Understanding Albania's Communist Legacy. An Interview with Dr. Jonila Godole
Dr. Jonila Godole is the Executive Director of the Institute for Democracy, Media, and Culture in Tirana, Albania and a Professor of Journalism and Communications at the University of Tirana. Dr. Godole’s work is focused on the development of democratic values, supporting the work of independent journalists, and encouraging cultural exchanges between post-communist countries. She is a key figure in public debates about Albania’s communist past.
The Memory Days Conference provides viewers with the chance to reflect upon the history and politics of communism in Albania through the presentation of a series of events. In an effort to reach the audience through various mediums, the conference provides individuals with a platform to present their experiences with communism in Albania through lectures, discussions, exhibits, literature, and film. The majority of these presentations are followed up with thought-provoking discussions about both the inspiration behind each individual’s work and their critical reception domestically and internationally.
Interviewer Willa Davis (Intern at the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory): Would you mind telling us a little bit about the Memory Days conference that is held by the IDMC every year?
Dr. Jonila Godole: The Institute for Democracy, Media, and Culture has been organizing the Memory Days event since 2016. It is an awareness activity with national, international, and regional partners that raises awareness about our dictatorship and how we have not dealt with the past. We bring together experienced historians, scholars, former political prisoners, young people, students, teachers, media, and journalists to discuss and exchange experiences. The active presence of young people during the Memory Days is especially important in order to help them understand the features of the communist regime and to explain why democracy isn’t working properly.
The Memory Days event arose as a response to the lack of an official day of remembrance for the victims of the communist dictatorship in Albania. It usually lasts one to two weeks. This year was a great challenge due to the pandemic, but the activities were carried out successfully thanks to hybrid online broadcasts and a limited physical presence.
What was the focus of the Memory Days conference this year?
This year, the focus was marking the 30th anniversary since the fall of communism. The main motto of the event was to elaborate on whether Albanian society does in fact know more about this period.
A series of activities were presented to a wider public both physically and online: documentaries, discussions with former persecuted people, keynote speeches from historians and experts, and the introduction of scientific research in the field. The answer to the question is unfortunately not affirmative. Of course, we know much more than we did during the first decade, because a lot of documents and several autobiographical books from former political prisoners and persecuted people are now available.
But both a commemoration day and a national memorial for the victims are still missing. There was no political will to commemorate the victims and historical events that led to the overthrow of the dictatorship. For example, this year on February 20th it was the 30th anniversary since the fall of the statue of the dictator. The IDMC and its partners were the only organizations where commemoration events and activities were held. Nothing was done by the state or political actors.
This shows that 30 years after, we need to talk more about this issue. Society is still divided into two parts: Those who supported the regime (communists) and those who were persecuted, put in prison, or executed.
This year’s keynote speech was given by Professor Oliver Schmitt of the University of Vienna, who stated that scholars must work to analyze Albania in a more complex fashion and to include it in a larger number of studies. He stated that the country is often treated like an exotic case study that cannot be compared to other post-communist states and must, therefore, only be used as a point of contrast for other regimes. What do you think about Dr. Schmitt’s claims that Albania should be incorporated into a greater number of research projects?
Oliver Schmitt is a well-known historian. In his speech he stressed that professional research into Albanian communism is primarily carried out outside Albania, mostly by young intellectuals who have emigrated. While in Albania, he said, scientific institutions do not offer young historians prospects for the future and their publications are hardly noticed. The historiography in Albania and that of Albanians outside Albania represent two worlds that rarely come into contact.
The lack of knowledge about the dictatorship is evident in Albania’s school curricula. There are few critical textbooks about the communist period, and still many history teachers have a nostalgic approach. The textbooks lack evidence about the number of people who went missing or were imprisoned and persecuted by the regime. During a survey organized in 2019 with history teachers from the IDMC, it turned out that they did not know the most important days of resistance against communism and the exact number of victims. In the last 10 years, various civil society organizations, with the support of international partners, have worked on the topic of dealing with the past — but this work is insufficient.
What Oliver Schmitt said about incorporating Albania into international research projects is very important. The IDMC is working [on these issues] with its official partner, the German Conrad Adenauer Foundation. I think one of the distinguishing qualities of our work is that we learn from other experiences — from the experience of Eastern Germany, for example.
It is important to see how communism and dictatorships worked and functioned in other societies. Did they have any dissidence? In Albania, the very harsh repression made dissidence impossible. The families with a “njollë në biografi” (bad biography) were systematically ostracized and persecuted by the regime. After the 50s and the 60s, there were no dissidents. The old elites were eliminated, put in prison, or executed. For a country of 2 million people to have one third of its population imprisoned was rare. The repression can be compared with that of the Soviet Union, until the middle of the 50s after Stalin’s death.
The Albanian history of communist repression is not only our history - it is part of the European history of the violation of human rights and crimes against humanity.
Unfortunately, a great number of people outside of Albania do not know much about Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship and its crimes. How did this dictatorship come to power?
The Albanian dictatorship was established on the 29th of November in 1944. The Communist Party, which fought for the liberation of the country, came to power after the war. During the first post-war elections, which were on the 2nd of December in 1945, there were other political forces that wanted to participate. However, they were all blocked by the Communist Party and Enver Hoxha and later many of them were declared political enemies and eliminated.
We can distinguish four important phases during the communist regime. First, the collaboration with Yugoslavia. The Communist Party in Albania was founded on the 8th of November in 1941 with the support of the communists from Yugoslavia. This collaboration lasted until 1948, and it was more about economic support. After that, there was a break in relations with the Yugoslav communists. For Enver Hoxha, Tito was not communist enough.
During the second phase, Albania collaborated with the Soviet Union (1948 to 1961). After that, relations with the USSR broke down too. Then, we had the third collaboration with China from ’61 to ’78. Every time Albania broke off relations with a country, it used the pretext of being the only communist country that was following the Marxism–Leninism ideology.
After the break with China in 1978, the country entered total isolation. This was supported by state propaganda. The dictator, Enver Hoxha, and the Communist Party decided to build 170,000 bunkers. They still remind everyone of the hysteria and paranoia of the dictator. In my opinion, the bunkers were not there to defend us from the outside, but to defend the regime from the people who wanted to escape. Albania's borders had been closed since the late 1940s and with this move the border policy was further strengthened.
How can a very small group of people stay in power for 45 years? They used Stalinist methods and repression to eliminate anyone who opposed them. In Albania, no one was free, secure, or sure that he was not going to be a victim of the repressive politics of the dictatorship. Not even those within the Communist Party.
Ministers from the interior ministry ended up being called enemies, collaborators, agents, and spies. They were executed or put in prison. This served as an example to the population that no one was allowed to oppose the ideological line of the Party.
The regime under Hoxha established a kind of national communism with the sole intention of isolating Albania from outside influences. It was framed as a necessity to defend the country from external enemies. The second goal was to divide the society through “lufta e klasave” (class struggle), communists and anti-communists; north and south (so called Gegh and Tosk). And then in 1967, Albania declared itself an atheist country. All religions were forbidden. Propaganda played a crucial role here. The persecution of Catholic priests was especially strong in northern Albania. In the 70s, we only had two priests. Most of them were executed and put in prison.
In general, in this 45 year period, the figures are as follows:
I. Politically Motivated Arrests & Prison Figures:
- Arrests: 24,000 – 34,000 people
- Prisoners: 34,135 people / 7,000 women
- Prisoners tortured: 308 people
- Executions: 6,027 people / 300 women
- Prison deaths: 1,000 people
II. Politically Motivated Deportation & Internment Figures:
- Deportations and internment: 60,000 people or 20,000 families
- Internment deaths: 7,000
These statistics are approximate; there were arguably many more persecuted persons and families. At least 54 people were killed at the borders from January 1990 to June 1990 while trying to escape.
How does Albanian society feel about the crimes committed by Enver Hoxha’s communist regime? Do memories of political repression still affect people’s historical memory?
There has not been much of a debate on this topic in the past, but now the situation has changed somewhat. One of the candidates for Tirana from the Socialist Party said in April 2021 in an interview that Enver Hoxha’s regime had done more good than harm to the people.
There was a strong reaction from different segments of Albanian society. In responding to these claims, the IDMC asked the candidate to explain what she meant. Even the Platform of European Memory and Conscience stated that the Socialist Party must make a statement about this issue.
But just the opposite happened. The Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, supported the candidate and declared these debates to be mudslinging. The election of this candidate was done on purpose, to win votes from people who have nostalgia for the past regime. A kind of restoration of the communist regime has been underway for years. The President of the Parliament, Gramoz Ruçi, who has been in office since 2017, was the last minister of Ramiz Alia, the successor of Enver Hoxha; the president of the Albanian Academy of Sciences was the last minister of education under Alia; there are also former officers of the Sigurimi in the police and justice system, etc.
One of the reasons for this situation is that Albania did not have a change of elites in the 90s. The same elites continued to dominate in all areas of the new system. They had a better education, network, and opportunities to adapt to the new situation. Those who were released from internment camps, representatives of the elites of the 1930s, were either eliminated or left out of the system for decades.
The other reason is the impunity of crimes against humanity during the dictatorship. From 1993 to 1996, several charges were filed and former ministers were charged for economic abuses, but also for genocide and crimes against humanity. But after the former communists returned to power in 1997, all these charges were dropped and the persecutors were acquitted and released. Some of them were even compensated, while to this day political prisoners have not yet been fully compensated.
Why is that important for me personally?
The fact that we did not deal with the communist regime after 1990, established the culture of unpunishment in Albania, which still continues to this day. There is a lack of responsibility for the actions one takes in the government and in politics in general. Politicians have felt very secure all these thirty years — since nothing happened to the former representatives of the communist government, why would it happen to them?!
What kinds of issues did Albania face during its transition period in the 1990’s?
There were a lot of issues. You had to reform the economy after transitioning from a planned economy to a free market. The transition from a dictatorship and communist regime to a democracy and from a very closed society to an open society was not easy. Also, journalism’s transformation from an instrument of propaganda to a free, independent media. Up until 1997, it seemed that everything was going okay.
In 1997, there was almost a civil war in Albania after the collapse of the so called Pyramid Schemes (Ponzi schemes — manipulative schemes that take people’s money). A lot of Albanians lost their savings and homes. Out of desperation, they flooded the streets in protest — shops were looted, weapons depots were opened. We needed the intervention of European institutions to recover from this period.
I think there was a lot of delusion about democracy after that. Then a kind of nostalgia began to appear, which had not been present from 1992 to 1997. The enthusiasm of Albanians during the first pluralist democratic elections on 22 March 1992 seemed to have faded.
Does Albanian society still feel the effects of communism today?
During transition periods, governments are run primarily in an authoritarian style, regardless of which political force has been in power. This is one of the legacies of communism — an authoritarian leader in the role of the father of the nation and strong leadership that leads you to follow blindly without putting it into question.
Another effect is the young generation’s relationship with the state as the supreme authority. During communism, the state was responsible for everything that happened in your life. Individuals were neither allowed to, nor wanted to be held accountable. This mentality has deep roots, as today most young people just look for a job in the ministries or state institutions, and fewer take initiatives in the free market.
Is there a central issue related to the legacy of the communist regime in Albania? What influences people’s historical memory of the communist period the most?
One of the most significant events was the fall of the statue of Enver Hoxha on the 20th of February in 1991. Hundreds of thousands of people were in Skanderbeg Square, violently tearing down the statue. They did not stop until the head of the dictator was divided from the rest of the body. That was the symbolic end of the communism.
Until today, dealing with the communist past has focused on two pillars: dealing with the figure of Enver Hoxha or, in other words, putting all the blame on Enver Hoxha, and on the other hand with the secret police or Sigurimi. This is not enough because Hoxha did not act alone for over 40 years. And the Sigurimi was just one of the repressive apparatuses of the regime.
We deal with these issues during the Memory Days. The topic of the next Memory Days is going to be the deconstruction of the myths of communism in Albania. To begin with, the idea that Albania was better then, than it is today. In addition, the notions that women were emancipated, the country was economically developed, education was better, as well as food, etc. There is already enough evidence to disprove these myths.
Transparency relating to the crimes of the dictatorship is vital if we are to establish peace in Albanian society. Often times, victims live next door to their persecutors, and none of them have publicly apologized for the injustices they committed. We are currently working on a kind of Wall of the Shame — to put all the names of the people that were working for the repressive systems at the higher levels of decision making. It will not be easy, but we hope to accomplish it successfully.
How is Albania’s communist legacy addressed and studied today?
Today, in schools you don’t have much information about the communist regime. As an institution, we offer a range of complementary materials for teachers. Since 2015 we have been training teachers from different schools; we organize study trips to bring young people to places of memory and suffering such as prisons (Spaç’ Prison) and internment camps (the Camp of Tepelena). Both of these sites are in poor condition and have not yet been turned into museums. In recent years, a few centers have been opened in Tirana where you can learn something about communism, such as the national museum The House of Leaves, where the secret police, or Sigurimi, was based. But we still don’t have a central memorial for the victims in Tirana as political will continues to be lacking.
Are young people in Albania aware of the country’s past?
The young people coming from former persecuted families are the most aware. Other do not have enough information on repression. We tried to motivate them to move in this direction, by announcing the competition Ask Your Grandparents.
This is one of the best and most impactful projects we have had. The Ask Your Grandparents Competition addressed young people aged 14-19 and motivated them to gather testimonies within their families and communities and to present them in the form of short multimedia videos.
The projects we have received in these years have been extraordinary: Touching testimonies, short films, theatrical dramatizations, etc. They have offered their — often naive — perspective on the dictatorship and the ways they deal with it today. And they have learned a lot from this process.
We strive to increase their interest through multimedia, visual arts, and film products. Meeting the politically persecuted offers them a good opportunity to get to know up close the period they have not experienced.
In my work I am guided by the principle that the past does not belong to the museum, but that it should be studied in the context of today. Only in this way will young people be able to understand the challenges of Albanian democracy today and to find ways to improve it in the future.
What are the current projects that you’re working on? What projects will the IDMC be working on next?
Due to the pandemic, we are restructuring our work to make it accessible in hybrid online formats. We want to continue our study tours with young people, both at home and abroad because you learn the history of your own country better, when can you compare it with other countries. The Baltic states are a good example of how certain states have dealt with a totalitarian past. We would like to learn more about that, and I think young people and teachers and other experts would as well.
Memory Days as an annual event will offer a series of activities in the fields of history, art and culture. An important role is played by exhibitions and documentaries on various topics, but also scientific publications and manuals.
IDMC cooperates with many partners in former communist as well as western countries because our history cannot be treated in isolation from the history of Europe.
Where can readers learn more about the history and politics of communism and Albania?
Most of our publications and activities can be accessed online. We can provide people with PDFs or hard copy books. In the online platform “Observatori i Kujtesës”, everybody can follow the current debates on communism and everything that is published in the media.
Teachers can find on the Observatory of Memory page testimonies and short videos (oral history) and use them during class. In addition, our virtual exhibitions are also available for use.
Interview conducted on Friday, April 9, 2021 at 13:00 (CET).