Summer 2013

The Bunkerization of Albania

Repurposing the architecture of militaristic isolationism

David Pike

Too much is brutally predictable about the legacy of totalitarianism—corruption, instability, a succession of further totalitarian leaders. But not everything. In 1999, fourteen years after the death of Albania’s leader Enver Hoxha and eight years after the end of his nearly fifty-year-long regime, two unexpected facts came to light about his most lasting and visible legacy. At the height of the Kosovo War, the bunkers with which he had blanketed the country were, for the first time ever, actually put to use: as shelter for ethnic Albanian refugees, as shelter from Serbian shells for Albanian villagers living near the northern border, and, especially, as defensive fortifications for, at different times, the Kosovan Liberation Army and the Albanian army. As one villager put it, “We blamed everything on Hoxha, but now his bunkers are saving our lives.”1 However, when NATO forces mistakenly bombed Albanian bunkers instead of the Serbian ones a kilometer away, they exploded another myth about Hoxha’s folly: the structures may not have been as useless as had always been thought, but neither were they as indestructible as advertised. Yes, they provided shelter against Serbian shells and sniper fire, but were no match for the “bunker-busting” firepower of the West.

What is most striking about this episode is the fact that, for the first time in their existence, Hoxha’s bunkers were experienced solely in terms of their function as shelter and fortification, momentarily shorn of the heavy ideological weight they had borne since construction on them began in the mid-1970s. Whether embodying the “bunker mentality” of an isolated nation feeling itself besieged on all sides, the ruinous folly of a paranoid leader, or the renewed energy of an irrepressible people, the bunkers had always been a metonymy of the nation. For a brief moment, here they were: the functional infrastructure of a state at war. There could be worse entry points into a meditation on the world’s most extreme manifestation of the bunker fantasy, a moment that simultaneously realized and shattered Hoxha’s vision of a self-sufficient nation.

Soon after this climactic moment of the Kosovo War, miniature bunkers began to appear for the first time around Albania: ashtrays and penholders in alabaster or clay, originally highly sought after by journalists and eventually becoming a staple in souvenir stalls alongside figurines of Mother Theresa, artisanal goods, traditional peasant garb, and snow globes enclosing the figure of the Ottoman-bashing national hero, Skanderbeg. The bunkers were part of the national myth. And, as befits any myth, there is much that is uncertain about them.

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