A bunker in the Albanian Alps (photograph by Elian Stefa, Gyler Mydyti/Concrete Mushrooms Project)
It was in a small tobacco shop in 1936 where Albania’s first Communist party — and a future leader plagued by paranoia and power — sparked from a young man’s interest in Marxist-Leninism after attending the University of Montpellier in France and losing his scholarship for a paper criticizing the Albanian government. 32 years later, and that Communist spark has dimmed into the darkness of a paranoid mind — the mind of Enver Hoxha. Yet the dictator’s obsessive building of bunkers for the war that never came remain pocked all over the landscape, from the beaches to the mountains to people’s own backyards.
Bunkers on the beach (photograph by JnW_RTW/Flickr user)
In 1968, Alexander Dubcek was Czechoslovakia’s reformist leader who started the Prague Spring, which was essentially the country’s equivalent to Gorbachev’s liberal ideas of glasnost (publicity) and perestroika (restructuring). At this time, the USSR didn’t like this whole idea of liberalization. So in August of the same year, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia.
Several Warsaw Pact countries disagreed with the invasion. But Albania, in the most extreme move, left the Warsaw Pact entirely. Albania was upset that Moscow had encouraged them to focus more on agriculture than industry, and was critical of how the USSR seemed to be holding a looser rein on Yugoslavia — a neighbor which Albania considered a hostile enemy.
But after Albania left the Warsaw Pact, it entered into a new pact by itself — a pact of psychosis. Enver Hoxha, the leader of the country, set Albania on the isolationist path that resulted in the hordes of futile bunkers.
Bunkers on the beach (photograph by Elian Stefa, Gyler Mydyti/Concrete Mushrooms Project)
Hoxha’s logic was that the USSR would attack Albania, so he decided to do the only rational thing he thought possible: build bunkers. And he made a lot of them, an estimated 750,000 bunkers, or 500,000. No one quite knows. It cost 150 LEK then, or about $1,100 today, for each bunker.
“Pustules of mistrust and fear,” wrote A. A. Gill, in an article about Albania in 2006 in The Sunday Times. Today these concrete conundrums are the subject of Albanian annoyance, foreign curiosity, and governmental disregard.
View from a street bunker (photograph by NH53/Flickr user)
Inside a bunker (photograph by cshor/Flickr user)
It was 1968 when the first bunker model was put together, all under Hoxha’s supervision, who came to power in 1944. Although there wasn’t an official Albania Communist party until after World War II, it was what happened during the war that thrust Communism into Albania’s future. Italy invaded Albania in 1939, to the chagrin of the fledgling Albanian Communists. The Albanian Partisans, led by Hoxha, started a “people’s war” and led the country to be the only one in Europe to liberate itself without the help of foreign troops.
Bunkers in the ocean (photograph by Supertosi/Wikimedia)
Although the Partisans favored mountain guerrilla warfare, Hoxha, in 1968, wanted to defend all the country — including the lowlands. That’s why the bunkers were built as defensive mechanisms absolutely everywhere: so that all citizens could defend the country. The bunkers were also made to create a militaristic sense of mind in Albanians. The young were taught how to find and shelter in a bunker. But there simply weren’t enough resources to make the bunkers into a successful campaign.
A bunker at a playground (photograph by Stelios Lazakis)
Moreover, Hoxha was petrified with paranoia — a paranoia that both crippled his sense of rationality and the future of the country he led for 40 years. He was convinced that he had enemies beyond every inch of Albania’s border. A Stalinist to the core, Hoxha had grown weary with what he believed to be less strict, less forceful leaders in Moscow — not “true” Communists like Hoxha was.
Bunker at the Dam of Lake Ulza (photograph by Albinfo/Wikimedia)
Looking at what happened after Stalin — Hoxha’s idol and defender of Marxist-Leninist thought — died, it’s not totally unreasonable to see why Hoxha was mad. Stalin was a cruel Communist leader, to say the least. The Stalinist “purges” (a euphemism for the death camps, executions, and political persecutions) introduced a sense of fear in Communists’ minds that bound them together and petrified them. His “cult of personality” combining his image with Lenin’s made him superhuman and capable of anything: legal or not. He strong-armed the Soviet Union’s surveillance and police programs. Famine brought even more dire circumstances to the USSR. He was the ultimate, the most extreme, and the most terrible of Marxist-Leninist leaders. And Hoxha stood by his side.
Khrushchev followed Stalin, and soothed tensions with Yugoslavia, and said Communist paths could follow divergent paths to socialism. Hoxha thought this was a compromise of Marxist theory for economic imperialism, and the Soviets cut back their exports to Albania in 1961.
Swimmers sitting on a bunker at Lake Ohrid (photograph by Marcin Szala)
Painted bunkers on the shore (photograph by ImogenX/Wikimedia)
“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,” Hoxha said, as quoted in Kristen Brown Golden’s book, The Trauma Controversy. Foreign travel and religion were also banned under Hoxha, in the climate of fear and paranoia.
“I remember when they came to me in the 1970s and told me that they would put two [bunkers] right in front of my house,” Zilige Luga, 55, said in a 1996 New York Times article. “I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ And they said, ‘No, we must protect the motherland.’ I still thought it was crazy.”
Bunkers on the beach (photograph by Elian Stefa, Gyler Mydyti)
Photographs show the bunkers peering into the lens in the strange way that someone does when they don’t expect to be in the frame. The bunkers are the awkward relative who always seems to be standing a little bit too far from the group, standing up a little bit too straight, smiling a little bit too wide. They are out of place. They don’t fit in. And yet they are still there: covered by bathing suit-clad young people, hedged by fields and trees, swallowed momentarily by waves.
Bunkers among the sheep (photograph by Alexis Dworsky)
The sun’s light will fade at the end of the day and the waves will recede. The people will leave the beaches and the fields and go back home. But the bunkers will stay there. They sit. They wait.
Building of the bunkers stopped in 1985, shortly after Hoxha’s death*. Since then, “destroy” or “transform” is the ultimate question. After the fall of the Communist regime in 1991, farmers dug some up. Others have destroyed them for their steel. Explosives have spread across the country to destroy other bunkers. In July 2009, the Albanian government began a clean-up project to get rid of the bucolic bumps using T-59 tanks. Only seven bunkers were taken down in the first two weeks.
A bunker next to an apartment building (photograph by Jeroenvrp/Wikimedia)
Some have been made into bars, tattoo parlors, cafes, and kiosks. Lovers use them as secret coves. Gift shops have little bunker-shaped toys you can buy and cigarette ash trays designed like bunkers. They litter the countryside, seaside, and cityscape alike. Some have become dilapidated humps of concrete. Others have been painted to ease the eyes. In 2009, graduate students Gyler Mydyti and Elian Stefa came up with an idea to make the bunkers into hostels. The project tapped into outsiders’ curiosity, but according to the project’s website, the first pilot is still underway.
There seems to be an identity crisis when it comes to dealing with the bunkers, but moreover, with addressing Albania’s Communist path.
Bunker by a residential building (photograph by Mat Helium)
In Zeri-i-Popullit, an Albanian daily, Hoxha said, “The Albanian state is a small state, but it has never harmed anyone, while many others have done it harm, have invaded it, have killed, have burned, have massacred, but have never achieved their diabolical aim of physically and spiritually oppressing and enslaving, and eliminating the Albanian people, because they fought, resisted and were not afraid even in the gravest moments of their history through the centuries.”
Hoxha’s ill-fated crusade for Albania’s Marxist future has vanished — as in the rest of post-Communist Europe — but the bunkers remain as the tied red ribbon around the country’s finger. They are a reminder of what was once a Communist country—a country that came from the fierce, successful nationalist campaign of Hoxha’s Partisans—that had high hopes for itself. And they are also a reminder of the irrational, fearful totalitarian who long ruled the land.
Bunkers on the Albanian Riviera (photograph by wstuppert/Wikimedia)
THE SNAKE THAT BIT THE LAND: BUNKERS OF ALBANIA, Albania
Dobrucka, Alicja. “Concrete Mushrooms.” 2011. Experimenta EXD’11 Architectural Biennale in Lisbon. Accessed online Sept. 22, 2013.
Galjaard, David. “Concresco.” 2012.
Gill, Adrian Anthony. “The Land That Time Forgot.” The Sunday Times, 2006.
Geoghegan, Peter. “Albania watches impassively as bunkers become bunk-beds.” The Guardian, Sept. 26, 2012. Accessed Sept. 24, 2013.
Golden, Kristen Brown and Bettina G. Bergo. “The Trauma Controversy.” SUNY Press, 2009.
Mayfield, James. “Enver Hoxha’s Albania: Isolationism and Attempted Autarky Born of Perceptions of Imperialism.”
Mydyti, Glyer and Elian Stefa. “Concrete Mushrooms. Reusing Albania’s 750,000 Abandoned Bunkers.” 2012.
Shenon, Philip. “Tirana Journal; Dictator Liked Bunkers. My, They Mushroomed!” The New York Times, Apr. 13, 1996. Accessed Sept. 23, 2013.
“Soviets invade Czechslovakia.” History Channel. Accessed Sept. 24, 2013.
*Update: We originally stated that construction of the bunkers stopped in 1985, two years after Hoxha’s death. Hoxha died in 1985.