The Albanian Bunkers

Concrete military bunkers are a ubiquitous sight in Albania, with an average of 5.7 bunkers for every square kilometre (14.7 per square mile). The bunkers (Albanian: bunkerët) were built during the Stalinist and anti-revisionist government of Enver Hoxha from the 1960s to the 1980s; by 1983 a total of 173,371 bunkers had been constructed around the country.

Hoxha’s program of “bunkerization” (bunkerizimi) resulted in the construction of bunkers in every corner of the then People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, ranging from mountain passes to city streets. They were never used for their intended purpose during the years that Hoxha governed. The cost of constructing them was a drain on Albania’s resources, diverting them away from more pressing needs, such as dealing with the country’s housing shortage and poor roads.

The bunkers were abandoned following the dissolution of the communist government in 1992. A few were used in the Albanian insurrection of 1997 and the Kosovo War of 1999. Most are now derelict, though some have been reused for a variety of purposes including residential accommodation, cafés, storehouses, and shelters for animals or the homeless.

From the end of World War II to his death in April 1985, Enver Hoxha pursued a style of politics informed by hardline Stalinism as well as elements of Maoism. He broke with the Soviet Union after Nikita Khrushchev embarked on his reformist Khrushchev Thaw, withdrew Albania from the Warsaw Pact in 1968 in protest of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, and broke with China after U.S. President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.

His regime was also hostile towards the country’s immediate neighbours. Albania did not end its state of war with Greece, left over from the Second World War, until as late as 1987 – two years after Hoxha’s death – due to suspicions about Greek territorial ambitions in southern Albania as well as Greece’s status as a NATO member state.

Hoxha was virulently hostile towards the government of Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia, accusing Tito’s government of maintaining “an anti-Marxist and chauvinistic attitude towards our Party, our State, and our people”. He asserted that Tito intended to take over Albania and make it into the seventh republic of Yugoslavia, and castigated the Yugoslav government’s treatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, claiming that “Yugoslav leaders are pursuing a policy of extermination there.”

Albania still maintained some links with the outside world at this time, trading with neutral countries such as Austria and Sweden, and establishing links across the Adriatic Sea with its former invader Italy. However, a modest relaxation of domestic controls was curtailed by Hoxha in 1973 with a renewed wave of repression and purges directed against individuals, the young and the military, whom he feared might threaten his hold on the country. A new constitution was introduced in 1976 that increased the Labor Party’s control of the country, limited private property, and forbade foreign loans. The country sank into a decade of isolation and economic stagnation, virtually cut off from the outside world.

A bunker on a city street in Shkoder. The street’s inhabitants would have been expected to defend it.
A bunker in a cemetery.

Starting in 1967 and continuing until 1986, the Albanian government carried out a policy of “bunkerisation” that saw the construction of hundreds of thousands of bunkers across the country. They were built in every possible location, ranging from “beaches and mountains, in vineyards and pastures, in villages and towns, even on the manicured lawns of Albania’s best hotel”.[9] Hoxha envisaged Albania fighting a two-front war against an attack mounted by Yugoslavia, NATO or the Warsaw Pact involving a simultaneous incursion by up to eleven enemy airborne divisions. As he put it, “If we slackened our vigilance even for a moment or toned down our struggle against our enemies in the least, they would strike immediately like the snake that bites you and injects its poison before you are aware of it.”

A “triple series” of linked Qender Zjarri bunkers in the coast of Himara, southern Albania

The bunkerisation programme was a massive drain on Albania’s weak economy. The construction of prefabricated bunkers alone cost an estimated two percent of net material product, and in total the bunkers cost more than twice as much as the Maginot Line in France, consuming three times as much concrete. The programme diverted resources away from other forms of development, such as roads and residential buildings. On average, they are said to have each cost the equivalent of a two-room apartment and the resources used to build them could easily have resolved Albania’s chronic shortage of housing. According to Josif Zagali, building twenty smaller bunkers cost as much as constructing a kilometre of road. It also had a human cost; 70–100 people a year died constructing the bunkers. In addition, the bunkers occupied and obstructed a significant area of arable land.

A line of bunkers in Dhërmi, Himara
The bunkerisation of the country had effects that went beyond their ubiquitous physical impact on the landscape. The bunkers were presented by the Party as both a symbol and a practical means of preventing Albania’s subjugation by foreign powers, but some viewed them as a concrete expression of Hoxha’s policy of isolationism – keeping the outside world at bay. Some Albanians saw them as an oppressive symbol of intimidation and control.

Albanian author Ismail Kadare used the bunkers in his 1996 novel The Pyramid to symbolise the Hoxha regime’s brutality and control, while Çashku has characterised the bunkers as “a symbol of totalitarianism” because of the “isolation psychology” that they represented. It has been argued that the bunkerisation programme was a form of “patterned large-scale construction” that “has a disciplinary potential as a means of familiarising a population with a given order of rule”. The regime’s xenophobia had the effect of creating a siege mentality and a sense of constant emergency.

There have been various suggestions for what to do with them: ideas have included pizza ovens, solar heaters, beehives, mushroom farms, projection rooms for drive-in cinemas, beach huts, flower planters, youth hostels, and kiosks. Some Albanians have taken to using the bunkers for more romantic purposes. In a country where until recently cars were in short supply, they were popular places for lovers to have sex; as travel writer Tony Wheeler puts it, “Albanian virginity is lost in a Hoxha bunker as often as American virginity was once lost in the back seats of cars.”

In November 2014, a “five star” nuclear shelter built near Tirana for Hoxha was opened as a tourist attraction and art exhibition. The large bunker contains a museum with exhibits from World War II and the Hoxhaist period.

Albania’s bunkers have become a national symbol. Pencil holders and ashtrays in the shape of bunkers have become one of the country’s most popular tourist souvenirs. One such line of bunker souvenirs was promoted with a message to buyers: “Greetings to the land of the bunkers. We assumed that you could not afford to buy a big one.”

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