeg Square, the main square of the Albanian capital Tirana, is now reserved for pedestrians. The wide area is covered with natural stone from all parts of the country. At the edge there is a scaffolded mosque from the time of the Ottoman rule; it is being restored by Turkish forces. The money, it is said, comes from Erdogan's box.

Diagonally across the street stands the broadly laid-out building of the National Museum. The facade is decorated with a multi-figure mosaic, which shows in the middle an energetic young woman in national costume with a raised rifle, to her side a fighter with the national flag, a black double-headed eagle on a blood-red background. The other figures embody epochs of the country's history, including a 19th century citizen. But workers? Representatives of the class that supposedly held power for half a century?

With the working class, the Communist Party, which took power under Enver Hoxha's leadership in 1944 and held on to it until the sluggish transition to democracy in 1991, had its dearest hardship. It was almost nonexistent. In a sense, it was played. The way "democracy" or "popular rule" was played. In fact, there was only one ruler, Hoxha, who was very photogenic at a younger age, who in 1944 was clever enough to use himself and his party comrades from the bankruptcy of the Italian-fascist colonizers. Hoxha seized power, and his opponents, but also his comrades-in-arms, sooner or later disappeared in the dungeons of the Segurimi, the dreaded "state security", or ended up right in front of their execution platoons.

The tip of a bloody iceberg

The information trip that the Federal Foundation for Working Up the SED dictatorship organizes every year in order to study the handling of the historical legacy of the countries that were communist ruled until 1989/91 was dedicated to Albania. A week full of visits to memorial sites and talks with victims and officials - but the feeling of having only seen the tip of a bloody iceberg remains.

There were numerous camps in Albania; Basically the whole country was a camp, including shooting orders at the borders. Hoxha made no secret of the terror. Newsreels from the early days of the regime, on display in the National Museum, show show trials that were held in overcrowded cinemas, with applause for the already established judgments, and delinquents who are quickly led into some field and shot at close range. Then the winners stand around the corpses, smoking cigarettes. Presumably they suspected that their hour would also strike at some point.

In Hoxha's Albania, Stalinism ruled to the end, and that too was violent in 1991. Hoxha admired Stalin and imitated him, from the personality cult to the gulag. When Albania turned away from the gradually de-Stalinized Soviet Union in 1961 and turned to the People's Republic of China, which enjoyed personal cultivation, the apparatus of rule and terror remained in operation. When China, too, no longer satisfied Hoxha's ideological ideas, its country remained completely alone from the end of the 1970s. Albania fell out of the world's consciousness for a decade.

Just how it looked inside was horrible. The bunker system of the Ministry of the Interior, the control center of terror, extends under parts of Skanderbeg Square. The rooms furnished for the minister and his closest staff breathe that mixture of kitsch and desolation, of wood paneling and camp beds that one is familiar with from the GDR authorities. In the rooms lined up like prison cells along endless corridors, another exhibition on the regime's terror can be seen here in the “Bunk-Art 2” museum. No torture was too disgusting to be used by the henchmen. There is even - important evidence - a handwritten list that lists everything from electric shock to starvation. The pen is reluctant to report individual fates even with key words.

Italy was close, but remained inaccessible

Not far from Skanderbeg Square crouches under tall trees a spacious building that once housed a private clinic. Then the Sigurimi moved in. It is popularly known as the “House of Leaves” because this is where the files of countless people spied on were kept. The house is full of technology, touchingly antiquated from today's perspective, but highly effective in its time. The sigurimi mastered the bugging of houses, clothes and people perfectly. Countless portable tape recorders from West German production are lined up on storage shelves, Japanese cameras and telephoto lenses are in showcases.

In the center of Tirana there are numerous buildings from the time of Italian colonial rule. They look solid, and Hoxha's communists used them without hesitation. Italy itself remained inaccessible for half a century, although it is close to the other side of the Adriatic.

Exiles were not allowed to approach the coast, including family members of prisoners, because the regime practiced kinship liability for all generations. There were camps for women and children. In Tepelene in the south of the country, 600 inmates were crammed into five hall-sized barracks. At least 300 children have died from malnutrition and untreated diseases over time. A doctor came once a week, there was a paramedic in the camp itself; or was it a paramedic? The reports of the now elderly ex-inmates do not always match. The listener senses the burden of a leaden time, with no beginning or end.

Simon Mirakaj came to the Tepelene camp in 1945 as a newborn baby - and remained imprisoned for an unimaginable 46 years because of a family member. Only the outer walls of the barracks remain, there is no memorial. In the local museum of local history, models of communist heroic monuments are kept - and the writings of Enver Hoxha, which the dictator, like his role model Stalin, also wrote. Hoxha's birthplace was nearby, here in the south of the country, some people are still proud of that.

"Mother Albania" is enthroned on a hill on the mountainous edge of Tirana. The memorial is modeled on the type of “Mother Homeland” that exists in the Soviet Union from Volgograd to Kiev. In front of it lie the graves of partisans who fell in the fight against the Italian fascists. Every regime needs its heroes. The grave slabs show cracks, the whole area looks more like it has been left to itself than that it is recognizably cared for.

In the mountainous north, however, is the Spaç penal camp. It consists of residential buildings boldly placed on the steep slopes. The prisoners who had to do forced labor in the nearby copper mine lived here. Next door the guards who, judging by the gutted buildings, which in any case never got beyond their raw state, were not much better off. From time to time relatives were allowed to visit the detainees, ten minutes under supervision in a special guard house. To do this, the last seven kilometers of unpaved road had to be negotiated on foot.

Churches were demolished as well as mosques

Former prisoners and representatives of victims' associations have come together in the camp to celebrate the anniversary of the 1973 prisoner uprising. It was as heroic as it was in vain. Speeches are made, all the men smoke, rain clouds loom in the sky, the atmosphere is heavy. Excavators can be seen high up on the slope. The Albanian government has given the mining rights to a Turkish mining company. The original forced copper mine is in danger of disappearing. Even today, 28 years after the end of communism, numerous members of the old regime are active in the state apparatus; as well as otherwise. It goes without saying that they have no interest in coming to terms with history and the crimes.

In the city of Schkoder, German visitors attend the inauguration of a memorial “for the victims of the communist regime”. In the town hall, excited speeches are given in front of a jam-packed hall. It is impossible for the visitor to decide where the commemoration ends and the current politics begins. One lives in the present, as always and everywhere where the past is a burden.

The diocesan museum is aesthetically of the highest quality and tells the story of the persecution and oppression of the Catholic Church that dominates northern Albania. In 1967 Hoxha proclaimed Albania the “first atheistic state in the world” and tore down churches and mosques across the country. The Schkoder Cathedral was converted into a sports hall, the facade was reshaped like a factory hall and decorated with portraits of functionaries. Now the working class rules through “their” party, is the message.

The cathedral has now been carefully restored. Bells ring occasionally, while the (loudspeaker) call of the muezzin can be heard from neighboring minarets. We have lived together for centuries and do so again. Albania is not a stronghold of fanaticism. Instead, they hope to join the EU. Years ago, Albania was “highly corrupt”, confides in us a diplomat who accompanies the process of reviewing the judiciary against the rule of law, and adds: “Now only corrupt.”

Incidentally, the German visitors did not see the sea. The coast should be beautiful. The grim past lies inland. You have to look for it, and yet it is always present.

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