Letter from . . . June 2017
The twilight of Zog
On the Ottoman legacy in Albania.
“A Hundred Years of Servitude” was the title of a conference held in Tirana, the capital of Albania, about the legacy of Communism—and a clever play it is on the title of the novel that brought fame and fortune to Gabriel García Márquez, a barefaced Communist apologist. The moving spirit was Daniel Hannan, a member of the European Parliament and a contrarian in the sense that he speaks and writes eloquently in favor of national sovereignty, that bugbear of the European Union. I should declare an interest: he once showed me round the Brussels parliament, and I could guarantee that we are of like minds about democracy, its friends and its enemies.
In every country where a Communist party took power, the population had to endure relentless persecution and crime. Albanians were particularly defenseless. Like other ethnicities in the Balkans, they had developed in the course of their history a strong identity but not the political structures to express it, so leaving themselves at the mercy of others.
Everywhere that a Communist party took power, the population endured persecution and crime.
Albanian is a language apart; its linguistic mystery holds its speakers together but stands in the way of outsiders and any modernizing influence they might have. Linguists characterize it as Illyrian, but in my experience this word is as vague to them as it is to ethnographers. Uniquely, the alphabet has thirty-six letters. In the Illyrian version, the country is called Shqipërisë. “Q presents the greatest difficulty,” writes one speaker trying to be helpful with technical information about pronunciation and voiced counterparts. Words frequently begin with an unsupported “x” or with double consonants, for example “nd” or “ng,” and even “nrd.” As might be anticipated, there are useful loan words such as plazh and bagazh from the French, sanduic and tualete from the English.
Long ago, I found myself in Corfu trying to make out the extensive ruins on the indistinct Albanian shore of the Adriatic. This was Butrint, generally considered by the experts as one of the greatest Greco-Roman sites, preserved in an unspoiled setting which is not easily accessible and therefore all the more worth a visit. Aeneas had put in there on his travels from Troy to Rome, according to Virgil, and there he met Andromache, the widow of Hector. I was all set to go there.
In classical days the eastern shore of the Adriatic was known as Illyria, and then in Christian times it became Epirus under its own bishop. In the mid-fifteenth century, a national hero emerged in the figure of Skanderbeg; for a number of years he led resistance to the invading Ottoman Turks, only to go down in the kind of defeat from which myth emerges.
Subjects of the Ottoman Empire for five hundred or so years, the huge majority of Albanians in every generation lived in the traditional peasant style of their forebears. Albania was the one remaining country in Europe where tribal custom continued to govern public and private behavior. The blood feud kept the peace, operating more violently but more consequently than coded law.
Ambitious Albanians nevertheless were able to rise and occupy positions of power. In the seventeenth century, for instance, Koprulu Mehmet Pasha became the Sultan’s greatly respected Grand Vizier, and in the nineteenth century Muhammad Ali founded a dynasty that ruled Egypt until Gamal Abdul Nasser sent King Farouk into exile in 1952. Sultans customarily preferred to have Albanian eunuchs supervising the harem, and they too were often able to exploit their presence in the palace to obtain power and privilege. On the way in from the airport called the Mother Theresa International in honor of the most celebrated contemporary Albanian, the first gas station that I notice has the unlikely but historically suggestive name of Kastrati.
The outcome of the long-drawn Ottoman occupation is that almost three-quarters of the population are Muslim, making Albania the one and only Muslim-majority country in Europe. Ancient mosques with graceful minarets are a picturesque contrast to the jumble of condominiums and office blocks built under the Communists and now under their successors. I questioned as many Muslims as I could, however, and one and all said that they were Catholic or Greek Orthodox in origin, and Muslim only because the Ottomans had obliged them to convert. In the streets a few elderly men are to be seen wearing the traditionally shaped fez, but white in color rather than red. The young might have a white skullcap, qeleshe in the local language. Throughout the lands conquered by Islam, wearers of a white headdress are supposedly acknowledging that they have been colonized and converted. Nowadays, white fezzes and qeleshes are mostly stacked high in shops for tourists.
Like their former Ottoman overlords, Albanian Muslims are nominally Sunni. Beliefs and practices, however, seem to be influenced by the Bektasis, who are Sufis, that is to say followers in the tradition of Islamic mysticism. Ataturk, the founding father of post-Ottoman Turkey, held that Islam—and Sufism in particular—condemned the nation to backwardness, and as part of his root-and-branch reform he expelled the Bektasi. The man who escorted me to one mosque belonged to the order. Bektasi are at peace with the world, he said. Sharia and jihad meant nothing to him or to any of them. He seemed disinterested, then even slightly shocked, when I asked how many Albanians had volunteered to fight for the Islamic State in former Syria. Nobody was able to tell me. “Very few” and “None” were the sole answers that I could get.
Corruption is as dangerous as Communism, this politician said, and his party would clean it up.
At the dinner that is the formal event with which conferences usually start, I was placed next to the deputy chairman of the Republican Party, the conservatives, that is to say. A man probably in his forties, he spoke fluent English. A general election is due in the near future, and he told the room that his party is sure to win it. Everybody complains that organized crime, racketeering, and misappropriation of funds is the Albanian way of doing things, and everybody is right to complain. Corruption is as dangerous as Communism, this politician said, and his party would clean it up.
One of his favorite books, he turned aside to tell me, was Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches (1949)—it gave the reader everything he needed to know about Communism. In the war, Fitzroy, a Brigadier and a Conservative Member of Parliament, had commanded the British military mission to Yugoslavia. Evelyn Waugh was one of its members, and he later put some of this experience into his masterpiece, Sword of Honour. One of the themes of the novel is that British foreign policy is in the hands of men from privileged backgrounds who behind closed doors are crypto-Communists selling out the nation—critics at the time dismissed this as right-wing paranoia. As editor of a book about Evelyn Waugh, I persuaded Fitzroy, rather against his inclination, to put on paper what it had been like to have on the military mission this uncompromising observer of events.
Independence in the early twentieth century had thrown up King Zog, a six-foot-seven adventurer with an English wife called Geraldine. The state was still not properly institutionalized when the Italians invaded in April 1939, King Zog disappeared, and the fight for liberation began. This was the moment of opportunity for Enver Hoxha. Born in 1908, he had studied in France, where he joined the Communist Party. Brutal and conspiratorial by nature, he was the leading personality among the fifteen men who comprised the Albanian Communist Party at its founding late in 1941. A rival movement, the National Front, lacked the discipline and organization to fulfil the ideology inherent in its name. What should have been resistance to the Italians and then their German allies soon developed into internecine positioning to take power once the war was over.
Around the middle of 1943, the British military mission became a serious presence in the country. Its commanders were disappointed by the military performance of the Albanian partisans. Obliged to make what they could of the internal politics, they tended to give the Communists the benefit of the doubt. Reginald Hibbert parachuted to join the mission that December, and after the war joined the Foreign Office. Published in 1991, his book Albania’s National Liberation Struggle: The Bitter Victory takes the side of Hoxha. Had he been Albanian, he says, he would have been one of Hoxha’s partisans. Another member of the military mission, Rowland Winn, later Lord St. Oswald and a Conservative government minister, was so outraged by Hibbert’s fellow-traveling that he took the unusual step of denouncing him. Hibbert appears not to have had to account for himself. Typically, the Foreign Office promoted him and he ended his career as British ambassador in Paris, and who knows what harm he did in that capacity.
As the Cold War was getting under way, Albanian refugees were recruited by the cia and infiltrated into their homeland. Tipped off by Kim Philby, the Soviet agent in the higher ranks of British intelligence, the Communists caught and shot somewhere around three hundred, bringing the National Front to a tragic conclusion. Evelyn Waugh was right: some of those supposedly serving the nation in the Foreign Office and MI6 were in the shadows working against it.
Enver Hoxha was in power for forty years, dying in 1985. The model of a Communist dictator, he maneuvered between Tito, Stalin, and Mao Zedong, executed at the minimum six thousand political opponents and perhaps as many as twenty-five thousand, resorted to concentration camps, torture, and forced labor, collectivized agriculture, imposed atheism as state doctrine, forbade travel, and controlled all forms of self-expression. He had his right-hand man Mehmet Shehu put to death and covered up the murder as suicide. The national museum in Tirana devotes an entire floor to horrifying documentation. The British had undoubtedly and deliberately helped the Albanian Communist Party to tyrannize defenseless people. At the conclusion of a guided tour for everyone at the conference, a small man with wrinkles and humor in his face gave a short impromptu speech. The battered felt hat that he wore every day and all day established that he was his own man, and would always be. For opposing Hoxha in word but not in deed, he had been held prisoner for twenty years. It was, he said simply, hell.
Lots of pinkish marble give the interior of King Zog’s one-time palace the look of a resplendent bathroom. The conference closes with a dinner given in this setting by Sali Berisha, the country’s Grand Old Man, Prime Minister for five years and then President for a further eight. This time last year, he declared that there was no public order, and he called on people to arm themselves. Today’s newspapers report the assassination of a police chief. In a voice rising with anger, Berisha accuses the present government of links to corruption and crime. The currency speculator George Soros makes a point of funding the former Communists, Berisha says, and in his opinion that is the source of everything wrong. No change, then: influential persons in the shadows are working against democracy under the pretense of serving it.
From Tirana to Butrint and back turns out to be a drive of eleven hours, so I never caught up with Aeneas.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 10, on page 28
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